Public transit has to be better than one’s car for it to be an option that I (and most Americans) will consistently choose.

Here in Portland, it’s not better. I can drive from our cottage to my office in the heart of downtown in 20 minutes, door to door. The same trip on on bus and train takes 50 minutes, one way. So, it’s 40 minutes round trip versus one hour and 40 minutes.


photo courtesy of TriMet

TriMet costs $2.05 each way, or $4.10 per day. Parking a car downtown costs from $6.50 to $12 per day, depending on the lot (plus gas, insurance and maintenance). But what’s that extra hour worth in financial terms? Given that I bill clients by the hour for my time, I actually know what that hour is worth.

Despite the loss of time and money resulting from the TriMet experience, we are a one-vehicle family, so I do rely on the bus and train to take me to and fro. Not every day, but often enough. Apart from my cost-based analysis, there’s also the smell to consider. The smell of urine, in particular. Like the urine smell, one is also forced to entertain a certain amount of bullshit , whether it’s a screaming kid, a punk who cuts in line or a crazy person doing crazy person things.

The point of this piece is not to complain about TriMet, or public transit, in general. It’s obvious that lots of people need the system to work, and work well. I’ve lived in cities–Washington, DC and Chicago, in particular–where it does work well. The point is that Portland’s public transit has to be a much better option for people, if lots of people are going to use it. Before it can become that better option, we need to assess what’s wrong with it and how to make it better.

For some reason, Portland gets a lot of credit (especially in the press) for its public transit system, but as I’ve outlined above, public transit in Portland is actually pretty weak. And I haven’t even touched on the short hours of service and length of time between buses, nor the fact that so many Portland communities are nowhere near a TriMet train track.

Of course, to see better public transit options in Portland, Portlanders will need to fund TriMet. The metro area’s transportation organization faced a $27 million budget shortfall during the last fiscal year.

Here’s a graph that indicates where TriMet gets its money:

Portland is pursuing elite green status as a smart growth strategy, and also as an identity for the city. I like the plan, but for the plan to become real, steps need to be taken.

Join the conversation! 12 Comments

  1. You do make some awfully good points here!

    Reply
  2. You do make some awfully good points here!

    Reply
  3. Portland gets press for being a good transit agency for a city its size. In those respects, it is good; but you are correct that it doesn’t hold a candle to NY, DC, Chicago, etc.

    Reply
  4. Portland gets press for being a good transit agency for a city its size. In those respects, it is good; but you are correct that it doesn’t hold a candle to NY, DC, Chicago, etc.

    Reply
  5. Wouldn’t it be great if, every time TriMet cut service, it made an effort to calculate the total economic loss to the city of all those wasted hours?

    (average hourly compensation for a TriMet commuter) x (average number of daily TriMet commuters) x (increased travel time of an average daily commute) – ( (average hourly compensation for a “choice rider”) x (reduced ridership anticipated after service cut) )

    TriMet already has some of those numbers. The others wouldn’t be precise but could be estimated.

    When these debates come up, the agency and the media tend to see only the cost and benefit to the agency itself. But the true impact on the public is immense.

    Reply
  6. Wouldn’t it be great if, every time TriMet cut service, it made an effort to calculate the total economic loss to the city of all those wasted hours?

    (average hourly compensation for a TriMet commuter) x (average number of daily TriMet commuters) x (increased travel time of an average daily commute) – ( (average hourly compensation for a “choice rider”) x (reduced ridership anticipated after service cut) )

    TriMet already has some of those numbers. The others wouldn’t be precise but could be estimated.

    When these debates come up, the agency and the media tend to see only the cost and benefit to the agency itself. But the true impact on the public is immense.

    Reply
  7. I’d like to see an analysis showing how many riders Tri-Met loses per hour cut in service–and the resulting short and long term impact on Tri-Met finances.

    Other than that: David, I wrote an almost identical post about our much vaunted but often impractical transit service…

    http://www.portlandurbanista.com/?p=315

    Reply
  8. I’d like to see an analysis showing how many riders Tri-Met loses per hour cut in service–and the resulting short and long term impact on Tri-Met finances.

    Other than that: David, I wrote an almost identical post about our much vaunted but often impractical transit service…

    http://www.portlandurbanista.com/?p=315

    Reply
  9. That’s definitely one of the numbers TriMet calculates, Linda. They’re now planning for a possible $12m cut to service this fall, which they project would result in $2m less fare revenue. I plan to track this figure down if the service cut keeps looking likely.

    Reply
  10. That’s definitely one of the numbers TriMet calculates, Linda. They’re now planning for a possible $12m cut to service this fall, which they project would result in $2m less fare revenue. I plan to track this figure down if the service cut keeps looking likely.

    Reply
  11. Michael, if you do track it down, I’d like to know how that number is calculated–whether it takes into account feedback effects of cutting service or just amounts to lost fares per service cut.

    Reply
  12. Michael, if you do track it down, I’d like to know how that number is calculated–whether it takes into account feedback effects of cutting service or just amounts to lost fares per service cut.

    Reply

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Oregon, The Environment