Category: Transportation

You and Your Car: Portland Public Enemy No. 1

By Micah Perry

Driving around Portland could get a lot more expensive. The Portland City Council just passed a resolution to create an “equitable mobility task force” to study how imposing steep new fees on city drivers could reduce congestion.

Proponents say the fees will help Portland meet its carbon reduction goals. They also claim that, by increasing the cost of driving and parking, low-income residents and people of color will be better off. Ironically, the city itself noted that “65% of peak car commuters in Portland are medium or low income,” meaning any new fees will actually hurt the communities they seek to help.

Fees being considered include increased parking prices, Uber or Lyft surcharges, a mileage tax, and tolls to enter certain areas of the city. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most, as Portland frequently pursues anti-car policies, such as a citywide gasoline tax, a reduction in street parking downtown, and the city’s notorious “road diets,” which essentially create congestion by design.

If Portland truly cared about easing congestion amid a growing population, it would add lanes wherever possible. And, rather than try to tax people out of their cars, the city should reevaluate its approach to transit and create a public transportation system that can be attractive to commuters without having to resort to coercion.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Congestion by Design on the New Sellwood Bridge

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland-area motorists who have to regularly cross the Sellwood Bridge may wonder why the new structure is twice as wide as the 1925 bridge, yet has the same number of travel lanes. The answer is simple. Portland transportation planners don’t want to solve traffic congestion problems; they prefer to make them worse.

We know this because 20 years ago, Metro published a report entitled the “South Willamette River Crossing Study” (SWRCS), which examined the long-term bridge needs in the stretch of the Willamette River from the Marquam Bridge down to Oregon City. The study found that by 2015, levels of traffic congestion on those bridges would be at “unacceptable or grossly unacceptable levels” if new capacity wasn’t provided.

The study also looked at numerous potential sites for a new bridge but ultimately recommended that no new crossings be constructed. The Metro Council decided instead to focus on “transportation demand management” (TDM) to address the growing congestion.  TDM is an amorphous concept utilizing public relations campaigns and regulatory mandates to encourage drivers to shift to other modes of travel.

Once the decision by Metro was made to place a freeze on new bridge capacity, it was easy for the City of Portland to implement a new policy downsizing Tacoma Street in Sellwood from a four-lane arterial to a two-lane “Main Street,” with lower speed limits. That made it politically impossible for Multnomah County, owner of the Sellwood Bridge, to replace the aging structure with a four-lane bridge.

The decision to build a new bridge was made in 2006, and construction began in 2012. The design featured two 12-foot-wide travel lanes for motor vehicles, two 12-foot-wide sidewalks, and two bike lanes. All the proponents claimed that dedicating more through-capacity for cyclists and pedestrians than vehicles would create a world-class, multi-modal showpiece that would finally tame the automobile and shift drivers to other modes.

In fact, when a USDOT official spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony while presenting an oversized check for $17 million, she told the audience, “We looked all over the country for the best projects, and I have to say, the application for the Sellwood Bridge project knocked it out of the park!”

Unfortunately, all of the hype turned out to be wrong. Extensive monitoring by Cascade Policy Institute over the past three years shows that on a typical day, motor vehicles account for 95% of all passenger-trips. Transit gets about 2%, and walking/cycling combined garner the final 3%. Traffic congestion is growing worse by the month because regional population is growing and the bridge infrastructure has not kept pace.

With a price tag of $328 million, the new bridge is 43 times more expensive than the original; but it’s not 43 times more useful. In fact, it’s less useful, because trucks are not allowed and TriMet never restored the promised transit service.

Metro’s no-growth policy was a predictable failure. It’s time for the Metro Council to admit the mistake, and begin a new planning process with the goal of building at least one new bridge for motorists in the South Willamette River Corridor.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research institute. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 11, 2019.

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SW Corridor Project: A Net Negative for the Environment

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland politicians claim to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. That’s why so many of them support TriMet’s proposed 12-mile light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village near Tigard. They think it will reduce fossil fuel use.

Their assumptions are wrong.

According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, energy used during construction of the rail project will equal 5.9 trillion Btu. Much of this will be in the form of fossil fuels needed to power the heavy equipment. Additional energy will be used to manufacture the rail cars, tracks, and overhead wires.

The EIS claims that the negative environmental consequences of construction will be made up by energy saved from operations of the train. However, the operational savings are so small it would take 61 years to mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions of construction.

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption 

Vehicle Type Daily VMT – No build option Million Btu/Day – No build option Daily VMT

With Light Rail

Million Btu/Day

With Light Rail

Passenger vehicle 51,474,286 249,084 51,415,071 248,798
Heavy-duty trucks 3,389,982 73,132 3,389,288 73,117
Transit bus 100,122 3,546 97,501 3,453
Light rail 19,189 1,247 21,200 1,377
TOTAL 54,983,579 327,009 54,923,060 326,745

                                          Source: Draft EIS, SW Corridor Project

Unfortunately, all of the light rail cars will need to be replaced before then. Building new cars will require more energy, resulting in additional CO2 emissions and a longer payback period.

Light rail is not a solution to a perceived climate change problem; it IS a climate change problem. Any further planning for the SW Corridor project should be terminated.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled

By John A. Charles. Jr.

Executive Summary

Portland has an international reputation for successfully integrating land-use and transportation planning. The primary goals of such planning are to limit the physical size of the city and reduce the daily use of private motor vehicles by encouraging alternative modes of travel.

Many transportation policies have been developed in support of these goals. One of the most visible has been the policy of slowing vehicle speeds through “traffic calming” and “road diets.” Advocates claim that reducing road capacity for motor vehicles has only minor effects on travel time. They also assert that future demand for road space can be mitigated through mode-shifting from single-occupant driving to walking, biking and transit.

In the late 1990s the Sellwood Bridge and its eastside connector, Tacoma Street, provided a perfect opportunity to test both the concept of integrated planning as well as the strategy of implementing a road diet. The original Sellwood Bridge opened in 1925, and over the next 60 years it became the most heavily traveled two-lane bridge in the state. By the mid-1980s the Bridge was badly in need of either major remediation or replacement.

Multnomah County, which owned and operated it, imposed vehicle weight limits in 1985 and again in 2004. After the second reduction, all heavy vehicles (including transit buses) were prohibited.

With traffic levels continuing to rise, it was clear that Multnomah County needed to either build a wider replacement bridge or a two-lane replacement plus another bridge nearby to the south. Local planners, however, believed the Portland region to be overly reliant on the private automobile and decided to place a moratorium on any new Willamette River bridge capacity. They assumed that if the region simply stopped building bridges, they could persuade people to switch from driving to some other mode.

Soon thereafter, the City of Portland undertook a study of Tacoma Street in the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood, with the goal of making it more pedestrian-friendly. The result of that process was a recommendation to downsize Tacoma from a four-lane collector to a two-lane “Main Street,” even though Tacoma was already a two-lane road except for four hours each weekday – 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. – when street parking was disallowed so that traffic flowing to and from the bridge could move faster. Striped crosswalks were also recommended in three locations between SE 6th and 13th, to allow pedestrians to safely cross mid-block.

Tacoma Street was put on a “road diet” in 2002, in which two travel lanes in each direction became one travel lane each way along with a center turn lane.  These changes meant the Sellwood Bridge replacement would also inevitably be limited to two traffic lanes. While the new bridge was designed to be more than twice as wide as the original, more than half the through-lane capacity was allocated to non-motorized uses. The County made this decision even though 98% of all peak-hour passenger-trips on the old bridge had taken place in motorized vehicles.

The new Sellwood Bridge opened for travel in February 2016. The north side cycling/walking facilities were open, but the south side bikeway and shared-use sidewalk did not open until 2017.

Now that the bridge has been fully operational for more than two years, it’s possible to measure actual travel patterns and compare them with the forecasted results. It turns out that the transportation planners were wrong in their prediction of how future travel needs would be met.

Traffic congestion is worse than before. Cycling and walking levels have not gone up as predicted, and transit service is far below the levels promised in the planning documents. Moreover, peak-hour vehicle throughput on the bridge has been permanently reduced due to new traffic signals at either end of the bridge and lowered speed limits.

Since bridge “supply” was reduced but motorized travel “demand” went up with population growth, motorists have increasingly resorted to cutting through side streets north and south of Tacoma in order to gain access to the bridge. In fact, the Tacoma Street downsizing made this practice easier by creating a middle turn lane that creates shelter for motorists trying to enter the traffic queue from side streets. This has degraded the quality of life for nearby residents.

Although the new Sellwood Bridge was marketed as a cutting-edge example of the Portland commitment to “multi-modalism,” the bridge itself is not even a multi-modal facility. Heavy trucks are prohibited, and there is no bus service most of the time. Average daily travel is actually more reliant on the private automobile than it was in 1993.

This paper examines the rationale for putting the Sellwood Bridge/Tacoma Street corridor on a road diet and compares actual travel data with pre-construction forecasts. It offers a cautionary note for city leaders who are planning for growth by shrinking important arterials such as Naito Parkway, Foster Road, and NE Broadway.

READ THE FULL REPORT

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a position he has held since 2004. He received a BA degree with honors from University of Pittsburgh and an MPA degree from Portland State University. He has been writing about transportation policy for more than 30 years. The focus of his research is utilizing field studies to determine how the built environment influences urban travel behavior. He has co-authored case studies of transit-oriented developments in the Portland region related to the South Waterfront district, Hillsboro’s Orenco Station, and Steele Park in Washington County. His most recent paper is entitled, Why Cities and Counties Should Consider Leaving TriMet.

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Press Release: Multi-year case study of Multnomah County’s Sellwood Bridge explains the history behind worsening traffic congestion in the SE Portland bridge corridor

June 6, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, OR – Today Cascade Policy Institute released the results of a seven-year case study of the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction, The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled.

The evidence shows that even though the new Sellwood Bridge is more than twice as wide as the original bridge, it moves fewer people at peak hours. Moreover, use of the bridge by cyclists and pedestrians has not increased significantly, despite the generous facilities provided for them.

As a result, traffic congestion in the bridge corridor is worse than it was in 2012, and cut-through traffic in the Sellwood neighborhood has seriously degraded the quality of life for those living and working there.

The increase in traffic congestion was actually planned for by Metro more than 20 years ago, when the regional agency placed a moratorium on any new Willamette River bridge capacity for motor vehicles between the Marquam Bridge and Oregon City. Metro believed that if a bridge cap was imposed, significant numbers of people could be diverted from auto travel to biking, walking, or transit.

Their assumptions were wrong. During two years of intensive field monitoring by Cascade Policy Institute, the combined travel share for biking and walking never exceeded three percent, as shown below:

Sellwood Bridge Travel Patterns, 2017-18

Based on hourly sampling

Year Total observed passenger-trips Auto share Transit share Bike share Pedestrian share
2017 13,593 95.1% 2.2% 2.2% 0.5%
2018 19,888 95.2% 1.9% 2.4% 0.6%

 

Although the new Sellwood Bridge was marketed as a cutting-edge example of the Portland commitment to “multi-modalism,” the bridge itself is not even a multi-modal facility. Heavy trucks are prohibited, and there is no bus service most of the time. Average daily travel is actually more reliant on the private automobile than it was in 1993.

According to Cascade Policy Institute President John A. Charles, Jr., who directed the study,

“Portland-area planners have long believed they could change travel behavior by starving the road system while promoting alternative modes such as transit, walking, and biking. The evidence from the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction shows that wider sidewalks are not a substitute for increased road capacity.”

John Charles is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute and has written about transportation policy for more than 30 years. The focus of his research is utilizing field studies to determine how the built environment influences urban travel behavior. Charles received a BA degree with honors from University of Pittsburgh and an MPA degree from Portland State University.

The full report, The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled, can be downloaded here.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Wind Energy is Just Hot Air

By Miranda Bonifield

TriMet recently announced its first “zero-emission” bus is ready to roll, claiming that wind-powered buses are cleaner and easier to maintain. But the reality is that electric buses are dirtier and more expensive than traditional buses.

Wind and solar energy are both known as “intermittent resources” because both kinds of energy farming have long time periods when they don’t generate any power. Unfortunately, energy can’t just be stored like other commodities—as soon as it enters the power grid, it has to travel directly to the end user. There must be a constant supply to meet demand, or customers will not receive power reliably.

During unproductive periods (for instance, when wind turbines aren’t turning) renewable energy farms are forced to rely upon ordinary fuel. But because these periods are unpredictable, the backup has to be running even when power is being generated. Research has indicated as much as a 1% increase in traditional fuel use for every .88% increase in the long-run share of renewable energy. In other words, this supposedly clean energy uses more fuel than it replaces.

It would be far more reasonable for TriMet to focus its energy on improving existing services rather than purchasing buses which are more than twice as expensive and may break down six times as frequently. The claim that wind-powered buses are more efficient for Oregonians is just a bunch of hot air.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Road Widening, Congestion Pricing Can Improve Metro-Area Drive Times

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

I’ve got a big family, which means we do a lot of laundry. With our old appliances, we were doing a load a day and there was a backlog of dirty clothes.

When our old washer and dryer went kaput, we decided on an upgrade. I bought the biggest, most energy efficient washer and dryer I could afford. I figured with bigger loads, we’d be doing fewer loads. But in some ways, I was wrong. Sure, the new washer and dryer could hold a lot more laundry, but we were still doing about a load a day.

However, something changed: The backlog of dirty clothes disappeared, and our utility bills decreased. Even though we are still washing clothes every day, we are washing more clothes more cheaply than we were before. Where it used to take three hours for a complete wash-and-dry cycle, now it’s closer to two hours. Those new appliances made our day-to-day lives measurably better off.

In Portland, the Oregon Department of Transportation is in the process of widening I-5 through the Rose Quarter, which has been named one of the worst bottlenecks in the country by the American Transportation Research Institute. ODOT forecasts the improvements will save more than 2.5 million hours of travel time each year and reduce crashes by up to 50 percent. For example, the current “worst” stretch (I-5 southbound, from the Going on-ramp to I-84 eastbound off-ramp), will see travel times drop 15-30 percent. Over a typical work year, that would save a commuter more than 20 hours of time stuck in his or her vehicle. Many, if not most, commuters through the Rose Quarter will be measurably better off because of this project.

Despite these anticipated benefits for commuters, opponents of the I-5 project claim that increasing highway capacity will increase congestion. They invoke a concept they call “induced demand,” arguing that wider roads “induce” people to drive more, leading to more traffic and ultimately even worse congestion than before the improvements were made. It’s much like arguing that I’m worse off because my new washer and dryer can handle more laundry than my old klunkers.

Critics of the project tend to confound traffic with congestion. Traffic is the number of vehicles or vehicle miles travelled. Congestion involves speeds or travel time. A road can have a lot of traffic and little congestion. Similarly, a road with relatively little traffic can be highly congested—such as streets around a neighborhood school in a residential area during drop-off and pick-up times.

To be sure, improvements around the Rose Quarter will increase traffic on I-5 and I-84. Some of that traffic will come from more people driving. But some of that traffic will be the result of people choosing to use the highways instead of taking arterials or residential streets, which will reduce congestion on these increasingly clogged roads. If it’s cheaper in terms of time to take a highway rather than an arterial, people will choose the highway. That’s not “induced” demand, that’s plain old vanilla demand. Lower prices lead to higher quantity demanded.

The Rose Quarter highway improvements are to be combined with a congestion pricing program that will further improve traffic speeds and travel times. Done properly, such pricing discourages driving when congestion is most likely. Anyone who has used Uber or Lyft has experienced congestion pricing with the services’ “surge pricing,” in which fares increase when demand for rides exceeds the number of drivers at a particular time. Congestion pricing smooths the timing of trips to foster a faster flow of vehicles.

The benefits of road widening are readily visible here in Portland. Last year, a newly completed auxiliary lane on I-5 southbound from OR 217 to I-205 removed a frustrating bottleneck. According to ODOT, that stretch of road went from five hours of afternoon rush-hour congestion to one hour a day of congestion, during the afternoon commute. OR 217 went from four hours of congestion to zero hours of congestion. I’m sure no one is sitting in their car on I-5 or OR 217 saying, “I really miss all that congestion.”

The Portland region is adding more than 30,000 people each year. Our transportation system needs to keep up with the influx of new residents, workers, and business activity. It’s this growth that’s inducing the demand for more and better roads, and the region needs to meet that demand.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on April 25, 2019.

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Metro’s Priorities Don’t Match Yours

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Portland regional government known as Metro recently published the results of a poll regarding the most important issues to the region. Unsurprisingly, traffic congestion emerged as the number one concern: 96% of all respondents stated that congestion was a serious problem.

These results are consistent with virtually every poll taken over the past 25 years, yet congestion continues to get worse. The reason is that the Metro Council refuses to improve driving conditions and authorize new bridges and highways where they are needed, such as the west side of Portland.

Instead, Metro is determined to spend enormous sums of public money on additional light rail service that most people will never use.

Metro has appointed a 30-person Task Force to draft a ballot measure for 2020 seeking billions of dollars to build a light rail line to Bridgeport Village. This would be a complete waste of money. Transit ridership peaked in 2012. Since then, thousands of customers have left for Uber and Lyft, and they’re not coming back. TriMet is becoming irrelevant.

Sadly, no one at Metro or TriMet cares what taxpayers want—they only care about expanding their bureaucratic empires. Voters should remember this when the bond measure is unveiled later this year.

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John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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How Ride Hailing Services Can Complement Bus and Rail—and Save TriMet Money

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

After teaching an evening class at Portland State University, I walked up to the kiosk showing TriMet arrival times. My bus was coming in five minutes. Good news. One of my students was standing there, too. She shook her head, looked at her phone, and said, “My next bus is in 30 minutes. I’m just going to Uber home.” Her situation wasn’t unique. Across the country, more and more commuters see ride hailing as a reliable and affordable substitute for mass transit.

Transit agencies should see services such as Lyft and Uber as an opportunity rather than a threat. Toward that end, Cascade Policy Institute recommends TriMet pursue a pilot project that replaces one or more of its high-cost bus lines with ride hailing services supported by a subsidy funded with the cost savings from eliminating the high-cost line. The experiment likely will find that replacing high-cost bus service with ride hailing will improve ridership and save money.

TriMet faces a challenge of declining ridership in conjunction with rising costs. Ridership has declined for many public transit providers in the U.S.—TriMet reports bus boardings have dropped 13 percent from their 2009 peak. As the Portland Tribune reported, the agency thinks many factors have contributed to the decline in ridership, including gentrification in Portland, the growth of urban centers inside and outside the city, and the development of self-sufficient walkable neighborhoods that has reduced the need for bus trips.

Longer travel times likely are another factor that explains the decline in bus ridership. From 2007 through 2017, the average vehicle speed for TriMet buses has dropped by almost nine percent. Portland city commissioner Amanda Fritz recently tweeted that Portland’s new speed limit law has made her bus commute five minutes longer. Over a year, that’s about 30 extra hours sitting on a bus. With longer travel times, the costs to commuters of using public transit increase, leading to a decline in ridership.

As with any mass transit enterprise, TriMet operates a number of high-cost, low-ridership bus lines. For example, the agency reports the 97 (Tualatin-Sherwood Rd) bus line has about ten riders per hour at a cost of more than $18 per ride. The fare for a ride hailing service covering the same distance as the average bus trip would be less than $8. Service on this route could be completely replaced by ride hailing services and save TriMet thousands of dollars a week.

While ride hailing can replace mass transit, it can also complement bus and rail service. Recent research finds that ride hailing services have the largest positive effect on rail service in cities with large public transit systems already in place, such as Portland. In 2015, Lyft conducted a nationwide survey of riders and found that 25 percent of riders use Lyft to connect to public transit. Uber reports that nearly 25 percent of Uber trips in suburban Portland began or ended within one quarter-mile of a MAX or WES station.

More than a dozen cities in the United States currently have programs running similar to the pilot project we propose. Detroit’s program, “Woodward 2 Work,” runs late at night and is aimed at those who work late shifts when mass transit does not run. San Clemente replaced two high-cost bus lines with ride hailing. Marin County’s service is designed to boost ridership on commuter rail by making it more convenient for riders to get to and from rail stations. Several of the programs that began as pilots have been extended because of their success in serving commuters and saving money.

Many of these cities have developed procedures to accommodate users who do not have a smartphone and users with ADA-related needs. In approving ride hailing services in Portland, the city mandated a performance standard that called for wheelchair accessible vehicles to reach riders in thirty minutes or less. In Detroit’s program, riders without bank accounts can use prepaid gift cards.

The pilot project we recommend would be a low-cost, low-risk test of potential synergies between public transit and private ride hailing. If successful, the lessons learned can and should be applied to additional high-cost transit lines.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist, adjunct professor at Portland State University, and Academic Advisor at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on January 24, 2019.

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Ride-Hailing Could Give an Uber-Needed Lyft to TriMet Service

By Miranda Bonifield

TriMet’s ridership has been steadily declining in recent years, to the great concern of transit advocates and fiscally conscious citizens alike. Proposed solutions involve sending expensive new bus and rail lines to underserved locations. But what if TriMet could reach new customers at a fraction of that cost?

Cascade Policy Institute recently released a study by economist Dr. Eric Fruits which found one or more high-cost and low-ridership bus lines could be replaced by facilitating the use of ride-hailing services in partnership with transit. Riders within particular areas could call an Uber or Lyft, ride to the bus, and then take public transit the rest of the way—a much more efficient and comfortable method than walking or biking through the rain. It could cost 55% less than expensive proposed bus lines—saving TriMet money—and slightly less than current bus and Max fares—saving customers money.

This isn’t a new idea; transit companies across the country have taken advantage of ride-hailing services’ ability to complement public transit. Studies have found a small but significant increase in transit ridership in cities with large transit systems which chose to partner with ride-hailing services. TriMet should pursue this low-risk, high-benefit option with a one-year pilot project beneficial to taxpayers, riders, and TriMet alike.

Miranda Bonifield is Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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