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Metro and TriMet introduce bus rapid transit for Powell-Division corridor

Posted by on December 2nd, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Room for bikes?
(Image: From a Metro slide presentation)

Only in Portland would a regional planning agency host a lunchtime event titled “Bus Rapid Transit 101” in a movie theater with free popcorn.

That was the setting yesterday for a meeting hosted by Metro to introduce Portlanders to their Powell-Division Transit Development Project. The planning effort is just getting started and the aim is to create the region’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) service on a 15-mile route along SE Powell and Division streets between Portland and Gresham.

We heard from Brian Monberg, a principal planner at Metro, and Alan Lehto, TriMet’s director of planning and policy. Both men extolled the many virtues of bus rapid transit as a way to solve the traffic issues that plague this busy corridor while spurring development and more transit use in general. (The problem and their proposed solution reminded me of how bike advocates make the case for cycle tracks, more on that later.)

But what exactly is BRT? Think of it as a mix between Copenhagen’s cycle track network and Citibike in New York City — except swap in buses for bikes. Bus rapid transit systems feature dedicated and prioritized road space for buses along with custom-branded stations and vehicles with drop-dead simple fare and boarding systems. The idea is to make bus transit faster, easier to use, and more efficient.

And it works. BRT has become a viable option to rail transit in over 160 cities in the U.S. and around the world.


Along Portland’s Powell-Division corridor, bus transit is already extremely popular. It’s home to the number 4 and 9 bus routes — both of which are “frequent service” lines and among the most heavily used in TriMet’s system. Lehto shared in his presentation yesterday that the number 4’s stop at SE 82nd and Division sees 18,000 on/offs per week — close the capacity of Providence Park.

Unfortunately though, these buses currently spend more time stopped than moving more time stopped in traffic than TriMet would prefer. According to a recent estimate of bus travel time, TriMet operators spend about 55% of their time stopped; a mix of idling in traffic (20%), waiting for people to get on or off (20%), and waiting at signals (15%). The estimates put actual driving at just 35% of total travel time.

Back-of-the-napkin estimates from TriMet on bus travel time.

To combat those numbers, Metro and TriMet envision a redesign of Powell and Division that gives more space to buses and could also include traffic signal priority, improved stations, and so on. Among the lane configuration types under consideration are everything from physically separated bus-only lanes adjacent to a center median island (where people would board) to curbside bus-only lanes, queue-jump lanes, and traditional mixed-traffic lanes.

At yesterday’s meeting, Lehto said the ultimate design will likely include a mix of approaches: “Because it’s a 15-mile corridor that varies in its character and traffic conditions it’s not going too look exactly the same for the entire length. The design will focus on places where there’s the most congestion.”

“How can we be accommodating to all of the roadway needs, yet move forward with transit?”
— Alan Lehto, director of policy and planning for TriMet

With an improved transit experience, TriMet is betting they’ll see a spike in ridership not only among current bus users, but a whole new type of rider. “BRT,” Lehto said, “can be more attractive to people who haven’t even tried buses yet.”

The pitch for BRT sounds a lot like what a pitch for a cycle track network, yet there seems to be no consideration of cycling as a serious transportation mode in this project. There was scant mention of cycling or new bikeways at this meeting, other than brief references as something that needs to be “accommodated” or as an example of one of the “trade-offs” that might make planning the transit line more complicated.

“How can we be accommodating to all of the roadway needs,” Lehto wondered, “yet move forward with transit?”

I followed up with Lehto after the meeting via phone to ask him how BRT might impact existing and future bikeways on Powell and Division (both of which are targeted for bike access improvements in the 2030 Bike Plan). “The only answer I could give you right now,” he replied, “is… we just don’t know. There are so many users, you can never carve out space for absolutely everybody.”

Like TriMet has done (to mixed reviews) on their Orange Line, this project will surely include bicycle access improvements in the corridor. But as for a major bikeway line on the corridor alongside alongside BRT, Lehto said, “I can’t say we have a vision for how that works yet.” TriMet can do “pieces of the bikeway,” he said, “but not the entire project.”

TriMet is a transit agency, not a transportation agency. And as such, they have no obligation (or funding) to build bikeways. But what about Metro?

Portland has a history of building major transit projects (Interstate MAX, Eastside Streetcar, Orange Line, and so on) without also building the necessary and complementary cycling infrastructure or respecting how the new transit lines impact existing cycling routes. I asked Metro why they’ve started this process with a transit-only approach instead of seeing it as a “transportation project” that might also include serious consideration of cycle tracks. A spokesperson told me to, “Stay tuned over the first part of 2015… when we’ll be engaging people in those types of conversations.” That’s not the answer I hoped for.

Portland’s major commercial and roadway corridors are in desperate need of better transit and high-quality bike access. Isn’t it time we started planning for both?

I’ve scheduled an interview with Metro planner Brian Monberg next week to learn more about this project and how bicycling fits into it (or doesn’t). Stay tuned.

– There are still many more opportunities to weigh in about this project. Metro is planning a series of workshops in February and a steering committee to focus on design ideas in March. They hope to present a final recommendation in winter 2015, which would be followed by two years of design and then construction in 2018.

Learn more about the project on Metro’s website.

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  • Jeg December 2, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Interesting- it would need to be a dedicated busway like Curitiba in Brazil; that would be cool and make it function like an extension of the MAX. We could use this model on the west side, though I hope the SW corridor ends up being MAX. Anyway, i think it’s a travesty to not plan bikeways with transit projects. This is deginitely a way the bureaucracy must yield and adapt- it is clearly more beneficial.

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  • Charley December 2, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    I live off of Powell. BRT is the best possible thing that could happen to the neighborhood, short of adding a MAX Line to the road. I wish I could ride the bus in to work in the morning without having to spend even more time waiting in traffic (than if I used a car). Since I moved from North Portland, where I rode the MAX regularly, I’ve missed it sorely. BRT would be a huge improvement in car-free lifestyle, regardless of the secondary cycling improvements, if any.

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  • davemess December 2, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Is the above map the proposed route (running south down by Holgate/Steele)? If so, how is that Powell-Division. I was onboard when they came up with the idea that it would run one way on Powell and one way on Division, as these two streets are only .3 miles or so separated, but this looks like a lot wider route.

    is it still proposed to go one direction?

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    • Adam December 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm

      The lines aren’t the proposed route, but instead are the boundary of the “corridor.” I assume this just means the area that people will walk from to get to the BRT line or something similar.

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      • davemess December 3, 2014 at 9:49 am

        Thanks, that’s what I was looking for.

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    • Veener December 2, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      It will go east on powell north on 82nd and continue east on division… it is just showing the boundaries of the area being studied.

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  • John Lascurettes December 2, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Very interesting. It’s the cheaper, more adaptable version of putting in LRT, and there’s no rail hazards for bicyclists.

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  • Adam H. December 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    This project has to have dedicated bus lanes throughout the entirely of the corridor, or else it’s a non-starter.

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    • colton December 2, 2014 at 2:21 pm

      Why do you say that? Other BRT systems share portions of their corridor and seem to work pretty well. Is this route particularly congested over the entire length?

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      • Adam H. December 2, 2014 at 2:30 pm

        Because then it’s not BRT, only an enhanced bus service. Imagine if MAX had a portion of the route where people were allowed to drive on the tracks. The goal of BRT is to emulate dedicated rail service with a bus, and shared lanes go against this goal.

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        • John Lascurettes December 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm

          So, metaphorically, this BRT is part MAX and part Portland Streetcar. :\

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        • colton December 2, 2014 at 4:31 pm

          That’s the beauty of BRT. If done correctly, it shouldn’t introduce delays to merge into and out of uncongested portions of its route. It saves lots of money and uses much less space.

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        • colton December 2, 2014 at 4:33 pm

          “Imagine if MAX had a portion of the route where people were allowed to drive on the tracks”

          I can imagine this.. in fact, I can take pictures of it. All over PDX.

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          • Adam H. December 2, 2014 at 4:46 pm

            There is nowhere in the city where people are allowed to drive on the MAX tracks. When people do so illegally (such as on the bus mall), it causes delays. Avoiding bus delays is the goal of BRT, and allowing people to drive in the bus lanes goes against this goal.

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            • Brad December 3, 2014 at 8:45 am

              To be fair, this is a very confusing street configuration for people new to the area. When I first moved to Portland I accidentally turned from a side street into a bus lane before realizing that, out of 3 lanes, only one was meant for cars. Did this a few times before I finally figured it out. It’s still a bit confusing since I don’t drive regularly (I rent or use Car2Go when needed).

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              • tridork December 3, 2014 at 8:50 am

                There is plenty of signage that instructs road users how to use the transit mall. Most people are in too big of a hurry to acknowledge it.

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              • Adam H. December 3, 2014 at 10:53 am

                I agree that it’s confusing, which is why I am an advocate for banning all cars on the transit mall.

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        • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
          Michael Andersen (News Editor) December 2, 2014 at 5:49 pm

          As I understand it, the minimum federal standard for matching funds that go to BRT is that it needs to be at least 50% dedicated lanes. There’s some controversy over this relatively low bar. But federal funding will certainly be required for this project to happen.

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      • q`Tzal December 3, 2014 at 1:51 pm

        For a working practical example IN PORTLAND of what happens with dedicated travel-way that are compromised by mixing with anarchic streey traffic we need to look no further than TriMet’s MAX Rail.

        When we control for delays caused by mechanical failures and passenger “incidents” requiring police response (these happen everywhere) we plainly see that mosy MAX LRT delays are caused by automotive related issues (traffic lights, idgit drivers, crashes) and spacing/headway issues (stops too close together, archaic railroad spacing regulations inappropriate to a dense urban grid).
        These issues are synergistic with each other creating long delays out of small problems that then propagate through the entire system.

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  • dan December 2, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    too bad we didn’t use BRT on MLK rather than building the perennially empty street car

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    • Jeg December 2, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      Streetcar has beaten its ridership predictions. It’s successful…

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      • dan December 3, 2014 at 5:54 am

        I admit I don’t know what the ridership predictions are, but every time I see the streetcar, it’s at 5% capacity or less. Not so tough to beat ridership predictions if you set them low enough…just think the money could have been better spent elsewhere.

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        • Rob Chapman December 3, 2014 at 1:42 pm

          It helps to give PSU students “free” streetcar passes as well, no?

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        • maccoinnich December 3, 2014 at 11:32 pm

          The streetcar system gets over 20,000 riders a day on a route only 7 miles long. It’s one of (if not the) most successful parts of our mass transit system.

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          • davemess December 4, 2014 at 1:44 pm

            And how much of that is on the east side?

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            • maccoinnich December 4, 2014 at 1:58 pm

              They don’t break the number down by west/east side, but the system was getting 12,000 riders a day prior to the opening of the CL line. Some of the increase will be because the frequency increased between the Pearl and PSU, but I would expect most of the 8,000 additional daily riders are using the east side portion.

              When the Tilikum Crossing opens next year the CL will form a full loop around the central city. I would expect to see another big jump in ridership then.

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  • Kyle December 2, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    I live and work right on the 20 which goes down Burnside, and I’d consider it as a viable commute method if a lane in each direction over the bridge was bus-only during peak hours. The way it stands now with buses sitting in congestion, it’s actually sometimes faster to walk across the bridge.

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  • Matt December 2, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I wish that they had come to this sort of realization when they came up with the Portland to Milwakie light rail line. It would have saved millions and been more flexible than the light rail. BRT could have even gone all the way to Oregon City instead of ending where the Max line stops at Park Ave. Clackamas County residents may have bought into the idea more easily too.

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    • Jeg December 2, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      I think the orange line is an asset- cheaper maintenance, more capacity. It’s a system that is a win to buy into. Seriously, the MAX is actually a good thing for high capacity corridors. Whats needed is better spur connectivity with MAX stops.

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    • EngineerScotty December 2, 2014 at 11:49 pm

      BRT was considered for the South Corridor project (what ultimately became the Orange Line).

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson December 2, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    BRT was studied for the Milwaukie corridor, but the cost of an exclusive transit ROW is the same for BRT as for LRT… if you are really doing BRT, and not just public relations. LRT has lower operating costs and carries more riders. Without a commitment to an exclusive transit ROW, this project is a waste of time and money. Better to upgrade all Frequent Service lines.
    Anyone out there remember what it was like riding a bike on Interstate before MAX? That project, simply by taking a lane the entire route, calmed that street a lot, and most of it got bike lanes to boot. As a member of the project CAC, and of a special Bike Task Force, my big regret is that we agreed to removal of the bike lane between Killingsworth and Dekum! PDC begged to have on street parking at the Killingsworth and Rosa Parks Stations. We gave it on that, but we insisted on east/west access to those stations and bike lockers at all stations along Interstate MAX.

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    • Alain December 2, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks Lenny for pointing out the serious misrepresentation of BRT by the boosters. That LRT has lower operating costs and moves more people always seems to be left out of the picture by BRT advocates.

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    • Rick December 3, 2014 at 7:32 am

      Why didn’t TriMet get better engineered, quieter buses years ago?

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  • John Liu
    John Liu December 2, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    MAX adds capacity without taking anything away, because in most cases it runs on track where there was not previously a road.

    If BRT uses a bus only lane on a existing street, then it adds capacity (in buses) while taking some capacity away (in cars).

    How many people does one lane of Powell move? How frequently will buses have to run, how large must the buses be, and how full must they be, to equal the same number of people?

    Or will that exclusive bus lane be created from the bike lane and/or shoulder?

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    • Rick December 3, 2014 at 7:33 am

      Interstate Ave has Max with some places that have bike lanes no more than 3 feet wide along with no sidewalks in some places.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu December 2, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    What I mean is, suppose a four lane stretch of Powell moves 55K cars/day and suppose an exclusive bus lane takes away a lane that was carrying 14K cars/ day which might be 16K people/day. How will the BRT move 16K people/day – if those are the right numbers, which they might not be. Is that 50 person buses with a bus every five minutes during busy periods? Is that likely or feasible? I’m asking, I don’t have a view either way.

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  • Joseph E December 2, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    If Trimet runs 60 foot buses, which carry about 60 people, at rush hour, it will take about 1 bus every 5 minutes to match the number of people in cars driving on Powell between 82nd and Foster. It is possible to run buses every 2 minutes, if there is enough demand. This could carry as many people as travel over the Ross Island bridge: almost 2000 per hour per direction.
    Some bus lines, like the 20 and 720 in Los Angeles on Wilshire, or the 38 and 38L on Geary in San Francisco, already carry this many people.

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  • Rick December 3, 2014 at 7:31 am

    Why wasn’t BRT used for the $1.5 billion PMLR?

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  • Doug Klotz December 3, 2014 at 7:46 am

    The places where Powell is most congested, 50th to Milwaukie, are precisely where there is not enough right of way to get a dedicated bus lane, without taking away an auto lane. You can do signalization at intersections, etc., but as mentioned, it’s just “enhanced bus”. So it’s the congested spots where there WON’T be a dedicated lane.

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    • Joseph E December 3, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      There is enough room for 2 BRT lanes, plus 4 general travel lanes, if we are willing to pay for some property acquisitions. Only a couple of buildings would be lost, mostly it the right-of-way could be widened without taking structures. I made a map of this a while back:

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      • Joseph E December 3, 2014 at 1:51 pm

        I checked prices for commercial land. It’s hard to find good comparisons, but it looks like it the highest priced land for sale in Eastside Portland right now is a lot on Burnside, for $168 a square foot of land. Widening Powell would require 20 feet x 2.25 miles (from SE Milwaukie to SE 50th; east of there the traffic volumes are low enough for 1 lane each way). This would cost about $40 million at that high land price.

        Other land prices closer to this neighborhood are half as expensive, so perhaps it would be only $20 million to widen the road. 10 to 20 million per mile for the right-of-way is not too bad.

        The average BRT costs over $13 million per mile without buying right-of-way, to install stations, repave, and buy buses, based on BRT projects in other cities. It’s worth paying extra to get separate bus lanes on these 2 miles where there will be the most traffic.

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    • Alex Reed December 7, 2014 at 7:51 am

      WON’T unless we demand it vociferously and with political relevance….

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  • paikiala December 3, 2014 at 9:37 am

    What Portland needs is BkRT, Bike Rapid Transit. A center median exclusively for cyclists.

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  • DaveB December 3, 2014 at 9:39 am

    You can ride BRT in Eugene right now. Lane Transit has done a very nice job. And you can see how the city has accomodated bikes (or not) along the route.

    Also, one photo shows that an estimated 20% of bus travel time is “boarding/deboarding”. It continues to amaze me that there’s no effort to speed this up – like “board in the front door exit from the rear door”. Really, how hard is that?

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    • tridork December 3, 2014 at 9:54 am

      If you can find a way to tell another adult to board front with fare ready – alight rear without disturbing portland sensitivity then you have solved transit’s problems.

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      • DaveB December 3, 2014 at 12:59 pm

        I remember in the 1990s Trimet used to post signs in buses suggesting “board in the front exit in the rear” but seemed to give up on it. Perhaps thee drivers didn’t like having to keep suggesting it? I recognize that they will never get 100% compliance and there are some situations where it’s appropropriate – a crowded bus, a wheelchair, and even a cyclist wanting to make sure the driver knows they want to get their bike, etc. Watching the boarding process downtown you can see how much time is wasted.

        (more armchair transit management!)

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    • Adam H. December 3, 2014 at 10:55 am

      Part of BRT is prepayment (like MAX) and boarding from all doors. So, BRT would improve the boarding/alighting time if done correctly.

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    • Joseph E December 3, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      Re: “Board at the front door, exit from the rear door:”

      BRT (like Light Rail) does this even better. You buy your ticket before boarding, so people can enter and exit from all doors. No need for everyone to wait in line while the driver check tickets or people fumble with cash.

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  • GlowBoy December 3, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    As a regular bus rider, I’d say most of the delay of boarding/deboarding isn’t the physical movement of bodies on and off the vehicle, but people displaying paying and/or showing their passes. A small fraction of riders generate most of the delay there. This is eliminated by pre-paying before you board, which happens on both light rail and BRT.

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  • Randy December 3, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    BRT on Division? This appears to be an·ti·thet·i·cal to the recent huge investment to make Division more walkable, bicycle friendly, and free of increased bus related air pollution.

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    • Michael Miller December 3, 2014 at 10:38 pm

      The proposed routing is on Powell out to SE 82nd then transition north to Division to go east to Gresham.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson December 4, 2014 at 7:04 am

    So what happens to bus service this side of 82nd on Division and on Powell beyond? Still FS? I hope! I would just keep the 4 and 9 and do all the things you can to make them faster, then apply the same treatments to other Frequent Service lines.

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