Analysis: To save public transit, go private

Fighting congestion and protecting mass transit will mean thinking much more about private enterprise.

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Have you noticed? More and more and more competitors seem to be finding ways to get in on TriMet’s business.

As recently as the turn of the century, the regional public transit agency was virtually synonymous with non-car mobility in and around Portland. If you didn’t drive, you rode the bus, or maybe the brand-new light rail line beneath the zoo. The no-car lifestyle wasn’t great, but it was easy to understand — and better than the alternatives in most U.S. metros.

Then the deluge.

First on the scene were privately owned bicycles, surging from 5% to 12% of the Portland metro area’s non-car commute trips over the 2000s. Next came Uber and Lyft, snapping up high-income, group and late-night trips. These ride-hailing apps were followed by municipal bike-sharing, when 1,000 Nike-sponsored orange bikes operated by a New York conglomerate landed on Portland streets with the public’s blessing.

And now, private shared e-scooters — part of an improbable but apparently wildly profitable wave of “micromobility” services sweeping the nation.

As a result of all this, living car-lite in Portland has gotten much much better, at least for those who can afford more than bus fare. Theoretically, this should be very good news for fighting congestion in the region: Less car ownership should mean more peak-hour transit use and more efficient roadways.

The trouble is that for TriMet itself, the last two decades look different.

As a share of population, TriMet ridership has actually fallen 4% since 2000 — a startling turn of fortune for a system in a densifying metro area that invested $2.7 billion in new rail during that period

This is happening even as auto ownership in Multnomah County has slipped. The number of registered cars per capita in Oregon’s biggest county is down 5% since 2007. Twenty-four percent of its two-earner households now share a single car, up from 17% in 2005. But that shift hasn’t led to more TriMet rides.

TriMet isn’t the only public agency worried about this, of course. The City of Portland is, too. Its long-term economy and quality of life will rise or fall based on whether it can get its growing population to take more of their trips with mass transit instead of road-jamming cars.

Whatever the reasons for TriMet’s falling ridership, there’s a happy lesson here for public transit leaders at TriMet and the city: If you play your cards right, this crisis could become the biggest opportunity you’ve ever had.

The first thing to remember is that shared bikes and e-scooters — short-range vehicles that work best downtown and in a few other mixed-use hubs — aren’t actually competitors with mass transit. They’re complements. They solve one of the major obstacles to taking transit: If I leave my car at home, what happens if I need to improvise a midday trip that doesn’t line up with the bus lines?

TriMet and the City of Portland could take advantage of this by bundling 15 free minutes of bike share time into every TriMet ticket — mimicking a wildly successful program in Hangzhou, modern China’s biking capital. This would make TriMet tickets significantly more useful while getting many thousands of people to try shared bikes for the first time.

Related coverage: The Transporter: Moovel CEO Nat Parker envisions a fast, efficient commute fueled by shared vehicles and smart technology 


In Eugene, Lane Transit is already a co-funder of municipal bike sharing, having realized the bikes can take pressure off overcrowded buses. Other Oregon agencies, from Portland to Salem to the Rogue Valley, should build on that example.

But interoperability between mass transit and municipal bike sharing is just one example of the way all transportation-related agencies should be rethinking their roles: not just as operators of specific categories of vehicle, but as the designers and curators of webs of mobility that let people switch seamlessly throughout the day from private microbus to public bus to shared e-scooter to (who knows?) water taxi.

Like Amazon, the key to future transit agencies’ success won’t be coming up with a single killer product that tries to do every mobility job best. It’ll be becoming the platform on which other people can build ideas of their own.

Just as TriMet created private transit trip planning mobile apps 15 years ago by opening its arrival data to the Internet and letting entrepreneurship bloom, the agency could create this future mobility marketplace by making its per-line ridership goals public, putting out bounties for private companies who can help meet them, and creating unified fare structures and payment systems that private companies can join.

None of this, of course, should come at the expense of improving core transit quality: frequent service, dedicated bus lanes, reasonable fares.

There’s one more reason cities and transit agencies need to start thinking about this: if they don’t, someone else will. All of these private companies are dreaming of building that universal mobility platform first — with or without public mass transit as one of the core options.

That’s what Uber was thinking in April, when it bought the company that makes a lot of the country’s shared bikes, including Portland’s. It’s what Lyft was thinking last month when it bought the company that operates most of the country’s shared bikes, including Portland’s.

If a private company does build that platform first, it won’t be built to prioritize consumers’ privacy, safety, equity or environment. It probably won’t even prioritize their convenience, to the extent that would be convenient for consumers to plan, book and pay for trips without maintaining a separate account and process with every mobility competitor. Future transportation policymaking may be about consumer advocacy as much as direct service.

For at least the next decade or two, fighting congestion and protecting the public’s other interests in mass transit will mean thinking much more about private enterprise. Failing to do so will mean more of the last few years: falling ridership on our essential but increasingly isolated public transit system.

Michael Andersen is a Portland-based policy writer who has covered transportation since 2010.

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