Last weekend, I took the Portland MAX. I fully realize that I am the last man in a 1,000-mile radius to do this, so I’m not looking for props. Still, I’m surprised to say I’m not all that impressed.

Before I go any further, I should concede that at least Portland has a system. Their dedicated right-of-way system vastly outshines our (small) grab bag of monorails, bus tunnels, and bus ways. So for now, advantage Portland.

In a few years, though, our system is going to be a substantially better design than theirs. Consider:

  1. Because the stops have to fit in a city block, the trains are only 2 cars long, so the capacity sucks.
  2. It’s at-grade just about everywhere, including downtown. Pedestrians are everywhere, making speeds crappy. The stops are too close together, too.
  3. Almost all of the line is along the freeway. So much for TOD!

If you look at Sound Transit’s track in the Rainier Valley, it’s much less inviting to pedestrians because it sits in the middle of a boulevard. The crossings are limited so that stations can be four cars long, and the only stretches of the ST2 that have stops along the freeway are Northgate to Lynnwood and I-90 across Lake Washington.

The MAX strikes me as rail-on-the-cheap. There is no less expensive way to build a dedicated-right-of-way system than to do it at-grade and use freeway rights-of-way, although this compromises its capacity, operating speed, and ability to promote long-term ridership through transit oriented development. If Sound Transit delivers on its promises, it’ll be worth the wait.

19 Replies to “Portland MAX”

  1. That’s a great way to look at it. I’ve ridden the MAX when I lived there, and it was definately lack luster. I loved the trains over on the other coast much more. It felt like a West Coast Economy version of what RTS should be.

    But- better than nothing….

  2. Almost all of the [Portland MAX] line is along the freeway

    This isn’t really true. Nearly all of the newish Interstate MAX line is built similar to ST’s line on MLK Way. Most of the MAX from Gateway TC to Gresham is in the median of Burnside Rd, and a big chunk of the westside MAX runs in an old heavy rail right-of-way past a whole bunch of transit-oriented-development.

    And while building along the freeway does reduce the possibility of building nice housing right by the station, it helps with your other stated goal – fast service along a grade-separated right of way. A compromise.

    Maybe MAX is rail on the cheap, and there’s no doubt a subway through downtown Portland would be great, but, then, it’s been running for over twenty years already…

  3. The problem with tunnels: people don’t even know they are there. Surface LRT in downtown Portland works very well, because you just can’t miss those trains go by. They are “in your face” – probably one of the reasons MAX attracts so many atypical transit patrons.

  4. I’ll agree with max. Seattle’s bus tunnel does need to be better and more consistently labeled. You can spot a NYC subway station from a long way away because the signage is standard. The bus tunnel should do the same.

  5. They will be starting with a new Commuter Rail line in Ocotober, but it will not be run out of Portland Union Station, but run from Beaverton TC to Wilsonville, and perhaps eventually to Salem. It will be called Westside Express, or WES.

  6. I agree with you that MAX is slower. However in the end transit, especially light rail, isn’t about moving at the absolute fastest speed but rather about effecting land use and allowing people to get where they need to go to. Portland’s system is far superior than our none existent system.

    Also if you have ever driven in Portland you know that their city grid is MUCH finer than ours is. The fine gird slows everything down. Good for pedestrians but bad for everyone else.

  7. Well, bgtothen, we have a problem here. In Portland, they know that rail works. People here are not convinced whether transit works yet.

    Martin is right, we are getting a way better system. We are getting a proper subway through downtown and up to the UD. That will change the sort of city we live in.

  8. “Well, bgtothen, we have a problem here. In Portland, they know that rail works. People here are not convinced whether transit works yet.

    Martin is right, we are getting a way better system. We are getting a proper subway through downtown and up to the UD. That will change the sort of city we live in.”

    The reason people in PDX know that rails works is because they have it all over the city. Everyone in the city can use, not just people in a few neighborhoods. They built the system on the cheap but they built it everywhere. That is my point. Regardless of how fast it goes if it doesn’t go where people need to go they won’t use it.

  9. It’s a chicken and the egg a bit. People aren’t sure transit will work, so they don’t build it. Then they never become convinced.

    Though we will be convinced when link opens.

  10. There’s also a big city/small city dynamic at work here, IMHO. Seattle just seems more ambitious for bigness than Portland, with consequent dreams and failures.

  11. If you ask Tri-Met, they fully admit that the planners did at-grade through downtown because it was cheap, knowing the drawbacks – in fact, it’s a limiting factor for their entire system, since it all runs through downtown Portland.

    It was more important to get a system up and running at the time for what money they had.

    Seattle built a bus tunnel, and 20+ years later, we’re finally going to get trains through it.

  12. Anonymous.. Splitting hairs, but the Seattle Transit Tunnel opened in 1990, we’ll have trains for passengers in it in 2009. Sure we started constructing it in 1987, and approved it in 1983, but it didn’t open till 1990.

    Plus we got all of that bus service out of it in the interim..

  13. I admit, I’m not thrilled with Portlands system either. Having a brother that lives there, everytime I visit him we want to do stuff downtown. We do take MAX, but I have a hard time finding out if MAX is faster than their Streetcar? Too many stops downtown makes MAX feel like a streetcar with two cars. I wouldn’t want that in Seattle. I think you have to design the system to be able to utilize its value (ie streetcar for volume not speed necessarily light rail for volume and more speed). That is my opinion. Yes it is true that Portland has had their system for a while, but I do think ours will be worth the wait.

  14. Having lived in suburban Portland for a couple of years, their system is certainly interesting and, relatively, extensive for the amount that they spent. But it’s always been a hybrid of streetcar speeds downtown (where there are a bunch of stops close to each other) and high-speed commuter service on the periphery. Plus those huge sections of lines stuck in the middle of the freeway (ughh). While LINK will be at-grade for a good bit, that section won’t be its theoretical heart.

    Also, rail certainly does not reach every neighborhood in the city. The Belmont, Burnside, Hawthorne, Divison and Powell corridors on the Eastside of the river will still be unserved by it even with the Green Line (and the Orange Line will only skirt the westernmost edge of them). It really does go to only a very few neighborhoods in the city itself but has always reached out to the suburbs.

  15. On the other hand, if anything I think our system probably needs one, if not two additional stops between Mount Baker and Rainier Valley. I’m looking at you, 1.6 mi stretch between Columbia City and Othello.

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