Everyone who gets on a bus has to wait for that bus. Most people also have to walk to get to the bus stop, and in one direction or the other that usually involves crossing the street.
Each of these moments in a bus rider's trip adds up to an overall impression of whether taking the bus is as comfortable and safe as it should be. And that impression can drive decisions about whether to take the bus in the future.
But with roughly 6,800 bus stops around the Portland region, TriMet has a huge and complex responsibility to prioritize the kinds of improvements at and getting to bus stops that can make a difference for riders, said Young Park, a TriMet project manager looking at bus stop safety.
For over a decade, part of TriMet's strategy to make bus stops safer has included funds disbursed by Metro through its Regional Flexible Fund Allocations program. These funds, which come from a variety of federal sources, are allocated every two to three years according to priorities set by the Metro Council and its policy and technical advisory committees. Setting priorities for the next cycle of grants will begin later this year.
Flexible fund allocations for TriMet's bus stop improvement program have generally been modest – in the range of $550,000 to $1.4 million in a cycle. But even a little can go a long way to help pay for new shelters, new signs and improvements that make transit more accessible for the disabled.
A new beacon in Montavilla
TriMet has focused funds it received through Metro's 2010-2013 flexible funds allocation on improving crossings to bus stops, Park said.
Working with the Portland Bureau of Transportation, TriMet purchased hardware for rapid flashing beacons at crosswalks across major streets to bus stops, including SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, SE Division Street and SE Stark Street in East Portland, SE 122nd Avenue and NE Glisan at 78th Avenue. The city provided labor, design and engineering to install the beacons.
Beside the beacon on NE Glisan Street at 78th Avenue in Portland's Montavilla neighborhood, a homemade memorial provides a poignant reminder of how these beacons can help save lives. In January 2013, 29-year-old Heather Fitzsimmons was struck by a car and killed while trying to cross Glisan here on a rainy evening.
Although there was a crosswalk at that intersection, it had no flashing beacons at the time, making crossing the road particularly treacherous after dark. Shortly after Fitzsimmons' death, a neighbor posted a video demonstrating the danger of crossing at that intersection.
Today, the flashing beacons and a reduction of vehicle lanes have made crossing much safer for people trying to access the 19-Glisan bus, or streaming out from one of several churches along that stretch of Glisan.
Portland transportation bureau pedestrian planner Sara Schooley said working with TriMet has improved her agency's choices about where to build crosswalks like the one at 78th and Glisan. "If we put a crosswalk a block away from a popular transit stop, people might just cross near the stop anyway," even without a marked crosswalk," Schooley said.
Though under Oregon law every intersection – even if unmarked – is a crosswalk at which people driving must yield to people walking, Schooley said the markings and flashing beacons improve everyone's safety. "They give motorists a heads up," she said.
Using additional regional flexible funding, as well as a special allocation from the Oregon Legislature, Portland is working with TriMet to build 20 similar crossings to transit stops throughout East Portland, Schooley said.
Improving safety and comfort for transit riders is a reward in its own right. But it also has other benefits to the region, Park noted.
For example, a 2009 TriMet project to improve the accessibility of bus stops on the Tualatin Valley Highway improved shelters and sidewalks at 17 stops along the busy Washington County road, helping people get to the 57-TV Highway bus, one of the most important lines in the western part of the region.
As a result, fewer people with disabilities called the agency's on-call LIFT service in the area, saving thousands of dollars and allowing TriMet to better focus its resources on the people most in need of its service. (That project was funded by the Oregon Department of Transportation.)
Washington County Commissioner Dick Schouten, who represents much of the area along the Tualatin Valley Highway, said the county recognizes the need to pair walkability investments with its efforts to increase transit ridership.
"We need to work hand in hand with TriMet to close sidewalk gaps" and build crosswalks, Schouten said. "Residents have told us this is a top priority."
"It's one of the single most important ways to increase ridership," Schouten added.
Focus on integration
Communities and transit agencies shouldn't lose sight of the need to integrate safer walking with better transit, said Noel Mickelberry, executive director of pedestrian advocacy nonprofit Oregon Walks. "Safe walking environments and safe transit stops go hand in hand," she said via email. "Having safe and frequent corssing to transit stops along with well-lit and accessible stops are critical to making this important transportation connection possible for all users."
With thousands of bus stops, maintenance and upgrade never really ends for TriMet. Recognizing the ongoing need, Metro has shifted to requiring that jurisdictions seeking regional flexible funds improve access to and condition of bus stops in their projects' vicinity, said Metro project manager Ted Leybold.
For instance, a recent allocation to Multnomah County for improvements on Arata Road in the Fairview area included new crosswalks on nearby Halsey Street to help residents of an affordable housing complex access a key bus stop.
"We're holistically integrating a higher level of bus stop improvements into local projects," Leybold said.
Learn more about regional flexible fund allocations