Public Transit Needs Some Public Debate

by | Jan 26, 2011

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.