Rail Transit Case Studies: Portland, Oregon

Portland is often touted as a model city for transit. In fact, it is a model of a city that has sacrificed its street system, police, schools, and other urban services in order to build an expensive transit system that few people use.

In 1980, Portland’s transit system consisted solely of buses. At that time, 9.9 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit to work. Since then, Portland has opened five light-rail lines, two streetcar lines, and one hybrid-rail line. As a result, in 2013, 7.3 percent of Portland-area commuters take transit to work–not exactly a great success.

The growth of commuting to downtown Portland by bicycle and foot seems to have come at the expense of transit rather than driving. Source: Portland Business Alliance.

As a part of Portland’s transit program, the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing the construction of high-density housing along streetcar and light-rail lines near downtown. This seems to have increased the number of downtown workers who walk or bicycle to work, but that increase has come at the expense of a decline in people who take transit to work.

Despite the supposed transit renaissance taking place in Portland, even Portland newcomers do not seem to ride transit much. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Portland urbanized area gained 21,500 new jobs between 2008 and 2013. Half of those new workers drive to work, a third work at home, 14 percent walk or bike, and 8 percent are “other” (including taxicab and motorcycle). But the number of people taking transit to work declined by more than 1,000.

Meanwhile, to pay for all of the rail transit and subsidies to high-density development along rail transit lines, Portland has sacrificed many essential city services. The city’s streets are falling apart. Cuts to Portland’s once-highly respected community policing and mental health programs contributed to the fatal police beating of a Portland singer in 2006.

Bus services have been cut and fares raised. A state audit reveals that Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, isn’t even doing a good job of maintaining its light-rail lines, leading to frequent breakdowns. The transit agency’s general manager warns that the system is so pressed for cash that it may have to reduce all bus and rail service by 70 percent by the year 2025.