Portland enjoys a national reputation as a leader in progressive transportation policy, and rightly so, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find a utopia of limitless transit options and constantly free-flowing freeways. Some parts of the region are ill-served by buses (and not at all by light rail), and if you need to drive on major highways at peak hours, you will certainly encounter traffic congestion. If you have moved here from, say, Los Angeles, you may dismiss Portlanders as lightweights, but the perception that traffic conditions are getting worse has prompted cries of woe-is-me from commuters and truckers alike. In fact, traffic congestion has gotten measurably worse over the last two decades. While the average commute is not terrible, at least when measured against bigger cities, Portland has among the most unreliable commute times in the country, according to a 2013 study by Texas A&M. For example, a commute that takes 20 minutes under normal conditions can, on any given day and often for no apparent reason, take 45 minutes. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that although congestion in Portland is getting worse, it is not getting worse as fast as it is in other cities. That fact may not console you as you sit motionless on Interstate 5 at 5 p.m., but you can take consolation in the thought that traffic should be speeding along again in an hour or two.
Lots of hand wringing about transportation is going on in the area, particularly about transportation in growing suburban communities, with the transit boosters facing off against the road builders (and with most people seemingly in the middle). The perceived problem is in part a deliberate regional choice to preserve existing neighborhoods and expand transit options rather than build big new freeways. The proposed Mount Hood Freeway, which would have obliterated many neighborhoods in Southeast Portland (along with 1% of the city’s housing stock), was killed off in the 1970s. The money that would have gone toward freeway construction was diverted to other projects instead, most notably the Eastside MAX project. The prevailing anti-freeway ethos means that roadway construction has not kept pace with population growth; instead of drastically expanding freeway capacity, Portland’s transportation planners have tinkered with the system, for example adding metered on-ramps to smooth the flow of merging traffic. At the same time, most highway engineers will tell you that freeway capacity fills up shortly after it is created, and the result is that Portland’s rush hour features congested four- and six-lane freeways instead of congested ten- or twelve-lane freeways.
For several years, the regional government, Metro, has been working on a comprehensive transportation plan to figure out how to accommodate the 725,000 newcomers it predicts will arrive by 2035. This new plan should help determine what the future mix of transportation options should be, whether and where to expand highways, and how to deal with aging transportation infrastructure. While you may not be in a position to determine the region’s transportation future, as a newcomer you at least have the chance to influence your personal transportation future: if you don’t want to spend a lot of time in traffic, consider living close to your workplace or someplace where you’re likely to have access to convenient public transportation. If you choose to commute across the metropolitan area, or to live in an outlying area and work in Portland, accept that traffic congestion is not likely to improve much in the future. Good luck with those gas prices, too.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2014 that 59.5% of workers living in the city of Portland commuted to work by car, alone. The figure for the metro area as a whole is closer to 70%. That percentage seems to have declined slightly, and it’s lower than in some other metropolitan areas, but the fact remains that most people in the Portland area get around primarily by car.
As you get to know Portland, you’ll find alternatives to the freeways, highways, and major thoroughfares (unless you have to cross a bridge, in which case your options are limited). Until then, here are some of the major traffic arteries.
- Interstate 5 is the main north-south highway artery, not just for the Portland area, but for the entire West Coast. It travels through the southern suburbs and Southwest Portland, crosses the Willamette at the south end of downtown, and runs along the east bank of the river, then due north through North Portland and across the Columbia River into Vancouver. The northbound stretch of I-5 north of downtown during the evening commute is typically the most congested section of highway in the metro area.
- Interstate 84 (the Banfield Freeway), the main east-west artery on the east side, runs from Interstate 5 just across the river from downtown Portland to outer Northeast Portland, through Fairview, Wood Village, and Troutdale, into the Columbia River Gorge, and ultimately on to Idaho. The I-5/I-84 interchange is often extremely congested.
- The Sunset Highway is the name for US Highway 26 west of downtown Portland. It runs over the West Hills at Sylvan and skirts the northern fringes of Beaverton and Hillsboro before losing its freeway characteristics and continuing on to the coast. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, traffic on the Sunset is the most inconsistent in the area: one day, the commute is relatively free-flowing, and the next day it’s an ever-living nightmare. During peak hours, the latter condition is more common than the former. Be aware that east of I-405, US 26 is not a freeway; it crosses the Ross Island Bridge to Southeast Portland and becomes Powell Boulevard. At the eastern edge of Gresham, it again becomes a limited-access highway—the Mount Hood Highway—and runs to Sandy and eventually continues (as a regular highway) over the shoulder of Mount Hood to Central Oregon.
- Interstate 405 (technically the Stadium Freeway, although you’ll rarely hear it called anything other than 405) loops around the west side of downtown Portland. In its short existence it branches off of Interstate 5 just south of downtown, connects with the Sunset Highway, skirts downtown, the Pearl District, and the Northwest Industrial District, crosses over the Willamette on the Fremont Bridge, and reconnects with I-5 north of the I-84 interchange.
- Interstate 205 is the closest thing Portland has to a beltway (albeit only a half-beltway). This 37-mile eastern alternate to I-5 branches off that highway in Tualatin, loops through West Linn and Oregon City, and travels north through Clackamas and East Portland before passing near the airport and crossing over the Columbia into eastern Vancouver. It eventually rejoins I-5 in Salmon Creek, Washington. I-205 is a useful bypass if you’re traveling north or south through the metro area and you want to avoid downtown, although the I-5 through route encompasses a shorter distance. I-205 is officially named the War Veterans Memorial Freeway, but almost no one ever calls it that.
- Highway 217 connects the Sunset Highway north of Beaverton with Interstate 5 in Tigard. Traffic is often stop-and-go here, even on weekends, and the short distances between on- and off-ramps tend to exacerbate congestion.
- Washington State Highway 14 runs from downtown Vancouver east along the Columbia River to Camas, and continues into the Gorge as a two-lane highway.
- Some non-freeway major arteries include the Milwaukie Expressway (Highway 224), which links Milwaukie and Clackamas; McLoughlin Boulevard (Highway 99E), which runs from Southeast Portland through Milwaukie to Oregon City; Pacific Highway (Highway 99W), which connects Tigard and Southwest Portland with Yamhill County; Highway 30, which runs from Northwest Portland north to Linnton, St. Helens, and ultimately Astoria; and Washington State Highway 500, a major east-west arterial in northern Vancouver.
If you need to cross either the Willamette River or the Columbia River, the bridges can be a major chokepoint. There are currently no tolls for any metro-area bridges, although tolling is being considered for whatever new bridge might one day be built across the Columbia.
Only two bridges cross the Columbia in the Portland area.
- The Interstate Bridge carries I-5 over the Columbia between Portland and Vancouver. It has no shoulders, and its drawbridge is occasionally raised to allow ship traffic to pass. Plans to replace the bridge with a new multi-modal span at an estimated cost of several billion dollars, known as the Columbia River Crossing project, or CRC, died (for the time being) in 2013 for lack of funding.
- Interstate 205 crosses the river at the Glenn Jackson Bridge east of the airport.
Several bridges span the river in or near downtown Portland. From north to south, the Broadway, Steel, Burnside, Morrison, Hawthorne, and Ross Island bridges carry local traffic between the east side neighborhoods and downtown. With the exception of the Ross Island, all of these bridges are drawbridges of one kind or another, and passing barge or other boat traffic can cause auto traffic backups; the Hawthorne Bridge, with a lower road deck, tends to get raised more often than the others. Two double-decker freeway bridges also bracket the downtown waterfront. At the south end, Interstate 5 crosses the river on the hulking, unlovely Marquam Bridge, which has the redeeming quality of offering an excellent view of downtown. The much more elegant Fremont Bridge carries I-405 over the river at the north end of downtown.
Tilikum Crossing, a new bridge between the Ross Island and the Marquam bridges, is scheduled to open in fall 2015. The Tilikum will carry light rail trains, streetcars, buses, bikes, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles, but will be closed to private cars and trucks.
The only road bridge over the Willamette downstream (north) of the Fremont Bridge is the St. Johns Bridge, a beautiful suspension bridge opened in 1931 that connects the St. Johns neighborhood of North Portland with the Linnton neighborhood on the west bank. The new Sauvie Island Bridge spans Multnomah Channel north of Linnton.
South of downtown, the narrow, aging Sellwood Bridge links Sellwood on the east bank with Macadam Avenue (Highway 43) south of the Johns Landing area. After years of planning, the Sellwood Bridge is being replaced with a new structure in the same location; the new bridge is scheduled to open in fall 2015. Upstream (south) of the city of Portland, three other road bridges cross the river in the metro area—the Boone Bridge for I-5 at Wilsonville and the I-205 (George Abernethy) and Highway 43 bridges between West Linn and Oregon City.
The Canby Ferry (toll required) shuttles passenger vehicles (and passengers) across the river north of Canby.
Most Portland radio and television stations provide frequent traffic updates during morning and evening rush hours, but you’ll need to know the nicknames of area highways to make heads or tails of the information. (See “Major Highways” and “Major Bridges” above.) Frequent bottlenecks with non-obvious meanings include “Delta Park,” meaning the section of I-5 just south of the Interstate Bridge in North Portland; the “Tunnel,” where Highway 26 (a.k.a. the Sunset Highway) passes through the Vista Ridge Tunnel just west of downtown; and the “Terwilliger curves” (or often just “the curves”), the stretch of Interstate 5 south of downtown where the highway goes around a series of relatively sharp curves near the Terwilliger Boulevard exit. (The latter location, where the speed limit drops from 55 to 50, is reputed to have the highest traffic accident rate of any spot on Interstate 5 between Canada and Mexico.)
The Oregon Department of Transportation’s tripcheck.org website has a map showing current freeway speeds, construction, and expected delays; you can also check out the view from one of ODOT’s many strategically placed highway cameras. Across the Columbia River, the Washington State Department of Transportation posts traffic information at wsdot.wa.gov/traffic. A new Google Maps service shows real-time traffic conditions. Go to maps.google.com, type in the location you’re interested in (e.g., Beaverton), and click on the “Traffic” button in the upper right corner of the map. Various color codes indicate current speeds: green means more than 50 mph, orange 25–50 mph, red means pretty darn slow, and gray denotes a lack of data. In general, the evening commute is slightly worse than the morning commute, but freeways are typically free-flowing by 7 p.m.
Street parking is free in most suburban communities, except in a few older commercial districts that still have street meters. In Portland, you’ll have to pay to park downtown and in the Pearl District, Old Town/Chinatown, the South Waterfront neighborhood, and in parts of Northwest Portland and a few sections of the Inner East Side, such as the Lloyd District/Rose Quarter neighborhood. Some neighborhoods require parking permits; if you don’t live or work in the neighborhood, you’ll be limited to two hours or so of free parking. (See Getting Settled for details.)
Most street meters in downtown Portland and other close-in neighborhoods have been replaced by high-tech, solar-powered SmartMeters. Look for a SmartMeter at the center of the block instead of next to your parking space; to pay, you select the amount of time you plan to park (up to the maximum time allowed) and insert cash, a credit or debit card, or a reusable smart card (available from various vendors). There is a $1 minimum charge for credit and debit cards. The machine spits out a receipt, which you then set gingerly in place between the glass and the weatherstripping on the inside of the door window on the sidewalk side of your car, making sure the print is facing the exterior. Try to avoid either jamming the receipt so deep that it disappears into the window well or placing it so precariously that it drops off into the vehicle interior when you shut the door. The receipt shows the expiration time; if you return to your car with time remaining, you can park in another spot until time is up. (Just be sure the receipt is still on the sidewalk side of the car.)
Parking garages are abundant downtown and in the Pearl District. Around the periphery of downtown and in Old Town/Chinatown, surface parking lots predominate. Many lots cater to commuters and charge relatively high rates for short-term parking on weekdays, but the city-owned Smart Park garages (portlandonline.com/smartpark/) charge low hourly rates for three hours or less, and many downtown merchants will validate parking for two hours with a minimum purchase. You can find Smart Park garages in the following locations:
- SW 1st Ave at Jefferson St
- SW 3rd Ave at Alder St
- SW 4th Ave at Yamhill St
- SW 10th Ave at Yamhill St
- O’Bryant Square, SW Stark St at 9th Ave
- NW Davis St at Naito Pkwy
Star Park (star-park.com) also has several lots of its own with reasonable hourly rates.
Hope that your car is never towed from a parking lot against your will. The City of Portland imposes some minor regulations on towing companies—the so-called “temper fee,” imposed on people who manifest anything more than mild bemusement when they see their car being towed away, is not allowed, for example—and 2007 state legislation imposed a few obligations on predatory towers (see doj.state.or.us/consumer/pages/towing.aspx), but beyond those limited protections you’re stuck with the whims of what former Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard, a man no stranger to temper tantrums, once called “a cowboy industry with few rules.”
Driving Rules and Habits
Oregon and Washington don’t have many unusual traffic rules. Northwesterners are generally pretty good about following rules of the road—crazy drivers are invariably dismissed as California transplants—and you may be pleasantly surprised at the ease with which you can merge onto highways. Surveys repeatedly find Portland motorists to be among the most courteous drivers in the country, based on assessments of the frequency of road-rage behaviors in major U.S. cities. (Portlandia satirized the painfully polite Portland driver in the “No, you go” sketch involving two drivers at a four-way intersection; each driver insists that the other go first, leading to an hours-long stalemate.) At the same time, polite driving doesn’t necessarily equate to competent driving; for example, you may be infuriated by cars that travel in the fast (passing) lane going just below the speed limit, even when there is nothing in front of the car and nothing preventing the car from moving into the slow lane. The single car lane in each direction on the downtown transit mall also confuses many people — disproportionately people in cars with Washington plates. (Hint: if you’re in a lane that says “Buses Only” or are driving on light rail tracks, you shouldn’t be there.) Many drivers turning left at signals seem disinclined to move forward into the intersection before a gap in the traffic materializes, only to speed away when the light turns yellow, leaving the cars behind them to wait for a new cycle. There are just some regional habits you’ll have to learn to live with. And, as elsewhere in the country, you’ll see plenty of people flouting state laws prohibiting talking on a cell phone or texting while driving.
Be aware of one-way streets, especially in downtown Portland. Red-light and speed cameras are used in Portland and some surrounding jurisdictions, so keep your speed down and don’t try to run yellow lights. Don’t attempt to pump your own gas in Oregon, where self-help of that kind is illegal. (Oregon and New Jersey are the only states that ban self-service at retail gas stations.) In winter, you are required to carry chains or have traction tires—generally studded tires that tear up roads and make a distinctive clacking sound on dry pavement—when you travel through snow zones. (Snow zones include most of the state’s mountainous regions, but even some urban roads, like West Burnside Street as it crosses the West Hills, or SW Sam Jackson Park Road as it winds upward to OHSU, meet the definition during rare snowy weather.) During ice or snow storms, chains or traction tires may be required (although four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles with all-weather tires are usually exempt from this requirement except when conditions are unusually severe).
If you want the freedom of driving a car without the trouble and expense of owning one, consider joining a car-sharing service.
- Car2Go (877-488-4224, car2go.com) offers two-seater Smart cars for $0.41 per minute or $15/hour; the company’s cars are ubiquitous in the city center.
- Zipcar (866-494-7227, zipcar.com) places vehicles in strategic locations throughout Portland and in some suburban communities. Zipcar members determine their monthly driving needs, and choose an hourly or monthly rate plan; costs for the “occasional driver” plan begin at $8 per hour. The company pays for gas, insurance, and maintenance.
Local governments offer significant incentives to employers to arrange carpools or vanpools. If you’re interested in carpooling but your employer doesn’t sponsor carpools, and you don’t already know someone you can share a ride in with, visit Drive Less Connect (drivelessconnect.com) or, in Southwest Washington, the Clark Country Trip reduction Office (360-487-7733, clarkcommute.com) for online ride matching. If you can get 5 to 15 carpool buddies together, and your group meets some basic requirements (e.g., you commute at least 10 miles or through a congested corridor), Metro’s VanPool program (oregonmetro.gov/tools-living/getting-around/share-ride/vanpool) will subsidize part of the cost to lease a van. C-Tran has a similar vanpool service for Clark County commuters; visit c-tran.com/vanpool.html or call 360-906-7510. (C-Tran’s program currently has a waiting list.)
Carpools qualify for reduced parking rates in designated spots in downtown Portland, the Lloyd District, and the Pearl District. The only HOV (High-Occupancy Vehicle) or carpool lane in the Portland area is on I-5 northbound north of downtown, and occupancy restrictions apply from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. only.
The following car rental companies have multiple locations in the metropolitan area. For smaller companies and airport-only options, check online or look in the Yellow Pages under “Auto Renting.”
- Avis, 800-633-3469, avis.com
- Budget, 218-7992, budget.com
- Dollar, 800-800-4000, dollar.com
- Enterprise, 800-261-7331, enterprise.com
- Hertz, 800-654-3131, hertz.com
- Thrifty, 800-334-1705, thrifty.com
Despite its wet, chilly fall and winter weather and hilly terrain in some neighborhoods, Portland is perhaps the most bike-centric large city in America. Bicycling magazine and other granters of accolades have repeatedly named Portland the best overall cycling city in the country, and although it’s no Amsterdam, Portland is a reasonably easy place to get around by bike. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2014 that 6.1% of Portland commuters traveled by bike, and on a typical weekday some 7,000 to 8,000 bicycles cross into downtown on the Hawthorne Bridge. The city currently has 181 miles of striped bike lanes, 79 miles of bike paths, and 59 miles of “neighborhood greenways”—shared-use city streets with low auto traffic volume and (sometimes) obstacles to through car traffic on which bicycles are given priority. The city has (unfunded) plans to triple this mileage by 2030, and suburban areas already add many more miles of trails and bike lanes to the total.
If you’re interested in commuting or otherwise getting around by bicycle, even on a part-time basis, a host of organizations stand ready to help. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (503-823-5490, gettingaroundportland.org) provides extensive bicycling information, both online and in hard copy, and holds frequent workshops designed to inform and encourage nascent cyclists. The following nonprofits are also excellent resources for actual and prospective bicyclists:
- Bicycle Transportation Alliance, 618 NW Glisan St #401, 503-226-0676, btaoregon.org
- Community Cycling Center, 1805 NE 2nd Ave, 503-288-8864, communitycyclingcenter.org
- Shift, shift2bikes.org
The Portland Office of Transportation publishes several neighborhood bike maps, as well as the fairly comprehensive (and free) citywide Portland by Bicycle map and guide, which includes an inset map of Beaverton and Vancouver bike routes. These maps are available in hard copy or as PDFs at portlandoregon.gov/transportation/39402. Multnomah (503-988-5050), Washington (800-537-3149), Clackamas (503-742-4500), and Clark (360-397-6118) Counties all publish county-level bike maps, but the best region-wide map is Bike There, available for $9 at most bike shops, bookstores, and some natural foods supermarkets and co-ops. A free map of Vancouver bike routes is available from the city’s Transportation Services office; call 360-487-7700 to request one or search for “Vancouver bike map” on cityofvancouver.us. Many other suburban communities publish their own bike maps. For something higher-tech, try bycycle.org or Google Maps, both of which offers online bike directions. For the Google option, go to maps.google.com, input your desired start and end points for directions, and click on the cyclist icon. Be aware that these services will not always send you on the most bike-appropriate route, so use your judgment.
Many businesses have bicycle parking for patrons and/or employees, and some downtown parking garages have free covered bike parking. For information about bike locker rentals downtown and in the Lloyd District, call 503-823-5345. In addition, bike storage lockers are available at some transit centers and MAX stations; call 503-962-2104 for details or visit trimet.org/howtoride/bikes/lockersavailable.htm.
Two-wheeled, single-seat bicycles are allowed on all public buses and light rail trains in the Portland area, as well as WES Commuter Rail, the Portland Streetcar, and the Aerial Tram. (Tandems, trikes, rickshaws and the like are not permitted.) Buses have a fold-down front rack with space for two bikes, and trains have designated areas for bicycles. For details on how to take your bike on public transit, call 503-238-RIDE or visit trimet.org/howtoride/bikes/.
The Oregon Department of Transportation produces the Oregon Bicyclist Manual. While at times overly basic—the first of the “Four Basic Principles” presented in the manual is “Maintain Control of Your Bicycle,” and the list of “Practices to Avoid” includes the helpful hint, “Don’t dart out suddenly into the roadway”—the booklet does contain a useful rundown of rules of the road for bicyclists. The manual is available for download online from the DOT’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program (visit oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/BIKEPED and click on the “Publications” link), or you can order a copy by calling 503-986-4175. The Portland Office of Transportation publishes the slightly less patronizing A Guide to Your Ride.
Vancouver is the only city in the metro area that requires bicyclists of all ages to wear helmets. Although helmets are not required for cyclists 16 years and older in Oregon, you would be very unwise not to wear one. (Some hipsters, as well as a contingent of people who have had bicycling thrust upon them following a DUII conviction, seem to think that helmets look uncool, but do you know what else is uncool? Permanent brain damage.) For more information about helmets, visit the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute website (helmets.org).
Roadside assistance for bicyclists? You bet! Better World Club (866-238-1137, betterworldclub.com) has offered bike roadside assistance for several years; bicycle-only plans start at about $40 per year. AAA of Oregon and Southern Idaho (800-444-8091, oregon.aaa.com) joined the bandwagon in 2009 and now offers bicycle service to its Plus-level members; AAA does not have a bike-only plan.
Walking and Skateboarding
Much of Portland is ideal walking territory, with plentiful sidewalks and short blocks. The Office of Transportation publishes nifty maps of walking routes in different parts of the city; visit gettingaroundportland.org for details. If your own two feet aren’t good enough for you, it is legal to skate, skateboard, or ride a (non-motorized) scooter on any street or sidewalk in Portland, except downtown, where you’ll have to stick to streets. (Certain downtown streets have been designated as skate routes.) Visit portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/405782 for more information.
TriMet (503-238-RIDE, trimet.org) is by far the largest transit agency in Oregon. TriMet operates a bus network that serves most of the Portland metropolitan area, the MAX light rail system, and a single-line, suburban commuter rail service. The system averages more than 300,000 weekday boardings, with over 100 million boardings annually. While those numbers are impressive, whether and how well the system will serve you depends on where you live, where you need to go, when you need to depart or arrive, and how much time you have to get there. Recent service cuts, fare increases, and the elimination of a fareless zone downtown have caused ridership to decline slightly over the last few years.
TriMet has scrapped its traditionally zone-based fare scheme, and now a single fare is valid for the entire system. At press time, a single two-hour ticket costs $2.50 and an all-day ticket is $5. Youths under 18 (or in high school) pay $1.65 for a two-hour ticket, honored citizens (i.e., the elderly and disabled) pay $1, and children under 7 ride free. Fares generally increase each September.
You can pay a single cash fare or buy an all-day ticket when you board a bus; bills are accepted, but exact change is required. Tickets are also available from the self-service vending machines at MAX stations; some of these machines accept credit cards. You can buy books of tickets and monthly passes at the TriMet Ticket Office at Pioneer Courthouse Square downtown (701 SW 6th Avenue) or at many area supermarkets and convenience stores. You can also order tickets and passes online at trimet.org. TriMet now offers mobile ticketing apps for both iPhone and Android devices, and these phone-based tickets are becoming increasingly popular (and less subject to glitches than during their initial rollout).
From 1975 until January 3, 2010, all public transportation was free within an area known as Fareless Square, which ultimately encompassed a 330-square-block area that included most of downtown Portland between the Interstate 405 loop and the Willamette River. Budgetary constraints and anecdotes of drug dealing and other criminal activity on buses in the fareless zone, combined with the opening of new light rail service on 5th and 6th Avenues, prompted TriMet to eliminate Fareless Square and replace it with a Fareless Rail Zone, which was itself discontinued in 2012. A fareless zone no longer exists for any form of TriMet transportation. This fact still confuses tourists using out-of-date guidebooks, but confusion doesn’t count as a valid fare.
Ride Connection (503-226-0700, rideconnection.org) facilitates travel for older adults and people with disabilities, both by helping with independent travel on public transit and by providing public transit alternatives.
Other regional transit agencies serve southwest Washington and outlying areas in Clackamas County. These agencies currently operate buses only; see “Bus” below for specifics.
The Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail system currently has four lines with a total of 52 miles of track, with those numbers set to increase to five lines and nearly 60 miles of track in late 2015. MAX is the backbone of the transit system in that, although light rail accounts for about a bit more than a third of all trips on TriMet, most bus lines connect with MAX. (Some riders have complained that what was formerly a single bus trip now requires a transfer to MAX.) See Rail Map.
The 33-mile Blue Line runs from Hillsboro in the west to Gresham in the east, via Beaverton, downtown Portland, and Northeast Portland. The eastern portion of this line, from Portland to Gresham, was the region’s first light rail line when it opened in 1986. The Westside MAX opened in 1998. If, for some reason, you wanted to ride the line from end to end, it would take about an hour and a half.
The Red Line serves Portland International Airport. This line, opened in 2001, shares tracks with the Blue Line from Beaverton Transit Center to Gateway Transit Center in Northeast Portland, then runs the 5.5 miles to the airport on a spur line. It takes about 40 minutes to get to the airport terminal from downtown Portland.
The Yellow Line runs from Portland State University along the downtown transit mall (5th and 6th Avenues) to Union Station, crosses the Willamette on the Steel Bridge to the Rose Quarter, then heads north along Interstate Avenue to the Expo Center in North Portland, just south of the Columbia River. It takes about half an hour to travel the length of the line.
The Green Line, opened in September 2009, runs from Portland State University to Clackamas Town Center. The line shares track with Yellow Line trains in downtown Portland from PSU to Union Station, crosses the Steel Bridge (like all MAX trains currently) and uses the Blue Line/Red Line tracks between the Rose Quarter and Gateway Transit Center; the line then branches off and runs south from Gateway to Clackamas Town Center along Interstate 205. The journey from downtown to Clackamas takes about 40 minutes.
The 7.3-mile Orange Line from downtown, across the new Tilikum Crossing bridge, and through Southeast Portland to Milwaukie and Oak Grove, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.
A lack of funding, combined with opposition in some suburban communities, means that further expansion of the light rail system is in doubt, at least in the immediate future. An extension of the Yellow Line to Vancouver, Washington, was rejected by Clark County voters. Plans for other lines, including a line along Barbur Boulevard to Tigard and a Blue Line extension to Forest Grove, among others, are still ongoing, but construction is a decade or more away and the result (if any) might be a dedicated bus lane rather than a rail line.
The Westside Express Service (WES), a 14.7-mile commuter rail line from Wilsonville to central Beaverton, opened in 2009. This suburb-to-suburb line, one of the few such lines in the country, makes intermediate stops in Tualatin, Tigard, and southeast Beaverton. It operates during weekday rush hours only. The train connects with MAX in Beaverton, and offers free WiFi and reclining seats, but the line has been something of a fiscal disaster: the Colorado railcar manufacturer TriMet selected to build the trains went out of business mid-project, and ridership, although increasing, has been well below projections, with only about 2,000 riders per weekday using the service. For more information visit trimet.org/wes/.
TriMet runs 80 bus lines, including 13 “frequent service” lines, through the metro area. Almost all buses run to or from either downtown Portland or one of 16 regional transit centers. Bus service runs the gamut from frequent and excellent to nonexistent: lines with heavy ridership, or that serve major corridors, run at least every 15 minutes on weekdays (and more often during rush hour), while other lines provide commuter service only, sometimes in only one direction. Most bus lines fall somewhere in between these service extremes. Major service cuts in September 2009 eliminated some routes and reduced frequency or days of service on many others. These changes are likely to be permanent as the agency continues to focus on rail-based projects to the detriment of basic bus service.
Most bus stops on “frequent service” lines have printed time point information at the stop, and most major bus stops on other lines have schedules posted for the lines that stop there. Every official stop has a stop identification number. In theory, you can obtain up-to-the-minute arrival information by calling 503-238-RIDE (503-238-7433) and entering the stop ID number. If your bus is stalled or broken down somewhere, however, it can be “arriving in three minutes” for half an hour or more. TriMet makes its system information available on an open-source basis, and dozens of third-party programmers have created useful applications for transit tracking from smartphones. Visit trimet.org/apps for details.
In downtown Portland, most bus lines run down the recently redeveloped transit mall (southbound on 5th Avenue and northbound on 6th Avenue).
In addition to TriMet, the following transit agencies provide bus service in the Portland metropolitan area:
- C-TRAN, 360-695-0123, c-tran.com, provides bus service in Clark County, including commuter service between Vancouver and downtown Portland as well as to the Expo Center and Parkrose MAX stations.
- Canby Area Transit, 503-266-4022, ci.canby.or.us/transportation/CAThomepage.htm, provides service within Canby and between Canby and Oregon City and Woodburn (via Aurora).
- Columbia County Rider, 503-366-0159, columbiacountyrider.com, provides shuttle service between Scappoose, St. Helens, and Rainier, and limited commuter service between downtown Portland and St. Helens and Scappoose. Buses also connect St. Helens/Scappoose with Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus, Vernonia with Hillsboro and Beaverton, and Rainier with Longview/Kelso, Washington.
- Salem-Keizer Transit, 503-588-2877, cherriots.org, runs buses within Salem and adjacent Keizer, and to some outlying areas, and operates an express bus route to Wilsonville and another to Grande Ronde and the Spirit Mountain Casino.
- Sandy Area Metro (SAM), 503-668-3466, ci.sandy.or.us/transit, runs buses within Sandy and links Sandy to Gresham (and therefore the MAX light rail system) and Estacada.
- The South Clackamas Transportation District, 503-632-7000, southclackamastransportation.com, serves Molalla and runs between Molalla and Canby, and to Clackamas Community College.
- South Metro Area Regional Transit (SMART), 503-682-7790, ridesmart.com, serves Wilsonville. In addition to fareless routes within the city, SMART runs buses that connect Wilsonville with Portland, Tualatin, Salem, and Canby.
- Yamhill County Transit Area, 503-474-4910, yctransitarea.org, provides limited bus service within Yamhill County and between Yamhill County and Salem, Sherwood, Tigard, and Hillsboro.
The Portland Streetcar (portlandstreetcar.org) runs desultorily on two close-in lines. The modern, primarily Czech-made trains are the pokey little puppies of the transit system: they get you there, but at a leisurely speed. The NS Line runs between Northwest Portland and the South Waterfront district, via the Pearl District, downtown Portland, and Portland State University. The newer CL line runs from downtown Portland over the Broadway Bridge to the Lloyd District, then down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (southbound) and Grand Avenue (northbound) to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). In late 2015, an extension of this line will run from OMSI over the Tilikum Bridge to connect with the NS Line in South Waterfront. It takes just over half an hour (more or less) to ride either line from one end to another. Although the lines are owned by the city of Portland, TriMet and some C-TRAN tickets and passes are valid on the streetcar. A streetcar-only fare is $1 for two hours. An annual streetcar-only pass costs $200.
Streetcar lines have also been proposed for various other routes, including Burnside and Couch streets, Hawthorne Boulevard, Powell Boulevard, and Northeast Broadway, but budgetary obstacles are likely to doom or delay any new routes for at least a few years.
Portland Aerial Tram
Portland’s sleek, expensive aerial tram opened in 2007 to fanfare and criticism. Two futuristic, Swiss-made silver pods travel the 3,000 linear (and 500 vertical) feet between the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus high on “Pill Hill” and the Center for Health and Healing in the rapidly developing South Waterfront district. Critics include many neighborhood residents, who do not appreciate tram cars passing back and forth high overhead (thus giving passengers birds’-eye views of back yards), and fiscal watchdogs, who note that the tram cost $57 million, more than triple the original estimated cost. (OHSU picked up the bulk of the cost, with the city of Portland kicking in several million dollars.) The tram is not really a convenient transit option unless you’re headed to or from OHSU, but on a clear day it offers a heck of a view.
Tram tickets currently cost $4.35 round-trip; OHSU staff, patients with appointments, and children six and under ride free. Tickets are only sold at the lower station. (It’s an open secret that this system results in a useful loophole: If you board at the top and ride down one-way, as a practical matter you won’t need to pay, although technically you are required to have a valid ticket.) An annual pass costs $100. Although the tram is nominally part of Portland’s public transit system, regular TriMet tickets and transfers are not valid (although monthly and annual TriMet and C-TRAN passes and annual Portland Streetcar passes are accepted). The tram runs weekdays from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the tram operates on Sunday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer only. Bikes are permitted and, as one would expect from a mode of transport that serves a hospital, the Aerial Tram is fully accessible. For more information, visit gobytram.org.
Park & Rides
There are more than 60 park & ride lots in TriMet service territory. You can park at these lots for free (usually for up to 24 hours) and take a bus or MAX train to your destination. Note that some of the more popular park & ride lots fill up early, and you have no guarantee of finding a parking space. Also, many of these lots are provided by churches or other private entities and are intended for weekday use only. For a list of park & ride locations, visit trimet.org/parkandride/, or call 503-238-RIDE. C-TRAN has six park & rides in Clark County; visit c-tran.com or call 360-695-0123 for locations.
Unless you’re downtown or at the airport, you’ll probably need to telephone for a cab rather than hail one on the street. The following are the major (but not the only) Portland taxi companies:
- Broadway Cab, 503-333-3333, broadwaycab.com
- Green Cab and Green Shuttle, 503-234-1414, portlandgreencabtaxishuttle.com
- Radio Cab, 503-227-1212, radiocab.net
- Union Cab, 503-222-2222, unioncabpdx.com
At press time, car-share services such as Uber and Lyft do not operate in Portland (and are in fact illegal), although these companies have begun to lobby city hall for legitimacy. In November 2014, Uber began serving the cities of Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, and Tigard.
Portland International Airport (503-460-4234, 877-739-4636, pdx.com) is one of the country’s more pleasant major airports; its airport code, PDX, is often used as shorthand for the entire Portland metropolitan area. The airport is located in northeast Portland, just south of the Columbia River. There are several concourses for passenger flights, but only one terminal.
The check-in and security screening process is usually not the nightmare it can be at some airports, but the official advice is to arrive at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to depart. In most cases, you won’t need nearly that much time unless you’re traveling at peak hours, but at least the airport shops and restaurants are above average, and in many cases are outposts of local businesses like Powell’s Books, The Real Mother Goose, and Elephant’s Deli. You’ll often encounter live entertainment at PDX—pianists, guitarists, singers, perhaps even a harpist or roaming accordion player. You can also hook up to free wireless Internet service in most parts of the airport, or let the kids work off pre-flight energy at one of the two play areas in the terminal.
Members of certain airline mileage plans, travelers with special needs, and travelers going from Portland to Seattle can go through an “express lane” at the security checkpoint. Most airlines also participate in the TSAPre√expedited screening program. Security requirements are constantly in flux, so check with your airline for the latest information on check-in procedures, availability of curbside check-in, and identification requirements. For up-to-date regulations on the handling of liquids, electronics, shoes, and other potentially dangerous objects, visit the Transportation Security Administration website (tsa.gov).
Because Portland is not a national hub, no one airline dominates the market; however, PDX serves as a regional hub for Alaska Airlines, which together with Southwest and Delta, carries about two-thirds of all passengers who come through the airport. There are nonstop flights from Portland to most major metropolitan areas in the United States and to most mid-size cities (and some small cities) in the West; in addition, there are nonstop international flights to Tokyo, Amsterdam, Guadalajara, Vancouver, and Calgary, and seasonal nonstops to Frankfurt, Reykjavik, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos.
The following airlines serve Portland:
- Air Canada, 888-247-2262, aircanada.com
- Alaska Airlines, 800-252-7522, alaskaair.com
- American Airlines, 800-433-7300, aa.com
- Condor, 800-524-6975, condor.com
- Delta Air Lines, 800-221-1212, delta.com
- Frontier Airlines, 800-432-1359, flyfrontier.com
- Hawaiian Airlines, 800-367-5320, hawaiianair.com
- Icelandair, 800-223-5500, icelandair.com
- JetBlue Airways, 800-538-2583, jetblue.com
- SeaPort Airlines, 888-573-2767, seaportair.com
- Southwest Airlines, 800-435-9792, southwest.com
- Spirit Airlines, 801-401-2200, spirit.com
- United Airlines, 800-864-8331, united.com
- US Airways, 800-428-4322, usairways.com
- Virgin America, 877-359-8474, virginamerica.com
- Volaris, 866-988-3527, volaris.com
Getting to and From the Airport
TriMet’s Red Line MAX (light rail) trains run directly to the terminal; the airport station is just east of baggage claim. At press time, a one-way ticket to or from downtown Portland is $2.50 for adults, and the trip takes about 35 to 40 minutes.
If you’re driving, make your way to Interstate 205 and take the exit for Airport Way West, then follow Airport Way to the terminal. Sandy Boulevard makes a good alternative route during the evening rush hour; take Sandy to Northeast 82nd Avenue, and go north to Airport Way. Travel time from downtown Portland is about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic. When it reaches the terminal, the airport roadway splits into two levels: the upper roadway is for departures, and the lower roadway is for arrivals. Stopping is allowed only for active pick-up or drop-off of passengers and loading or unloading luggage. If you need to park, see “Airport Parking” below.
Taxis, door-to-door shuttles, charter buses, long-haul shuttles, and courtesy shuttles for airport hotels, off-airport parking and car rental facilities, and long-term parking lots depart from the lower roadway outside baggage claim. Many downtown hotels offer shuttle service to or from the airport; call ahead for times, costs, and companies. (Transport may be free or at a reduced rate if you are a hotel guest.) For a list of door-to-door shuttle services and other airport transportation options, visit portofportland.com/PDX_Grnd_Trnsprtn.aspx or call the airport’s ground transportation office at 503-460-4686.
The airport parking garage is connected to the terminal by tunnels and skyways, so it’s convenient for parking when curbside drop-off or pick-up won’t do. Parking is $3 per hour; people on expense accounts and other big spenders can park here for $27 per day. People with larger expense accounts and no time to lose can use Gold Key valet parking for $10 per hour or $30 per day, with optional car washing and detailing services. Motorcycle and bicycle parking is free. The long-term parking garage is next to the short-term garage; it’s a longer walk from the terminal, but shuttles run frequently; parking is $21 a day. The red and blue economy lots are not walking distance from the terminal; you’ll have to rely on the shuttle bus, but parking is only $10 per day. (If you park for a week, the seventh day is free.)
Various off-airport lots also serve PDX travelers. You can browse off-airport lots and make parking reservations at airportparkingreservations.com; they charge a booking fee on top of the parking cost. In many cases, unless you have a coupon or other discount, the off-airport lots are only marginally cheaper than the official economy lots. (Online searches typically uncover various coupons, with ever-changing promotions, for these lots.) If you have a very early departure or very late arrival, many airport hotels offer hotel and parking packages that often are no more expensive than the cost of a room; you can usually leave your car at the hotel for a week or more. Some (but not all) of these deals are available from parksleepfly.com; alternatively, just call an airport hotel directly or visit its website. (See Temporary Lodgings for some suggested airport hotels.)
Amtrak passenger trains stop at historic Union Station, just north of downtown at the northern end of Portland’s Transit Mall. The popular Cascades service (amtrakcasacades.com) runs from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia, via Seattle. Currently there are four Cascades trains a day in each direction from Portland to Seattle, and two trains in each direction between Portland and Eugene. Scheduled travel time to Seattle is about three-and-a-half to four hours, which is slightly longer than the driving time between the cities if there’s no traffic; since the Amtrak train shares tracks with freight trains, the train is subject to delays. Given the likelihood of traffic congestion, however, especially north of Olympia, and the certainty of aggravation, the train is a great alternative to driving (or for that matter, to flying) if you’re headed from one downtown to the other. Locally, the Cascades service also stops in Oregon City and in Vancouver, Washington. Two more round-trips per day between Portland and Seattle are scheduled to start in 2017, and planned track improvements should cut travel time between the cities by up to an hour.
The Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles via Oakland passes through Portland once per day in each direction. Just a few years ago, it was not uncommon for the Coast Starlight to arrive 10 hours or more behind schedule, and the train’s chronic tardiness gave it the nickname “Starlate.” More recently the train’s on-time performance has improved. The Empire Builder runs once daily to and from Chicago via Spokane, the Idaho panhandle, the southern border of Glacier National Park, various destinations in eastern Montana and North Dakota, Saint Paul, and Milwaukee. The trip takes a minimum of 46 hours, and sleeping compartments and a dining car are available.
For schedules, fare information, and reservations on Amtrak trains, visit amtrak.com or call 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245). Be sure to ask about promotions and discounts.
Portland’s Greyhound terminal (503-243-2361) is located at 550 Northwest Sixth Avenue, just south of Union Station. Greyhound buses can take you from Portland to any major city along the Interstate 5 corridor between Canada and Mexico. Greyhound buses also run east to Spokane via Washington’s Tri-Cities, and southeast to Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, via Pendleton. For schedules and reservations visit greyhound.com or call the national reservation number, 800-231-2222.
Bolt Bus (877-265-8287, boltbus.com), a slightly more upscale brand than its parent company Greyhound (and frankly, what isn’t?), runs up to eight trips a day from Portland to Seattle (with continuing service to Vancouver, British Columbia) and two trips a day south to Eugene. Tickets can be as low as $1 (at least one seat per bus trip), and the buses feature Wi-Fi, electric outlets for electronics, and reserved seats.
Additional options for regional intercity bus transport include:
- Amtrak Thruway buses (800-872-7245) run south to Salem and Eugene. Tickets for these services can be reserved on the Amtrak website (amtrak.com).
- The Central Oregon Breeze (800-847-0157, 541-389-7469, cobreeze.com) runs daily buses between Portland and Bend (twice daily in summer).
- Northwest POINT (541-484-4100, 800-442-4106) operates Amtrak Thruway buses between Portland and Cannon Beach, Seaside, and Astoria.
- Valley Retriever (541-265-2253) connects Portland to Newport via McMinnville, Salem, Albany, and Corvallis.
- The Wave (503-815-8283, tillamookbus.com) offers twice-a-day trips between Portland and Tillamook, connecting with local coastal bus routes.