Photos by Nick Christensen / Metro News. Additional reporting by Ben Kittelson.
Michael Moore is headed home with his groceries. He's got a blue cloth bag on a rollcart, and a coveted spot under the bus shelter at the intersection of 82nd Avenue and Division Street in Southeast Portland.
It's a hot afternoon, so the shade is important, because the wait can be exhausting. See, when you live at 125th and Division, your trip to the store is at the mercy of others – the people who are riding the 4-Division bus, and the people who are running it.
Sometimes, like today, Moore is on his way home from the store – the WalMart a mile south, at 82nd and Holgate Boulevard
"At certain times, it takes longer," Moore said. "It's a two hour commute if I'm coming from St. Johns."
If MAX light rail is the quickly-moving expressway of the region's transit system, commuter bus lines like the 4-Division are the slower-moving avenues. They're dozens of miles long, they move a lot of people, and they aren't terribly quick.
If you're using them, it's because it's what works best for you. But that doesn't mean they're definitively the best option for moving people along busy corridors.
What is the best way to move people along Division Street, and its parallel road, Powell Boulevard? Metro's taking a look at that as it launches its Powell-Division corridor study.
It's a unique study for Metro. First off, it's almost certain that this study won't end up recommending some sort of light rail project. The MAX Blue Line is a mile north, and there's little political will to go out and seek the hundreds of millions it would take to build a second MAX line from Portland to Gresham, at least right now.
Second, there's already service in place – two bus lines, the 4-Division and 9-Powell, serve the corridor, and they're among the most heavily-used bus routes in the TriMet system. It's not a question of how to start something people will use. The question is how to make it better.
And finally, there's the broader planning question – a person's trip on a bus doesn't begin or end at a bus stop. How do people make those last-mile connections, especially in an area notorious for its streets without sidewalks?
A glimpse of Portland
It's just after 4 p.m. on a weekday, and the shadows are building on Division Street at Southeast 12th Avenue. To the east, paving crews are busily rebuilding what was a 4-lane boulevard into a tree- and bioswale-lined street. Brightly-painted buildings host coffee shops, beer stores and bars full of 20somethings. A young woman bikes up to three people waiting for a bus. "Do you know where the nearest bike shop is?"
It's cliché by now to point out the difference between inner East Portland – the 90-or-so blocks between the Willamette River and I-205 – and outer East Portland – everything from I-205 at 94th and the Gresham city limits at about 170th.
But it's also an inescapable reality – Portlandia this ain't.
Eighty blocks east of the woman asking to find a bike shop, the I-205 Bike Path crosses Division, which is 5 lanes and has traffic whizzing by at 45 mph. A flashing beacon signal warns pedestrians: "Cross with caution! Vehicles may not stop!"
At a power supply building for the MAX Green Line, an electric wheelchair is charging, plugged into an exterior power outlet. Its owner is nowhere in sight.
Further east, billboards tout the power of Jesus Christ. There are large vacant lots covered in grass, and acres of parking front the commercial areas that aren't vacant.
Dionn Cooper lives here, near 140th Avenue and Division Street. He works at a restaurant at the Clackamas Town Center mall, about seven miles away.
The trip takes him an hour.
"At night time, they start running a little slower," Cooper said. "It can take me about two hours."
There's no way around it – the bus is slow. From 82nd to Gresham, it covers about 2 ½ miles every 10 minutes. From 82nd to 12th, the bus moves at about half that speed. From end to end on Division, the 4 bus takes almost an hour.
In a car, the hour from 12th to Gresham would take about 40 minutes. On MAX, a trip from Gresham to Northeast 12th Avenue in the Lloyd District is 36 minutes. Even on a bike, the ride would probably be less than an hour and 15 minutes.
Add into that the wait time – that moment when you get off the MAX, only to see the last bus for half an hour pulling away from the stop – and a bus-centric life on the Division corridor requires patience.
The patience comes with a trade-off: Price. At 122nd and Division, Mary Davis is on her way to class at Portland Community College.
Not the rapidly-growing 82nd Avenue campus – no, she's headed to the Cascade campus in North Portland.
"I can ride anywhere for $26 a month," says Davis, referring to TriMet's honored citizen monthly pass. "I can't own a car for that."
What riders want
So what do riders want out of the future of transit in the Powell-Division corridor? In a survey this spring, riders were broadly supportive of more reliable arrival times, more frequent bus service and a faster trip.
Bus riders in East Portland last week also said they wanted to see larger buses.
"They need bigger capacity buses, so you don't have to stand," said Moore, the man returning from his trip to the store. "They need to fit in more people. There isn't room for people to get on and get off."
In the survey, riders also said they wanted better safety and security.
That rings true for Shatama Brooks, who was waiting last week for a 9-Powell bus at 122nd Avenue.
"What they really need are lights for the bus stops," Brooks said. "We shouldn't have to wave our phone for the driver to see us at night."
Planners say an improved bus system doesn't end at the bus stop. The study also will pick up where past transit studies have left off – a look at the conditions around the transit line.
That could include looking for money for new sidewalks, not only on Powell and Division, but on the streets that intersect it. People need to be able to walk to a bus to ride it.
It also could end up looking at the zoning and development in the corridor, to ensure future development complements the community, instead of the zoning clashes that have historically frustrated East Portland residents.
The study won't just be limited to East Portland. It spans from west of the Willamette River to Troutdale. One possibility for a bus rapid transit line would be to run from Mt. Hood Community College in the east to OHSU in the west, passing by as many as two colleges and five high schools along the way.
See an opportunity and development map of the corridor
Visioning the future
Many of the decisions about the project will be made by a steering committee, which will track and guide the corridor study. The committee has its next meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. Sept. 29 at St. Philip Neri's Calvin Hall at 2408 SE 16th in Portland.
Newer bus stops, bigger buses, and more frequent service could all be a part of the future on Powell and Division. Planners are likely to focus mainly on BRT as part of the transit study – express buses that can make traffic signals stay green longer, run in their own lanes and have fewer stops that more closely resemble MAX stations.
See also: What's BRT? A ride around Las Vegas on its bus rapid transit system (Dec. 5, 2012)
That could come with trade-offs. A BRT bus with widely-spaced stops might replace, instead of supplement, a regular-service bus that stops every couple of blocks. That was a tradeoff that Cooper said he wasn't willing to make.
"They might get rid of the bus stop in front of my house," he said. "If they had both, an express bus would be great, because sometimes the bus just doesn't come."