Portland

in the pacific northwest, the romantic drama is on the bus …

This really is too much fun.  From a scholarly study of the Craiglist "Missed Connections" section, where people express a romantic interest in someone that they saw out in the world.  You know, ads like this:

We were both on the max [light rail]–me heading to the Blazer's game and you on your bike. You overheard part of my conversation with my friend and were quite amused. I wanted to talk to you but then got pushed back by other riders. Email me if you remember that conversation and would like to grab a drink sometime.

So here, by state, is the location most often cited in "Missed Connections" ads (click to sharpen):

ZI-1175-2013-J-F00-IDSI-76-1
In rail-rich older urban areas, it's rail transit, of course, the subway or train or metro.  But in relatively rail-poor parts of the country, only Oregon and Washington find so much wistful romantic drama on public transit!  This is one of those slightly twisted points of "Portlandia"-style pride that makes me proud to be an Oregonian transit planner.  

portland: “opt-in” to comment on the future, despite biased questions!

If you live in the Portland metro region (Oregon side only), the regional government Metro wants you to be part of an online panel that comments on key issues facing the region.  It's called Opt-in, and you can read about it, and join it, here

When I tweeted about this yesterday, several people I respect commented that Opt-In sometimes asks wildly distorted and leading questions.  I can now verify that this is the case, based on a survey it asked me to take this morning which includes this appalling question (click to sharpen):

Optin screenshot
Two choices about transit and they're both about expanding rail.  Bus infrastructure and fleet are not mentioned even though buses are still the dominant mode in Portland and Bus Rapid Transit is a serious option in two rapid transit corridors now under study.   The designer of this question appears to be unfamiliar with Metro's own transit planning process, and is imposing their own biases on the survey.  That may be understandable in the early stages of a tool's develoment, when Metro's leadership may not be paying attention yet, but it should be unacceptable and if the tool thrives, it soon will be.

But is this a reason not to join?  No, it's the opposite.  Biased questions are a reason to use the little text feedback boxes to complain about biased questions, and to contact your Metro councilor if you feel strongly about them.  When Metro councilors will start getting letters about biased questions being asked in Metro's name, the problem will be righted quickly.  Just as boycotting elections is a bad way to get your views represented in government, boycotting survey tools is a bad way to get them to ask better questions!

Like all self-appointed panels, OptIn reaches a distorted sample of the population, but so does the massively inefficient and exhausting ritual that it could someday replace: the public meeting.  (The FAQs gently suggest this long-term prospect, though I'm sure we won't see the end of the public meeting soon.)  Public meetings still have value when they are organized as genuine conversations, such as interactive workshops that I'm often hired to run.  But if the purpose of a public meeting is for you to go and give a speech about why you're right and everyone else is wrong, well, we can all save carbon emissions and time out of our busy lives by doing that at home in our pyjamas. 

Need to smash the patriarchy or abolish the government?  I admit online surveys aren't very satisfying if you're massively angry and need something destroyed, and for that your options are still voting, peaceful demonstrations, and if necessary civil disobedience.  But online surveys are a great way to hear from a vast array of voters who are willing to communicate more thoughtfully and with less effort, and who tend to be shouted down or intimidated in public events.  Yes, there are issues about exclusion of low-resource groups and those with language and educational barriers, but Metro's surveys look pretty accessible to anyone with high-school literacy in English and they'd be easy enough to translate and supplement with spoken text.

Metro's currently asking its panel about its priorities for the future of transit in the region, and unlike the survey I mention above, it's a good and worthwhile survey that everyone should complete.  

Again, I wish the transit survey had the courage to ask about new funding sources.  The region's transit agency has cut over 15% of its service in the last decade, and is in ongong budget difficulty due to unfunded health and pension commitments made in wealthier times.  While it may gradually restore a basic functional network, it is nowhere close to offering the pace of service growth that would support the region's land use vision or its justify its green reputation.  But the questions the survey does ask, about your priorites for deploying what resources can be found, are mostly clear and reflect the realities of transit's geometry and costs.

If you don't enjoy public meetings, or have better things to do with your time, join Opt In, and if you're not in the Portland region, encourage your regional government to emulate it.  And if you find a biased question, comment about it!

quote of the week: the portlandia streetcar

 

"I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let's say there's a 20-minute [wait].  You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer."

— Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member
Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency
of the Portland Streetcar's new eastside loop,
quoted last August in Willamette Week.

Note that Mr Fry is referring to a very slow service (the original segment of the Portland Streetcar is now scheduled at around 6 miles/hr) which is useful only for relatively short trips around the greater downtown area.

quote of the week: the mayor on those portland powerpoints

 

No planner from the city of Portland should be going to national conferences and bragging about how smart we are about urban planning in Portland until we have an actionable plan to make 122nd & Division a great  place. … We have a lot of work to do to make the hype about how livable Portland is true citywide.

— Newly inaugurated Portland Mayor Charlie Hales,
in an interview with Willamette Week.

Here's the intersection the Mayor is referring to:

122 Division
122 Division street view

Strong words.  I've sometimes felt exasperated by the some of "Perfect Portland PowerPoints" that I've seen at conferences all over the world.  Many of them show you pictures solely from downtown and the innermost neighborhoods, and give you the impression that every place worth going to is right on the Portland Streetcar.  They don't usually mention that repeated cuts to the city's once-excellent bus network are calling into question the viability of a no-car lifestyle over large parts of the city, and that much of the official wonderfulness of Portland isn't that evident in daily life in some of the outer parts of the city.  

But of course, planning PowerPoints about lots of cities are distorted in those ways.  And in fact, many cities have fairly ordinary looking suburban fabric like you see in this picture, and conflicts between the needs of such areas and those of a more glamorous and expensive inner city.  So I would be gentler than the Mayor on this point.  

Portland is far more flawed, contingent, lovable, ordinary, and fascinating than the some of the PowerPoint warriors will let on, but after all you've heard, you'll probably have to see it to believe it, or at least spend some time on Google.

“uncaptive rider”: download my chat with colin marshall …

If you'd be interested in the sound of my voice, ruminating broadly about transit and cities in the serenity of my own livingroom, there's now quite a good podcast by Colin Marshall in the Notebook on Cities and Culture series.  You can download an mp3 from Colin's site here, or get it from iTunes here.

Colin's a brilliant interviewer, asking great and often surprising questions.  He draws me out on my own living arrangements, my complex relationships with Portland and with Los Angeles, some notes on my global transit travels, and finally onto really substantive topics about what transit is and how it relates to the larger question of what cities are.  It's all feels very public-radio …

Colin's whole series of downloadable podcasts looks like it's worth a look, as he's put me in some impressive company … 

the opportunities and dangers of incomplete bus rapid transit

One of Bus Rapid Transit's great virtues is that unlike rail, you don't have to build a complete, continuous piece of infrastructure if you really only need segments of one.  

Here in Portland, for example, the Barbur corridor — now being studied for BRT or rail — features a series of congested chokepoints with generally free-running traffic in between them.  Here, a BRT facility that got transit through the chokepoints reliably probably wouldn't need an exclusive lane in the free-flowing segments, because traffic in those segments would continue to be metered by the chokepoints and thus remain uncongested.  (Congested chokepoints meter traffic just as ramp meters do: they limit the rate at which cars can enter a road segment and thus reduce its chance of becoming congested.)

Unfortunately, Bus Rapid Transit can also be implemented in exactly the opposite way.  Severely congested chokepoints are generally expensive places to design transit priority for, especially if you're unwilling to simply take a lane for transit.  So we often see BRT projects that are missing where they are most needed.  The Boston Silver Line 4-5, like the Los Angeles Silver Line, can get stuck in traffic downtown.  New York's supposed BRT is so compromised that many refused to call it BRT anymore.  Even the world-class Auckland North Shore Busway disappears as it approaches the Harbour Bridge. 

Now we have the example of Seattle's RapidRide D, highlighted today by Mike Lindblom in the Seattle Times:

While the new RapidRide bus mostly lives up to its name in West Seattle, passengers on its sister route to Ballard are routinely stuck in traffic.

The service to Ballard, called the D Line, is d

2019776700

elayed 10 to 15 minutes by late-afternoon car congestion leaving Belltown and winding through the crowded Uptown neighborhood, near Seattle Center.

That bottleneck is aggravated by traffic signals that haven't yet been re-timed by King County Metro Transit and the city of Seattle, to give the buses a longer or quicker green light. Metro acknowledges the D Line is just one minute faster than the local bus it replaced Sept. 29; the advantage is supposed to be six to eight minutes.

Transit managers hope to make gains by early 2013 after signal and road-lane changes are finished.

"We have a ways to go based on our early experience, but it is still too early to know whether the projection will be achieved," said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer.

M674_0Just one minute faster than the bus it replaced?  Then the question arises: Why was it called Rapid Ride prior to the improvements that would make it Rapid?  There are some plausible if grim answers to this question.  Getting multiple big bureaucracies to move on the same timetable to the same deadline is hard.  The transit agency has to commit to a date months in advance, without being entirely sure whether its partners (typically in the City and the state Dept of Transportation) will be done with the improvements that are their responsibility.  So sometimes, the brand appears before the product does, causing this understandable blowback and also, more critically, tarnishing the brand.

RapidRide D raises a larger problem though.  Even when planned priority is completed further south there is still the problem of the congested Ballard Bridge.  Like Barbur's chokepoints in Portland, the Ballard Bridge is a familiar chokepoint that affects speed and reliability for all transit services forced to use it.  You can imagine the difficulty of demanding that RapidRide have an exclusive lane over the bridge, when that would leave only one for other cars.  (But what about a lane for buses + carpools + carshare cars + electric cars + etc. until you get a reasonable but uncongested lane volume?)

Sometimes, too, bridges can be metered, much the way the San Francisco Bay Bridge toll plaza meters traffic on that bridge.  At the approach point pictured above, a signal could have been placed at the bus merge point which meters traffic so that northbound congestion piles up south of the bridge rather than on it, and enters the bridge only at an uncongested rate.  That would have allowed buses uncongested operation without really slowing down cars much.  I'm not an engineer; there may be valid reasons why this wasn't possible, but it's the sort of solution that comes up when congested traffic is the reality anyway and the goal is to protect transit from it.

Transit agencies sometimes compromise BRT for their own reasons of budget.  Issues of boarding time associated with the lack of on-street ticket machines are coming up on RapidRide, as are concerns about reliability arising from the fact that two RapidRide lines are through-routed, transmitting delay from one to the other.  These are familiar struggles within transit agencies who are under pressure to spread a product over many corridors and can't afford to deliver every aspect of the product in all those places.  The result runs the risk of becoming symbolic transit; a bright red line appears on the map, but without the investment needed to make good on the promise that the red line implies.

I've received emails from Seattle friends on several sides of this issue, and sympathize with all of them.  I don't mean to criticize either the City or the State DOT or the transit agency, because what was done here is fairly typical historic American practice and the pressures involved are so routine.

But if there is a desire to aim higher than historic American practice, the question remains.  How much can we compromise BRT — tolerating its absence precisely in the congested chokepoint where it's most needed — and still call it BRT?  Might be better for transit agencies to refuse to implement BRT until the relevant traffic authorities have delivered the facilities it requires?  

portland: a local alternative to the columbia river crossing

Many cities have eternal debates about a Massive Transportation Project, debates that can go on for so long that the debate itself feels like a piece of infrastructure.   In Portland, it's the Columbia River Crossing, a $4b proposal to build a massive new bridge and freeway expansion to replace the old, narrow and congested I-5 bridge at the state line.  Most sustainable transport advocates that I know hate the plan with a passion, and it's increasingly an issue in the current mayoral race.  A number of small-government types are equally unhappy about the $4b pricetag.

The issue with the CRC is that the interstate freeway is really the only way of getting across the river, for any mode except freight rail, for miles around.  Since both sides of the river are urbanized, that's obviously a recipe for congestion.  If you define the problem as freeway congestion, of course you'll think of a freeway solution.  But what if you focus on the challenge of providing alternatives so that local traffic doesn't need to use the bridge, and so that transit competes effectively with cars to reduce future traffic growth?

That's the premise of a "Common Sense Alternative":

The basic idea of getting local traffic (including local freight) out of the bridge congestion, and creating transit alternatives, makes all kinds of sense. It's also a set of small projects that can happen in phases instead of one massive one.   Smaller budgets are demanding incremental solutions, not massive do-or-die projects.  Given the opposition to the CRC from both ends of the spectrum, I wouldn't be surprised if the answer doesn't end up being something like this. 

portland: the grid is 30 years old … thank a planner!

Thirty years ago next week, on Labor Day Weekend 1982, the role of public transit in Portland was utterly transformed in ways that everyone today takes for granted.  It was an epic struggle, one worth remembering and honoring. 

I'm not talking about the MAX light rail (LRT) system, whose first line opened in 1986. I'm talking about the grid of frequent bus lines, without which MAX would have been inaccessible, and without which you would still be going into downtown Portland to travel between two points on the eastside.  (Full map here.)

Portland grid\

What did it look like before 1982?  Here's a bit of the 1970 network (full map here).

Portland 1970

The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland.  If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown — a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus.  Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day.  Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn't really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them. 

How did the 1982 network transform the possibilities of mobility in the city?  

  • The old network was solely about going downtown.  The new network was about going anywhere you wanted to go.
  • The old network was infrequent.  The new network required easy connections, so it was designed to run at high frequency (most lines every 15 minutes or better all day).  Remember: Frequency is freedom!
  • The old network was wasteful, as many overlapping lines converged on downtown.  The new network was efficient, with little overlap between lines, and with lines spaced further apart to the extent that the street network allowed.  This is how the resources were found to increase frequency so much.
  • The old network was complicated, with routes often zigzagging from one street to another.  The new network was simpler, easy to keep in your head.  Many streets that were formerly served by a patchwork of overlapping routes, such as Division, now had a single route from end to end, so that you needed only remember "the Division bus."  Transit became an intrinsic part of the street.

If you're in a hurry, skip to "Thank a Planner!" below.  But if you have a couple of minutes, let's explore more deeply how the grid transformed Portland, and why it was so controversial at the time.

In both maps above, that wavy line across the middle of eastside Portland is the Banfield Freeway, where the first and backbone line of the MAX light rail system runs today.  In the 1970 image, look for the line marked "1" extending north from the Banfield in the middle of the image.  This is NE 42nd Avenue (a bit of which is labeled 41st, but don't let that distract you).

In the old network the bus line along 42nd came from the north edge of the city, once an hour.  Partway down it merged with another branch, to form 30-minute frequency.  When it approached the Banfield, it turned west and zigzagged into the city via the Lloyd district.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it was duplicating other routes the whole way.  If you wanted to go somewhere else on the eastside, the bus was not much use.   Frequencies were poor so it was very hard to make a trip involving multiple routes.

If you lived on NE 42nd in 1982, you were confronted with massive change, the sort of change that makes people scream.  Never again would you have a direct bus to downtown Portland.  Now you would be on the new 75, which would run continuously north-south all the way across the city.  And if you wanted to go downtown, you would have to transfer (as we called it in those days). 

But on the bright side, the 75 would run every 15 minutes, so transfering wasn't hard.  And in return, you got all the other benefits of a frequent routes that would let you connect quickly to reach destinations all over the east and north sides of the city, without going downtown.  

This is always a tough sell, because many people value transit only for the commute downtown.  These people tend to complain when the network is optmized to serve many kinds of trip at once, which is exactly what the grid does.  A frequent grid is the ultimate in versatilityequity and freedom.  It does not pick favored destinations for favored markets. Instead, it delivers anywhere-to-anywhere mobility for wherever you might want to go.  Today, the non-downtown elements of the grid, especially 72 and 75, are among TriMet's most productive lines.  

The grid redefined the role of transit in serving Portland's livability objectives.  When you think of everything that makes Portland both livable and culturally distinctive, you're probably thinking about the historically dense and gridded part of the city.  This is where almost every cool urbanist outcome of the last 30 years — from food carts to bike lanes to office-over-retail — has sprouted and thrived most successfully. Rail gets all the press, but the MAX light rail line would not have worked without this grid to connect with it.  (The reverse is not true: the grid worked well for four years before the MAX line opened, though MAX was certainly an improvement that achieved further ridership payoffs.) As Gregory Thompson and Jeffrey Brown put it in a recent paper :

If the 1983 and 1986 restructurings had not happened, LRT would have been a competitor with the CBD-focused, poor quality parallel bus routes that already were there, and there would have been no high quality bus routes intersecting the LRT at right angles. Portland would have enjoyed much less patronage than it has since experienced on both its LRT and bus routes.

Where did all the money for the new high-frequency crosstown lines come from?  Removing duplication. Look again at the your ride on 1970's route 1.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it duplicated other routes the entire way into downtown.  Now look closely at the routes approaching downtown from further south in the old map.  They ran on so many closely-spaced parallel streets that they were effectively duplicating one another as well, wasting service.  The grid plan found many resources by removing these duplications and moving to wider and more consistent spacing of lines across the whole city.  In the same process,the grid introduced the idea that it's OK to walk further to a more frequent and useful service — the foundation for transit's link with walking (and with all of walking's public health outcomes) today.

The grid was also a radical simplification, making it easier for people to keep the network map in their heads.  Now, bus lines would often follow the same street from end-to-end, so you could remember easily that there's a Division Street bus, say, and an 82nd Avenue bus.  In the old network, if you wanted to go from 20th & Division to 82nd & Division, you had to go downtown and back, because these two parts of Division were covered by different routes.  The beauty of the grid is that your transit directions are sometimes as simply as walking or driving directions:  "Take the Division bus out to 82nd, then take the 82nd bus south."  The transit lines are just part of the street.

Imagine, in 1982, the struggle involved in implementing this.  Vast numbers of people lost their direct bus to downtown, at a time when going downtown seemed like the only purpose of transit to many existing riders.  Transit agencies tend to listen most to their existing riders, who have adapted their lives to the system as it is, so it takes real courage for them to seek new markets instead of just catering to the existing ones.   Imagine the disruption, the rage, the recriminations, not to mention the apathy from people for whom buses just don't matter, no matter what they're achieving.

Thank a planner!

If you can imagine how hard this was, consider thanking the planners who took all this abuse and persisted in pushing the plan through, because they believed in everywhere-to-everywhere networks and knew this would work if it were tried.  I'm especially thinking of:

  • Ken Zatarain, who was a TriMet service planner at the time and who is still at the agency.  Thank him at:  zataraik AT trimet DOT org .
  • Thomas G. Matoff, the single most important mentor in my own transit career, and probably the critical player in pushing the grid through.  Tom, who was service planning manager and thus Ken's boss, was an eloquent, passionate and persistent advocate for the grid both inside and outside the agency.  He was the first person I've met, and one of the few I've known, who could convey how essential network design is to the life, joy, and prosperity of a city.  Tom went on to be General Manager of Sacramento Regional Transit and is now working on the Sonoma-Marin rail project in California.  Thank him at:  tmatoff AT sonomamarintrain DOT org .

I'm dead serious:  If you value being able to get around Portland in all directions, thank them.  In other words, do one of these things:

  • shoot emails of appreciation to the three emails above, copied to me (jarrett AT jarrettwalker DOT net), with "Thanks for the grid" in the subject line, or 
  • leave a comment here, or 
  • say something on Twitter with the hashtag #PDXGrid .  

You might also ask the two mayoral candidates about how important the frequent grid is to their vision of the city, and whether they think it should be enhanced.

Why does this matter?  Because even today, there's disagreement in Portland about important the frequent grid is, or even whether a complete everywhere-to-everywhere network (which requires high-frequency buses as well as rail) should be a priority at all.  Some view the grid as unimportant, for example, because they view bus service as unimportant.

Purists might argue that the grid never made it to its 30th birthday, but rather perished at 27 in 2009.  That was the year that TriMet cut all-day frequencies below the 15-minute threshhold that is widely accepted as the definition of "frequent enough that you can use it spontaneously, without building your life around the timetable."  Since the grid relies on easy connections to achieve its goal of easy anywhere-to-anywhere access, the 2009 cuts began to undermine the whole idea of the grid. TriMet avoided doing this in its first round of cutting after the crash, but felt it had no alternative in the second 2009 round.  

Will the grid ever be restored to its necessary frequency?  Will it ever be expanded and enriched (as regional land use planning generally assumes it must be) with even better frequencies?  Not everyone in Portland thinks this is a priority, so you might want to express your view.  

More on the history and spectacular outcomes of the grid if you click below.  But even if you don't click, thank a planner!

Continue Reading →

seeking a portland-based assistant!

My very little firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, is ready to add some support.  It will be six months before I decide whether to cross the hurdle into formally becoming an employer, but meanwhile, I have a range of support tasks that can be a great learning experience for someone trying to get into the field. 

So I'm looking for someone (maybe more than one) who's comfortable with being a subcontractor without benefits for up to six months, until we get to that decision point.  I envision you working around 25-30 hours/week, with frequent visits to my Portland home office but no obligation to work onsite all the time.  (If you are available only part-time, but at least 20 hours a week, that' s also possible.)  I envision paying you something in the range of $15-40/hour, depending on your experience and skills.

You do not necessarily have a graduate degree or transit planning experience, though I'll pay you more if you do.  You probably do have a BA.  You absolutely need to have:

  • Passionate enthusiasm about public transit and its role in building a better civilization.
  • Strong organization skills — i.e. organization of documents, information, calendar etc.
  • English fluency and readable writing in English.
  • Ability to use basic software, including all parts of Microsoft Office on Macs.
  • A willingness to pitch in on whatever needs to be done at the moment.
  • Ability to work with visualizations, such as graphs and maps, and make connections between this information and other data forms.
  • Evidence of ability to learn new material and concepts rapidly.

In addition, it's highly advantageous if you have:

  • Some transit planning or policy experience.  (Intelligent volunteer advocacy counts.)
  • IT troubleshooting skills and confidence.  (Macs with Microsoft Office, plus online tools including Google Apps, TypePad, and key social media.  This is especially valuable because I'm very bad at this myself.)
  • Strong ability to write, and to customize writing style to different audiences.
  • Ability to design compelling visuals, including document formats, PowerPoint presentations, and graphs and diagrams that tell a story clearly.
  • Advanced data analysis skills, which could include advanced uses of Excel, database programs, and GIS.

Again, I do not recommend that you move to Portland just for this opportunity, though I won't discriminate against out-of-town applicants if you're sure you want to take that risk.  In six months, if I'm ready to build a larger staff, I will be more enthusastically seeking staff interested in coming to Portland to work with us.

If interested, please hit the email button under my photo, over on the far right of this page –>

Email me your questions about this opportunity, and if you are interested, send me:

  • A resume
  • At least three references I can call who have some experience with you in the skill areas I've described above.
  • Optionally: the hourly rate, without benefits, that you think best matches your skills, supported by a history of past compensation if relevant.  If you have a bottom line minimum hourly rate, state it.  If not, we'll figure this out if we're a match.
  • Preferably: A sample of some past project you've done that displays both your ability to write and your ability to interpret data, ideally including visualisations (graphs, maps, diagrams) that you've designed.

If this sounds vague it's because I'm intentionally casting a wide net here.  It is the nature of working in a very small firm that you have to do many kinds of tasks — both professional and clerical — so there are several possible backgrounds that could be good qualification.  I may also add more than one person to get the complete skillset I need.

The application deadline is July 20, but if you've missed that go ahead and send me something.  I am likely to make decisions based on what I have on July 20, but I may not meet all of my needs then.

Please spread the word, especially in Portland!