Portland

portland: TriMet’s new mobile ticketing app reviewed (guest post)

By Evan Landman

Evan Landman is an associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, and serves as a research assistant and ghostwriter on this blog.   He holds a BA in Human Geography from University of British Columbia and was formerly an intern for the Portland area regional government, Metro.  He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

For as long as I can remember, every bus trip in Portland has started with the counting and recounting of small bills and change held in a sweaty palm, always with the low-level anxiety from the thought of dropping a quarter and being unable to board. Pay your fare at the farebox, recieve a flimsy newsprint ticket. Secret that ticket in a secure pocket, to prevent it from being carried away by a stray gust of wind. If you have to transfer, check your pocket every 30 seconds to make sure it's still there.

TriMet, the transit agency here in Portland, finally launched their long-awaited smartphone app on Wednesday. I've tried it out for most of my trips since, after a summer spent jealously reading tweets from people lucky enough to be invited to the beta test. My first impression: this application suddenly makes using Portland's bus system much more relevant to me, and I suspect to many others.

Photo 1

Trimet Tickets ticket window

TriMet's ticketing application was developed by a company called GlobeSherpa, which is in the business of building mobile ticketing software for clients like sports arenas, concert venues, transit agencies, and parking providers. TriMet didn't have to lay anything out financially in developing this tool; angel investors covered those costs. GlobeSherpa skims a percentage off the top of each transaction.

The app is free to download, but once you've got it, you'll have to use a credit or debit card to buy electronic tickets at the usual price. To use a ticket on a trip, you simply press the "use" button, and an animated ticket screen appears. It's as easy as showing this screen to the driver upon boarding; no need to fumble for change or a flimsy paper transfer. This screen remains animated as long as the ticket is good, and shows the exact time at which it expires. It is even possible to use multiple tickets at once, a valuable feature for parents and caregivers. 

I'll admit that since relocating back to Portland in 2012, despite living without a car, I have rarely used TriMet's bus network. This is not because it doesn't go to the places I need to travel to, or because it is too infrequent; rather, I simply do not often find myself in possession of change or small bills, and generally choose modes that don't require those things. I pay for most everything using a debit or credit card, because it allows me to track my funds with more accuracy, and because the rounding error that is change adds up over time, but is difficult to spend, keep track of or incorporate back into my accounts. 

The agency is no doubt targeting young adults like me in developing this product. Numbers from Pulse, a research arm of Discover, find that members of the Millenial generation have the highest rate of ownership of debit cards (80%) and of contactless payment devices (12%); and the highest rate of online micro payments.

Lest I be accused of spreading propaganda for the agency, it is worth acknowledging that this is a tool useful only to people who have both a credit or debit card and a smartphone. As of May 2013, according to Pew, 56% of Americans had a smartphone, which means that 44% did not. Rates of ownership track with income and educational attainment, but are most strongly correlated with age. This sort of payment system largely excludes seniors, among whom only 18% report ownership of a device capable of running the software. As you might expect, many more Millenials (81%) own smartphones. 

Freedom of mobility is a frequent topic here at Human Transit. How well does the network design and operation enable a person to move around the city? How well do the transit agency's materials communicate the possibilities for personal mobility? How does the agency make transit a reasonable choice? In the age of Amazon, Paypal, and in-app purchases, giving riders the option to pay in this way is an important step towards creating a truly civilized transit experience.

guest post: solving the mystery of portland’s missing ‘faire’

Evan Landman is the new fulltime associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates.  He holds a BA in Human Geography from University of British Columbia and was formerly a planning intern for the Portland area regional government, Metro.  He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

On a recent weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a transit scavenger hunt and race hosted by Portland Afoot, a low-car lifestyle citizen journalism outfit. Players traversed the city using TriMet to solve the mystery of "Who Whacked Ms. Faire LeSquare?", a pun on the free fare zone that until September 2012 covered Portland's downtown core and a portion of its inner eastside.  

Photo

The crowd prior to the start of the race.


The event kicked off at Velocult, a bike shop and bar in Portland's Hollywood neighborhoood, near to a transit center and light rail station. Around 60 teams of 3-5 players took part; by my estimate, something like 250 people came out to spend one of the nicest days of the year so far riding transit. At times, it felt like everyone in town who writes, blogs or tweets on transit or mobility had turned up to play. One group even had members who came down on the train from Seattle to participate!

In addition to solving the murder mystery, each team could score points by visiting distant transit centers, using different modes to travel, riding multiple transit lines, spotting public art, or meeting TriMet employees. Amusingly, there were also points available for anyone who was able to get a photo of themselves being grilled by a fare inspector. The entire game was smoothly run through the clever use of unique Twitter hashtags to track everyone's progress.

I found out about the game the day before, so I didn't have time to register a team, but some folks short a player were kind enough to let me tag along. We used light rail, a number of bus lines, the Portland Streetcar, our feet, and a dragonboat to visit destinations across the Metro area, from the eastern transit center at Parkrose to the far western suburb of Hillsboro. Portland Afoot stationed volunteer actors (including one member of the city council) at different points around town to continue the story, and to provide clues and directions.

At the end of the day, the entire contingent met back at Velocult, where it was revealed that LeSquare had skipped town to Calgary (which has retained its downtown free fare zone). The organizers lined up several generous prize packages for the top three finishers, with freebies from Car2Go, Zipcar, and a long list of local retailers and restaurants. Best of all, one lucky finisher won a free one-year TriMet pass! 

In the spirit of play, Portland Afoot brought hundreds of people onto Portland's transit system for trips very different than the home-work commute. This sort of event serves as a wonderful tool to get people to use transit in an unfamiliar way, and shows that riding the bus or light rail can be both functional and fun. If I can use transit to have fun on a sunny Saturday, maybe I can start to imagine other new ways I could be using the system? If nothing else, this serves as a reminder that people in Portland, including young, politically engaged people, can still get excited about TriMet despite its recent cutbacks and continual pillorying in the media. 

 

JW postscript: I recall playing a similar game in around 1978, with a team including David Bragdon — later the elected CEO of Portland's regional government.  Just imagine how much more fun Evan would have had without a phone, computer, or realtime information, on an infrequent, confusing transit network that only went downtown!

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.