Gearing back up as we emerge from the pandemic was obviously going to be bumpy, with much uncertainty about whether pre- and post-pandemic work and transportation patterns would be permanently altered. This week, Lincoln High School students experienced some of those bumps.
As in-person school started up again, the Line 51 bus that serves Lincoln High (downtown, up SW Vista Ave to Council Crest) has been so full that it has had to pass up want-to-be-riders along the route. At the intersection of Vista and Greenway this morning, the bus was already standing room only. By Elizabeth Street, the driver was asking students to pack in tighter so new riders could get off the entrance steps—and the bus still had 16 more stops to go before reaching Lincoln.
On the return trip yesterday the driver had to turn away students at the school.
The riders were masked, and Multnomah County has a 72.5% vaccination rate among 12 to 17-year-olds (far better than the state average of 58%); but still. The kids are crammed in there like sardines, and the pandemic isn’t over.
One concerned parent contacted TriMet and received a reply from Director of Mobility, Planning, & Policy Tom Mills. Here’s his response:
“Normally, we add extra trips to bus lines serving the large number of high school students who use TriMet to get to and from school. This is more of an art than a science. Because we don’t know how many students will ride every year, sometimes we have too much capacity on some lines and too little capacity on others. After a few days of assessing the loads, we adjust our service to meet the student demand.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this effort more challenging than past years. Just like many employers, we are facing a labor shortage, and as a result, we were not able to put out as many extra trips as we have in the past. However, we are committed to meeting the demand for service now that we know the scale. I am meeting with staff tomorrow to discuss ways that we can adjust schedules or add extra trips to the lines experiencing overloads during the school bell times. It will likely take a few days to reassign operators, so I ask for your patience. We hope to have this resolved by early-mid next week.
Note, while masks are still required by federal law to ride TriMet, we do not have capacity restrictions for COVID-19 on the buses. The restrictions were lifted once the tri-county area hit a vaccination rate of 70%. As a result, there will still likely be full seated loads with some standees on some trips to school. However, we aim to eliminate the heavy loads and pass ups we’ve experienced on some lines over the past few days. We will look to add even more service should the county impose capacity restrictions again to ensure the appropriate spacing on our buses.”
As TriMet attempts to build back their service, this year’s cut to the 51 was steep. Pre-pandemic, the line — like many others in the city — had been reduced over the years to a commuter route (no weekend or evening service, and about a five-hour mid-day service gap). It ran about 15 times a day. Correlating with the cuts, the 51 route morphed into a de facto Lincoln High School bus, with fewer adult riders. Older neighbors wax nostalgic about the days when the bus was full of downtown office workers, but that has not been true for over two decades (there also used to be Saturday and evening service).
This year, the line has been reduced to six trips, three in the morning and three late afternoon, which is apparently too little service for even just the high school students. It’s a bumpy start that will probably all get worked out over the next couple of weeks, but like a lot of other things the pandemic has made worse, the trends have been heading that way for over a decade. And if we want to create more low-car Portlanders and win the fight against climate change, we’ve got to make buses work better for more people — especially in a place like southwest where lots of hills and a lack of dedicated bike routes make cycling very difficult.
— Lisa Caballero, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at email@example.com.