In 18 months, Portland streets could see the most dramatic change in public transit since the arrival of the streetcar. All it will take is gallons of red paint.
Deep in the bowels of city bureaucracy, Portland transportation officials under the direction of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly are preparing to debut what they're calling the "Red Lane Project": removing miles of roadside parking and traffic lanes from Portland streets to make room for uninterrupted routes for buses.
By one measure, the proposal is nothing new. Cities such as Baltimore, Seattle and San Francisco have already dedicated lanes to buses. Some think that dedicating lanes just to buses is the single best way to entice more commuters to take public transit: by ensuring it moves regardless of traffic jams.
TriMet, the region's transit agency, estimates it has spent $14 million over the past two years compensating for slow-moving traffic.
Yet removing parking and car lanes for a kind of citywide Bus Mall will require tangling with what was until recently considered a politically untouchable class: irate motorists.
Eudaly's office says it's a necessary step to meet the city's climate action goals and support low-income residents, who are more likely to take the bus.
"Transportation intersects very dramatically with all the things we really care about," says Eudaly's policy director, Jamey Duhamel, adding that the commissioner and her aides asked themselves: "What can we do within transportation to really affect people's lives, the most vulnerable in our community? What we heard over and over was: 'How are you going to get buses out of traffic?'"
Eudaly herself says she's gearing up for a political fight.
"While most people may agree on fundamental truths, such as the threat of climate change or the human cost of discrimination, many are unwilling to voluntarily change their behavior or endure personal inconvenience in support of real solutions," Eudaly tells WW. "I feel an urgency to act on these issues because people are struggling and suffering right now, because the clock is ticking on climate catastrophe, and because I only have a finite amount of time to get this work done."
Eudaly has never cowered from public fights. She withstood the ire of landlords to introduce tenant protections, for instance. Even as Mayor Ted Wheeler balked at the effort, she has chipped away at opposition to a policy seemingly without immediate political benefit: to end housing discrimination against renters with criminal backgrounds.
But for that renter proposal, Eudaly now has the public backing of four of five Multnomah County commissioners, three members of the regional Metro Council and one U.S. congressman—as well as what's expected to be a majority of the City Council (a vote is expected this summer).
With her plan for bus lanes, however, she may be entering more difficult policy turf : Portland's rush-hour gridlock, perhaps the greatest irritant in this city's daily life.
A previous commissioner to oversee transportation, Steve Novick, whom Eudaly defeated in 2016, lost the election in part by alienating voters with an unpopular push for fees to pave city streets. And if the "road diets" of the Portland Bureau of Transportation's recent past are any indication, bus lanes will draw public outcry. (In those "diets," PBOT has removed lanes and otherwise slowed traffic to make the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.)
"To cut lanes down when you have more cars is not common sense," says Jon Shleifer, owner of EuroClassic Furniture on Southeast Foster Road and a critic of the "road diet" there. "You would want to have more lanes to keep the traffic flowing. It's hurting people so bad with all these changes. They are benefiting 5 or 6 percent of the population but not the people who have lived here forever."
To be sure, Eudaly and her advisers say this effort, unlike road diets, would benefit motorists, too. More reliable, faster bus service would attract riders to buses, which would take cars off the road to make more room for the ones that remain.
"We think this is a win-win for everybody," says Duhamel. "There are a large number of Portlanders who will use transit if it's reliable and it's fast. There's a large segment of the population who will always have to use their cars, whether it's for work, because of different abilities, or for far travel."
The proportion of Portland commuters riding public transit has stagnated at about 13 percent, roughly unchanged since 2005. (To achieve the climate action goals the city has set, a quarter of commuters need to ride public transit by 2035.)
Last fiscal year, even as Portland continued to grow, TriMet saw the lowest number of bus rides in more than 18 years, a continuation of three straight years of decline.
One reason: Buses are traveling more slowly. Speeds on key routes have decreased by more than 7 percent between 2009 and 2017.
That, in turn, means TriMet has to run more buses, which costs more, for the same amount of service.
"TriMet estimates an additional cost of $14.3 million to keep buses that were experiencing slower running times on time," says TriMet spokeswoman Tia York.
Research in other cities shows efforts to speed up bus travel times by 5 to 15 percent with red lanes or similar methods has meant a 2 to 9 percent increase in passengers.
PBOT has yet to choose particular routes or decide how many miles to devote to bus lanes, but the agency is studying more than a dozen high-frequency bus routes where buses run at least every 15 minutes during the day and that have already been on its radar for fixes within the next few decades. Such streets include Southeast Division and Foster Road, North and Northeast Killingsworth, and Northeast and Southeast 122nd Avenue (see map).
Eudaly's team believes it has the City Council's support.
"We did some early temperature checking with council members," Duhamel says, adding she was advised to make the pilot program last multiple years to accurately assess its impact. "I think we have some pretty good, solid support."
If the plan is successful, Eudaly's office hopes to negotiate a deal with TriMet to reinvest the savings in more electric buses more quickly, furthering the environmental benefits of the project, and to expand the agency's definition of low-income riders to offer free or reduced fares to a wider swath of commuters.
Transportation officials acknowledge this is a paradigm shift. "It's an identity shift culturally," says Art Pearce, a policy manager at PBOT. "You wouldn't be at all surprised to see strong transit priority in New York City or San Francisco. Those are bigger-city approaches that Portland is ready to approach as we've grown."
Eudaly, meanwhile, is girding for battle online.
On May 17, as first reported by Bike Portland, she posted a link on Facebook announcing Southwest Madison Street now has dedicated bus lanes near the Hawthorne Bridge.
When challenged in the comments section on what that would do for cars, Eudaly doubled down. "If you're sitting in your single occupant vehicle cursing congestion," she wrote, "remember: YOU ARE THE CONGESTION."