Portland: Good Outcomes from “BRT-Lite”

Photo: TriMet

Portland’s transit agency TriMet has some good news to report from its “light Bus Rapid Transit” project on Division St.  It’s especially good news because lots of North American cities have streets that look like Division, namely:

  • A segment of a few miles through the inner part of the city where the street is too narrow for bus lanes, but where redevelopment is driving up densities and thus travel demand.  This part of Division is increasingly lined with four story buildings — residential over retail — with historic small-lot single family homes behind them.
  • An outer segment in “inner ring suburbia” where the street is wide enough for bus lanes, and where the critical issue is the unsafe environment for pedestrians.

The Division FX project consisted of the following changes, probably in roughly declining order of importance.

  • Wider spacing of stops (up to 1/2 mile in some places) with no underlying local-stop service alongside it.
  • A 12-minute frequency, instead of the usual 15 for Frequent Service Network lines.
  • Signal priority at signals along the line.
  • Improvements to sidewalks and pedestrian crossings in the outer segment.
  • A short stretch of bus lane in the area that had room for one.
  • Articulated buses (60 feet long, with a hinge).
  • Nicer shelters with signage identifying the location and a realtime information display.
  • A special green paint scheme.

But it’s still in mixed traffic on the narrow and congested inner segment.  There was a lot of reason to doubt how much improvement could be achieved in that situation.

So I’m pretty impressed with the results:  Overall travel times are up to 20% shorter.  That’s 20% more access to opportunity for people traveling along the line.  And of course, this line is part of a frequent grid, which spreads these benefits over this whole side of the city.

Ridership is up dramatically as a result, almost 40% for the first year of operation (September 2022 – August 2023) compared to the year before.  Total transit system ridership grew about 8% over that time, so some of this is background growth due to ongoing pandemic recovery.  But still, even if the effect of these changes were only a 30% increase, that would be spectacular.

There are many, many streets like Division where this quality of service is needed and possible.  I hope we can aspire to a time when all frequent bus lines have at least this level of quality.



9 Responses to Portland: Good Outcomes from “BRT-Lite”

  1. Johnny October 26, 2023 at 8:52 pm #

    The problem with projects like this is that they focus to much on one single route instead of looking at the whole network. Wider stop spacing and signal priority is a good thing, but that should be done on other routes too. It shouldn’t be reserved for one route only.

  2. Andrew Lindstrom October 26, 2023 at 10:10 pm #

    Do we really believe that this is “high capacity transit”? Our regional government does, but as transit wonks surely we should know better. 5 articulated buses/hour is approaching 600 people/hour. MAX trains can serve like 350 riders at once so a lines typical max is 1,400 people/hour, while the highest capacity trunk on the Banfield would be 4,200 people/hour, and still are barely even getting into the higher capacity world of public transit. Not that Portland is (or ever will be) New York, but the Lexington Avenue Line (4,5,6 trains) has an hourly capacity of like 36,000 people/hour in peak hours (30 trains/hour @1200 people/train).

    The FX2 is a good bus, and this was a decent project. But it’s not high capacity, and it’s also not rapid. It’s still far faster to drive from Gresham to Portland than it is to ride the bus. “Up to 20%” is also a bit misleading, the route is 2 minutes slower between Gresham and downtown Portland than it was in 2019! This can likely be largely attributed to the choice to go over the Tilikum (which is a diversion!) rather than the Hawthorne bridge. And that change probably also is a net benefit for riders overall (especially since OHSU and PSU are now directly served!), this all just makes me wonder where the 20% is coming from.

    I don’t doubt that it’s more reliable and frequent (both worthy goals), but it’s hardly transformative. The main benefit is better frequency, but the intrepid bus rider is always left wondering how long that will last (especially if they have the misfortune of studying historic bus timetables!).

    • Jonathan Monroe October 27, 2023 at 6:25 am #

      I think the lack of ambition of this project is the whole point of the post. This isn’t BRT, and it isn’t something that someone from London, Continental Europe or 1st-world Asia would call “good transit”. But a combination of small incremental improvements can push an American bus route across an “actually this doesn’t suck” threshold where you see large increases in ridership, and therefore in fare revenue and political support.

      This is a big (and, presumably given Jarret is posting, somewhat surprising) success relative to the resources expended. And that is what makes it more likely that there will be more resources to expend next time.

      • Stephanie Stout November 2, 2023 at 2:22 am #

        Yes! “…a combination of small incremental improvements can push an American bus route across an “actually this doesn’t suck” threshold where you see large increases in ridership, and therefore in fare revenue and political support.” We need more of these kinds of improvements for local bus routes nationwide. In 2012, Jarrett Walker gave what is probably his “sermon” to a crowd of transit supporters in Houston, and by mid-decade, our Metro restructured most of our bus routes into the next best thing to a frequent service grid (with a given number of buses, drivers, and service hours available).

        I live on the 82 Westheimer line which runs on Houston’s busiest commercial street and has the highest frequency of service: every 6 minutes in peak hours, 10 minutes during most non-peak hours, and even every 15 minutes during the wee hours. Of course, that would only be an average German city bus line when I was stationed there. The 82 Westheimer line is about 18 miles long by my map measurements: 1 mile Downtown and 1 mile Midtown on alternate one-way streets, then 3 miles of 4 lane Westheimer through the old Montrose “gaybarhood” to the ritzy Highland Village shopping area. After crossing the UP double track mainline (lots of freights, a tri-weekly Amtrak run but no commuter trains), the 82 buses struggle the half mile to the I-610 West Loop and another half mile of traffic fighting to get in and out of the Galleria Mall and Uptown strip centers. Then Westheimer turns into an 8 lane stroad for the next 12 miles to the dying West Oaks Mall. Traffic on parts of the stroad can crawl at times or run 50 mph. Street racers abound at night.

        The big problem is the one mile of congestion between the UP tracks and Sage Road west of the Galleria. Most of the bus stops here are nice, but buses stack up in the traffic and often form “platoons” of 2, 3, often 4 buses with another 2 or 3 just before or after the main herd. That shoots the hell out of the planned frequency and take hours to finally stretch out to the correct interval. Downtown, the buses have their own marked lanes as do part of Midtown, but even heavy traffic moves along. The “narrow” and older parts of Westheimer are fine except during road/utility re-construction. That one mile of traffic hell backing up on both sides of the West Loop needs to have a car and truck lane removed and reserved for buses. That would be unpopular with the motorists, but it needs to be done. The inner part of Westheimer is too narrow for Light Rail Transit or full BRT, and building 6 miles of subway is financially unthinkable and may be too risky due to our high water table and tendency to flood. That leaves us with the necessity of a dedicated bus lane in the most crowded mile in Houston — motorists be damned!

        It sounds like Portland has some good ideas for improving bus service.

  3. Jarrett October 27, 2023 at 2:16 pm #

    I agree with the comments so far.

    I think the routing over the Tilikum continues to be debated: it adds time and a bad freight rail crossing but adds all the South Waterfront and South Downtown connections and destinations that it would otherwise miss. I feel perfectly ambivalent about it.

  4. John Charles Wilson October 27, 2023 at 5:24 pm #

    The TriMet FX reminds me a bit of what Metro Transit in Minneapolis/Saint Paul calls aBRT, or “Arterial BRT”.

  5. Turry October 27, 2023 at 10:46 pm #

    No one looks at the loss of biz traffic the Division project has cost to locals as you can only access businesses one way. Also, try turning WB onto Division from 162nd SB. Try figuring out to gain the right turn lane access to NB 122nd w/o crossing a solid white line. And where do you gain access to SB 122nd from Division w/o crossing into the bus lane? I’ve never seen and FX bus 50% full, have you?

  6. Kent October 28, 2023 at 3:39 pm #

    Just 5 miles or so north, Vancouver WA has been building similar routes with their VINE BRT-lite system. I don’t ride it but I pass by both branches of the system on my bike commute. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vine_%28bus_rapid_transit%29

    My own casual observations based on no data whatsoever? I see a lot of disabled folks in wheelchairs using the system and I have to guess that level boarding platforms that allow wheelchair passengers to quickly and easily roll on and off the bus without assistance though any of the 3 doors is a BIG improvement. Both in terms of mobility for disabled passengers, but also for the speed of the system. i don’t see much mention of this. Not all users are fully mobile and it seems to me that a fairly high percentage of riders are disabled. Improving access for them is a good thing all its own.

    • Andrew October 31, 2023 at 1:02 pm #

      You are correct. Down here in Eugene, wheel chair users use the EmX BRT a lot. This is partially because it’s easier and partially because of the frequency. Each bus holds two wheel chairs. When the bus is full, you wait. A line that comes 6 times per hour provides a lot more capacity for wheel chairs, and less waiting if the bus is full, compared to 2-4 times per hour. Many people don’t realize how often the wheel chair bays are full, but it’s a not insignificant problem.