by The Oregonian

Saturday December 15, 2007, 10:49 AM

In Lake Oswego and West Linn, some TriMet buses often run almost empty

Debbie Whiteley finds it “weird” to be riding an all-but-empty bus in West Linn. She says she’s accustomed to packed buses in Hillsboro and Forest Grove, where she lives.

Mile after mile, the bus stops stand empty.When, at one stop, a TriMet bus heading in the opposite direction appears, the only person aboard is the driver. And yes, the bus is in service.

“When I get on the bus in Hillsboro or Forest Grove, it’s packed,” said Debbie Whiteley, 52, a Forest Grove resident who smoked a cigarette and shivered while waiting for a bus recently in West Linn. “I’m not used to being the only one standing here. It’s weird.”

In affluent, car-happy Lake Oswego and West Linn, who rides the bus?

From Friday’s edition of The Oregonian: Study of Lake Oswego rail link OK’d

Carless youths. The easily overlooked working class. Middle- and upper-class commuters. Environmental do-gooders. Many love the ease of riding. Factor in gas prices and the cost of parking in downtown Portland, and riders are more than happy to let the bus driver battle traffic.

But TriMet ridership in Lake Oswego and West Linn has, for the most part, fallen since at least 1999. Critics argue that public transportation is just too inconvenient and infrequent for it to be a reliable part of daily suburban life.

Mary Fetsch, a TriMet spokeswoman, said, “We look at the existing ridership and match the service with that.”

A small group of riders is almost certainly guaranteed to be waiting at the Lake Oswego Transit Center at Fourth Street and A Avenue, where four bus routes converge, especially during rush hour. Route 35, which travels Oregon 43/Macadam Avenue, and Route 78, connecting Beaverton and Lake Oswego, always carry some passengers. Other Lake Oswego and West Linn routes often run almost empty, with the number of passengers easily counted on one hand.

Novels and naps

Those who do step through the folding bus doors reflect demographics that change as the day progresses. Commuters, often with green intentions, pack the morning buses. As morning fades into midday, the buses increasingly welcome carless teens and twentysomethings, service workers and a batch of reluctant riders wishing the DMV would hand back their revoked licenses.


These figures show how many people rode TriMet on routes serving Lake Oswego and West Linn during the past eight years:

1999: 2,340
2003: 2,140

36-South Shore
1999: 360
2003: 320

37-North Shore/Lake Grove
1999: 140
2003: 110
2007: 120

38-Boones Ferry
1999: 460
2003: 400

78-Beaverton/Lake Oswego
1999: 2,310
2003: 2,150

1999: 70
2003: 150
2007: 80

Source: TriMet

Most who come onboard praise the relatively hassle-free rides. Add in parking and gas costs, and regular commuters say TriMet fares, which top out at $2.05 for a one-way ticket and $76 for a monthly pass, easily win.

Rick Braun, 57, who lives in Lake Oswego’s First Addition neighborhood, said of his regular bus ride, “It’s a block and a half from (home) and it gets me to within a block and a half of work.”

Others cite noneconomic reasons.

“I take it because I want to be a bit more conscious about the environment and careful about how often I drive places,” said T.K. Conrad. “I don’t like the idea of driving myself to work every day when I don’t need a car.”

Conrad lives in West Linn and commutes to Lake Oswego, a route that takes 20 minutes to drive. Instead, he spends about an hour each way walking the 11/4 mile to the bus stop and then taking two bus lines.

Regular riders said they enjoy the extra time to complete work, sneak in that power nap or finish that suspenseful mystery novel.

West Linn resident Judy Smith has finished eight books since she began commuting to downtown Portland via bus in August. Her monthly TriMet pass costs about $100 less than a monthly parking permit, she said. Reasons not to ride

Those who don’t ride the bus cite inconvenient and infrequent service. TriMet runs a total of six lines reaching Lake Oswego and West Linn. By comparison, 66 of TriMet’s 93 bus routes serve Portland. That means most Lake Oswego and West Linn residents do not live within walking distance of a stop and the buses probably do not run where residents want to go.

Throw in waits that can last more than an hour, and few seem willing.

“The people you’re hauling are probably going to Portland,” said driver Chuck Munkres, 60, as he took two riders one recent morning along Route 37, which connects Lake Oswego and Tualatin. “There isn’t a lot of need.”

Even some regulars question why they bother with the bus.

“Buses in Lake Oswego aren’t that reliable,” said Lindsay Moore of Canby, who owns a car but rides three buses to work in Lake Oswego. “It makes me upset because you rely on them to be on schedule. When they don’t show up, it’s like, ‘Why am I taking this?’ ”

Some riders say there’s a third reason many in Lake Oswego choose BMWs over the bus: class. They say some upper-class people associate public transportation with lower-class workers who lack the means to drive. In a culture that values private ownership and material objects, they say, few things represent “disposable income” like driving a luxury vehicle when a gallon of gas costs more than $3.

“It’s bending below their level,” said Whiteley, the Forest Grove resident who was waiting for a bus recently in West Linn. “They’re too good to ride the bus.”

Robert Meredith, 20 — who has reluctantly ridden the bus since his car broke down in April — had another theory.

“A lot of people drive because they think taking the bus is lame and you’re a loser to your friends,” Meredith said. “And if you’re a guy, it might be harder to get a girl if you don’t drive.”

Streetcar solution?

Local and regional leaders have proposed a streetcar linking Lake Oswego and downtown Portland to ease traffic and transit problems.

Metro, the regional government, is scheduled to decide today whether to proceed with a streetcar route along Oregon 43. Options include extending the Portland Streetcar’s route from downtown Portland to the Johns Landing neighborhood in Southwest Portland, then letting riders connect to bus service to Lake Oswego; extending the streetcar to Lake Oswego; or developing a rapid bus line to Lake Oswego. Officials could also decide not to do anything.

Proponents say a streetcar would attract commuters who want to zip downtown — buses don’t save time because they sit in traffic alongside cars.

“Sometimes it’s an hour and a half coming home on a seven-mile road,” said Borah Pavick, 55, while riding the Route 35 bus early one rainy morning.

First Addition resident Jim Bolland said adding a streetcar won’t address the entrenched car culture in two suburbs built with long blocks and spread-out buildings. He doubts the investment in taxpayer money will be worth it.

In many ways, public transportation is a “chicken or egg” issue. Should more people start riding the bus to demonstrate to TriMet increased need for its services? Or should TriMet first improve service, increasing frequency and expanding routes, but at the risk of low ridership and losing millions of dollars?

A new suburban line would cost up to $1.5 million to institute and $500,000 annually to run. In the short run, riders suggest that TriMet invest in more park-and-ride lots in the suburbs and more frequent buses at night and on weekends.

“It’s not the same out here because we’re still kind of a suburb, as much as people say we’re not,” Bolland said. “For people to take public transportation, it’s got to be convenient. It’s got to go where you need to go.”

— Yuxing Zheng;