Many Light Rail advocates, notably many who advocate for Light Rail Transit (LRT) in Surrey, like to triumph Portland as a successful example of North American Light Rail Transit implementation, triumphing it as an example for various other cities who have plummeted into the scam with a biased preference in planning, building systems that were in many cases unprofitable, unsustainable and not beneficial themselves to the communities they served. There is no reason to follow an example just because it happens to be acceptable and successful in one particular but different city; but what if that example is actually not so successful?
There is a side to Portland’s LRT system not known by many – a not so positive yet revealing side that has to do with an interesting connection between the LRT system and the rest of the transit system.
Just five days ago, TriMet (the transportation agency in charge of Portland transit) decided it would do three things at the same time:
- Remove the downtown free rail zone, which enabled free downtown mobility on the MAX LRT and the Streetcar – the free rail zone was the last remnant of a strong downtown free fare zone that already began to falter after an economic recession and the elimination of free downtown buses in 2010.
- Remove fare zones, but raising system-wide fares to $2.50 as opposed to $2.10 and $2.40 for 1 and 2 zone fares
- Make more service cuts to an already crippled bus system – there were several extra late-night service and frequency cuts.
What City of Surrey citizens, advocates and officials alike need to do when looking to other cities as examples is look not just at one portion of the system but the entire system and how it has to do with the portion of the system that is the actual example or role model.
At the same time that many Metro Vancouver pro-LRT advocates are touting Portland as a successful example, many of these same advocates are sharing a mentality and criticizing TransLink and SkyTrain for being an unsustainable, costly to operate, limited and inappropriate given capital costs that are perceived to be higher, often as per accepted wisdom – despite that TransLink was able to stay strong, maintain existing service levels system-wide, and even raise system-wide service hours in the midst of this economic recession .
One of the notable things about the Portland MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) LRT system (the main line haul rapid transit system servicing Metro Portland) is that its construction seems to have made absolutely no difference in its community. The uncompetitive transit service is limited to 55MPH (90KM/H) and that is if it is not running on-street in downtown or elsewhere. In a North American city, rapid transit has to compete with limited-access expressways, availability of mobility choice, better affordability of options (compared to Europe), and cope with the generally lower density in urban and suburban developments and greater distances to transit.
The technology and mode type (mixed-grade Light Rail Transit) has a lot to do with this lack of competitiveness. The on-street running and driver-manned operation and resulting implications like average system speed all contribute to a limit in the system’s reliability and thus competitiveness, making the system a not-so-attractive option for many potential riders.
When you don’t design a transit system to be competitive against the other options in North America then it should be understandable that not a lot of people are going to ride the service – which also makes it difficult to subsidize the funding to provide the service. This was the big problem in Portland MAX LRT. The numbers as they are statistically and in numerous case studies have shown that the preferred choice for travelling in Portland is by automobile and not by bus or LRT. The lack of ridership and low farebox recovery makes the Portland transit system very vulnerable to sudden drops in ridership or rises in cost, and thus the system has been s hit hard during this recent economic recession. There is no money to maintain a downtown free rail service yet alone existing bus service levels.
For our environment this is a really bad thing. A datasheet we found showed that the transit mode-share for commute in Portland today is essentially the same as it was 15 years ago – at 12%. In these past 15 years, more than $4 billion has been spent on not-so-competitive Light Rail Transit. Despite this, there has been no indication of any modal shift occurring towards transit, even with the more recent severe hikes in gasoline prices . The system was just not designed to provide the kind of competition needed in a North American rapid transit system.
Case studies have also shown with more specifics that it is truly the lack of competitiveness and convenience that make people turn away from LRT as one of their options. An interesting one by the Cascade Policy Institute shows that in several cases, driving was preferred over LRT despite cost savings of even partial LRT use .
What happens to make this all worse is that there is a loop effect that is triggered by this. Low ridership makes it difficult to get money for providing the service – huge subsidies are already required to fund Portland transit due to a low farebox recovery ratio . When a transit system does not have enough riders to break even in profitability, the system and service provided can be very vulnerable to economic dips – at the expense of the end user. However, a less convenient option for the end user will turn away that end user – which will reduce ridership and revenue again, and so forth.
What this has resulted in is a system-wide cannibalization of bus services. The lack of any profitable portion in the transit system and pressures from local taxpayers are preventing funding to keep in place a promised 15 minute frequent transit network. On the majority of those frequent transit network routes, frequencies have been extended to 17 or 20 minutes . Other bus services continue to be disrupted and cut across the metro, with four cuts (not including the most recent) having happened since 2009 .
According to popular transit blogger and professional planning consultant Jarred Walker (Human Transit) who used to work for TriMet in Portland, at least a few routes away from LRT lines are approaching frequencies and service levels so low today that would be less frequent than they were in the 1980s before any widespread LRT expansions .
Mobility and LRT vs entire system aside, there have been numerous claims regarding the triumphs in nearby economic transit oriented development (TOD) so-brought forward by the LRT, with many excuses like “because it is rail and rail has permanence” having been brought forward in support of this. The reality is that no measurable amount of the nearby TOD was a result of the LRT; all of the measurable TOD was the result of accompanying subsidies that enticed developers to build near the LRT, and the LRT itself had little to no responsibility in attracting that development . In many cases, developers actually refused to build transit oriented development.
With no incentives to build near LRT, many high density zoning areas that were to be located near LRT areas were let loose and built in place instead were big box stores such as IKEA, with large parking lots . It is noticeable that where transit oriented residential development was built, the percentage of commuters using transit was no higher than in other neighbourhoods not even near the LRT .
It is notable that many North American cities that have as of more recently been following Portland’s example and taking advantage of a confirmed bias towards LRT in transit planning  have built LRT systems that have not seen so much success. To list some examples:
- Seattle LINK LRT – ridership is far below expectations
- Phoenix Metro Light Rail – low ridership and extremely high subsidization costs and complete lack of TOD
- Los Angeles Metro (LRT) – system-wide ridership dropped after LRT replaced more competitive express buses
- Dallas DART – there are less riders today than when it was first opened
We have mentioned time and time again that citizens, advocates and officials should think twice before claiming the hypocrisy that is Portland’s transit system as an example for our city. All cities in North America – and that includes Metro Vancouver – should be making smart choices towards more competitive transit options. Building anything less than competitive is a venture that is risky and should be avoided.
This is a message for all of you: Let the recent removal of the free fare zone, additional cuts and fare raise serve as the definitive wake-up call. It is a good time today to be looking for sustainable transit expansion options by looking at the facts – and the fact is that Portland’s transit choices weren’t sustainable.
- New SkyTrain cars were introduced in 2009-2010, improving service hours. Driver-less operation allowed these new cars to be introduced at a reduction in system-wide operating cost per revenue vehicle km. See: 2010 annual performance report [Reference #15]
- See previous article: Light Rail Ineffective: Portland transit mode-share unchanged despite over $4 billion in LRT spending
- See: The Myth of “High Capacity Transit” – Study, John A. Charles Jr. of Cascade Policy Institute – [LINK]
- See:TriMet Service and Ridership Information (PDF) [Reference #28]
- See: Human Transit: Portland – Counting By 17 – [LINK]
- See: John A. Charles – Cascade Policy Institute – “Transit Hypocrisy” – [LINK]
- See previous article: Portland: LRT did nothing to attract economic development: Subsidies did that