Riding Transit in Portland Oregon -- June 11-14, 2006

by Steve Geller


This report covers the first in what I hope will be a series of visits to various cities, to try out the local transit. I chose Portland, Oregon for my first such visit because I lived there 1982-84 and was a regular rider at the time, of Tri-Met, the local bus system.

Back then, I used a monthly flash pass, but just before I left, Tri-Met implemented proof-of-payment (POP) on the buses, and had begun work on the new lite rail, which became the MAX -- "Metropolitan Area EXpress".

Today, the MAX offers fast rail service from the city center out to Beaverton, Gresham and the airport. The cars run on standard rail tracks and stop only at stations. It's a lot like the San Jose or Sacramento lite rail systems. Most of MAX is above ground, usually at street level, in most places sharing the road with cars. A part of the western section of MAX is in a subway tunnel. Any sections of track which cross freeways are elevated. MAX crosses the river on a bridge, along with cars. The trains run slowly downtown or any other place where they share the street with cars. In the outer parts, where the tracks are elevated, the trains move quickly; I'd estimate the same as freeway speeds.

Train Trip

I got to Portland by rail. I rode AMTRAK's Coast Starlighter train from Oakland. The Starlighter originates in Los Angeles and terminates in Seattle. I rode the same train to return home.

It was a great trip. I had an economy roomette, which was none too big, but gave me private seating and a place to sleep overnight. The train leaves Oakland about 9:45pm, so one goes to bed fairly soon after boarding. I woke up in the mountains at the California-Oregon border, looking out at the forest and streams.

The train was scheduled to arrive in Portland at about 3PM, but actually got there about 8pm. This is typical. AMTRAK runs on tracks owned by freight companies, in this case Union Pacific, so the passenger trains have to pull into a siding to allow the priority traffic, the freight trains, to pass. This happened several times during the night, and a few times during the run up through Oregon. In times past, passenger trains had priority over freight, but no more.

Portland Geography

The metropolitan area of greater Portland is laid out in a grid. The Willamette river divides the city into East and West. The North-South division is at Burnside street. All street names are preceded with a designation such as "NE" for NorthEast, or "SW" for SouthWest.

The Willamette river flows into the Columbia, north of the city, where is found the city of Vancouver, Washington. Tri-Met serves three counties in Oregon and sends some buses into Washington. Vancouver has its own bus system.

The Regions of the Portland Metro area are designated NE (Northeast), SE, NW and SW. There's also a stub designated simply N (North). Here's a map from the Tri-Met website

Zone Fare System

Tri-Met has three concentric zones. Downtown is zone 1, and the inner part of that is Fareless Square where transit is free. The outer metro area, including Gresham to the east and Beaverton to the west, is in zone 3. There is a fare for riding within one or two zones ($1.65) and and a higher fare ($1.95) for riding among three zones.

Union Station

The train approached Portland from the Southeast, crossed the Willamette River on a railroad bridge and stopped at Union Station in the (NW) "Old Town" part of the city. The building is pleasantly old fashioned, with a high ceiling, wooden benches and a stone tower visible from a distance as the train approached.

When I emerged from the station it was 8:30pm and getting dark. The weather was warm. There were puddles from an earlier rainfall, and the sky was overcast.

I had chosen a motel far out in the NE, near where I used to live. It was at NE 82nd Ave and close to the MAX station. At Union Station, there were taxis and buses which go to the city center, but I took the advice of the Tri-Met trip planner web page and walked to the nearest MAX station, called "Chinatown - Old Town". I got a little lost, wandering among the historic buildings, trendy restaurants and some bums who were preparing to sleep on the streets. One fellow offered to be my guide, claiming "I know the area very well". I declined. I suppose I looked a little like a bum myself, because I was carrying a large back-pack.

The first MAX ride

The squeal of steel wheels told me I was getting close. Soon, I saw a MAX train slowly moving along one of the streets. I got over to the station, which was the one I wanted, and located a ticket vending machine.

The first machine was out of order, but the other one was working. I chose an all-zone ticket, which was good for two hours from the time stamped on it. The machine accepted my $5 bill, and gave me change including dollar coins.

Only 2-hour and day passes are dispensed by the machine, but at the downtown Tri-Met office, it is possible to buy a book of tickets, and later at a station have one of them stamped just before use. At the office, one may also buy monthly passes, half-month passes, 7-day passes and even a yearly pass ($792 for all zones).

I then waited for the next train. I could take either the Red Line to the Airport or the Blue Line to Gresham; both stop at 82nd Ave. I ended up taking a Red Line train.

The doors opened. The train wasn't crowded. I chose a door and strolled on board; it was a lot like boarding a BART train, except that the station was out on the street.

The the interior of the MAX car was clean, cheerful and pleasant. The train consisted of two long cars, each of which was articulated with an "accordion" between the sections. So the train consisted of 4 cars, each with 4 doors, two on each side.

The seat layout was a low-floor design, with some seats up a few stairs, but most at the low level. In each car, there were 4 sets of 5 seats against the side of the car and facing into the aisle. A "priority seating area" was available for wheelchairs; some seats near the doors were designated for seniors.

Here's a picture of a MAX train.

There was an automated voice announcement system, which called the stops (in English and Spanish) and told riders which doors will open. The phrase "Doors on my Right" (or "Puertas a mi Derecha") evidently assumes the invisible announcer is facing in the direction of train motion.

The train moved cautiously through the streets of Old Town. The tracks shared the street with cars and crosswalks. Speed picked up slightly as we crossed the bridge from NW to NE. We were still at street level. An announcement warned that we had now departed "Fareless Square" and should have proof of payment in our possession. I gripped my 2-hour ticket confidently. All during my stay in Portland, I looked for fare inspectors, but never saw one.

At Lloyd Center, the big shopping mall and convention center, one may change trains to ride the MAX Yellow Line out to the Expo Center. After Lloyd Center, the Red and Blue Lines go elevated, paralleling the freeway, and speed picked up to match that of the cars. Although this scene reminded me of the BART stations at MacArthur or Rockridge, the MAX stations are much simpler, being built into a hillside. There is no building, just a platform and some basic shelters. MAX has no "paid area"; one either has a ticket or gets one from a machine.

I got off at 82nd Avenue. I had to climb stairs to the street, which was also a freeway overpass. I later discovered there was an an elevator.

It was after 9pm by then, so I was gratified to immediately spot my motel. When I checked in, I showed my AAA card, and the clerk was mildly surprised when I told him I was not driving a car. I didn't explain the purpose of my visit.

Transit Tripping on Tri-Met

The next day, Tuesday June 13, was my day to spend riding Tri-Met. I ate the motel's continental breakfast and went outside to look over my neighborhood. I was on a major north-south throughfare (82nd Ave), served by a bus line, the #72. There was no schedule on the pole, but the sign said "frequent service". It looked like 10-15 minute headways.

Parking was restricted near the bus stop (which was near the stairs down to the MAX station). There were three "quick drop" (15 minute) zones, with a fire hydrant between two of them.

A sign at the stairs and elevator warned "Non Transit Use Prohibited". I suppose this means that they don't want vendors, sign postings or sleeping bums.

I went down to the MAX station and this time bought an all-day all-zone ticket for $4. The machine took my $5 bill and dropped me a dollar coin in change. Again, one machine was out of order; I guess that's why they always have two machines at a station.

There was a real-time sign at the platform telling when the next trains were expected. At that station, I didn't hear any voice announcements of the information displayed on the sign; trouble for blind riders.

The sign displayed:

  Blue to Gresham TC   hh:mm
  Red to Beaverton TC  hh:mm
  Blue to Hillsboro TC hh:mm
  Blue to Gateway TC   hh:mm

If the train was at the station, or imminently approaching, the time was replaced by "Due". In some situations, the display showed the number of minutes yet to wait, instead of the time.

I rode a Blue Line downtown and got off to look around. The city had changed a lot since the '80s. On that day in June, downtown Portland looked lively, prosperous and pleasant. I recognized several of the stores, restaurants and other landmarks.


Portland is not car-free; the streets are full of automobiles; I thought I heard less horn honking than on Shattuck in Berkeley (the time was about 7:30am, on a Tuesday). There were several large parking garages. One posted $1.25/hour, $1 minimum. There were many small lots, utilizing vacant space. All were paid parking, most had an attendant in a booth. Tickets for on-street parking were available from "Pay to Park" machines, similar to those on Shattuck in Berkeley. Tickets were limited to 90 minutes. The ticket machines I looked at were solar powered. One paid with cash, VISA card or a "Smart Card". The ticket is to be placed on the driver's curbside window, facing out for inspection by the meter maid.

Train to Beaverton

I then boarded a Blue Line MAX, westward to Hillsboro. As it rumbled through the streets I took the opportunity to study the car in detail. This one was in three sections, with an accordion fold at each of the two divisions. There were no seats in the divisions, but when occupying some of the end seats, one's feet were gently moved from side to side as the joint swiveled. One could stand in the division area.

In the front of a car were three pairs of front-facing seats, near the doors, in a raised section entered by a flight of three steps. In the middle were two facing groups of 5 seats, facing the aisle.

There were places to lodge a wheelchair, and the seats nearby were marked "priority seating". An announcement frequently reminded riders of their obligation to move when these seats were required by a senior or disabled person.

A sign on the wall of a car grimly advertised a $1,000 reward for information on anyone damaging or defacing the MAX trains. I saw no graffiti at all on the trains, and very little at the stations. At the 82nd Ave station I saw numerous teenagers waiting; in the Bay Area, teenage boys are thought to be the usual perpetrators of graffiti. Maybe the kids in Portland are better behaved?

I did not see any place to buy a ticket on board a train; evidently one is suppose to use the machines at the stations. The train operator is secluded in a compartment at the front. A sign near his door says that information is freely given, but please don't distract the operator when the train is moving.

As we continued west through the streets, I spotted a cheery red streetcar. This was the "Portland Streetcar" which is sponsored by downtown businesses. I saw the logo of PGE and Powell's Books. More on the streetcar anon.

The train went into a tunnel, and immediately picked up speed. There was one station -- Washington Park -- in the tunnel, then we emerged into the green suburbs, filled with residences, small office buildings and shopping malls. I got off at the Beaverton Transit Center; the train went on to Hillsboro.

There were stops for about 10 bus lines at Beaverton TC. I didn't see a lot of transit oriented development, such as shops and restaurants; there were numerous apartment buildings nearby.

Bus Back Downtown

It was 9:00am by then. At random, I chose a #20 bus, which had a destination way over east to Gresham. The driver reminded me that I need to show her some proof of payment. I pulled out my day-pass. It's POP on the MAX, but not on the buses. I saw someone offer what looked like a transfer, and the driver tore off a stub before returning it.

All the buses I saw appeared to be normal diesel. None were marked for natural gas or clean diesel. I didn't see any Hydrogen buses. I suppose all the buses were at least clean diesel, since I didn't get a strong diesel smell. I did not see anything that looked like a Van Hool bus, or one of AC Transit's big green Transbay buses.

Inside the bus it was low floor. Platforms for baggage were over the wheel wells, but that area had no seats. I didn't catch the name of the bus supplier, but the one I was riding looked a lot like the low-floor buses on San Pablo Avenue.

A group of seats near the door were marked for seniors. In the back, steps led up to a raised area, which had two pairs of two side seats and a row of 6 seats along the back of the bus.

All the buses I rode had conventional pull-cords -- no buttons.

There was an overhead display at the front of the bus, but while I was on that #20, I never saw it change; maybe it was broken.

Among the commercial ads inside the bus were "poetry in motion" -- bits of verse which spoke of life, love, relationships and bus riding. Some poems were in Spanish.

I rode the #20 through some pleasant suburbs. At one point, the bus circulated through the approaches of St Vincent Hospital, a major medical facility. At a shopping mall, we passed a park-and-ride lot. I didn't see any schedules posted at stops. At the "Sunset Transit Center" I saw a shuttle bus for the hospital. It seems that "Transit Center" is not a dirty word in Portland.

The bus was lightly loaded (the time was about 10am). Twice, the bus went on the freeway for a while. I got off downtown near a MAX station.

I noticed that MAX and private cars had no trouble sharing the streets and respecting the signals. In a few places, near a station, the MAX had a short dedicated lane. MAX runs very slowly on the downtown streets. It's big and easy to spot, and there is some squealing from the wheels on the rails. Starting and stopping is very smooth; inside the cars there are plenty of grab bars and overhead straps; I felt rather safe when moving around.

Senior seats are respected. When I and a younger person headed for one of the senior seats, the younger person let me take the seat.

Wheelchairs on MAX

I didn't see any wheelchair boarding while I was on a bus or MAX, but I did see one wheelchair board a MAX, while I was standing at a station. It's really great. From the ouside, the person in a wheelchair presses a button on the side of the stopped MAX. A ramp extrudes from under the nearby door, looking like a tongue. The ramp settles on the station platform, giving a very slight rise. The door on the MAX then opens, and the wheelchair smoothly rolls aboard. The MAX operator stays in his cabin. The ramp will only extrude when the door is closed. I didn't see what was done for securement, but there is a little lodge inside for wheelchairs, which may be all that's necessary. There's a button inside for deploying the ramp when the wheelchair wants to get off; I didn't see that feature used.

After a while watching traffic and people, I rode a Blue Line MAX out to my motel, for some rest and some lunch.

Thusfar, Portland's air seemed cleaner than that of the Bay Area, even though there are plenty of cars in use, and plenty of industry. I guess Portland's electric power is non-polluting, because it comes mostly from a hydro dam. The one nuclear reactor serving the region has finally succumbed to years of fear talk, and will be dismantled soon.

Tri-Met Office

In the afternoon, I rode MAX down town again, and got off near Pioneer Square, to visit the Tri-Met office. The square was covered with blooming flower pots, probably left over from the recent Rose Festival. The office was built into a wall in the back of the square, and the entrance was flanked by two waterfalls. It was beautiful. Tri-Met shares the space with the Portland Visitor's Center.

I picked up a couple schedules and brochures. Ther was a very detailed schedule for MAX. I wondered why they bother, since the trains run so often.

On the wall was a map of the Tri-Met service area. I looked for the buses I used to ride to and from downtown and my residence at NE 71st & Multnomah. My usual bus was the "40 Halsey", because it went along Halsey, which parallels Multnomah. The 40 is gone, and the Halsey bus is the 77. The 40 number now is assigned to some bus on the West side. My alternate bus was "19 Glisan". I could get off at 71st & Glisan and have just a little longer walk home. The 19 was still running, so I went to find it.

Along 6th Avenue, there are several shelters, marked "NE" or "SE" and the numbers of the buses which stop there. I eventually found the 19. The map showed that the route was much the same as it had been. So I got aboard the next 19.

I rode out Glisan (pronounced GLEE-son), passing familar sights, and got off at 67th. I walked over toward Halsey, and found the duplex where I had lived, at 7112 NE Multnomah. I then walked out to the old bus stop on Halsey and caught a 77 heading downtown. It was nostalgia among the buses.

Other Portland Transit

The Portland metropolitan area is served by no less than five types of transit:

Also, an ariel tramway is being built, to go into service later in 2006. I think it might cross the river down near PSU.

The LIFT vans provide paratransit service. They are operated by Tri-Met, and are integrated into the fare structure. A book of 10 LIFT punch-card tickets costs $16 (a book of 10 all-zone regular tickets costs $19.50)

The Portland Streetcar, mentioned earlier, is one car, shiny and red and rolls on tracks along 10th and 11th avenues downtown. I rode it once, when it was filled with people coming from work. The streetcar is funded by various downtown businesses. It may be free, or POP; nobody was checking fares when I rode. At the Tri-Met office I thought I saw a reference to a Portland Streetcar pass. The cars are made by Skoda in the Czech Republic.

Trip toward Gresham

That evening, I decided not to eat at one of the many downtown restaurants, but to seek a meal out on the Blue Line to Gresham. That's a long ride. I didn't make it all the way to Gresham, but got off about 2/3 the way there, when I spotted a Chinese restaurant.

Along the way, I saw a lot of apartment housing, and many "for rent" signs. One sign said something like "Tired of high gas proces? You can live here, and ride MAX!". I guess this qualifies as transit-oriented housing.

The land is flat out there, and the MAX runs at street level in a dedicated right of way in the middle of the road. At the stations, one waits for a light before using a crosswalk to get to the housing. I remembered, back in 1982, riding a bus all the way to Gresham, and decided I didn't want to go there this time. I'd seen enough. So I boarded MAX and rode back to 82nd Ave.


The next day, I was leaving on the southbound train at 2:30pm. I spent the morning riding more MAX. I tried the Red Line to the airport. MAX at PDX was a lot like BART at SFO. When my train arrived, there was another train ready to leave fairly soon.

I went into the airport, which certainly has expanded since 1984. When I left, I looked for any sign guiding me to MAX, but I didn't see a one, either in the ticketing areas or the baggage areas. That surprised me. I'm glad I remembered how I came in. One sign near the train platform did say that the last train was 11:57pm on weekdays and 11:37 on Sundays.

Then I checked out of the motel, and rode MAX back to the Chinatown - Old Town station. From there, I walked to Union Station. AMTRAK from Seattle was on-time.


Portland was a fun trip. Tri-Met runs a great transit system. MAX is magnificent. Now I'm ready to write transit reports on Seattle, Vancouver BC and San Diego.

On the train north, I had shared a table in the dining car with a lady from Eugene, Oregon. She said Eugene is planning a BRT. I asked if there were problems getting a dedicated busway. She said the BRT route is in a place where there's plenty of room on the road. She also said that she does not drive a car, and relies on Eugene's bus system. Looks like I need to schedule a transit study trip to Eugene as well.

Fare Structure

Here's the URL to the TriMet page giving the whole fare structure.

back to Steve Geller's Home page