Traffic jams undermine essential bus service
Motorists aren't the only ones getting caught in Portland's increasingly congested traffic — so are TriMet buses, causing headaches for operators trying to maintain schedules and riders needing to get to work on time.
At their most recent board meeting, TriMet directors learned that average bus speeds on five of the busiest lines fell an average of 5.6 percent between 2009 and 2014. The biggest decline was on Line 14 between downtown and Lents, where the average speed fell 8 percent over those six years.
"Buses are getting stuck in congestion and traffic, delaying trips. For transit to be attractive, it needs to be more dependable and faster," April Bertelsen, a senior Portland Bureau of Transportation planner, told the board at its Aug. 9 meeting.
Portland is concerned about the problem because so much of its future growth plans are based on a robust regional transit system. An additional 260,000 people are expected to live here by 2035. But the streets cannot handle the additional traffic if most of residents drive to work, shopping and recreation. Numerous reports document the long delays being caused by the current level of congestion, and Portland has no plans to increase street capacity.
"Transit is vital to our growth management and carbon reduction goals. Buses are the workhorses of the transit system, and TriMet and the city both have roles to play to ensure they stay moving," said PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera.
Portland officials became so concerned about problems caused by increasing congestion a few years ago that they applied for a Transportation and Growth Management grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation to study the problem and develop solutions in 2015. The grant was awarded and, when matched by the city, funded a $200,545 study that resulted in the "Enhanced Transit Corridor Plan" presented to the TriMet board by Bertelsen. It was discussed during an overview of transit projects being proposed for the update of Metro's Regional Transportation Plan that currently is underway.
The study identified four relatively inexpensive ways to move buses more quickly through congested streets. As explained by Bertelsen, they include:
n Full-time, dedicated, curbside, bus-only lanes.
n Rush hour-only dedicated bus lanes (available for parking other hours) and bus-only turn lanes.
n Signal controls that allow buses to use a curb lane to jump ahead of cars at intersections.
n Consolidating bus stations to increase the distances between them and reduce the number of stops on a line.
Bus-only lanes already are used on the downtown Transit Mall and other versions exist in other parts of town, inlcuding Southeast Madison Street and Southwest Barbur Boulevard.
All of the ideas were discussed by Metro and TriMet planners working on the Powell-Division Bus Rapid Transit Project, which dropped the Southeast Powell Boulevard portion before being submitted to the federal government for partial funding. The final design — including the number and location of station stops — has yet to be determined.
Bertelsen told the board the plan identified three other corridors in Portland where such projects are being considered. They include Northeast Sandy Boulevard, 82nd Avenue and 122nd Avenue. Of the three, 122nd Avenue is especially intriguing because TriMet already has agreed to provide frequent bus service along it in exchange for city-funded improvement projects, such as new curbs and sidewalks. Several projects already are underway or being designed.
According to Jamie Snook, a principal Metro planner who was part of the presentation, 122nd Avenue could be "a model" for future corridors.
"We are really excited about what we can do with enhanced transit," Snook said.
In addition, Bertelsen said three other potential enhanced transit corridors are being studied further. They include downtown, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and outer Stark Street.
City documents list additional potential corridors in Portland as Belmont Street, Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Columbia Boulevard, Foster Road and Lombard Street. Potential corridors outside Portland include the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway and the Tualatin Valley Highway.
TriMet is hopeful such corridor improvements can improve bus service, despite the growing congestion.
"Based on experience in our region and around the world, TriMet believes that the types of transit priority treatments noted in the presentation can make a significant difference in travel speed and reliability, though the effectiveness and applicability of these treatments are context-sensitive," said TriMet spokesman Tommy Moore.
The study also found that station and onboard amenities can speed up boardings, such as the recently introduced electronic Hop Fastpass.
Cost estimates are very preliminary. City documents say upgrading the first three corridors could cost between $23 million and $108 million. Despite the uncertainty, PBOT has submitted them and the others to Metro to be considered for the Regional Transportation Plan that prioritizes transit, transportation and alternative transportation spending in the tricounty region. Metro is in the process of updating the RTP, as required by the federal government for projects to qualify for federal funding.
Bertelsen said costs will likely vary between the corridors, with some only requiring work on bottlenecks and others needing the complete "toolbox" of options.
"It's too soon to tell what the costs might be," she said.
The concept already has been discussed by two Metro advisory committees — the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation and the Metropolitan Policy Advisory Committee — and the elected Metro Council, which is scheduled to finalize the update next year.
The proposal comes at the same time PBOT is decreasing its estimate of how many people will commute to work on bikes in the future. The Climate Action Plan had predicted that while only 7 percent of commuters biked to work in 2015, that number would increase to 25 percent by 2030. But in a June 13 presentation to the Planning and Sustainability Commission, PBOT predicted that just 15 percent of workers will commute by bike in 2035, saying the previous figure was not realistic.
Two recent reports have documented the increasing congestion in the Portland area.
On Aug. 2, the Oregon Department of Transportation released a report which said in-migration and the state's greater than average economic prosperity has exacerbated congestion, crashes and delays in six Portland-area highway corridors. Traveling the same distance took about 2.5 percent longer in 2015 than in 2013, according to the analysis.
Then on Aug. 4, the Portland Business Alliance released a survey that found almost all city residents— 97 percent — consider congestion the city's most serious transportation problem. Eighty percent of respondents said they have altered their travel behavior because of congestion, with the largest block, 38 percent, changing their travel times.
The PBA survey found that most respondents prefer their transportation dollars be spent on road projects, however, not transit enhancements.