portland: the citizens’ priorities for transportation

If you respect Portland as a leader when it comes to transit and sustainable urbanism, you should be interested in what its citizens think, not just what its spokespeople and marketers say.  It's the citizens who've demanded most of Portland's most dramatic transformations, and they who have to signal when it's time to take the next step.  

So here's what citizens of Portland think about how the city should prioritize its transportation investments, from a statistically valid phone survey (cellphones included) with a margin of error just under 5%.  

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Possible investments were ranked on a 1-7 scale where 7 (counter-intuitively) means the highest priority and 1 the lowest.  Dark green on this chart means users chose 7, the highest priority, while light green means 6, blue means 5 etc.   The brown is 4, which means netural, and the red and gray colors  at the right are low priorities.  Click to enlarge and sharpen.  Original report is here and PowerPoint here.

Frequent bus service (slashed in 2009 with major ridership losses resulting) is the top transit service priority, closely followed by more (probably more frequent*) light rail service.   Streetcars, in this supposed national leader of streetcar-revival movement?  Not so much.

Responses to frequent bus and MAX service may be lower than actual because some respondents could have presumed that the survey was solely about things that the City of Portland controls, and transit supply isn't one of them.

On the other hand, there's not much patience for parochialism on the part of Portland's city government.  

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People are increasingly seeing the services of regional agencies as something that the City of Portland may need to act on.  Given the list of improvements discussed above, and their relative importance, this response is probably heavily about Portland's relationship to TriMet, the regional agency that controls transit service. (It may also be about the relationship to Oregon's DOT, which still controls some major arterials.)

So for example, it's plausible that transit advocates who are in the 20% that oppose city involvement in "things it doesn't own" would not mention bus and light rail service as City of Portland priorities, even though they support them as investment priorities in general.  Support for these things may thus be even higher than indicated.

So to sum up (and some of this will be more surprising to Portland-admirers than to Portlanders):  

  • Less than 40% of Portlanders would assign any priority to expanding the streetcar system further, and only 9% call it a top priority.  
  • By contrast, two thirds (67%) assign a priority to frequent bus service, and 23% call it a top priority.
  • In a separate question, over 70% of respondents said they'd be "more likely" to support a "funding package that improved bus service in areas with substandard service, particularly if the areas are low income." 
  • Most important: more than 3/4 would say that just because the city doesn't control the transit agency doesn't mean that it shouldn't invest in the service that's needed, or lead in funding that investment.

This is actually a very practical view, the only one that ultimately works with transit's underlying math.  Core cities have higher per capita transit demands than their suburbs [see Chapter 10 of my book Human Transit] so they always tend to be underserved — relative to demand — by regional transit agencies that aim for some concept of "regional equity."  In many cases, the only solution is for core city voters to step up and vote, for themselves, the additional service that only they know that they need.  This doesn't have to mean breaking up the regional agency, but it does mean giving up on the idea that any service distribution formula that a suburb-dominated region would agree on will meet the core city's expectations for transit, based on the core city's economy and values.  

Am I concerned about the low ranking of bus lanes?  Not really surprised.  We would have to get our frequency back (many major Portland bus lines run less frequently than they did in 1982) and put ridership growth back on track.  Then that question would naturally arise in its own time.

There are other interesting nuggets in this survey.  Portlanders' overwhelming obession with pedestrian safety is heartening, especially since this is a crucial transit improvement.  (This may also signal a shared concern for East Portland, the disadvantaged "inner ring suburbia" within city limits that has poor pedestrian infrastructure, inadequate transit frequency, and most of the city's pedestrian fatalities.)  Portland cycling advocates, and their national admirers, may be disappointed in the ranking of "safe bike routes."  Sadly, cycling is polarizing here as it is everywhere.  Although 55% give some priority to "safer bike routes" and cycling is the only mode whose share of work trips is clearly growing, opposition and disinterest are also higher on cycling than for the main transit service investments.   

But when it comes to transit, there are some clear signals here, not just for Portland but for any city that hopes to replicate its achievements.


*This question should have been more specific.  The response says "MAX light rail service" which could mean either geographic expansion or more frequency.  The frequencies on MAX have been cut substantially in the last five years, so at least some of this response is probably about frequency.

11 Responses to portland: the citizens’ priorities for transportation

  1. Bruce Nourish February 18, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    The image links are busted. They’re showing up as:

  2. Bruce Nourish February 18, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    OK, now it’s fixed.

  3. Alyourpalster February 18, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    Isn’t it interesting that the top six priorities are all involving streets and traffic.
    The street car is WAY DOWN ON THE BOTTOM.
    What we really see here is how ‘our’ government is doing exactly the opposite from what the people want.
    No surprise to people that have been following this stuff, we knew this already.
    The question is, what can anyone do about it?

  4. hU0N February 18, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    When you talk about inner city voters stepping up and voting for the services they need, is this an obtuse way of suggesting that inner city voters should vote for city governments to co-fund transit in their own areas?
    If so, then it comes with an attendant risk. Where I live (Brisbane), you are probably aware that such a funding model is actually in place, and has been for a while. The regional transit authority fully funds most transit (heavy rail, outer suburban buses etc); but the central city council co-funds the inner suburban buses.
    The problem is that, in view of this funding contribution, the city council expects to be able to influence overall network design, and sometimes uses this influence to push immediate political concerns that are at odds with region wide network efficiency.
    For this reason, there are periodic calls from the community for the co-funding arrangement to be cancelled and the regional transit authority to assume full responsibility for the funding, design and management of the entire transit network.

  5. Nathanael February 19, 2014 at 2:27 am #

    Read your own results.
    The top transit priority is SIDEWALKS for PEDESTRIANS.
    Priority #1: Crosswalks.
    Priority #6: Sidewalks.
    #2 and #5 are “safety”, which probably means safety for PEDESTRIANS.
    #3 and #4 are “maintain the streets, don’t let things deteriorate”, aka “fix it first”.
    This makes sense. Everyone is a pedestrian before they get on a bus or train or car, from the moment they get off the bus or train or car, and when they choose not to take a bus or train or car.
    I’m not at all surprised that the top priority is to make it possible for people to WALK safely.

  6. Dan McFarling February 19, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    While it is important to know what the public believes, my personal bias is that opinion polls often helps one to understand more about the public education needed more than it demonstrates what path we need to select. VERY few people understand how our transportation system evolved– how we got where we are today. So much of our automobile dependency evolved because of the “social engineering” the transit naysayers like to scream about, but most people do not have a clue. In my opinion, even most transit advocates do not have an adequate understanding of how bad policy created the mess we are in today. If we do not understand how we got into this mess, we will NOT be able to understand what to do to solve it. We need to better educate ourselves, and the public.

  7. Kenny February 19, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    I would guess that bus lanes and freight movement are down at the bottom because these are the two aspects of urban transportation that ordinary people have the least understanding of.

  8. Theo February 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    I would like to see the results of how users of each modeshare voted.

  9. Daniel Sparing February 21, 2014 at 7:41 am #

    I wouldn’t agree that cycling is polarizing everywhere: just like transit users get stigmatized when they are few (as being poor), same happens with cycling. Once it has a decent share (i.e. the better half of Europe), the stigma is easily gone.
    The main problem here I see as someone working both in transit and cycling, is what people want might not be an indicator of what mode they choose. — If you provide convenient public transport / cycling infrastructure to people, they’ll use them (even if they have no emotions for them) because of the convenience. This doesn’t mean that before that they were dreaming of bus lanes or cycling infrastructure.

  10. Isaac32767 October 1, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    Of course people want better bus service. It’s what most of us use. Being able to rely on the bus network has made my life a whole lot easier.
    But having a streetcar route increases property values and helps buildings qualify for LEED certification. Real estate interests have a way of dominating local government, so I predict more street cars in our future.

  11. Wilson October 14, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    “Portland as a leader when it comes to transit”???? That’s a joke. Go to Chicago, Boston, New York City, then come back here. Portland is a sad joke re transit. I’d even prefer Charleston, South Carolina, which is crappy and worse than Trimet but makes no pretense and understands it has a limited privately-run transit system (or used to years back). Trimet is the best reason to drive in Portland.