Thursday, 19 November 2015

The nuances of transport

I’d been to Portland before (on the 2009 Study Tour), so had an idea of what to expect, and this was on my mind when completing the initial assignment. On my first visit to Portland, I was surprised at how limited the rail network was, particularly given how much publicity it attracts compared to the networks of Melbourne.

Being here again with lower expectations of the extent of coverage of the rail network, I’m surprised by how much of the city it actually covers. Although it is very slow through the downtown area. According to Google Maps, a trip to Wholefoods would take 22 minutes on Max (light rail), 10 minutes on the bike, or just 24 minutes on foot.

I was curious as to why Portland had gone with two separate systems, Max light rail and Streetcar, when on the surface both modes provide a similar function or service. I thought there would have been better economies of scale in just running the light rail system with only one inventory of spare parts, and staff only being trained in one system. The Streetcar has substantially lower capital costs, with purchase of the cars significantly less than Max light rail cars, and substantially lower infrastructure costs with Max needing substantial groundworks and alterations to services underground, whereas Streetcar only needs 6 inches for rails and concrete. Also the key purpose of the Streetcar is to generate economic activity along the route, and move people short distances (like a moveable walkway), rather than provide a commuter service as Max does.

The other surprising observation on the ground was just how many people use the bus network. Bus stops often had more people waiting (albeit for more services) than the Max had.

Despite its transit orientation, Portland is still very car based. While the streets with light rail had limited car traffic, most offices still had substantial (full) parking lots, and most onstreet parking was full. Off the light rail lines, many streets had 4 traffic lanes, and were carrying substantial traffic.

The final most surprising observation was the level of growth Portland is expected to accommodate. Around 200,000 people (30% growth) over the next ten years. This will require substantial planning and investment by the City to accommodate.

Daniel Borton