Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My trip to Portland: comparing Portland to Metro Vancouver

Last Thursday, I took Amtrak down to visit Portland for a mini-holiday. I hadn’t been to Portland for about five years, so it was interesting to see what has change in the region and what has not. Portland is known for its investment in public transit and as being a multi-modal transportation leader with its bike, transit, and pedestrian-friendly communities. While Portland's core (circled by Interstate 5 and 405) contains some of the most walkable communities in North America, outside of the core things are a different story.

According to the latest National Household Survey for the City of Vancouver, 30% of all trips to work are made by public transit with 52% of trips to work by car. In the City of Surrey, 13% of all trips to work are made by public transit with 83% of all trips to work by car.

Like Metro Vancouver, Metro Portland contains multiply municipalities. According to the 2012 American Community Survey 1-year estimates in the City of Portland, 11.1% of all trips to work are made by public transit with 66.8% of all trip to work by car. In Vancouver, Washington (which is similar to Surrey), 4% of all trips to work are made by public transit with 88% of all trips to work by car.

Why is Portland with its investment in biking, transit, and walking more auto-dependant than Metro Vancouver?

Transportation infrastructure combined with land-use choices shape the accessibility of a community. No more clearly is this required combination more evident than in Portland. The Pearl District, which is part of central core of Portland, was transformed into a walkable community by combining mid-rise, mixed-use development with a streetcar network.

While I was taking the MAX light rail system in Portland, I was surprised at how the vast majority of station stops where still in low-density, auto-oriented areas. In Metro Vancouver, higher-density mixed-use communities are built around major transit stations and corridors. I did not notice this in Portland. For example, the low-density, auto-oriented neighbourhoods that the MAX Yellow line goes through have changed very little since the line was opened about a decade ago.

There could be several reasons for this. Local and regional government policies and politicians which guide land-use might need to be changed. There could also be community opposition to change. Social-economic factors also plan their part, but I think there is also another issue at play in Portland.

Metro Portland's frequency transit network. Includes TriMet buses and MAX light rail. Click image to enlarge.

In Metro Vancouver, the SkyTrain runs every 2 to 10 minutes depending on the time of day. Metro Vancouver also has an extensive frequency bus network that run 15 minutes or better service 7 days a week. In Portland, MAX lines run about every 10 minutes during peak weekday period, but you can wait 20 to 30 minutes for a train outside of the peak periods. The frequent bus network also only provides services every 20 minutes outside of peak periods and isn’t as extensive as TransLink's network in Metro Vancouver. I found myself having to look at the MAX light rail schedule this weekend when planning my trips. For a rapid transit system, this is not a good thing.

Portland has similar funding challenges as Vancouver. More service is needed, but money is not available. While Portland’s transit network may be underfunded today, it has a light rail grid that stretches out to almost all parts of the region. When Portland solves its funding challenges, it will be able to ramp up service. It seems to me the biggest challenge for Metro Portland will be to export the walkability found in its central core to other parts of its region; something we’ve done a better job of in Metro Vancouver.

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