Mass family transit dreams, and our first multimodal adventure

We made it from Hillsboro to Sunday Parkways in east Portland! (Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

It is with a touch of envy that I read Shawne Martinez’s account of an epic carfree multimodal adventure to Seattle with his kid. How exciting! And yet for me – a mother of five – how impossible!

As Shawne recounts, part of his trip was dependent on getting a bus with an empty bike rack, because he and his daughter both had bikes, and Trimet buses are only equipped to carry two bikes at a time. Thus, his trip was not only dependent on an empty bus rack, but also on him having only two people in his traveling group. Such a family trip, it would seem, is limited to families of two. This is the case for almost all multimodal trips that combine bikes with Portland area transit. Buses, including Trimet’s new FX line only carry two bikes at a time. MAX trains can carry more bikes, with train cars equipped with two bike hooks at each end, and the possibility of squishing in an extra kid bike, or using (when empty) handicapped spaces for bikes. Thus, in circumstances of an empty MAX, it could be possible to travel together with four bikes on the low-floor trains, with two hanging from the hooks, and two in the wheelchair spaces.  

Still, that doesn’t accommodate a family as large as mine. With five kids and one or two adults, we’d be needing space for six or seven bikes.

This uncomfortable truth is why the Gorge Express buses caught my attention: they are equipped to carry nine bikes at a time. Does this mean, Gorge Express aside, I should give up on multimodal travel dreams? Is multimodal a no-go for big families? Or are there solutions for families like mine?

Our big-family transit needs are mass transit needs

As I’ve mused over this big-family transit conundrum, I’ve begun thinking about the mass usage of multimodal transit. Our current system of two-bikes-per-bus doesn’t take mass usage seriously. It feels like a token system, which is actually reliant on the idea that few people will seek to use it. Workers certainly can’t try to take a bike on a heavily traveled morning bus commute, as Cornelius Mayor Dalin explained a while back.

If we are serious about encouraging multimodal travel, we have to think about ways to make it accessible and workable for mass usage, making it a reliable option for big families and large numbers of commuters. What would that mean? How could that be done?

My first question is, why aren’t all buses equipped to carry nine bikes? For many commutes, a nine-bike carrying capacity would make multimodal trips a realistic, rather than very tenuous, option. (Even our big family could do it!) Still, that’s only nine standard bikes, and a lot of bike-loading time, slowing down bus trips.

Cargo bikes, especially box bikes, are obviously not an option for taking on the bus or train – though I fantasize about the last MAX cars being emptied of seats to allow cargo bikes to roll on and ride during non-peak hours, and accommodating standing-room people rides during the peak. A cargo-bike MAX car would be life-changing. But I recognize that we need to be thinking about systems that work for the masses, not just for me personally. In Amsterdam, where almost everyone bikes, buses don’t permit regular bikes at all, but only foldable bikes carried on as hand-luggage. The token system of a two bike rack would be ridiculous in such a bike-heavy city. Instead, I am told that there are large bike parking facilities at transit hubs, along with easy, frequent, and accessible bike rental options, so that multimodal bike-transit trips typically mean parking your personal bikes, then renting at your destination stop, including family cargo bike rentals. 

What works in Amsterdam might not be the solution for Portland (I think most of us around here are pretty attached to our personal bikes, so that rental bikes feel like a hard pill to swallow, but maybe that’s an adjustment we need to make). And what we should do today, in the “meantime” between current usage and hoped-for-mass usage, may also look different from future days where mass options exist or are mandatory. 

At the moment, I’m dreaming of a small family fleet of foldable bikes for multimodal family trips. That’s not in our current budget, and I still have children too little to fold and carry their own bikes, or even to ride independently. I can’t take my cargo bike on the MAX, which is my only bike that can carry my infant. That pretty much eliminates the multimodal options for us….except for a little extra creativity.

Using what we have right now: Our first multimodal family trip

I wanted to attend the recent Sunday Parkways via MAX and with rolling options for the kids when we arrived, so this is the option we came up with: Compact Double Stroller + 3 Scooters, all fit into the space of one hanging bike! 

Which means, we just made our first ever multimodal family trip! It was a bit of a dance, getting everyone on and off, and I’ll be the first to admit that a stroller isn’t a great scooter companion (my apologies to everyone at Sunday Parkways who had to contend with me following slowly behind scootering children). But I’m happy that we did it. In the future, I hope to get a MAX-friendly bike outfitted with a child seat, or two (handlebar seat and back rack–has anyone managed such a bike on the MAX? Send photos, please.) And then, I guess we need skateboards or mini-bromptons for the rest… Wouldn’t it be fun to be a folding-bike family? Maybe someday…

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6 months ago

The struggle is real! I bought a Brompton for exactly this reason. Fits in my car trunk, can carry onto buses and airplanes, etc.

Biketown quickly becomes expensive for a family to rent and shared bikes can be hard to find because of their limited numbers. Expensive OR unreliable I can deal with, but not both.

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
6 months ago

I love this wholesome content! Very sweet. I had no idea the gorge bus can hold 9 bikes, I need to check that out.

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
6 months ago
Reply to  Jay Cee

Get in line early. Those bike racks fill up fast.

6 months ago

Thanks Shannon for the article and sharing your thoughts and fun photos…

Yes, our family had the same problem too…that is why we saved up for Bromptons for the kids to use when regional transit was the barrier (sadly its expensive, but selling a used Brompton is almost similar to buying a used Brompton given their resale value…so it could be net neutral). Historically trolleys and buses used to have more bike toting capacity similar to the Gorge Bus (even as late as the early 1980s with hippy racks on the back / top on some western state buses…but theft and liability ended those happy days in the US…like the Green Tortoise roof rack of the 90s).

I took my bakfiets on a MAX train to get up the Overlook Hill in 2006 to see if it could be done, yes it can…though the e-bakfiets has minimized that need for now I would assume. The idea about revising the interior layout of older MAX trains (Gen 2, low floor) is a good one…even Wells Fargo used to used trolleys to make late evening deliveries back in the day when passenger service had ended for the day…and I have had similar dreams for BART trains to have half their seats taken out (on one side) so you could shop for large appliances with a hand truck and transit, etc…but US transit planners (outside of NYC MTA) don’t love to spec the euro wall facing fold up seat to make flexible space sharing easier for long bikes, strollers, etc. And then you have the ‘self imposed’ limitation of the MAX train lengths (until Portland gets real and closes cross car traffic at MAX stations so longer trains can pick up…or go underground in the CBD).

Perhaps TRIMET could add a third train car: a short flat bed with two tier bike racks at the back or a single level racked flat car at the front of the train? The DB or a local German transit company has/ had similar mini bike cars/ carriages.

6 months ago
Reply to  Todd/Boulanger

A cargo bike on MAX works until it doesn’t, which can be TriMet personnel telling you to get off. It’s not even worth the attempt at normal ridership levels.

I don’t expect to ever see much open space inside regularly scheduled service beyond the existing train layout. At least the space for mobility devices gives some flexibility on trains. I’m guessing that an appliance on a handcart would be about as welcome as an eight foot bakfiets!

I’m still disappointed that TriMet is holding on the two-bike racks. WTF. The difference, if any, is a matter of a few inches. Is Portland so different from Seattle that we can’t deal? To my mind it’s a case of a cadre of old line bike haters giving grudging accommodation at best. Amuse me with a good argument to the contrary?

Chris I
Chris I
6 months ago
Reply to  Todd/Boulanger

Trimet can’t add cars to MAX trains. The existing 2-car trains barely fit in downtown blocks. Unless we build a downtown subway and extend every other platform on the system, at least…