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An evolved transit city: Portland’s lesson for Minneapolis

Portland Tri-met
CC/Flickr/www.TheEnvironmentalBlog.org
Portland’s public policies of the past have created a more connected and transit-possible city than Minneapolis.

As a carless transplant now living in Portland, Ore., I’ve spent a lot of time observing the city from a bus seat. This prompted me to ponder the differences between transit systems in Minneapolis and my new town. 

I hate to say it, but for its size, the Portland metro has a leg up when it comes to transit and cycling, especially in the level of integration between the two.

Planners there (or from my perspective, here) made an early investment in a robust metrowide transit system that entices car owners to opt for buses, light-rail and foot-powered options. Close to 84 percent of Portland TriMet riders have a car but rarely use it, or choose not to own a car at all.

In essence, Portland’s public policies of the past have created a more connected and transit-possible city. Its longstanding urban growth boundary, instated in the 1970s, kept the city center dense and prevented the development of ring after ring of suburbs like the ones found around Minneapolis and St. Paul. By keeping the city dense, Portland's planners ensured that their transit system would have the riders needed to make it a success.

Long-term community buy-in

On top of that, TriMet has the benefit of long-term community buy-in. Portland’s first light-rail line began operation in 1986 — compared to Minneapolis’s first light rail line, which didn’t roll down the track until 2004. It all worked to create a long-term transit culture that Minneapolis is only just beginning to tap into.

In Portland, a whole generation of people think of TriMet and the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail as inseparable from the city’s identity.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, has a relatively young transit system. Though having a young system does have its benefits — clean, modern buses, excellent maintenance and a system that almost always runs on time. It also means that transit funding and planning has taken a back seat to multiple-lane interstates and thoroughfares for decades. There is less flexibility for a transit rider in Minneapolis simply because there are fewer high frequency lines, fewer light-rail lines, and no streetcars. The regional balance of Portland’s transit system is something for Minneapolis to envy.

But, honestly, as a transit advocate, the biggest difference I’ve noticed between Minneapolis and Portland has nothing to do with the transit infrastructure. In the Twin Cities, there is a noticeable effort to make improvements. From a big picture perspective, the Twin Cities is an exciting place to be — advocates are still working to create a bigger and better system that serves the needs of commuters, transit dependent neighborhoods, and an aging urban population.

In Portland, they seem resigned to current system

In Portland, it almost feels like they’re resigned to the system they have — almost as if there is nothing left to advocate for, despite the system facing budget shortfalls and maintenance issues.

To confirm my impression, I talked with Josh Collins, a friend and transportation professional that has worked in the transit sector of both cities. When I asked Josh what prompted his move from Portland back to Minneapolis, he said, “Portland feels like it is already there — and they are pretty laid back and causal. There is a joke that goes, ‘When you flip the lights on in Portland, they’ll turn on a little bit more slowly than anywhere else — and maybe only half will come on, but everyone will say ‘it’s OK’. There is a passive acceptance of ‘we’re already there’ and we don’t need to push because we’re already Portland. Whereas the Twin Cities still has that push for something better — they’re recreating themselves.”

Challenges for both

All in all, both cities have transit systems that inspire admiration — if for slightly different reasons. Looking ahead, Minneapolis has the challenge of intentionally building out a regional transit system that serves the needs of an aging population, commuters, and transit dependent neighborhoods. On the other end of the spectrum, Portland has the challenge of maintaining and servicing a system that has already been built out.

In both cities, ongoing funding and community support will be essential in designing and sustaining a transit system that supports a livable community for generations to come.

See you on the road!

Amber Collett is a bicycling and urban advocate who lives in Portland, Ore.  She works for Minneapolis-based Fourth Sector Consulting and tweets @AmberCollett. This article originally appeared as a guest commentary on the Minnesota 2020 website.

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Comments (9)

Oh no, not another Portland comparison

I think that the primary lesson to be learned from the Portland experience is that it's easier to get large-scale planning projects off the ground in a place that has social, economic, political, and ethnic homogeneity. Portland doesn't have our winters, they don't have our economy, and they don't have much industrial legacy to deal with. Portland is always hailed as some visionary model, and while it did take vision to get to where they are today, its lessons have limited applicability to places that have very different population base, growth rates, economic structures, and migration trends.

Oregon is also a very different state than Minnesota. The Oregon legislature didn't specifically ban Tri-Met from studying fixed-guideway transit, as the Minnesota legislature did to the Metro Council in the 70s and again in the 80s.

My point is that Portland, while a great place, isn't very useful as an analog for urban planning issues.

Good points.

Given Portland's relatively long history of large-scale planning, I wonder to what extent its population has grown because of that planning, as opposed to the Twin Cities' growth in spite of a lack of such planning. As I understand it, the Portland metro area's population is 2.25 million in an area of 6,684 square miles, compared to the 3.3 millions residents of the Twin Cities' metro area, covering 6,046 square miles.

As you point out, climate is an important factor. It dictates construction techniques and, therefore, both capital costs and operational costs. It also directly influences ridership and revenues. Time will tell whether the Twin Cities can make a go of mass transit, but it's time to quit comparing our apple to others oranges.

I agree that Portland is a different kind of place, BUT

one thing we can learn from them is better integration of rail and bus transit.

It's not just the light rail lines that make Portland transportation so good, although they are indeed wonderful. It's the integrated and well-planned bus system, with frequent service even in the suburbs. Even though I was without a car for ten years, it was only rarely that I couldn't get within walking distance of a suburban destination, and usually that destination was someone's house or, in one case, a wedding held at a Boy Scout day camp.

When I moved here, I expected to be only "car lite," but I've found that the bus system just doesn't link up very well and runs too infrequently, so that even though I live on a supposedly "good" line, often the bus will get me to my destination either far too early or far too late, especially on weekends.

Metro Transit needs to work on its bus routes and schedules as much as it needs to build light rail lines, though I'm excited about the Central Corridor and expect to be attending a lot more events at the Ordway when I don't have to worry about driving on I-94 or parking in downtown St. Paul.

bike lane

When I visited Portland, I loved riding that bike lane in the middle of the street. It made so much more sense than sharing a lane with turning and parking cars.

Portland transportation

Portland is one of the few cities in the U.S. that did not let General Motors take away their street car system. The Twin cities actually had a very good street car system that we could have been building on for decades. GM wanted to take it over in order to dismantle it, sell buses and then pawn the defunct system off on the public.

Regarding bicycles, it would be more appropriate to compare the Twin cities to others with a similar climate. it's great to ride a bike IF the roads are not snow covered, the days are long enough to travel in daylight (at least mostly) and the rider is in good health. Even then there are frequent times when bike riding just doesn't work.

Mass transit works when the population is highly concentrated. In a sprawling area like the Twin Cities it's a lot more difficult. Just the same, we need to improve and try to make it work. Years ago there was no metro transit to the airport. That's changed. In fact it's really quite good. Kudos for the park-and -ride lots as well.

Lived there 1995-1996

Karen Sandness is correct better integration of rail and bus transit. But beyond that the bus system makes sense. You don't need (or didn't) a schedule. Weekdays every 4th or 5th corner a bus stop with schedule that if you missed one walked to the one 4 blocks north/south to catch the next one going your direction (off set schedule had a bus going your way within your 16 block radius every 15 minutes). You transferred all the time, because the buses went straight, so you had one bus to north or south and another to go east west.

The rivers and hills did mess up the 'straight' and suburbs timing was not as nice.

Hub and spoke that we have here is not good system.

When I visited Portland in 2011

after an eight-year absence, I found not only that some of the bus lines had been rerouted and rail and streetcar lines extended but that there was a free smartphone app. Each bus or train stop is represented by a four-digit number, and when you enter the number of your stop, the app tells you when the next three buses or trains will come, not according to the printed schedule, but in real time.

Since then, shivering at a Minneapolis bus stop waiting for a bus that's ten minutes late, I've often wished we had such an app for Metro Transit.

Also from MSP/living in Portland

I agree that Portland has a nice transit system. I hear comparisons between Portland and MSP frequently, and there are striking historical similarities.

But they are not all that comparable anymore. Portland is 145 square miles, while Minneapolis and St. Paul are each under 60 sqm. Just to give some perspective here: Ramsey County, in its entirety, is 170 square miles.So imagine if St. Paul merged with all of Ramsey County except for White Bear and Vandais Heights, and that's how big Portland is.

Also, I was perplexed by the "relatively young transit system" statement; I'm guessing the author means light rail alone.Otherwise, the Twin Cities have had transit since horse-drawn streetcars, and the bus system is great.

Portland bus stops do have

Portland bus stops do have three, four or five digit station numbers that you can track in real time, but this is not as neat as it seems.
First, one needs a cell phone to see when the bus is coming in real time. If you don't have internet on your phone, you can still text the stop number to receive the timing update. There are plenty of Portland bus riders who do not have cell phones. Thus, they rely on the printed times on the bus shelter itself. My personal feeling is that Portland buses do not show up for their listed times as often as they should. Maybe it it because I live closer to downtown Portland that routes get behind with more traffic, I am not sure. But solely relying on Tri Met's officially scheduled times is not helpful.
Tracking buses in real time is not always helpful either. I cannot count the the number of times I was tracking my bus in real time, and the bus did not show up. Then, when you check the real time schedule, it shows that the bus that never physically arrived has already arrived.
The Portland bus system is decent and will get you just about anywhere, as long as it is before 12:30pm or 1:00am. Light rail is really where Portland has the advantage, but Minneapolis will get there. Competition between the two cities is frivolous.