Streetcars and MAX Trains: Portland Public Transportation for Beginners

Streetcars and MAX Trains: Portland Public Transportation for Beginners

Portland is regularly ranked among the top 5 best cities in the United States for public transportation, so it’s surprising that more people don’t take advantage of it. According to U.S. News and World Report, only about 12 percent of commuters use trains and buses and a full 72 percent still drive to work alone. New residents of the city might not be expecting the frequency of traffic jams you can experience crossing one of eleven bridges across the Willamette River. If you want to help the environment, save money, or just avoid stop-and-go congestion, you’ll need to get familiar with how public transportation in Portland really works. You might be confused the first month or so, but getting the hang of it is incredibly easy.




Getting to Know TriMet




Why is public transportation so efficient? Because it’s all run by one company. Enter TriMet, or the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon. TriMet provides the bus system, streetcars, and most famously, the MAX light rail system. They used to operate a free zone in the center of Portland, but since 2012, they’ve regulated fare prices, and tickets are based on the length of your journey instead of the destination. An all-day ticket on TriMet will cost $5 and typically be good for any mode of transportation you need. There are 2-hour tickets available for the MAX trains that cost $2.50 and streetcar tickets available on board and at the stops for $1. Keep your ticket on you because of you run into a TriMet employee on the train, they may ask to see it and issue you a ticket on the spot if you try and ride for free.




MAX Light Rail




The Metropolitan Area Express has four lines – Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. A proposed Orange line would open in 2015 and travel all the way to Milwaukie, Oregon. In the most basic sense, Red and Blue run east to west while Green and Yellow run north to south. so the stops for each pair of colors are often grouped together in the middle of the city. The Red Line takes you from the suburban town of Beaverton all the way to PDX Airport. The Blue Line runs from Beaverton’s neighbor Hillsboro, to the eastern town of Gresham. The Yellow and Green Lines both start at Portland State University and end at the Portland Expo Center and Clackamas, Oregon, respectively. On TriMet’s website, you can easily plan your trip on the MAX, but after riding it for a short while, you learn that many of the routes overlap and it’s very easy to find the right stop. Sometimes the trains are late, but they’re often fun and not crowded, especially on the weekends.




Portland Streetcars




As far back as the early 20th century, you can see photographs of Portland’s first streetcar systems, but the modern incarnation didn’t open until 2001. Streetcars are a great way to get around the downtown area easily, and with the opening of the new CL (Central) Line, they’ve expanded into other areas of the city. The NS (North-South) Line travels from the high rise district of South Waterfront through PSU and onto the upscale Pearl District neighborhood, before ending across from the Good Samaritan Hospital on NW 23rd.  The CL line begins at PSU and travels a similar path through the Pearl District before breaking off to cross the river and take you to the Lloyd Center Mall and the Oregon Convention Center. It ends at OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which is a popular tourist destination for Portland visitors. Though it might not always be the speediest option for travel, the trains come every 12 minutes and are often a really entertaining way to see the best the city has to offer.




The public transportation system in Portland is still expanding, and there are huge chunks of the city only accessible by the bus – which is cleaner, safer, and more reliable than buses in most major urban areas. Still, there’s an almost European ease to the way the city so easily integrates transit into the urban landscape. If you’re new to Portland, try skipping the nightmare of downtown parking and endless tiny streets where you can’t turn left and let somebody else do the driving.



Author Robin Knight writes full time in Portland. If you’re moving to Portland, check out Robin’s recent writing on Portland homes.

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