Thoughts On Portland’s Public Transit

As previously mentioned, my thoughts on Portland’s public transit would be getting their own post. Now, to be fair, I’ve lived in Portland for just under three weeks. I haven’t seen public transit here in all four seasons yet, nor do I know anything about how things used to be. In some aspects, it’s difficult to compare TriMet and Portland Streetcar to SEPTA. But, here are a couple quick highlights:


  • Fantastic customer service
  • Sets the standard for social media
  • Actively installing more turnstiles
  • Will beat Portland to fare cards
  • Limited “real-time” arrival information
  • Majority of bus fleet is hybrid
  • No low-floor light rail (estimated to arrive by 2020)
  • Ticket (token) machines are a challenge to find and none take credit cards (to get much better with the rollout of Key)

TriMet and Portland Streetcar:

  • No customer service on weekends
  • Very little customer service via social media
  • Majority of the system uses Proof-of-Payment/the honor system
  • Uses paper tickets (which are better than tokens)
  • Real-time arrival information for everything on the network
    • Portland Streetcar is even fully trackable on the web, which updates at each stop
  • Launched its first four hybrid busses this year
  • TriMet had the first low floor trains in America (to be fair, they’re low-floor/high-floor hybrids)
  • TriMet has ticket machines at all stations; Portland Streetcar has card machines at every station (which have terrible UX design) and cash machines on every train (which like to get full)

TriMet and Portland Streetcar both have a very modern feel to them. They excel at technology usage, even though HOP doesn’t arrive until 2017, and there are plenty of green poles everywhere to remind you of that. From a service standpoint though, TriMet falls short. When MAX gets disrupted, all hell breaks loose. To be fair, SEPTA can really drop the ball if Regional Rail gets disrupted too, but their response to a disruption overall is better than TriMet’s. Portland Streetcar I’ve only seen one disruption on, and that was due to the flooding caused by yesterday’s (31 October) rain. Unfortunately, the rain was already causing hell for TriMet and as a result, there were no shuttle busses available to replace Streetcar. The Streetcar system just simply shut down until 6pm yesterday. MAX was badly disrupted through end of service. Busses became boats.

As for ride experience, Portland Streetcar is awesome. It’s clean, it’s quiet, and it’s quick enough. MAX is a gamble. Yes, the Type 4 and Type 5 trains are sexy (5 more than the 4), but some lines are more friendly than others – granted time of day also plays into effect. TriMet overall isn’t very clean, although operators do try their best. That said, I don’t fault TriMet operations for being unclean; I fault the riders, same as I would with SEPTA. The bus fleet is ancient compared to SEPTA. I very much miss those beautiful new NovaBus busses. Ironically, TriMet uses NewFlyer, just like most of SEPTA.

With regards to staff, I would say TriMet/Portland Streetcar and SEPTA are evenly matched. The majority are friendly and seem to care. SEPTA just does customer service far better. Swag is again an equal match, although SEPTA makes it a lot easier to get a hold of with their museum and gift shop right in the lobby of their headquarters. TriMet only does events and online.

Finally, I would say it’s much easier to ride TriMet right now than it is SEPTA. That will change significantly when SEPTA rolls out Key at the end of the year. But right now, it’s much easier to get a ticket to ride TriMet than it is SEPTA. Every MAX and Portland Streetcar stop has a ticket machine. You can also buy tickets on your phone and use your phone as an e-ticket. Busses use the exact same farebox as SEPTA, except TriMet has a ticket printer while SEPTA has a Key validator. Until Key is turned on, the majority of SEPTA stations lack ticket machines, and you can only buy tokens with a credit card online or at a sales office. On TriMet, tickets and cash are the same price; SEPTA gives a slight discount for tokens/Key.

Overall, neither system is particularly better than the other. SEPTA’s customer service is great, but their technology usage and ease of purchasing a ticket are far behind TriMet’s. TriMet’s light rail fleet is very modern, but hybrid buses are a foreign concept. So is customer service on the weekend.

Now, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that SEPTA is in the middle of a huge transition period right now. There is a ton of network modernization going on at SEPTA, which is very expensive to implement. TriMet, on the other hand, just completed a major new light rail line in September, which cost a ton. While SEPTA has money to spend right now, TriMet doesn’t quite, although I’m sure HOP isn’t going to be cheap (I for one will be very interested in seeing the final cost for Key vs HOP).

Ultimately though, I’m satisfied with public transit here. Portland Streetcar I love. TriMet is getting there®. Portland’s light rail definitely reminds me of my time in Melbourne, and to be honest, if I hadn’t spent those six months in Melbourne, this – and all other transit posts on here – probably would not exist.

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