The Bus is Back: Is car-oriented Bend ready to embrace transit?

Caleb Diehl
Bend offers plentiful free parking, incentivizing driving instead of transit

Bend gets the funding to build a modern bus sytem, just in time for rapid population growth. 

Share this article!


When it comes to public transit, Bend is the Los Angeles of Oregon. The city’s sprawling network of highways favors cars over transit riders. Fewer than one percent of Bend residents commute by transit.

“There’s only one dignified way to get around Central Oregon right now,” said Jackson Lester, senior transit planner at Cascades East Transit. “We’re working toward trying to make the bus more dignified.”

During his first year in Bend, Lester demonstrated his commitment to alternative transportation by going car free.

He biked to work, and cross-country skied a couple of days. One morning he skied over an ice berm and broke his nose. But he kept commuting sans automobile while working to diversify Bend’s transit options.

Lester and his colleagues will soon have a stable funding source to expand Bend’s languishing bus network. The new $5.3 billion state transportation package will release around $4.2 million for public transit to Deschutes County in January 2019.

“Right now we’re doing a lot with a little,” Lester said. “These additional resources are going to make a reliable system much more attainable.”

IMG 0706One of Bend’s cutaway buses

Bend sorely needs the new funding. From 1995 to 2007, population grew by a whopping 73%. Last year, the number of residents grew by  another 5%, and currently rests at 91,122. The U.S. Census bureau ranked Bend number six among the fastest-growing American cities.

The bus has not kept pace with the population explosion. Ten years ago, Bend’s only transit service was dial-a-ride, which mostly served seniors and people with disabilities.

“Someone figured out that we were the largest city in the West without public transit,” said Jeff Monson, executive director at Commute Options, a Bend advocacy group. “That wasn’t that long ago.”

Monson rode the first real, public, fixed-route bus in Bend. He took his daughter to day care.

“We felt very welcomed, but it was funny,” he said. “All these dial-a-ride customers who had been riding the bus for forever saw this new guy and his daughter.”

IMG 0705A bus stop in Bend

Since then, the system has expanded to a fixed-route network of cutaway buses, complemented by rural connection services. The Community Connector links Bend with neighboring communities LaPine, Sisters and Redmond. A ski bus runs to Mt. Bachelor.

Ridership has grown, driven by students at OSU Cascades and the Redmond Proficiency Center, medical facilities and a growing contingent of employees pushed out of the city center by rising housing prices.

Yet, ten years in, Bend’s bus system remains light years behind other Oregon cities. Transit planners here can’t wait for three new buses that resemble TriMet vehicles Portlanders take for granted.

“If you imagine your car with this fence around it that’s going to retract every 30 minutes, and you can’t predict when it’s going to happen,” Lester said. “That’s kind of like what using the bus is like here.”

Deschutes Brewery brews and ships beer 24/7, said President and CEO Val Cunningham, and the current bus system isn’t adequate for the company’s needs. 

“We have employees commuting from all throughout the region given the increased lack of affordable housing in Bend,” Cunningham said. “To better meet the needs of employees who use public transportation, we could use more frequent transit service, including increased options for nights and weekends as well as more lines that reach some of the outer lying areas of Central Oregon.”

At Hydro Flask, a growing outdoor industry brand, Employees favor alternative transportation, but the bus doesn’t make the top of the list. 

“Most people bike, walk, or carpool here,” said Lucas Alberg, a spokesman for Hydro Flask, a maker of vaccum-sealed thermoses and mugs and one of Oregon’s fastest-growing companies. “The bus probably isn’t in that top three.” 

Boasting a large population compared to other communities in Central Oregon, Bend is a big fish in a wide, empty pond. Some view Bend’s transit needs as those of a rural area, though it’s growing more to resemble a major city.

IMG 0701Mirror Pond, a popular attraction in Bend

Visitors to Bend find plentiful free parking and comparatively little traffic, incentivizing driving instead of transit. Traffic can spike during peak tourist seasons, however, and congestion still plagues the route between Bend and Redmond. 

“It’s not like the MAX where you can see yourself going past a parking lot of cars,” Hofbauer said.

Bend also lacks a formal transportation district, a rare and precarious funding situation for a city. CET pieces together grants and private investment from local businesses to fund the bus.

Despite these challenges, planners are committed to providing a quality bus system.

“If your only metric of transit success is ridership, you should not have transit in Central Oregon at all.” Lester said. “You should go put more service in Portland, and more people would ride it for the same amount of money.”

“If your only metric of transit success is ridership, you shouldn’t have transit in Central Oregon at all” —Jackson Lester, senior transit planner, Cascades East Transit

 Excited by the new funding from the transportation package, Lester wants to design a better bus based on what he hears from Bend residents.

“We’ll be developing a plan with lots of input from the community,” he said. “The amount of outreach we’re going to do for this is ridiculous. We’re going to have four rounds of outreach in seven different geographic catchments.”

They’re hoping to build up the bus before congestion rises along with the growing population.

“They say you can’t build your way out of congestion,” Hofbauer said. “It’s expensive to build roads and highways, and it just encourages more people to drive.”

Lester and Monson say the bus in Bend needs more investment along high-density corridors, more frequent service, weekend service and expansions to the Connector. Bend’s West side, where Hydro Flask is headquartered, Alberg said has seen an explosion of recent business and residential development that will soon demand a modern transit system. 

Fixed route transit is the solution. “Fixed-route transit is the most efficient way to move people around a city,” Hofbauer said. “We don’t have light rail or Bus Rapid Transit. I think they could work, but Bend’s not quite ready for it right now.”

“Why can’t riding the bus be just as cool as riding light rail? It’s more than just buying another bus; it’s a whole culture.” —Jeff Monson, Commute Options

While Bend’s population isn’t high enough yet to justify such high-tech solutions, that doesn’t mean the fixed routes have to be boring.

Small steps, like properly functioning apps, a driver who knows your name, frequent service, cleanliness and sheltered stops go a long way elevating the cultural status of the bus, Monson said.

“Why can’t riding the bus be just as cool as riding light rail?” He said. “It’s more than just buying another bus, it’s a whole culture.”

 EDCO, the regional economic development agency, could do more to promote Bend’s growing bus system to businesses, Monson added.

“That needs to be one of the checklists of a company coming here and of EDCO to attract employers here,” he said. “It’s part of the economic picture of why a company would want to locate to Bend.”

A rulemaking committee meeting in Salem has yet to determine how the new transit funding will be dispersed throughout Deschutes County. But Lester and Hofbauer are confident it will be enough to transform Bend’s bus.

“We needed a more robust system,” Hofbauer said. “This is going to allow us to plan much better for the future depending on the community’s needs.”

Catch up on the other stories in our Bus is Back series:busisback

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

Eugene expands ‘Emerald Express’ Bus Rapid Transit system

Salem experiments with an on-demand bus

The Mount Hood Loop

Latest from Caleb Diehl