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:  ken dot zatarain at wsp.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 ltk 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!

Tom Matoff, when I contacted him about this, wanted many more people thanked, and filled in a bit of the history [links mine]:

Michael Kyte was important in the East Side planning, and in fact came up with the name “CETIP” (City and East Side Transit Improvement Program).  I distinctly recall the conversation.  He is, or was until recently, teaching engineering at University of Idaho, Moscow. 

Also, an early and typically vociferous advocate for a Portland city grid was Jim Howell – first as an outsider citizen, but later as staff.  It was he and Don MacDonald who introduced the crucial notion of multi-destinational connectivity with the Westside timed transfer network changes in, what, 1979?  That really set things in motion.  Jim is still there in Portland. MacDonald brought the concept from Edmonton, where it had been imported from the Netherlands by Dr. John Bakker of the University of Alberta … the spread of the bacillus as we put it. 

The suburban timed transfer system, introduced [in 1979] at the behest of Westside employers who wanted local access for their employees, not just an express to Downtown, was a big success, and demonstrated that the non-Downtown market could be served in the Portland environment.   We even had an APTA-supported timed transfer conference in Portland later – 1984 maybe?  I remember tending bar  with GB Arrington at the opening reception.

You may want to mention the context of the changes – that, as the excerpt from Thompson notes, they were the first in a two-step process intended to provide first rate “big city” quality connections to the Banfield LRT [MAX] line, then under construction, as well as a major boost to local travel possibilities in the city.  The Banfield project made it politically possible to undertake structural network changes that probably should have been made anyway, but which would have been harder if not for the rail commitment.  

Step 2, undertaken on the first day of revenue rail service, was a truly gutsy move – completely unrecognized by the industry, but essential to the Banfield’s success. Abandoning the 17 and 44 expresses [which ran on the freeway alongside the new light rail alignment but branched off to various residential areas] on day one of light rail service – ah, that gave new meaning to the term “professional satisfaction. 

[JW: Rather than continue to run these express lines alongside MAX, the residential coverage area of these lines was served by new bus lines linking them to a MAX station.  This is now the standard means of restructuring around rapid transit in most of North America, but it was very new at the time and is still very new in Australia and New Zealand.]

[Meanwhile, San Francisco] MUNI had adopted, and was at that moment in the midst of implementing in stages,  a radical restructuring, 10-35 years overdue, of its network to provide enhanced local circulation possibilities as well as connectivity to and from BART and MUNI Metro.  Peter Straus, MUNI Planning Director, was staying with us that weekend, and I drafted him into helping pass out flyers at Interstate and Lombard on the first morning.  In adopting the CETIP grid, Portland was very much in the swim of progressive network development.

Thanks, Tom!  It was an honor to be hanging around as a teenage intern in those days!  I hope this post will get some thanking (and thinking) going even from folks who weren’t born then, but who take for granted the mobile, multi-destinational Portland that you and your 1982 colleagues helped to forge.

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

  1. Ben G. August 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Interesting to see (as a Sonoma county resident) that Tom is working for SMART. I still remain skeptical of the project for various reasons but hope it will be successful.
    I just don’t see why they are building a train in the 21st century that isn’t electric (SEPTA seems more modern!… ok ok joking), and why it will only run during commuter hours (and as such, I will likely never use it). Reminds me of the time I got stuck at the Hall/Nimbus WES Station at 10:30am because I assumed that the train would be running to connect me to the MAX… oops, transit fail.
    I’m also still pissed that SMART did away with the promised parallel bike path since I think it was such a critical part of the project. So many cities on the line are within easy biking distance it seems stupid to axe it when the bike path had to be the cheapest part of the project (and would provide 24/7 access to moving between towns sustainably on a bike).
    It might be personal bias, but I feel like if I can’t use the SMART train (and I like public transit more than anyone I know), then who can? I live in Santa Rosa and work in Petaluma but the train stops are nowhere near my house OR my workplace. And it only takes me 20 minutes driving down 101 and less than $2.50 a day in gas to drive. I’ve even biked to work which only took 1 hour. In Portland it was a no brainer to take the bus, MAX, or bike — but here in the North Bay, I’m just not so sure.
    I’m about to leave for a trip to Europe — first time — and it will be interesting to compare how they do transit over there. I can’t wait.

  2. JayinPhiladelphia August 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    That 1970 map is fascinating. This is gonna keep me busy for longer than it should.
    I’m lingering over that #7 line, as I lived on Gladstone in the 30s for a time. I’m having a hard time imagining when or how that route would have ever made sense, and where it even begins or ends, and how that “A” spur worked into it…
    Ah, but anyway. Thanks, youze guys!

  3. JayinPhiladelphia August 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    Ah, and one more. Though I realize it’s not the point of this post. 😉
    Interesting to see there was bus service (the #1A) up to 47th & Cornfoot. I worked there for a bit in 2008, took the bus along with maybe half our entire shift of a couple dozen guys, and the closest we could get was the 75’s stop at Columbia and 47th. Before the reworking of that intersection, when the bus stop was at the SE corner and you had to cross Columbia on foot, too. That walk up to Cornfoot was… not fun. Used to wonder why there was no bus service up that way, or at least some kind of private shuttle. Huh, now I have to see if I can find out when buses stopped running up that way…

  4. Mikko August 31, 2012 at 1:57 am #

    Some of Helsinki’s bus lines were recently reorganized along similar principles. They started to run on their new routes a couple of weeks ago. The change from the previous system is on a much smaller scale compared to Portland, but nonetheless, a group of residents’ organizations from the different districts have sued the city for allegedly ignoring citizen participation principles in the change. This sort of thing seems to be inevitable, even when the districts in question still have a very high level of service after the change (some have multiple tram lines running at 5-10 minute headways). The city did not do a great job of communicating the big ideas behind the change, i.e. formation of frequent-service trunk lines and improving speeds, or even making sure that all the passenger information was up to date on the first day (the signage on some bus and tram stops is still being sorted out two weeks later).

  5. Alexis August 31, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    It’s very interesting to see what changed and what’s still around. For example, there’s still service up 24th/Regents/27th (the 9-soon-to-be-17) even though (aside from Regents) that’s not a very sensible route IMO.
    I don’t know how many change rounds there have been, but some of today’s service, although different, looks like it came almost directly from an adaptation of that map — for example, it looks like the 24 – Sandy/Prescott was repurposed to become the 24 – Fremont (similar elevation if you average it out), while the 12 was repurposed to Sandy (likewise).
    I still think the eastside grid could use some serious improvement — for any mode, moving north and south through the inner east side efficiently can be a challenge, but it’s by far the hardest on TriMet unless you happen to want the 75. (The 6 is also okay but terminates its N/S at Hawthorne.) The new 70 will help, but still won’t be that great.

  6. Jason McHuff August 31, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    “s still service up 24th/Regents/27th (the 9-soon-to-be-17) even though (aside from Regents) that’s not a very sensible route IMO.”
    Well that’s where the streetcar went! Line 43 is also a streetcar descendant. I’m guessing some of the other routes on the map were former streetcar routes, too. See http://myplace.frontier.com/~trolley503/StreetcarLines.html
    And as I said there’s newer maps closer to the changeover; see http://gallery.transitq.com/v/trimet/j9gbor/ and http://gallery.transitq.com/v/trimet/nky4aa/

  7. Zoltán Connell September 2, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    I notice that Portland’s 1970 map did a good job of neatly straightening out the grid streets, without any loss of legibility, and kept information to the minimum necessary; only being complicated because of the network – It’s a shame that what could have been a very simple, legible map following the 1982 changes was made much more fussy and complicated.
    Regarding the restoration of frequent service, it’s notable that now a lot of routes are pegged at every 20 minutes all day; some originally part of the frequent network and some not; while a few routes get very close to a 10-minute all day frequency.
    It seems that one option for moving forward (in line with arguments I’ve made here for a hierarchy of frequent services – http://nqrw.tumblr.com/post/20117185735/ ) would be to better publicise the important network of routes at a 20 minute frequency, and push as many routes as possible to every 10. The 10-minute network would not only stand out by the the clear priority for improvements such as transit lanes, signal priority and off-board fare payment.

  8. Robert Wightman September 3, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    Excellent article and example of the benefits of grids. It also made me realize that the suburban grid system in Toronto will be 50 years old next September. I believe that the implementation of the grid was the start of the growth in transit usage in the suburbs.
    I believe that the other reasons for the success of Transit in Toronto are:
    1) Free connections (transfers for the non followers of Jarrett) between all types of service; bus, street car and subway.
    2) The provision at many many stations of fare control areas so that the surface vehicles enter the station and one can change vehicles without passing through another fare check.
    3) Interconnectivity,every surface route but one makes at least one connection with a rapid transit line.
    4) Frequent service on many of the routes.
    Keep up the good work. Your articles are a joy to read because they are well thought out and well written. It is an advantage who have someone with a background in English Literature who can actually write coherently. Perhaps I should have taken that fourth year course “Inglish for Inginears.”

  9. Isaac Laquedem September 3, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    Following Jason McHuff’s comment (#6 above), yes, many of the bus routes follow the Rose City Transit bus routes (the pre-1969 routes, before Tri-Met was formed), and those routes in turn followed the streetcar routes because Rose City used to operate the streetcars. As it closed streetcar lines it replaced them with bus service along the same route. Jarrett, I think you’ll recall the odd diversion that the Vista Avenue bus made, in one direction only, up SW Ravensview Drive (for non-Portlanders, a quiet residential lane), partly because Vista has a turn at Buena Vista that a northbound bus can’t easily make, and partly because the Greenway streetcar to Council Crest used that bit of Ravensview as far back as 1904.

  10. Karl O September 3, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Not only should the planners be thanked, but the event should be better documented in the history of transit in Portland that Trimet provides on its website: http://trimet.org/pdfs/publications/Public-Transit-in-Portland.pdf

  11. Amy September 3, 2012 at 11:31 pm #

    Thanks – great article. Far, far away from Portland, in Perth, Western Australia, a local ‘MAX’ light rail concept has just been floated to the public.
    Our system is pretty radial in nature; cross city connections are something we could work on, and we could learn from Portland’s example.

  12. R. W. Rynerson September 4, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Great story; I think that I’ve already thanked these people at various times through the years, but should mention some obstacles that had to be overcome.
    1. Rose City Transit Co., which created most of the 1970 route structure, actually was better planned than most of the declining transit systems of the post WWII era. That was until its last big service cutback in 1969, which became the base line for this article. Yes, it was mainly a radial system, but it made adjustments for new developments as they came along. And, it did have some crosstown lines, in an era where they were disappearing elsewhere.
    2. The 1970 map was not the worst situation. It got even worse when the “Blue Buses” group of suburban carriers was taken over, but not really integrated, with more overlapping service resulting. At Oregon DOT in 1972-73, I tried to explain this waste to my superior, but was told not to raise a fuss because we needed to keep good relations with Tri-Met. Oregon’s governor appointed the Tri-Met Board, and a wise colleague told me that someday important people would discover how badly Tri-Met was set up. This happened sooner than we expected; the governor canned most of the Board as a result of weaknesses displayed in the ’73-74 Energy Crisis.
    3. As early as 1973, citizens’ groups were trying to get crosstown routes established and Tri-Met staff and some Board members were trying to kill the idea. A colorful, retired Railway Express employee fought successfully to get what became Rte 77 established, in spite of flat out dirty tricks against it. Of course, this route mostly duplicated others, so it made much more sense when the network was reworked.
    4. Another activist who became involved in this era was Ray Polani, vice-president of a locally headquartered savings & loan. Polani knew a lot about organizational issues and called me at my new position at Edmonton Transit to see if there was anyone in Canada who might be available to help break the management logjam at Tri-Met. I suggested D. L. MacDonald, who had been pushed into retirement by the friction created in building the first LRT line on time and on budget.
    Interestingly, another Portland activist who carried over from the fight against the 1958 discontinuance of the Portland Traction Interurban Division, Al Haij, had spoken at length with D.L. in the late 1960’s and tried to interest him in coming to Portland.
    There are numerous other Edmonton <=> Portland linkes during that era, but it’s only fair. The Edmonton trolley coach network before WWII was based on Portland’s.

  13. Doug Allen September 6, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    I am glad to see Bob Rynerson’s tribute to some of the other folks who helped make the grid happen. Ray Polani deserves particular credit for his collaboration with Jim Howell and other to form Citizens for Better Transit. Besides lobbying the “Tri-Met” board, CBT went around to neighborhood groups and others with a slide show explaining the merits of the grid system — softening up the opposition, so to speak.
    Ray is also largely responsible for bringing Tom Matoff to Portland, in addition to helping bring Don MacDonald to Portland. Ray also networked with other visionary planners around North America who provided the intellectual basis for the grid, timed transfer, and frequent trunk-line approaches to network design.
    After Oregon Governor Tom McCall left office, I heard him speak, referring to Ray Polani as a visionary, but someone who was often treated like the prophet without honor in his own countery.

  14. Nathanael September 13, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    Grids for buses work when your road system is a grid.
    I notice that west of the Willamette, the grid breaks down completely. So this is more of a revolution for people *east* of the Willamette only.
    It looks like something could be done with the downtown grid (even though it’s in two pieces, at angles to each other)…. but I don’t think such a thing will be done. Perhaps the street grid is just severed in too many places.
    Of note, cities with nothing resembling a street grid (London, Paris) have had to take entirely different approaches to create full coverage. “Circle lines” become popular.

  15. Alon Levy September 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    In Vancouver, where the grid breaks down downtown, the approach is to bend the north-south buses downtown and then have them emerge on other routes on another side of downtown, or else have the West Side north-south buses go east on Broadway.

  16. mike0123 September 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    The problems in downtown Vancouver are minor.
    Vancouver’s grid breaks down just before it hits the Burnaby border. Southeast Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster have a spaghetti network and it’s completely unnecessary. Translink could use this kind of intervention with its suburban bus network.

  17. simon July 9, 2017 at 7:47 am #

    I was in with my daughter Portland for a wedding last summer and found the buses to be frequent and direct, we got all around town. The system was so straightforward that another tourist, not realizing we weren’t local, asked us for our help and my daughter was immediately able to direct her. help her. So yes, thanks, planners. Stay weird.

  18. Fellene Gaylord December 3, 2019 at 9:22 pm #

    The first map in your post is from post 2002, as evidenced by the Red Line to the Portland International Airport and lack of sector symbols. The Red Line opened Sept. 10, 2001.