Buses Will Become the Priority on This City’s Streets

Portland streets will soon prioritize public transit.

Portland streets will soon prioritize public transit. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

A measure passed in Portland, Oregon will create bus-specific lanes, an effort supporters say will help the city meet its climate change action goals.

Buses in Portland, Oregon may soon be the fastest way to get around.

That’s thanks to a sweeping plan unanimously passed by Portland City Council last week that will take lanes previously open to car traffic and make them bus-only. The Rose Lane Project will fund up to $10 million worth of changes to city streets, including new traffic signals and lanes dedicated to public transit. The goal is to create less congested routes for at least 45 bus lines, making them more efficient and, hopefully, more appealing to commuters. 

Before the vote on the plan, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who led the council debate on the project, said that the changes could reduce the city’s emissions, a major climate change mitigation goal. "The facts are undeniable—climate change is here, we're already experiencing its consequences and it hits our most vulnerable community members the hardest," Eudaly said at the city council meeting last Thursday. "We know that transportation is a massive contributing factor to the climate crisis."

Just 12% of commuters in the city use public transit, taking buses, the light rail train, or street cars. Portland set the goal to double its transit ridership by 2035 in order to reduce emissions from private cars.

Mayor Ted Wheeler tweeted his support of the project before the City Council voted. “By encouraging more transit ridership, The Rose Lane Project is also part of our climate action strategy, helping us meet the City's emission reduction goals,” he wrote.

In a survey the city conducted of more than 2,000 residents, more than two-thirds of respondents said they strongly support or somewhat support the project. Support was highest from those who currently use transit, as over 80% of people who ride public transit a few times a week indicated their support for the plan. By contrast, 86% of those who never take a bus, train, or street car disapproved of the measure. 

The move in Portland follows a similar pattern in major cities seeking to revamp city streets with an eye towards improving the experience of pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit riders. In October, New York imposed limits on car traffic on some Manhattan streets to make bus service more efficient and San Francisco last month banned most cars from Market Street, a popular pedestrian corridor.

Not all of Portland’s revisions will be that dramatic. One part of the plan calls for simpler changes like removing street parking during rush hour to create bus-only lanes. In total, the changes will affect about 100,000 public transit riders. The initial changes are expected to be completed by 2021, with second-round public transit enhancements scheduled for 2022, although those projects have not yet been funded. 

Some commissioners raised concerns that the segments of bus lines that will see improvement won’t benefit those who ride transit the most—namely low-income residents and people of color. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said that East Portland, an area with a large percentage of low-income residents, won’t see much of a difference until phase two projects get started. 

“I’m more concerned about what happens in neighborhoods like mine with a very limited public transit infrastructure, with almost no bus shelters that shelter people from the rain,” Hardesty said at the council meeting. “If we invest in the Central City and the economy takes a downturn then once again East Portland’s going to be told, ‘Whoops, sorry, we just don’t have money to do phase two.’” 

Portland has been struggling to retain low-income riders on their transit system, an issue the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, usually known as TriMet, has blamed on economic displacement. In 2017, the group noted that weekly ridership declined in 2016 predominantly in “traditionally low-income, inner eastside neighborhoods” that have seen home values rise dramatically. 

Supporters of the Rose Lane plan said that the proposed downtown improvements will have ripple effects throughout the city when major traffic bottlenecks are removed, benefitting even those in low-income neighborhoods outside the city center.

Eudaly painted the project as a measure that would correct the unfair distribution of resources given to people who drive cars. “This city was not made for cyclists, pedestrians or bus riders,” Eudaly said before casting her vote in favor of the project. “Unfortunately it was made for automobile drivers, and we are now trying to correct that kind of over-dedication of resources.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Cities and Towns are Abandoning Glass Recycling. Can It Be Saved?