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Portland Neighborhoods Guide: Portland Public Transit: Trains, Buses, Streetcars

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Navigating Portland
Portland Public Transit: Trains, Buses, Streetcars
Living in Portland Without A Car
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Area Descriptions


Goose Hollow and King's Hill
Northwest Portland
South Waterfront
The Pearl District

Northeast/North Portland

Hollywood District
Lloyd District
St. Johns
University Park

Southeast Portland

Hawthorne District
Ladd's Addition

Southwest Portland

Johns Landing
Multnomah Village

Suburbs/Outlying Areas

Beaverton - West Suburbs
Lake Oswego - South of Portland
Orenco Station - Hillsboro
Tanasbourne - Hillsboro/Beaverton
Tualatin Town Center - Southwest of Portland
Vancouver, WA


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TriMet is Portland's primary mass transit provider; it runs the Portland MAX train and the bus system in Portland. No public transit system is truly "wonderful" but TriMet is pretty good. Many of the drivers are friendly and even helpful; unlike city buses elsewhere, bus drivers do not sit in a "cage" or a secured compartment, so you can actually talk to them or ask questions.

Tickets and passes for TriMet work on bus and trains. On the bus, you can pay (exact change) when you board, exchange a ticket you previously bought for a transfer (paper receipt with expiration time), show a pass, or show a transfer from another bus or train. On the MAX train, ticketing is on the "honor system:" no one checks your fare when you board, but you must validate your ticket at a little machine before you board or buy a ticket from a machine - you can't buy or validate a ticket on the train. Fare inspectors regularly check tickets on the trains and occasionally on the buses, and you'll get fined if you don't have a valid fare. You can buy passes or books of tickets ahead of time at grocery stores or a TriMet ticket office.

Portland Trains: MAX and the Portland Streetcar

To locals, the "MAX" is the light rail train (not including the Streetcar) - we don't call it a "tram" because there's also an aerial tram that takes you from the South Waterfront up to the OHSU hospital! Regular riders also don't called it a "trolley."

For a much more detailed, full-featured Portland Map, including MAX Stations, neighborhoods, schools, etc., please see the Portland Mapper.

TriMet's MAX light rail system consists of three major routes: the Blue Line that runs east to west from Gresham (east suburbs) through Downtown Portland out to Beaverton and Hillsboro (west suburbs). A second line, the Red Line, is the Airport MAX line, which runs along some of the same track from Beaverton out to Gateway but then heads north to the Portland International Airport. The third line, the Yellow Line, runs from downtown Portland north up Interstate Avenue through North Portland to the Portland Expo Center. The train does not yet cross the Columbia River into Vancouver, WA, but there are proposals in the works for a new bridge that would carry MAX to Vancouver.

The MAX is a good, clean train system, very easy to use, but it has drawbacks. One is that it is a bit slow, partly because it's a hybrid between a streetcar and a fast commuter train. Along parts of the MAX lines, the trains run on the streets next to cars. Plus, MAX makes about 18 stops in tiny downtown Portland alone, sometimes stopping every 400 feet. Once you get out of downtown, it travels much faster (about 55mph) and further between stops...but there are no express trains. Also note that MAX trains at rush hour into/out of downtown are often PACKED - standing room only. And some of the Park and Ride garages (notably Sunset Transit Center near Beaverton) fill up very early in the morning, so if you don't want to get up super early to get to work, forget it. MAX trains are intentionally designed to go above ground (no subway, except for a tunnel through the west hills) and be only two cars long: the size of a Portland city block. Expansion options are limited, unfortunately.

The Portland Streetcar is a separate train from MAX (smaller than MAX) that runs from Northwest Portland through The Pearl District, through Downtown, and finally down to Riverplace and the South Waterfront District (connecting with the Aerial Tram up to OHSU). Residents who live along the Streetcar line love it - it's efficient and clean and connects major attractions like the Portland Art Museum, Powell's Books, and the neighborhoods mentioned above. TriMet passes and tickets work on the Streetcar but Streetcar-only riders can buy a special annual pass for about $100. Unlike MAX, you can buy tickets onboard for the Streetcar.

There is also something called the Vintage Trolley, a replica of a 100-year-old streetcar (there are several of them) that runs on both the MAX and the Portland Streetcar tracks occasionally on weekends interspersed with the regular trains. They don't run the full MAX routes, only in downtown and up to Lloyd Center. You can ride them but they are mostly for tourists.

Use the Internet or your cell phone to make transit easy

TriMet has a great, unique feature called Transit Tracker for tracking arrival times of buses and trains: they make GPS data available to riders, available via the web or by phone. Each stop has an ID number (usually posted at the stop) and you simply enter the ID number to find out when the next bus or train is due to arrive, in real time (so if the bus is 10 minutes late, you'd find that out right away). So if you have a cell phone and want to check arrival of your favorite bus, it's easy to check it. It's even easier from your laptop or internet-capable cellphone - just check arrival times on the TriMet website.

Being able to know the bus or train arrival time is a great leap in convenience, because you can basically throw away your bus schedule if you carry a cell phone. Instead of thinking, "It's 6:20 and the next bus is at...6:35," you'll simply learn it arrives in 15 minutes.

Google has a terrific transit website called Google Transit to find bus and train routing maps, based on whatever start and addresses you type. It's a version of Google Maps driving directions but for public transit, a more friendly, map-based version of TriMet's own "Trip Planner" (on their website) to help you figure out bus and train routes from point to point, with connections. (Portland was the pilot city when Google was developing this.)

Bikes on the MAX and buses

You can take your bike on MAX - there are even designated spots where you can hang your bike easily, although at rush hour these may be completely full, as the MAX trains get very packed. TriMet buses have room for two bikes (at most) and if there is room, you can put your bike on the front for no extra charge.

Safety on Portland Buses and Trains

Portland does have a sizable number of homeless people and you'll see some of them on the buses and trains, especially in the downtown area. There are plenty of "normal" people riding the buses and trains, as well (especially at rush hour). But, if you're fearful, you can sit up front near the driver (who, as mentioned, is easily accessible) if you are fearful. Soon you'll learn that most of the homeless folks are harmless, and for the ones who aren't, the drivers usually won't put up with crap from them. The trains have drivers too although they are in locked compartments; when the train is stopped, you can knock on the door if you must and talk to the driver.

In late 2007-early 2008 there were a number of incidents of violence reported on MAX trains especially on the east side near Gresham, and a stepped-up police presence was added on the trains and at stops late at night. Even so, these incidents were fairly rare and mostly fed the sensationalized evening newscasts.

Transit Options in Vancouver, WA, Wilsonville, and beyond

In Vancouver, WA and Clark County, mass transit buses are operated by C-Tran. Some buses are express buses that run between Portland and Vancouver and are pretty good. C-Tran also operates a local bus into Oregon between Jantzen Beach, Expo Center, and downtown Vancouver. Some C-Tran buses provide service to Portland MAX stops. C-Tran is not affiliated with Trimet and they do not generally accept each other's fares.

In Wilsonville, Oregon, mass transit buses are operated by SMART Transit. These local buses connect Wilsonville (which doesn't participate in TriMet) to TriMet buses in Tualatin as well as Salem. In 2008, new Westside Express Service (WES), a new commuter trail project to be operated by Trimet, opened connecting Wilsonville, Tualatin, and Tigard to the Beaverton Transit Center MAX station during commuter rush hours only. The train has free wireless internet.

To get outside of Portland, Portland's Union Station (in Old Town, adjacent to the Pearl District) is Portland's Amtrak station. There's a once-daily coast train (Coast Starlight) from San Diego to Seattle that stops in Portland, plus there are four or five daily trains between Eugene, Oregon and Seattle that stop in Portland. The Greyhound bus station is a block away from Union Station.

Future Portland Transit

Unfortunately, a tight economy has caused TriMet to cut service and change its fare structure. TriMet voted in the summer of 2012 to end the "Free Rail Zone" (which replaced "Fareless Square"). As of September 1, 2012, there are no more free trains or buses in Portland.

TriMet and Portland are moving ahead with expanded light rail and street car projects. An eastside expansion of the Portland Streetcar opens in September 2012. A new transit/pedestrian/cyclist bridge is under construction south of OMSI, and the Portland Streetcar and a future MAX line will use the bridge.

Have a question about Portland that isn't answered here?