Portland’s public transportation system is considered among the best in the United States, offering a handful of methods for navigating the area with some of the safest and most convenient alternatives to driving a vehicle.
And for college students on a budget, it can mean savings that spell the difference between routine ramen noodle dinners or meals with more nutritional bulk.
With options that include light rail, bus, streetcar and a commuter rail, Portland’s public transportation offers frequent service as far east as Gresham, as far west as Forest Grove, as far north as St. Johns and south as far as Wilsonville, with multiple options for traveling throughout the metropolitan area without a car.
The savings from public transportation are particularly pronounced for trips that begin and end in Downtown Portland, an area known as “Fareless Square.”
Riders are not charged to ride the bus, streetcar or MAX, the light rail system, within Fareless Square, which includes most of Downtown Portland within the Willamette River, Northwest Irving Street and Interstate 405, the MAX stations from the Rose Quarter to Rose Garden and bus stops along Northeast Multnomah to 13th Avenue.
That could soon change for the bus system.
Recent budget shortfalls have taken some buses off the streets and threaten to eliminate free riding. The operator of most of Portland’s public transportation said these changes should only be temporary.
“The recession has impacted service, but as the economy recovers, TriMet hopes to add back service, especially to the frequent service lines that carry the bulk of the riders,” said Mary Fetsch, a spokesperson for TriMet.
TriMet board members are set to vote on a proposal Wednesday that would eliminate free fares for buses within Fareless Square beginning in January. The proposal does not affect the MAX system.
Meanwhile, the MAX is set for expansion. It has three lines—Red, Blue and Yellow—that branch out in different directions of the Portland metropolitan area.
A fourth line, Green, with an L-shaped route from Clackamas Town Center to Gateway Transit Center to Downtown Portland and multiple stops in between, is under construction with a $575.7 million price tag and is set to begin rolling Sept. 12.
It will use the same tracks as the Red and Blue lines from Downtown to Gateway Transit Center and share a track with the Yellow Line from north to south in Downtown Portland.
Portland’s light rail system is one of the fastest ways to travel throughout the metropolitan area without a vehicle.
MAX trains have their own dedicated lanes and change stop lights to green upon approach, unlike the streetcar and buses, which move with the flow of traffic.
The trains travel at 15 mph through Downtown and the same speeds as adjacent traffic elsewhere, such as 35 mph on Burnside and 55 mph on the Banfield Freeway, Fetsch said.
All of the color-coded lines travel throughout Downtown and generally share tracks, but branch into different areas once they reach the city’s outskirts.
The Blue Line, MAX’s oldest route, travels from Hillsboro to Gresham on an east-to-west pattern and connects through Beaverton, Downtown Portland, the Rose Quarter, Lloyd Center and Gateway Transit Center.
The second oldest route, the Red Line, travels from Beaverton to the airport and connects through Downtown Portland, the Rose Quarter and Lloyd Center.
The Yellow Line follows a north-to-south route from Portland State University to the Expo Center, connecting through Downtown Portland.
Most MAX rail lines operate from 5 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, except the Blue Line, which ends service at about 1:30 a.m. On Sundays, the Blue Line is the last train to operate, ending service at 11:30 p.m., Fetsch said.
TriMet employs an armada of 654 total buses with 522 running along a spider-web system throughout the Portland metropolitan area during rush hour, Fetsch said.
Buses move at a slower pace than the MAX, but few areas in Portland extend further than a few blocks from a bus route, and riders can generally find themselves at the doorstep of their intended destination.
Whether traveling to Oregon City, Gresham, King City, Forest Grove, St. Johns or within Portland city limits, a frequent bus route is available.
To find bus stop locations and times or calculate a route, use TriMet’s trip planner at trimet.org.
Most bus routes operate from 5 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., Fetsch said.
The streetcar is the slowest option for public transportation, traveling barely faster than a brisk walking pace when factoring traffic and stop lights.
And it offers the least extensive route of any mode of Portland public transportation, but it can be an easy way to escape the rain or rest your legs.
Most the route is contained within the city center on a path that’s largely constrained to 10th and 11th avenues, but it branches northward to the Nob Hill area, primarily along Northrup and Lovejoy streets to 23rd Avenue, and as far south as Lowell Street and Southwest Bond Avenue.
Ticket prices are the same as other modes of public transportation, but a special $100 yearly pass offers a steep discount for riders who only use the streetcar, according to TriMet’s Web site.
West commuter rail
The Westside Express Service commuter rail connects Wilsonville, Tualatin, Tigard and Beaverton, running up to 55 mph.
It runs every 30 minutes during morning and afternoon rush hour Monday through Friday. A ticket for all zones is required to ride the train.
TriMet charges an across-the-board fee for tickets, which are usable on any combination of the MAX, bus or streetcar until they expire.
Youths and the elderly can get a ride at a steep discount, up to 70 percent depending on the length of the ticket, according to TriMet’s Web site.
General short-term tickets, which allow two hours of riding, are $2.30 for all zones, $2 for a single zone and $1.50 for youth/students (ages 7¬–17).
But buying fares for a longer period of time significantly lowers the price tag. Seven-day tickets run $22.50 for all zones and $19.50 for two zones. Fourteen-day passes are $43.50 for all zones, $38 for two zones and $13.50 for youths.
The longest discounted tickets last one month at a rate of $86 for all zones, $75 for two zones and $26 for youths.
Yearly passes are also available for $946 for all zones and $825 for two zones.