Portland, Oregon, USA

I just travelled to Portland (Oregon) for the first time this past long weekend.  What a cool city!  My girlfriend and I drove down there from Vancouver on a Friday and stayed for two nights.  This is a city that’s pretty serious about transit!  Lots of good stuff to offer for a transit nerd like me.

Here’s a a fun picture of a famous sign in Portland that I took:



Portland has no metro system but has plenty to offer transit-wise! Conventional buses, light-rail, streetcar services, one commuter rail line, and even an aerial tramway!


I took the bus twice in my stay in Portland.  Once, downtown for just two stops on SW 5th ave (bus route #56), and another time from South East Portland through downtown and around and up to our hotel in the rose quarter (bus route #4):


We would’ve taken the Portland Streetcar (much more interesting than a bus), but it stops running at around 11:30pm, and this was at about 12:30am or so.  But I was glad to take the bus, mostly so I could write this review! Buses in Portland are similar to most buses in North America, and the interior layout looked identical to Vancouver buses.  The people of Portland offer some very good people-watching opportunities and I definitely saw some very crazy people taking the bus late at night!  Here is the interior:


And another:


Currently, TriMet (the Portland transit authority) is only using 30 or 40 foot buses, with no articulated buses in their fleet at all.  Most are made my New Flyer of Winnepeg, which you see pretty much everywhere buses are used.  Bus service was OK at 12:30am; we waited about 15 minutes or so (it was cold),  The stops were all announced, including all transfer stations for bus or light rail connections.  This does not happen in Vancouver, but I’m sure it is very useful!

Outside of a typical TriMet bus, in blue/white livery:



Portland’s main rapid-transit is the MAX light rail system.  The system consists of four lines: yellow, red, blue, and green.  Each line goes  East to West  then North or South through the downtown core.  Our hotel in the Rose quarter was situated fairly close to the Convention Centre MAX station (about 5-7 minute walk).


I was pretty excited to take the MAX, as I’d never really travelled on a light-rail system before.  So we, made our way to the station, bought a one day unlimited transit pass and hopped on.


On my first trip, I went just across the Willamette river (the Steel bridge) and got off at the station next to the Portland Saturday Market, a total of only four stations.


The interior of the MAX light rail was pretty clean, and we found a seat no problem.  The light rail systems in Portland are at-grade throughout the downtown area and share roads with cars.  Across the Steel Bridge, however, they have a dedicated lane down the middle.  My first experience with light rail was a good one.  Through the city, taking the light rail doesn’t really save you any time compared to a bus, but there’s something about riding on rails which is just so much better, and luxurious (if you can say that about public transit) than taking a bus.  Since the light rail system is shared with the road throughout the city, it offers some nice views of the surroundings and buildings which a subway would not!  Here’s a shot of the interior:


For tourists and visitors, using a rapid-transit system with set stops is always much easier than a bus anyway, as you know exactly where it stops and what direction it goes.  No need to request a stop.

Finally we got off at our stop, and crossed the street (a little frightening, considering a train could roll by at any moment) and had a great time exploring Portland.


Portland is one of a only a few cities in North America  to have a usable streetcar (or tram or trolley as they say in other places) system.  Portland currently has two lines: North-South and the City Loop.


(Borrowed from Wikipedia commons)

What’s the difference between light rail and a streetcar?  Good question!  And the truth is nowadays, there is a not a huge difference.  In Portland, the main difference is that the streetcar only runs through the downtown area, is smaller (only one accordion train unit), has frequent stops which must be requested (like a bus), can turn around sharper corners, and it only costs a buck!

Interior shot:


We took the streetcar on our first night in Portland to get from our hotel to the Deschutes brew-pub in the Pearl district.  The streetcar stop was about two blocks away (5 minute walk) so super convenient!  The streetcars aren’t as frequent as the MAX trains, so we ended up waiting for about 15 minutes.  At each station there is a pay station, which accepts cards only.


We paid our $1 each (fantastic deal) and got on. The streetcar was new, and looked very modern and “cool”.  The street car proceeded down the road and eventually across the Broadway street bridge.  A few minutes later we were told by the driver that this streetcar was heading back to the warehouse, so we would have to disembark.  He assured us that there was another CL (City-Loop) line only 5 minutes away.  Lo and behold, about 5 minutes later another streetcar came by.  The rest of our journey only took about 6 or 7 minutes and we passed right by the Deschutes brewery!  There’s a small yellow strip you have to press to request a stop, and then we got off.


I took the streetcar several times throughout my stay in Portland, because it was convenient, fun, and a (relatively) quick way to get around.

One more bonus for the streetcar… my girlfriend was really sneaky and took a cool picture for me of the “pilots” control area!  Here it is:



Alas, I did not get the chance to try out these types of transit options available in Portland… The commuter rail line goes from Wilsonville to Beaverton, which are not exactly tourist hot spots!  So I didn’t use the commuter rail.  I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get to try the cable car though.  It is only the second aerial tram built for transit purposes in the United States since the Roosevelt Island Tramway in NYC which opened in 1975.  Actually, technically it’s the third, but the Mississippi Aerial River Tramway in New Orleans was built in 1984 and then dismantled in 1994.  The Portland Aerial Tramway was opened in 2006.  Oh well, next time I head to Portland I will definitely check it out!


Borrowed from: panoramio.com. user: mr.geophysics title: Portland Aerial Tram (3)


The payment system for Tri-Met transit is mostly the “honours” system (except for busses, obviously) in the form of single-use tickets or monthly/daily passes.  Each ticket works across all types of Tri-Met transit UNLESS you opt to buy the streetcar only pass which costs only $1.00.  Single-use tickets last for 2 hours (unlimited transfers).  Compared to Vancouver, it was much cheaper.  In total I only spent $6.00 (no tax in Oregon) on transit in two days  The first night, since we only took the streetcar, we payed for two single-use streetcar only passes..  The next day we each bought a day-pass for unlimited transit use, which was $5.00.  I used transit properly 5 or 6 times that day, so the day-pass was well worth it.

For some reason, my Canadian credit card was not accepted in the payment machine at the MAX station so I had to use cash, which resulted in me getting $10 worth of $1 coins.

Like most cities, Portland was organized into zones:


But, since Portland and TriMet are awesome, they abolished the zones in September 2012, so their fare structure is simple and easy!

Here is the fare chart as of November 2013:


The cost of a ride in Portland is 1.39 times more expensive than a typical ride in New York City, when adjusted for the salary difference.


Ease of use: 9.5/10

Good: MAX and streetcar stations are ubiquitous in the downtown area of Portland, Google maps integration across all transit modes, announced stops on buses, no zones to deal with, GPS bus tracker system

Bad: Some of the maps were poorly designed

Frequency: 6.7/10

Good: Quick through the outer suburbs, buses are quite frequent in the inner city, wait times for the streetcar are relatively low

Bad: Quite slow through the downtown core (for streetcars, MAX and buses).

Cost: 7.2/10

The typical fare in Portland is 1.39 times more expensive than typical fare in NYC, when adjusted for salary difference.

Elegance: 8.5/10

Good: Streetcars, light rail, commuter rail, electric buses, and an aerial tramway, public art installations at stations

Bad: The livery isn’t that nice looking,  some of the MAX stations are pretty plain and don’t offer much protection against the elements, there is no actual rapid transit in Portland

Overall Portland offers an excellent array of transit options for an enthusiast like me, what a cool city!  Definitely visit Portland, Oregon and take advantage of all the great transit this city has to offer!

Overall rating : 8.0/10

Thanks for reading.


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