San Francisco needs a Trimet

Portland MAX Train
Just got back from a trip to Portland. Never had been there before. It’s a nice city. No Asian people… even in “Chinatown.” A lot of people smoking on street corners. A few ugly bridges over the beautiful water.

But some good food, a walkable downtown, charming parks everywhere, and… an excellent public transportation system.

My wife and I have been two years without a car in San Francisco, and it has been worth it overall. Nevertheless, every now and then you just have to curse MUNI and think, “Life would be so much easier right now if I had a car.”

Not so in Portland. Whether it’s lightrail trains, proper buses, or the streetcar line, in our almost-a-week there, we never waited more than 10 minutes for a bus (usually 2-3 minutes), we never had a bus driver who appeared to have aspirations to be in NASCAR or to be doing stunts for Michael Bay movies, there was virtually no graffiti, the fares were low (in most places, free even), and the time to get from place to place was minimal.

This difference between Portland’s public transit and the Bay Area’s wasn’t more apparent than when we finally went home.

We woke up at 4-something in the morning, walked half a mile from our hotel to the nearest lightrail stop, paid $2 for a ticket to the airport, waited three minutes for the on-time train to come, and then were at the airport within an hour… with a smooth ride to boot.

Coming back home from the San Francisco airport, we had to hop on a shuttle to get to the BART subway station. Then the BART train (which costs $4.70) we got on just randomly sat there for about fifteen minutes with no movement and no announcement from the conductor as to when the train would actually depart. The BART train was smelly and loud. From BART, we got on the MUNI bus home ($1.50, if we didn’t already have monthly passes), which was extremely crowded and full of permanent marker–graffiti. The bus driver drove like a maniac.

It is great to be home (and at least away from tobacco city), but is it really that difficult to get a decent public transit system here?


  1. Glad you enjoyed Portland! I’m from around the Portland area, and it’s always good to hear visitors leaving with a good impression of the city.

    The thing about Chinatown – most of the Asian businesses which used to be located in downtown’s Chinatown have since moved quite a ways across the river because of rising rent costs. I would recommend you visit the “new” Chinatown next time you visit – the restaurants there are quite good. ;)

  2. Sadly, it’s often the case that an efficient public transport system is the exception, rather than the rule. (This applies as much in the UK as any US city).

  3. I didn’t know that about “new” Chinatown. Next time I visit Portland, I’ll try to check it out.

    And, yes, I know most public transportation is pretty bad, but it’s nice to dream, and I thought I should just give Portland some appreciation in this respect.

  4. free transit? that’s very rare. and obviously “subsidized”. never been on muni, but some bus systems seem ok. I’m also not a regular bart rider (sporadic, actually). the track alignment i think is reason why the segment thru the bay tunnel exceeds “safe” dB. I expect a lawsuit any day now :-)
    $4.70 1-way from sb airport to SF? that seems high. i think i pay only about $1 extra for a trip to SB ($6), vs trip to embarcadero ($5), though i should check bart’s website.. :-)
    $5 is actually less $ than same distance at $0.50 per mile. and the tunnel trip includes bridge toll westbound (1way)

  5. I am at Portland, too. And yes, the downtown area plus something around is free on bus/MAX. And the public transportation there is really great, comparing to Atlanta or Boston system, though I really miss the underground. Price is somewhat more affordable, too.
    It’s nice to see someone have good impression about my Portland :)

  6. I tend to resent the comment about our “few ugly bridges”. Have you not heard? We are often referred to as ‘Bridgetown’. And not just because of all of the bridges; Much of our nickname has to do with our pride. These bridges are the only thing that connects the bohemian hipsters on the east side of the ‘beautiful water’ to the left-bank bourgeoisie who take up the rest of the city. While perhaps a break from the decision makers might be welcome, we value our connectivity to our better half, and to our heritage. Besides, with out those eye-sores, how would you have so cheaply gotten back the airport?

  7. Just sent this page to some of my friends, and the very first respond I got is about this (obviously, I was careless): “It’s a nice city. No Asian people… even in “Chinatown.” A lot of people smoking on street corners. A few ugly bridges over the beautiful water.” Is no Asian people a part of “nice city”?

  8. When you live in Portland though… I’m a bay area transplant who now lives in Portland, and it seems that everywhere you go, people complain about the transit. Trimet does have decent service-in the mornings. But if you miss any of the busses after 3:00 pm, it’s SOL, ’cause you’ll have a nice fun walk unless you want to wait an extra thirty minutes for the next MAX train to come. And don’t get me started on the riders…or the grumpy fare checkers. Literally anyone can get on, as there are no turnstiles. People will sometimes camp on the MAX. And then you get to enjoy sitting next to someone who’s shaving their legs, or smoking pot. It’s cheap, which is nice, but in terms of using it to travel everywhere in the city, you’ll be insanely lucky if you only wait 15 minutes. So, all in all, MUNI and Trimet are roughly the same.

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