The Bus is Back: A special series exploring bus initiatives across Oregon

Joan McGuire

Bus ridership has taken a hit over the past decade, but new projects around the state aim to get Oregonians back on board.

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The number of people riding the bus is down in almost every major U.S. city. 

In Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, rail ridership has risen while bus ridership has fallen. The same is true for Portland. TriMet reported 44.5 million bus riders in 2017, almost a return to 2000 levels, and down from a peak of almost 50 million in 2009. Meanwhile MAX ridership has increased steadily since the year 2000, hovering around 31 million riders in the past few years.

The culprits include cheap gas, transit agency budget cuts and slow or infrequent service. Ride hailing companies may be adding to the problem. A growing body of evidence suggests Uber and Lyft may be siphoning transit riders. 

Another challenge: many people still consider the bus a second-class form of transportation. When two University of Sydney researchers asked urban denizens to rank four images of transit systems, 55% chose modern light rail, 18% legacy light rail and 17% a Bus Rapid Transit design. The conventional bus garnered only 10% of the vote.

Transit agencies have been slow to adopt technology that might make the bus more competitive and attractive, especially to a young, mobile savvy generation. And slow, infrequent service continues to hinder bus rider growth.

But in Oregon, signs of change are on the horizon.

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During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers passed the state’s largest transportation bill to date. The $5.3 billion package will fund road infrastructure and public transit projects. The language of the bill leaves open exactly where this money will go. But here’s some of what we know: TriMet will get $100 million annually; $110 million will fund bike and transit infrastructure for the outer Powell project in Southeast Portland. Deschutes County will get $4.2 million a year, Medford $4.5 million.

The new funding should help improve service around the state. Other innovations are underway, from a new bus rapid transit line in Eugene to on-demand transit in Salem and expanded service in the increasingly congested Columbia Gorge/Mount Hood area.

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be riding the bus across Oregon, taking a firsthand look at the people, technology and plans transforming the bus as we know it. I’ll look at some of the challenges facing bus networks, and where the new improved bus models fit into modern transportation systems. And I’ll check in with local business leaders to hear their vision for a sleek, modern 21st-century bus network.

My first stop will be the West Eugene EmX extension. To get there I’ll take the Point intercity bus service, an ODOT program contracted to a private operator.

I’ll also test the Salem West Connector, an Uber-style bus offering on-demand service through a smartphone app.

Then I’ll dig into plans to expand the Columbia River Gorge shuttle to Hood River, which by 2018 could create a loop from Portland to Mount Hood and Sandy.

The next stop on the line will be Bend. The year 2017 marks the 10th anniversary for Bend’s modern bus system. I’ll take a look at what’s working (new apps and fare collection technology) and what needs to work a whole lot better.

Finally, I’ll return to Portland to examine the city’s latest Bus Rapid Transit proposals. Project plans have been subject of heated debates over the value of BRT compared to light rail, and which neighborhoods benefit most from BRT lines.

The bus is not the only solution to the state’s myriad transportation woes. But after languishing for years as transit’s lowly stepchild, the bus appears to be making a comeback.

Hop aboard and join us for the ride.