BALTIMORE — In Portland, Ore., public transportation is a huge part of the urban life, with 80 percent of adults in the area riding TriMet, which runs Portland’s transit system, according to TriMet figures.
Among their riders, 84 percent are “choice” riders, meaning they choose public transit over such transportation as driving their own cars.
What Portland offers its 603,000 residents — light rail, commuter rail, streetcars and buses — isn’t that different from systems in Baltimore.
What makes Portland’s system so effective is its seamlessness and accessibility, says Katherine Hunter-Zaworski, a civil and construction engineering professor at Oregon State University.
“It’s just so easy. Things interface so nicely,” says Hunter-Zaworski, who has worked with TriMet on technology development. “The other thing about Portland transit is that, if you happen to be a wheelchair user or somebody with a disability, it is really quite easy to get around.”
Hunter-Zaworski, who is a director for the National Center for Accessible Transportation, says that West Coast systems have a cooperative and collaborative atmosphere that has encouraged more innovative and accessible transportation for all riders.
“Eugene [Ore.] and Portland are cities that actually attract people with disabilities because of their public transportation systems,” says Hunter-Zaworski. “The infrastructure has good relationships with public works to make sure that people can get from origin to destination and that the whole public pathway is accessible.”
The system is designed to help those with wheelchairs or other mobility issues board regular public transportation more easily and safely, she says.
Eugene, Ore., was one of the first systems to implement paratransit and barrier-free transit on the West Coast, Hunter-Zaworski says. And there, demand for paratransit often exceeds the supply. To remedy this, the Eugene transit system provides travel training for people who have difficulty riding fixed route systems. A similar program exists in Portland.
Ride Connection, a nonprofit, provides the free RideWise program in Portland and around Oregon to help older and disabled adults navigate public transit safely and independently.
“There is really high motivation from the transit agency to do travel training and get people on a regular bus,” which is cheaper to run than specialized paratransit systems, Hunter-Zaworski says.
Portland also has streetcars, which are experiencing a revival in Washington. In the district, construction has begun on new routes that will bring streetcars back after 50 years’ absence.
Hunter-Zaworski says streetcars have fans because people like to see where they are going. The fixed route and designated stations of streetcars and light rail transportation contribute to what she calls the “attractiveness” of these modes of public transportation and makes people more likely to choose these modes of transport, she says.
In Eugene, bus rapid transit systems have seen success as an alternative to streetcars and light-rail, Hunter-Zaworski says.
Bus rapid transit systems are more efficient than other bus lines because they may have dedicated lanes separated from the street, or priority at intersections, or payment before boarding. They generally are cheaper to start and run than rail systems.
Baltimore has explored the idea of bus rapid transit systems into the city, says Michele Whelley, former CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.
In Cleveland, the Healthline serves the Cleveland Clinic and other hospitals along the route and has been a model bus-rapid transit system, according to the Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority, with ridership increasing annually since its introduction in 2008.
The Cleveland Healthline has managed to turn a $50 million investment for the bus-rapid transit line into $5.8 billion dollars in transit-oriented development that has spurred job creation and development in the city, according to a study released in September by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Hunter-Zaworski says she sees transportation habits changing all around the country, and among young people in particular.
Social media is allowing people to share cars, arrange trips and use transportation more easily. Lyft, a San Francisco-based app, is one example of how social media and technology is encouraging this trend, Hunter-Zaworski says.
The Lyft app allows users to request rides from volunteer drivers, who have been background-checked, through the app. The app’s services are available in 18 cities and areas across the country, including Baltimore and Washington.
“We have seen that the vehicle miles traveled by certain generations is being reduced,” says Hunter-Zaworski, who believes rail travel will see a resurgence in the future, especially for trips of less than 250 miles.
“I think people’s trip-making patterns are going to change,” she says. “You will see more people working from home instead of having to go into the office. Social media is going to change it.”
In Portland, social media has strong ties to public transportation, with open data from TriMet encouraging developers to create apps to make transportation easier and more seamless for Trimet users.
In its App Center, TriMet features more than 50 third-party applications aimed at providing real-time, useful transportation information on all forms of technology.