branded regular transit

The Powell-Division Transit and Development Project's larger initial scope (Metro)

The Powell-Division Transit and Development Project’s larger initial scope (Metro)

What would happen if a local, well-respected bar owner decided to open up a new taproom in a part of the city that has historically lacked any decent bar options, and promises to have “the world’s best selection of craft beers, wines, and spirits” and be open to everyone’s feedback regarding the menu? The locals would get excited of course, but they might get a little confused as to why the new bar is named “Craft Beer Central” if it is to serve such a multitude of offerings. Then, just before opening, the owner announces that the bar won’t actually serve anything other than PBR on tap, and knew this for a long time without telling anyone. At the soft opening, the few people who have remained enthused get one last letdown, as the new bar only serves one thing: a room-temperature Bud Light poured from a can into a frosted Base Camp pint glass. This is the story of the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project, albeit with public transit and not private libations.

After the results of the last two national election cycles, and the unhindered escalation of capital project costs in the United States, the local regional government, Metro, decided to finally push for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project in Portland. This was music to many local transit wonks’ gleeful ears who’ve wanted to try this modality in their own backyards for decades. Now, unlike the Southwest Corridor Plan which actually did due diligence on mode choice, the Powell-Division project was custom-tailored to exclude all options except BRT. In addition, despite having a very wide, all-encompassing project boundary, the name and meeting materials hinted that they wanted a Powell and Division only project from the very beginning. The preordained mode and corridor choice was immediately spun as a monetarily efficient, short turnaround, and equitable solution for an area that is mostly underfunded, historically quick fixed, and politically unequal to its more affluent neighboring communities.

The previous ‘locally preferred alternative’ that proved to be slower than existing service (Metro)

Despite these criticisms, everything appeared to be running smoothly for this rapidly-advancing project, that is until news came out earlier this year that the new multi-million dollar effort would actually create longer commuting times than existing conditions. The jog down the preferred 82nd avenue, or other options, would add to the total travel distance and create unavoidable bottlenecks at critical junctions. On top of this, the steering committee had to finally publically acknowledge that it was politically impossible to add bus only lanes on either ODOT-controlled Powell or traffic-calmed inner Division, therefore completely negating the potential for actual BRT. Now, the steering committee has proposed a Division-only, Tilikum-ignoring articulated bus with fewer stops and protected bus stops as their ‘BRT project,’ but there is only one problem: it’s no longer a BRT project, not even close. Bus rapid transit has five major characteristics: dedicated bus-only ROW, center-running lanes, off-board fare collection, priority at intersections including no turn lanes across ROW, and platform level boarding for accessibility. The Powell-Division project has none of these features. None. Instead, it is now a ‘branded’ bus with a few extra seats. Minor things like signal priority, fewer stops, and larger bus shelters do not count as BRT, those are regular bus improvements, especially since this latest vision only scrapes 2-3 minutes off of the total commute time (they quote 15-20% (pdf) but off of only a portion of the total alignment, read How to Lie with Statistics). The steering committee and Metro are still pushing the BRT name, which is simply ludicrous, as this project will require higher operating costs and more capital expenditures for Trimet, an agency that needs neither of those things, without any actual benefits to transit riders except the line-on-a-map illusion of high-capacity transit.

If only the project could start over, perhaps as a grassroots campaign focused on needs first instead of purely transit-oriented development. There are so many cheaper and more expensive options out there that could actually make a real difference in Southeast Portland and Southwest Gresham: paved streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, public art, everyday architecture, through streets, regular bus shelters, school upgrades, parks, plazas, frequent service bus lines, or even actual BRT or light rail. The area already has light rail lines to branch off of or to be interconnected to, and many of the streets of outer Portland are dangerously wide, wide enough for all kinds of urban interventions. The only real limitations are individual creativity and community ambition, two things Portlanders are known to excel at. Is it time for Portland to step up and fund the improvements we actually need instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel and making due with what we find? Los Angeles, after Measure R’s success, has a new proposed $120 billion 60% transit and 40% roads package on the ballot, and Seattle has a third transit package worth $50 billion to be voted on in November. Both have shown that it is possible to create new dedicated funding streams for transit, and even though Portland is a smaller scale city, why would a smaller scale proposal not be possible here? The momentum could start right now, as we do have to decide soon if we’re okay with the warm Bud light in a chilled pint glass being offered to us or if we’d rather be served something else, perhaps something we might actually want and enjoy.


4 responses to “branded regular transit

  1. I totally agree! Absolutely *zero* of the five main characteristics of true BRT have been considered by the Steering Committee. In fact, I just wrote a really long paper about the Powell-Division corridor project that I shared with the entire Steering Committee.

    I’m actually adding several pages to the paper that address the reason that they are rejecting true BRT: they don’t want to put inner Powell or outer Division on a road diet, saying that it’s politically impossible. That is unbelievably unfortunate, because true BRT is the *only* solution for this corridor, as Metro fully realizes. Their chosen route is *brilliant* for many reasons that I detail in my paper. They actually did the hard work! The only thing missing now is implementing *true* BRT to inner Powell (west of 82nd) and outer Division (east of 82nd). The SE 82nd Ave segment can remain a regular bus line for now, but I see true BRT eventually coming to the *entire* length of 82nd.

    I’ll finish my addendum to the paper this week, and I’d be happy to share it with anyone!

    True BRT along inner Powell and outer Division will be FAR more transformational than almost ANYONE realizes, and Metro needs to stop following those outdated road diet guidelines as if they’re gospel. Their claims that peak-time car volumes on inner Powell and outer Division are too high to accommodate true BRT are literally allowing and even encouraging 70 years of incredibly poor planning on the *entire* corridor to continue for decades to come!

  2. You’re entitled to your own opinion about the project, of course, but you should know (if you don’t already) there are different definitions of BRT out there — and even without exclusive right of way this project meets the FTA’s definition of a “corridor-based” BRT line, which does not require exclusive ROW.

    One of the challenges of BRT is that it’s not as easily defined as light rail — different people get different things in their head, based perhaps on what they’ve seen elsewhere. The ITDP has a more stringent definition than the FTA

    One of the advantages of the FTA’s definition, however, is that you can design a project to fit different neighborhood environments and still remain eligible for federal funding that can also go a long way toward other needed improvements like sidewalks in East Portland. That seems to be the way the Powell-Division project is trying to go.

    You might think they’re not succeeding, but I think it’s important to be clear that when you definitively say “it’s not BRT”, you are using a specific definition of BRT that isn’t the only one out there.

  3. I totally agree with your assertions, “SE Portland.” There are MANY definitions of “BRT” out there, which is a big part of what makes this project (and the entire analysis) to confusing!

    I also subscribe *much* more to ITDP’s definition (and gold/silver/bronze/basic rankings) of BRT than the FTA’s very, very loose definition. Literally all of FTA’s (and especially Metro’s!) basic BRT criteria are found in enhanced regular bus lines. We need to be MUCH more strict about what “BRT” is supposed to mean. LRT vs. no LRT is a nice, easy binary decision. BRT has much more flexibility, but the “R” in “BRT” needs to *mean* something!! 🙂

    In my paper, I assert that nothing short of ITDP-silver-rated BRT throughout inner Powell and outer Division (along with a typical bus line along the SE 82nd portion) would significantly improve transit, quality of life, placemaking, TOD potential and decades of unbelievably poor planning on every block of this corridor. Literally *nothing* short of this level of BRT would make a single dent in ANY of those categories.

    This is why the project is stalled; the Steering Committee fully realizes that nothing will improve unless a new bus line has exclusive lane rights along both Powell and Division. Anything short of that means that the new line will take even MORE time than Trimet’s 4 line currently does. It would also have ZERO impact on livability, improving infrastructure, planning, or quality of life for anyone in East Portland. Fortunately, this new corridor presents an unbelievably wonderful opportunity to simultaneously address nearly every infrastructure, transportation, TOD and planning error that’s been made for decades!

    I realize that it’s commonly believed that giving a new bus line exclusive ROW on Powell-Division is “politically impossible,” and I’m equally aware that an outdated (and unbelievably misleading) yet super convenient chart “proves” to Metro that a road diet is “infeasible” on both inner Powell and outer Division due to peak-time car volume. But it’s simply not true. As long as we keep using Robert Moses means to achieve Jane Jacobs ends, our transportation system will continue to fail everyone.

    What many folks don’t realize is that, among many other factors that disprove this chart, drivers will adjust surprisingly quickly to losing a lane on inner Powell and outer Division (and thousands will enjoy having a wonderfully fast, safe new transit line on this corridor!). We just need to be extremely bold, and we need to take QUICK action, which is unfortunately unheard of given the “Portland process.”

    There is only ONE solution: exclusive ROW on Powell out to 82nd and Division east of 82nd. If we do this, I *guarantee* that the vast improvements in transportation, planning, placemaking, quality of life and so much more will make this a national model!! We’d also rightfully claim having the nation’s highest-quality (and really the *only*) true BRT line. Cleveland’s HealthLine is currently the top-rated “BRT” line, but with *five* stops per mile, it hardly qualifies as “rapid” transit.

    Like Vancouver’s Brent Toderian and other great planners often say, prioritizing private auto use LAST benefits everyone, INCLUDING those who solely drive. Unfortunately we are *nowhere near* implementing this philosophy in Portland. Mr. Toderian also puts it this way: “If you design a city for cars, it fails for everyone, including drivers. If you design a multi-modal city that prioritizes walking, biking and public transport, it works for everyone, including drivers.”

    All our planners have to do is take just one trip to Amsterdam, where driving receives the lowest priority. It’s actually EASIER to drive in Amsterdam than any other big city I’ve ever visited, because very few people choose to drive! Every single mode (walking, cycling, transit, freight, driving) is incredibly easy, safe and convenient. You have real choices on how to get from A to B, and they’re all extremely safe and enjoyable!!

  4. Pingback: branching out | places over time·

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