Friday, September 11, 2015

Definition of Improvement

It's almost September, which means it's time for "service improvements" of the greatest impact. It's basically the New Year for transit. New MAX service, modified bus routings, and more typical changes like schedule time changes and other small details that barely are noticed. So are these improvements? Or are we just deluding ourselves?

While the Fiscal Year for TriMet (the annual business cycle) starts at the beginning of July, the impact of the new budget takes effect in September. This is why they usually time the introduction of a new MAX line to happen in September (the only exception being Interstate MAX, which was finished so early they just went ahead and opened it earlier in the year), and any major new service additions or reductions usually happen then too. This is one of the more extreme years as far as changes, so let's take a look at what's coming up.

What we really want to look it is whether these changes can really be called "improvements." TriMet's been boasting about the better service that's coming, and all us skeptical optimists really want it to be true. But the days of failure and disappointment are not that far behind. While I want to look to the future and hope for the best, I can't help but remember how rough things have been and remember that many of the same people are still running the ship. So let's take an objective look at the changes and make a personal decision whether or this is truly "better service."

MAX Orange Line

Obviously, the big deal right now is the opening of the Orange Line MAX, also known as Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail (PMLR). Most riders would agree that the new service will be nice and convenient, but many citizens of Clackamas County would say otherwise. They are tired of TriMet simply saying, "We want to build a light rail line," and the county government says, "Sure, here's the money." Light rail can bring problems such as congestion, crime, and "ugly" wires, and people generalize these problems to be something inherent to all light rail systems. This is unfortunate, since any form of mass transit brings problems such as these. The responsibility lies on TriMet to make it as safe and presentable as possible, which they have done so far.

For those of you who are unaware, the Orange Line will run from Portland City Center to Milwaukie. It turns from PSU onto SW Lincoln St and then onto the new Harbor Structure, which crosses Harbor Blvd and delivers the train into South Waterfront. It then crosses the new Tilikum Crossing bridge across the Willamette River, by OMSI and then onto SE 17th Ave past the Center St bus garage. It then parallels McLoughlin Blvd/Hwy 99E serving stops at Bybee Blvd and Tacoma St, and passes through Downtown Milwaukie and ending at the Park Ave parking garage off of McLoughlin Blvd.

I have ridden the line from Milwaukie to South Waterfront and back, and I can say that is a very nice and quick trip. It will avoid all of the congestion on McLoughlin and will itself cause very little delays for drivers due to the plethora of bridges. The moment when I realized how great this line will be came when I was standing at the street formerly known as Milwaukie TC at 9:00pm and I had only like three buses coming in the next hour. Having a MAX line running every 15-30 minutes will make a difference.

The main problems with the new MAX line have to do with the inevitable design of Milwaukie service and the inherent problem with MAX: delays and mechanical issues.

TriMet was severely limited in their options of how to serve the Downtown Milwaukie area. The only real solution was to parallel the existing heavy rail line, but that makes it a few blocks away from the existing Milwaukie Transit Center on Jackson Street. The city came in and rebuilt the actual road on Jackson, which makes it a very nice transit center. But with the pending arrival of MAX five blocks away, the name "Milwaukie TC" had to go away because it would be confusing. A bunch of the bus lines (29, 33, 34, 99) will be serving the MAX station at Main Street, as well as either Tacoma St or Park Ave. But other major lines (70, 75, 152) will not be anywhere close to a MAX station and will force riders to either walk the five blocks or wait and transfer to other buses to get there. It would be nice if they could have moved the transit center to the MAX line, but that had little options anyway and since the city had just re-worked the road for TriMet, that left the agency with their hands tied.

And as everybody knows, MAX tends to break down. A lot. Too much. There are so many reasons, most of which are preventable. But either budget restraints or simple reluctance to accept responsibility or take action have caused public opinion of MAX to be that it is "really nice when it runs." One would assume that the new light rail construction would have eliminated many of the usual problems, but with the interlining of the Orange and Yellow Lines, you deal with the issues of the Transit Mall, Steel Bridge, and Rose Quarter as well as the threats of cars driving down the tracks on Interstate. And even at the TriMet Family Day I was privileged to take part in, when I got to ride the Orange Line, they were already having problems with a switch at 17th and Rhine Street.

So MAX Orange Line has the opportunity to be amazing, IF everything goes as it should. Hopefully they will expend the time and money to prevent problems that could cause delays, lower ridership, and deflate public opinion of the service.

Portland Streetcar

Don't forget! The opening of the Tilikum Crossing also means that Portland Streetcar will be able to go over it too, extending the existing Central Loop (CL) line across the bridge. It will be referred to as the A and B Loops, but I hope it will still be called the CL in some capacity as it is central and it is, well, a loop. But this will double service through PSU and down into Riverplace, and will make transfering throughout those areas quite a bit easier.

Bus Changes

There are a lot of bus service changes directly caused by the new MAX Orange Line. Here's a quick rundown:

  • 9-Powell Blvd and 17-Holgate will now cross the Tilikum Crossing instead of the Ross Island Bridge.
  • 28-Linwood and 34-River Road will be combined into one line, 34-Linwood/River Rd, with service increasing from every 70 minutes to every 35 minutes. Span of service will remain the same.
  • 31-King Rd and 33-McLoughlin will be combined into one line, 33-McLoughlin/King Rd, with Frequent Service through most of the day every day on both halves of the line. Service on these lines, as well as 32-Oatfield, will no longer serve downtown.
  • 99-McLoughlin Express will be rerouted and will serve SE Tacoma Street. It will turn north onto 13th and 17th Avenues and cross the Ross Island Bridge to Portland City Center, running both directions in the AM and PM rush hours. It will eventually cross the Sellwood Bridge when it opens to trucks and buses and will serve Macadam with the 35 and 36.
  • New Line 291-Orange Night Bus will be added to provide two late night outbound trips to Milwaukie, becoming 33-McLoughlin buses upon entering Milwaukie. Why? Common sense. If no one is going to ride the train back inbound after midnight at first, then use buses to provide the service at less cost until ridership demands it.
Other changes that aren't really caused by PMLR but are present nonetheless:
  • Lines 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 14, 15, 33, 57, and 75 will be getting 15-minute service back most of the day on Sundays to bring real Frequent Service back to the city. Lines 54 and 56 will also have that combined service added also. Line 72 already has tons of service everyday. All MAX lines have added that service recently also, bringing the entire network back to 15-minute service most of the day, every day.
  • Line 15-Belmont/NW 23rd will return to serve SE Main and 102nd Ave. Line 115-Cherry Blossom Loop will be discontinued and service will return to pre-weight restriction routing and frequency. Buses will still serve the Hawthorne Bridge. Also, some Sunday trips will start to serve NW Yeon and the NW Industrial Area.
  • Lines 18-Hillside and 63-Washington Park will have schedule adjustments to provide better connections and timing for students at Lincoln H.S. (both lines are served by the same vehicle, block 6367).
  • Line 19-Woodstock/Glisan will have extra weekend morning trips on the Woodstock leg toward Portland City Center. It will continue to serve the Ross Island Bridge along with Line 66.
  • Line 29-Lake/Webster Rd will have schedule changes, since the same bus will now serve both directions. It was formerly completely interlined with Line 28.
  • Line 47-Baseline/Evergreen will begin serving Orenco Station turnaround again. Stop on Cherry Dr will close.
  • Line 67-Bethany/158th will have a couple trip schedule changes.
  • Line 70-12th/NE 33rd will have schedule changes on Sundays. Buses will also serve NE Holladay nearside 11th again. 
  • Line 93-Tigard/Sherwood will have some schedule time changes to make better connections with 12-Barbur Blvd.
  • Line 154-Willamette will add on the Clackamas Heights service from Line 34 to become Line 154-Willamette/Clackamas Heights. Service to the Heights will run at the same frequency as the 154 has been recently. They will no longer be sharing buses with the 79.
These are the changes as everyone sees them on the service alert placards and TriMet's blog. The question is, what things will we as riders see come from this? Here's a list of non-advertised and non-emphasized changes.

  • Line 9-Powell will have 15-minute service extended all the way to Gresham. Certain trips will only go as far as 98th Ave/Powell Garage during rush hour, but these trips will be in addition to the regular 15-minute service. There hasn't been this many service hours on this line in the last 20 years at least.
  • Line 15 will serve Northwest Industrial and Yeon & 44th every hour on Sundays. There hasn't been Sunday service to that area in at least 20 years.
  • Line 19-Woodstock will now provide connections to McLoughlin Blvd via the Orange Line MAX. Line 19 hasn't had any connections with McLoughlin before because it went OVER line 33 three different times with no real transfer.
  • Line 30-Estacada will have EVERY trip serve Clackamas Town Center TC and MAX Station. This only used to happen on Saturdays and two late evening weekday trips.
  • Line-30E Estacada Express will still serve Roots, Webster and Portland City Center. One trip each way like it has been, but hopefully they expand that offering in the future. 
  • Line 33-McLoughlin will serve Clackamas Community College on almost every trip. This means upper Oregon City will have 15-minute service all week. I don't remember that happening before either.
  • Line 34-River Rd will no longer turn around in Willamette View Manor. This means a further walk for more people living there, but that and the elimination of the tight turns on Harvey and Howe means they can run 40-foot buses on the route without causing drivers issues.
  • Line 99-McLoughlin Express will also serve Clackamas Community College on every trip. Further, it will serve the stop at Park Ave by the MAX Station and parking garage.
  • Lines 9 and 17, as well as probably many deadheading buses to and from Center Garage, will be re-routed onto the Tilikum Crossing. Only Lines 19 and 66, as well as possibly only a few deadheading buses coming from I-405 South, will still cross the Ross Island Bridge. All of use who cross that bridge with all those buses and feel like we are taking our lives in our hands, we yell Huzzah! and have a sense of peace. Still some buses, but certainly not as many as in the past.
  • The MAX stopping outside Center Garage will also make it easier for Center drivers to do road reliefs (taking over someone's bus on the line instead of at the yard). Currently, when operators do road reliefs from Center they have to take Lines 17 or 70 to either 12th Ave or Downtown. Now those Downtown operators will have a much quicker time riding to their spots, and will not have to worry about taking seats from passengers on the 40-foot bus.
Seems to me that there are a heck of a lot more improvements than reductions. The only major issue I see is the connection issues for some of the Milwaukie lines with MAX. Solutions to these will be covered in a future post.

Let the haters hate. But I think these really ARE improvements. We'll see if TriMet follows through and makes these improvements a good thing for the city.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Progress, Part 1

Ladies and gentlemen, Transit Rider PDX is back and ready to do what it was originally meant to do: disseminate interesting transit information that somebody might find fascinating. But we still won't be shying away from real issues.

This blog was originally created to just talk about interest things, technical things, that somebody might find interesting. Fleet information, route analysis, idea brainstorming, interviews, etc. Unfortunately, we got going at the wrong time. We got into the world of conspiracy theories, ethics accusations, attempted citizens' arrests and even rumors of a TriMet prostitution ring (proven simply to be someone's lost kitty cat). We got into a realm of divisions, disunity, and people fighting people to defend their position. Why did we all let it get this way? Why did TriMet end up being scandal-ridden instead of, just, ridden?

Choices. We are all humans and we make choices. These choices affect others, and sometimes we forget how they affect others. If I post something on my blog, say, that accuses a board member of not caring about his job, that choice of airing my opinion is going to hurt that board member's feelings. He might have a family situation where a child is in the hospital and he is checking his phone constantly while at the board meeting to see if there is any news. The other TriMet people will think I'm uncaring and insensitive, but other bloggers who like to find anything to complain about will praise me for "pushing for change."

If I'm a TriMet manager and I decide that my staff isn't getting paid enough to warrant them staying around and not looking for another job elsewhere, I will likely want to find a way to give them a raise so that they will continue to stay committed to the company. That's business. But if I'm going around telling the public that we're starving for money, and I give out raises totaling almost $1 million under the table, do you think people are not going to complain when they find out? Regardless of my reasoning, I am putting myself in a position of pending judgment even though I may have a valid excuse for my actions.

Well, thankfully, people change, people grow, and people move on. Nonetheless, those sour tastes in our mouth don't go away overnight. It can take years to prove yourself as having changed and grown.

But we can move on. I've always tried to take the high road with people. I'm even having a hard time rooting against Alex Rodriguez and his comeback with the Yankees. And the Yankees are my least favorite team! So that is why when I see 2 1/2 hour transfers, new 30-foot buses, few if any mentions that everything's the union's fault, and bus service improvements that had been previously promised, I feel that I am seeing the beginnings of the progress and improved integrity that I have wanted to see for years.

But where do we go from here? Well, now we have the opportunity to actually ask ourselves, "What does our preferred future look like?" We all know that the design of the TriMet system is asking for improvements. Many of the bus lines were designed twenty years ago and are so out of touch with the design of the city around them. TriMet is well aware of this, and they are already starting to propose future improvements on lines. I have reviewed their plan thoroughly, and combined with my previously designed ideas, I am in the process of proposing significant improvements to the system that are in line with both TriMet's plans and the needs of the city. (See Part 2 of this post releasing soon with detailed suggestions.)

Unfortunately, any changes or suggestions we make are going to annoy or anger someone. That's the problem with choices. If I say, for example, that a bus line that used to turn there instead will go straight, then the people who used to ride it when it turned are going to hate the idea, even if the transfer actually adds a new line with new service that's more reliable that serves more people.

Basically, if we sought to make everyone happy, we would never get anything done.

This is why agencies like TriMet are expected to pay decent money to hire the best people in the planning world to figure out what the best future is. If we can trust those people to make the right decisions, then we should let them make the decisions. Just because some people hate it, it doesn't mean we should throw the idea out. Chances are, when the people see the improvement, they may actually see why it was a good idea and thank the planners for a job well done.

But this is where trust comes in. We need to be able to trust that the people that are put in a position of decision-making are going to act in the best interest of our entire community, not just their personal interests or the interests of a select group. If, for example, they decide to make Line 8 go up NE 16th instead of NE 15th, we don't need to take it to a public vote. Hopefully, if that decision was thought through, then TriMet should be able to just decide to do it and get it done. But if we can't trust that these people are going to make the best decisions, then they need to be replaced with someone we can trust.

So, to summarize, TriMet should be able to make changes to the system. It's their system, and they are there to improve it and make it work for the people. Some people won't like the decisions, but we can't have progress if someone doesn't just turn on the new widget and watch it fly. Make the change, see how it works, and if there are any glaring issues then fix them. But if someone did their homework beforehand, there should be few glaring issues.

Stay tuned for the next post, where I lay out details about how I think the system should look, combining the ideas that TriMet has presented with tweaks and additions that I think would make the system be the best it can be for today's Portland.