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A Multimodal Marvel in Portland

November 21, 2012

If you want to get a sense of how extraordinary the City of Portland has become … well, you can go to Pioneer Courthouse Square, one of the great urban spaces in North America.  At certain times, there will be a light-rail train on three sides, and on the fourth, a few blocks away, the Portland Streetcar.


But if you want to see what Portland is becoming – and to watch the interactions where five modes of transport come together – then you want to go here, to South Waterfront, where SW Moody meets the Gibbs Street pedestrian bridge, where the aerial tram meets the Portland Streetcar, where a separated bike lane leads to a corral with its own valet, where sidewalks and a narrow arterial street serve South Waterfront, a new section of the city influenced by Vancouverism.


There’s no place like it in North America.  And until recently, there wasn’t anything like it in Portland.  (The current Streetview stills shows it under construction.)


Here’s what it looks like in action on ‘a multimodal morning:’


Despite all the skepticism and criticisms – over the aerial tram, the streetcar, the bike lanes – Portland has stuck with a vision, the origins of which, like Vancouver, can be found in the 1970s.   And while the stereotypes of ‘Portlandia’ may have their basis in the self-conscious reality of the place, it’s easy to forget that this is just the flowering of seeds that were planted and nutured thanks to several generations of community leaders.

Plus good coffee and great beer.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2012 11:25 am

    Pioneer Courthouse Square suggests that any remake of Robson Square (oops, I mean ‘Block 51’) really has no excuse not to provide an excellent interface for transit and need not force the 5/6 into a convoluted detour.

  2. November 21, 2012 1:13 pm

    Portland may have things going for it like good coffee and great beer – I am a fan of the small block pattern downtown – but skepticism and criticism of its transportation policy are well founded. Unless you are Wendell Cox, Portland just isn’t a transportation success story. There are successes like the increase in cycling, but the other transport metrics aren’t great and aren’t improving much. A comparison with Vancouver is telling:

    Here are the APTA daily ridership stats in thousands for 2012 Q2 for Translink and Trimet:


    Skytrain: 397.2
    Diesel Bus: 609.2
    Trolley Bus: 230.0
    Total: 1,273.5


    MAX: 132.8
    Bus: 201.5
    Total: 339.7

    (Numbers don’t total because there are some extra things like commuter rail and Seabus.)

    These statistics favour Vancouver in several ways:

    • they don’t include Portland Streetcar at about 11,000 per day

    • C-Tran in Vancouver WA has about 20,000 per weekday so that would be more than Abbotsford Mission which is probably around 8,000 per weekday

    • these are unlinked rides, so Vancouver has an edge with a transfer based system

    • Vancouver is a shade larger

    but even so, Vancouver just demolishes Portland.

    The difference shows up in mode share statistics as well. These are from, October 13, 2010:

    Vancouver – Translink:

    Auto 73

    Transit 14

    Walk 11

    Bike 2

    Portland – MSA:

    Auto 81.52

    Transit 6.08

    Walk 2.13

    Bike 3.17

    The Portland MSA is broader than Translink’s operating area as it includes Vancouver WA. Both data sets are trip diary data sets which aren’t the most accurate and the US data is just commuting trips. This would explain part of the walk difference, but it doesn’t help transit because transit use is usually higher for commuting than for other travel. US data doesn’t add to 100% which shows how wobbly it is.

    These are the statistics for the City of Portland:

    Portland – City:

    Auto 70.1

    Transit 11.5

    Walk 5.8

    Bike 5.6

    Aside from cycling, they aren’t great either. City of Vancouver transit numbers over 20%.

    The transit gap is borne out in the financials of the transit agencies (in thousands):

    Translink Fare Revenue – 2011: 444,743

    Trimet Fare Revenue – Year Ending June 2012: 140,513

    And we think our transit agency has budget problems. I think both of these include bus and station advertizing but those numbers will be negligible. Neither agency covers the whole metropolitan region. The outer suburban agencies aren’t much but probably a bit higher for Portland.


    Portland has invested a little more than half of what we have in capital costs, and provides a greater operating subsidy per ride, yet with all that investment, it is no better than Seattle. In reality, Portland just isn’t a transit intensive city. The youtubes for a day in the life of transit in Vancouver and Portland also illustrate the point. Translink’s is just busier.

    Of course there are other qualities to a transportation system beside transit ridership statistics. There are things that make life more pleasant or fun. Like Portland’s cycling infrastructure, downtown streetcar and possibly the aerial tram. But there is nothing like poor frequency to take the fun out of transit use, and Portland is plagued by poor frequency. Where MAX is interlined, it runs at a reasonable frequency, but most of the legs of the system run every 15 minutes or so. That really isn’t rapid transit.

    It is possible that Portland actually is great, just that Vancouver is actually even more great. But I look Vancouver’s transportation system and see many things that aren’t that great, and Portland is worse on nearly every metric. At least they have beer.

  3. November 22, 2012 12:39 am

    If Portland is not in good position to teach lesson to Vancouver in matter of transit, it is in matter of Place making:

    Not only Desmond Bliek is absolutely right, but even more, transit is consubstantial to a successful urban space.

    Ironically, at the “block51” event, all examples of great public space showcased there had a transit component…

    (see for all that and more😉 )

    But rather than accepting it and trying to understand the correlation, the city, and alas many others, certainly moved by an anti bus agenda, prefer to adopt a denial position.

    That is a recipe for failure and one can already sense the perfume of it at Robson: it is losing its “meeting place” status at apparently the benefit of the tiny space in front of the LondonDrug at Georgia#Granville…

  4. Kirk permalink
    November 22, 2012 12:41 pm

    I like the rain shelters on the traffic poles. Vancouver should do that. I bet it cuts down on people running across on reds instead of standing in the rain waiting for the light to change.


  1. Vancouver demolishes Portland: A transit comparison « Price Tags

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