Efficient and Fareless Transportation

We can do more to make transportation not just more efficient, but safer, cleaner, and more affordable by dedicating local roads to small vehicles (bikes, e-bikes) and transitioning large vehicles (cars) to dedicated thoroughfares. This transition can be supported by increased, fareless mass transit.



The Fault In Our Roads

Whatever we would like to think, roads have a limited capacity. In Portland, our roads have far exceeded their capacity, catapulting us into the top 10 worst cities in America for traffic. Luckily, there are changes we can make so that we have efficient transportation once again, but to also make our transportation environmentally clean, safe, and affordable. To understand why we must make these changes, it helps to understand road capacity a little.


Let's start with a normal downtown Portland road, with two lanes (going one way, but that's not important). Along the block is a building with a parking garage in it. There are 500 people in the building that all leave (or arrive) at very nearly the same time. The people may work or live in the building, and the number could be higher for Portland, but let's stick with 500. Because the road is two lanes, let's say two people can drive in or out of the building at a time, and it takes about 5 seconds for both drivers to enter/exit the building. This means it will take all 500 drivers about 21 minutes to get into the building (500 drivers two at a time is 250, times 5 seconds for each pair is 1,250 seconds, or 20.83 minutes). That's a long wait! And that's assuming a continuous flow without interruptions.


Next, let's imagine a similar building on the next block down the street, with a similar number of people trying to get in or out. Because the road is only two lanes, they all must wait until the drivers from the first building are clear before they can get to theirs, so that's 42 minutes! And so one for each additional building, in each direction.


Actual traffic flow is more complicated (not everyone leaves or arrives at the same time, the people going to each building are mixed together, someone for the second building might be near the front of the group for the first building, and so on). But such quasi-random complexity doesn't make traffic work more efficiently – it generally makes it less efficient.


And next imagine each building has even more people. 1000, 2000 working in an office high-rise building? We can easily see how a road with the capacity to carry two people at a time simply does not have the capacity to match the density of people living and working in a city.


To resolve this problem, we could make the roads bigger to allow more drivers side-by-side. But apart from requiring that we demolish existing buildings for roads, it also pushes everything farther away and requires buildings to be bigger to accommodate 4 drivers entering instead of 2, and so on. Bigger roads clearly won't solve the problem (especially when you consider that bigger roads don't make drivers better at sorting themselves).


We could also increase mass transit, but that lessens individual travellers' autonomy and after decades of effort hasn't been widely adopted. The same is true for efforts in carpooling.


And, that's it for drivers. That's the only option to allow all people in the city to drive a car freely everywhere – to increase the size of the roads to allow more cars through at a time. Yet, this is clearly not a viable option. Thus, we can understand that there is no solution to have roads work well while having everyone driver everywhere in the city. Our transportation system will be slow and inefficient as long as driving is the primary mode of transportation in the city.


This problem can be analogized to bandwidth in a computer network, or integrated circuit design. There are physical limits to moving data around, just as there are physical limitations for moving cars on roads within the city.


Thankfully, there are other options.



Making Our Roads Better


We can make transportation efficient in the city by understanding the use of each road, and dedicating different types of roads to different types of transportation appropriate to that type of road. Instead of having all roads be general purpose for any type of vehicle, we can specialize different roads for different kinds of transit.


Specifically, we can dedicate local roads to small, personal vehicles and long-distance roads (thoroughfares) to larger vehicles. In this way, we can greatly increase the capacity of local roads by having smaller vehicles on them, while also increasing efficiency of thoroughfares by reducing their usage through increased use of local roads.


So, what does this mean? We can start with understanding our roads. Generally, we can view roads as one of two types: 1) those effective for close travel in the neighborhood (local roads) or 2) those effective for far travel between distant parts of the city or outside the city (thoroughfares). Think Market Street compared to Naito Parkway dowtown, or 28th Avenue compared to Powell Boulevard in Southeast.


Local roads can be dedicated to small, personal vehicles because such roads focus on shorter distances similar to smaller vehicles. Thoroughfares can be dedicated to large vehicles because such roads are most useful for long distance travel, as are large vehicles.


So what is a small, personal vehicle? A bicycle is the obvious example, but such vehicles need not be limited to only human-power. Small electric vehicles, like mopeds or scooters, also are effective small, personal vehicles. Generally, any vehicle effective for last-mile transit. To be more specific, a size and weight limit can be determined and set for vehicles used on local roads. These are very quick and efficient for our short trips around the neighbor, or within a couple miles of a commute to work (the most common transit activities).


So what is a large vehicle? A car, truck, or other common automobile are the obvious examples. These are useful for traveling long distances, such as driving into Portland from Tigard or going for a hike outside the city, but are excessive for short trips around town in most cases.


By dedicating local roads to small vehicles for local traffic and thoroughfares to large vehicles for distant traffic, we can greatly increase the efficiency of transportation in our city, amongst many other benefits.


Converting our current road system to a tiered road system requires little physical development. Generally we do not need to change the roads themselves to separate thoroughfares and local roads, only define what vehicles are permissible on which roads. The key part of implementation is the transition to a tiered road system.


Transitioning to a tiered road system can be done gradually, section by section across the city. A lead time of one year can be provided before the change takes effect, to allow regular travelers and residents in the area to make any changes they will need. This also provides sufficient time to provide clear notice, like maps, broadly to Portlanders. Indicators can be put on roads to identify the roads' category (local or thoroughfare); the easiest option may be simple paint color on the road at intersections between the two road types.


For example, we can begin with downtown Portland, roughly as depicted (not all roads highlighted):

On local roads, some exceptions should be considered:

1. Emergency Vehicles

2. Mass Transit (Trimet)

3. Government Vehicles (for specific purpose)

4. Construction Vehicles (by applied license for specific durations and locations)

5. Delivery Vehicles (for a temporary time after implementation by applied license for specific times in the evening to early morning, during low traffic)

The Advantages

Tiering our roads by dedicating different roads to different modes of transportation provides many other advantages beyond improving travel efficiency and safety.


Cleaner – smaller vehicles are nearly universally more energy efficient, and so are more environmentally friendly. Many produce little to no green house gases directly. Not only is this important for reducing climate change, it also improves our daily lives now by reducing particulates in the air we breath. Green transportation is good for everyone.


Affordability – most smaller, or last-mile, vehicles are also much cheaper than cars. Commutes that are easy and safe for small, personal vehicles allows people to more easily choose daily vehicles that aren't as costly. The total cost of a bicycle is often a single month's payment on a car. Making it easier for people to choose a daily mode of transportation that isn't a car helps make the city more livable by reducing a major cost in most budgets: cars.


Space – many of our residential roads are large, to accommodate parking and driving. With smaller vehicles, much of this road space may not be needed for the small-vehicle traffic. Neighborhoods can reclaim this space, for a variety of different uses, such as community gardens, public event space, parks, greenbelts, or even additional commercial or residential space.


Neighborhood Living – couple tiering roads with scaling rent to income, and many people will have the option of living and working in the same neighborhood. This encourages neighborhood living, which often improves daily life, while still providing options for more distant travel as desired.


Mass Transit – the reduction of size of traffic on local roads will generally improve the functioning of mass transit. For example, regular buses can be more readily integrated with small vehicles, and so will reduce mass transit delays. Further, mass transit can be used to help transition into a tiered road system.


Parking Garages – the need for parking garages at strategic points along thoroughfares is evident. These garages can be used to provide numerous benefits to the community, like:

1. parking spaces purchased or rented by residents

2. space available for rent by car-sharing businesses

3. small vehicle repair space (e.g. bike repair space)

4. garbage can be aggregated here for collection (reducing collection costs)

5. space for free/donation items can be available

6. electric plugs for e-vehicles can be built into parking spaces

And finally, stress reduction. Reducing time in traffic, and moving freely on the road greatly reduce stress and improve the quality of life. There's no need for us to force use of a mode of transportation that doesn't work, and making a road system that offers broad choices safely and efficiently allows everyone to make decisions about transit that work best for them.

Fareless Transit

Mass transit, or public transit, can be used to support the transition to a tiered road system. However, we need to make public transit work better in order to be effective. The most important way to improve public transit is to make it fareless, because doing so will act as a foundation for the other improvements needed.


Public transit fares are a regressive tax, disproportionately affecting our poorest citizens. Moreover, fare-based public transit encourages operating mass transit as a business, rather than as the public service that it is. Rather than focus on revenue-generating routes, public transit should focus on interconnecting the city as a whole, regardless of current use. People that rely on public transit cannot build their lives in areas without it, and areas without public transit now will not attract residents or workers that use public transit.


We can make all public transit fareless and cover the costs of public transit by instituting a yearly tax on all Portland residents. Such a transit tax can be similar to the Portland Arts Tax (but, of course, improved based on the mistakes of the Arts Tax). A hotel transit tax can be coupled with the resident tax, based on expected use of public transit by visitors to our city.


Trimet brings in ~124M$ in fares in Portland. A 50$/month tax on Portlanders could bring in ~300M$/year, and this is at half the cost of a monthly unlimited use Trimet pass. This gives us plenty of room to accommodate imperfect collection rates, administrative costs, scaling the tax based on income (making it a progressive tax), and even potentially making the monthly tax lower than 50$. All while still generating more revenue than fares are.


We can lower the cost of use of public transit while increasing it's actual revenue, making our system better and helping make Portland more affordable. There's no reason not to do this, and there are many other reasons to, for example:


encourages the transition to public transit;

decouples routes from revenue, which promotes providing service in under-served areas;

lowers the operating cost of public transit by removing fare collection;

makes Portland more visitor-friendly.


Public transit is a public service, not a business. It should be decoupled from revenue generation, so it can be implemented and run as the public service it is. Fareless transit will achieve this, while making our mass transit system better in the process.

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© 2023 by Ryan A. Farmer

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