The Bus is Back: Division Project Redefines Bus Rapid Transit

Steve Morgan
Tillikum crossing, where the new line will cross into downtown

Upgrades to bus service on Division could make their way to the greater Portland area. 

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TriMet’s Division Street Bus Transit Project pushes the boundaries of the traditional Bus Rapid Transit model. Unlike many BRT designs that mimic light rail, the 14-mile enhanced bus project relies on smaller service upgrades that can be easily scaled.

“This should be a thing we aim to do everywhere,” says Portland-based transit expert and author Jarrett Walker.

TriMet will soon rake in $35 to 40 million annually from House Bill 2017, funding that could make that idea a reality. The transit agency is currently studying other lines that could benefit from the same enhanced bus design. Top candidates include lines 9, 12, 14, 15, 72 and 94.

“We’re looking at this as a pilot for what we can do across the region,” says TriMet’s Michael Kiser, the Division project manager.

Division is the guinea pig. If it works, Walker says, “we could just go ahead and roll out all of these tools on the whole network.”

Screen Shot 2017 12 08 at 3.50.30 PMA rendering of a possible station design / courtesy Tri Met

The Division Transit Project is expected to cut travel times by 15% to 20% with less frequent stops spaced every third of a mile, sheltered stations, articulated buses that can carry 60% more riders, off-board fare collection, and traffic signal priority for buses. 

Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2018, with service in 2021.

The design offers a new approach to bus transit. It lies somewhere between the traditional bus and Bus Rapid Transit as it’s usually defined—with dedicated right-of-way, like a train.

Transit experts don’t care what people call it, as long as it works.

“As with any brand name, BRT can be confusing. It often implies a comparison with light rail,” says Walker. “In the end, what matters in transit is getting people places sooner.”

Project Timeline

2018: Construction begins

2021: Service begins

Planners expect the expanded capacity will ease pressure on the overworked Line 4, one of the longest in the TriMet system. Commuters who live on Inner Division often can’t squeeze their way onto packed buses coming from the city’s edge.

“This is a priority project,” says Terry Dublinsky-Milton, co-chair of the advocacy group Southeast Neighborhood Uplift Coalition. “It’s absolutely needed, especially for the working class.”

The line will cross into downtown via Tilikum Crossing, and will stop in front of Oregon Health & Science University, which has more than 16,000 employees and several thousand students.

“Having a direct service to the East side is a huge benefit to them,” says Michael Harrison, government and neighborhood relations director at OHSU.  

Walker praised the project design, but he hopes the branding will be kept plain. Often transit agencies roll out BRT projects with flashy marketing (think Eugene’s “Emerald Express”), sending a message that it’s hard to replicate.

Walker pointed to Los Angeles, where the Metro Rapid Bus line offered conspicuous shelters, signs and other features. That branding, he argues, made it too expensive to expand to the rest of the city.

“There’s a conflict between special and scaleable,” Walker said. “It’s important that it not be seen as something so unique that we can’t do it anywhere else.”

Screen Shot 2017 12 08 at 3.48.37 PMA map of the new Division line

The Division project’s price tag is around $175 million. Half the funding will come from local sources, the other half from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program.

Trump administration budget cuts, however, could consume that latter half of the pie. That would force TriMet to add part of the cost onto a Metro bond measure slated for 2020, seek funding from Congress, or reapply for the 2019 FTA budget.

“We can’t expect anything from the federal government,” Dublinsky-Milton says. “I’d be surprised if the feds fund this under Trump.”

Dublinsky-Milton worries that without the federal funding, TriMet might have to dip into funding for bike and pedestrian projects.

Screen Shot 2017 12 08 at 3.49.46 PMStations would more closely resemble train stations / courtesy TriMet

Neighborhood advocates are concerned that new transit investment in East Portland will contribute to gentrification.

“New investment in transit can be one of the precursors to gentrification,” says Chabre Vickers, chair of the Community Advocacy Committee for the project. “It’s not an immediate thing, but in many parts of the city we’ve seen transit transform neighborhoods.”

Planners and community groups are looking to stave off rising home prices with affordable housing projects. One site with 40 affordable units is going up near PCC, Vickers said. She said Metro, Prosper Portland, and TriMet are collaborating on other affordable housing options.

“With outer Division [gentrification] is a big concern,” says Dublinsky-Milton. “But there’s good community engagement from Tri Met. We know a lot more than when we put the yellow line in North Portland.”

“Whenever you have high quality transit it attracts development” —Michael Kiser, project manager

Vickers and Harrison say that in public meetings, business owners voiced other concerns that the stops would take away parking, seating or trees, or hide their businesses from the road. “While we’re happy to have stops directly in front of our buildings, I understand that’s not the case for many businesses,” Harrison says.

In response, TriMet has offered a variety of stop designs, some with transparent materials. The project is only 30% into the design phase, so there is plenty of room to negotiate.

Design qualms aside, many business owners are cheering the project, Vickers and Dublinsky-Milton say. When completed, the project should generate new business investment on Division, without worsening traffic.

“Buses are an incredibly cost-effective way to get people onto transit through incremental improvements. The main way to improve the status of the bus is to make it more useful.” —Jarrett Walker, transit expert and author

“Whenever you have high quality transit it attracts development,” Kiser says. “It’s a better way of serving businesses without more cars, similar to what happens downtown.”

Planners and committee members anticipate that traffic congestion on Division will improve after the line is complete.  Three-door boarding and signal priority should clear the way for buses to move faster and make shorter stops. “What helps buses will also help traffic flow,” Kiser said.

With stops spaced a third of a mile apart, pedestrians will have to walk further to catch the new bus. But they’ll make up the time, Kiser says, with a faster ride.  

Screen Shot 2017 12 08 at 3.50.08 PMArticulated buses will carry up to 60% more riders / Courtesy Tri Met

Portland’s bus network is poised to expand beyond the Division project. With the funding from HB 2017, TriMet plans to expand low-income fare programs and increase service along other highly congested corridors.

Some technology from Division could become standard in Portland’s bus of the future. Planners are considering articulated buses, like those slated for Division, for other parts of the city. The signal priority going in on Division, Kiser said, could prove useful on other high-use corridors.

As the city moves forward with studies on congestion pricing, these transit upgrades will be crucial. Commuters who can’t pay to drive downtown will rely on expanded transit service to get to work at the same time.

Related Story: PDX Council adopts resolution supporting congestion pricing 

The most efficient way to achieve that goal is through simple, scalable service improvements to the bus, Walker says. He echoed a theme that runs through our entire Bus is Back series. Cities don’t need flashy technology, expensive marketing campaigns, or stunts to fix the bus’s image problem. They don’t need to make the bus act like light rail.

“Buses are an incredibly cost-effective way to get people onto transit through incremental improvements,” he says. “The main way to improve the status of the bus is to make it more useful.”

Just keep people out of the rain. Get them on board quickly. Make the bus come on time, every time, all the time. Build a system that does that, and the riders will follow. 

Read the rest of our Bus is Back Series


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

Is Car-Oriented Bend Ready to Embrace Transit? 



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