This Space for Rent

Fun with mass transit, Portland Style

The Portland Clackamas Tribune has another article about the state of the local mass (and occasionally rapid) transit provider, where it points out that despite the teeny details that

  1. gasoline is cozying up to US$3.05/gallon, and
  2. all the rush-hour trains and busses are full to the brim (I've experienced this myself; a couple of months ago it was possible to get on the 8:43am bus to downtown Portland and get a whole seat to myself, but not any more)
Ridership on the busses and trains appears to have plateaued.

Even discounting any anti-city editorial biases in the PT, the management of Tri-Met doesn't come off as particularly well-wrapped here. At one point in the article Tri-Met's GM claims that the ridership is "inelastic", so fare increases won't scare people off the busses. Um, right. I don't know about you, but I'm of the firm belief that if you organize a transit system so that the only people who will ride the busses are people who don't have any choice, you've completely lost track of your business.

Most people have access to automobiles. You might not be able to serve everyone by bus or trolley, but you want to make the ride comfortable enough so that people will choose to use the bus, and you don't do that by flippantly assuming that the people on the bus are only there because they have no choice.

I'm in the boat where the bus is by far the best choice for me; it takes me 9-15 minutes to get downtown on the bus, and it drops me off 350 feet from my desk. If I was to drive downtown, I'd have to pay US$10k for a used EV, it would take me 6-12 minutes to get downtown, and I'd be 600 feet from my desk. There's not much of a choice there, but if I have to be a standee from Milwaukie and Bybee to work all the time (and a few of the bus drivers in the morning are amazingly nasty to standee riders) tossing US$10K (Plus US$6-700/year for insurance plus however much I'd have to pay notEnron for electricity) into the deep hole known as an automobile starts to seem pretty appealing.

I can see (I can't sympathise; Tri-Met doesn't have Owl service on any of their bus or trolley routes, and, damnit, Owl service is one of those things you just have to have to run a proper transit company) why you'd want to trim back the early morning and late night runs, because not too many people ride then. But I can't see pulling busses out of the schedule during peak hours when you're looking for cost savings; it strikes me that this would be the time where your busses would actually make some money, so trimming that service is just waving goodbye to profits.

Sure, you could probably pack in more riders if you put in more trolley lines, but the only feasable way of putting in trolley lines these days is for the city to do it because if the Federal government gets involved, it means that the big federal contractors who are currently misplacing tens of billions of dollars in our imperial overreach in the near east will also get involved, which means that you'll end up paying US$100 million/mile for a simple trolley line (actually about US$50 million/mile for the trolley line, and another US$50 million/mile for "administration fees." It's funny how the downtown circulator trolley didn't have to pay that sort of money for these "essential" administration fees) and the City of Portland doesn't have anything near the sort of money that it would take to replace the now-demolished 42" gauge trolley network.

Perhaps a network of trolley busses? The feds might actually pay for them (after all, there's good money in outsourcing stringing trolley wire) and then all you need to worry about is electricity rate extortion from not-Enron, which might be bad but it's not as bad as the steady price increases for diesel fuel.