Oregon leads the way for public transportation’s ascent into a “greener” future
University of Oregon senior Annah Kennedy never took public transit until she came to school in Eugene in the fall of 2009. Now, she takes the Lane Transit District EmX bus every day to get to campus for classes.
“It picks me up only three blocks away from my house and drops me off right in front of The Duck Store,” Kennedy said. “There is also a Dutch Bros. right across the street from my stop, so that is great too.”
While most bus patrons are aware of the benefits of public transit, mainly because it saves money, time, and provides convenience, there is also an underlying benefit that is specific to the state of Oregon.
As climate control becomes a larger, more prominent concern across the nation, the Pacific Northwest has proven to be a leader in cutting carbon emissions, increasing sustainability and, perhaps most importantly, public transportation.
“Public transit is critical in reducing vehicle miles traveled. People who are in their cars, by themselves, going to work or various places, add to this critical mass of pollutants that are expelled out into the air,” LTD Board President Greg Evans says. “What public transit does is try and take as many of those folks out of the equation by getting them on mass transit, which reduces congestion and pollution.”
While these climate issues aren’t strictly local, Oregonians are finding some solutions can be.
“Oregon is in better shape than most other places in the United States,” Evans says. “We have two of the premier transit systems in the country, TriMet and LTD. Both systems have a very active and robust sustainability programs.”
Setting an example
Portland, Oregon, is the 24th-largest metro area in the U.S., but its transit ridership is 7th per capita, a fact not lost on Eric Hesse, TriMet coordinator of strategic planning in the city.
“(We’re) competing above our weight class,” Hesse says.
Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, or TriMet, was formed in 1969, replacing failing and bankrupt bus systems in Portland. TriMet provides bus, light-rail and commuter-rail service in the Portland area and carries more people than any other U.S. transit system its size.
In the 2011 fiscal year, residents and visitors used TriMet services nearly 100 million times. Many of those who ride TriMet also own cars; 84 percent are “choice” riders — those who are not solely dependent on public transit but prefer it to a personal vehicle.
“By providing good, attractive, reliable transit service, we give people transportation options that don’t mean having to be in their cars,” Hesse says. “Local air quality benefits from not having as much congestion.”
According to last year’s statistics, for each mile taken on TriMet, 53 percent less carbon is emitted compared to driving alone. But making public transit appealing to the community isn’t the only environmental benefit TriMet offers.
Aside from making sure buses get the highest possible fuel economy, the Portland-based transit system takes sustainability a step further. In 2009, TriMet won a Clean Air Excellence Award from the EPA for becoming the first agency to test electric heating and cooling on transit buses, a science originally used in NASCAR and the United States military.
Hesse highlights that electrifying heating and cooling systems are “now becoming an industry standard.”
Within the next year, TriMet is looking toward “super-hybrid buses,” electrifying other systems on board that might otherwise use fuel. MAX Light Rail and Portland Streetcar are some of the current transit options are already powered by electricity, a fuel option that emits no pollution.
When constructing new and various projects, Hesse highlights TriMet’s valued importance of remaining “community friendly as well as environmentally friendly.”
“We certainly want to be providing service to those who are dependent on it but by making it attractive to other folks, we think that’s where a lot of the environmental impact difference comes from,” Hesse says.
‘Uniquely positioned as leaders’
Despite its significantly smaller population, the Eugene area’s Lane Transit District, or LTD, has also been nationally recognized for its sustainability efforts within its average of 10 million riders annually.
In 2008, Eugene-Springfield was awarded the Sustainable Transport Award – Honorable Mention – for its implementation of EmX, a newly developed system of bus rapid transit, or BRT.
“We have about 75-80 percent choice riders so about 20-25 percent are dependent on our services, whether they are students, don’t have a car, or are just poor,” LTD Board President Greg Evans said. “It is kind of similar to Portland’s ridership.”
With new buses being added nearly every other year, including 24 new hybrid buses this last year, the LTD’s buses are environmentally conscious as well.
“We may, at some point, look into bringing in fully electric vehicles,” Evans says.
In addition to running bus service throughout Lane County, LTD offers another type of sustainable transportation outside their jurisdiction.
“Point-to-point solutions is a network of rideshares that extend outside Lane County,” Evans said. “It coordinates carpools, loans out electric vehicles, to places where our buses don’t reach.”
Oregon’s state capital, Salem, has a population size similar to Eugene and pairs up with neighboring Keizer to provide transit service to 4 million people annually.
Even though Cherriots, the transit system in Salem-Keizer, is the largest transit system without weekend service, it still upholds similarly sustainable transit systems for their riders, one-third of whom are transit dependent.
“Half of our fleet is natural gas and the other half is clean diesel,” said Jerry Thompson, president of Cherriots’ board of directors. “We had our first natural gas buses back in 1999, so we’ve been doing this for a little while.” Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, emits far fewer pollutants into the air than gasoline.
Currently under construction, the Keizer Transit Center will be a “green” building as well, Thompson says.
Thompson says that “while older, larger cities, such as New York and Chicago have some work to do before transitioning to ‘green,’ we change buses every 15 years, so we are always getting newer, better buses.”
Even though Oregon’s three largest cities don’t quite rank up against larger urban cities such as New York and Los Angeles, all three equally value a commitment to sustainability.
“We certainly want to be providing service to those who are dependent on it but making it attractive to other folks — we think that’s where a lot of the environmental impact difference comes from,” Hesse says.
No urban area works alone, either. Oregon’s three largest cities often look to each other for improvements and transit strategies.
“Down in Eugene, the EmX has been getting a lot of national and international attention for its approach to bus rapid transit,” Hesse says. “(Portland is) certainly looking toward that as well.”
“They are modeling the programs we are doing here,” Evans said. “That’s why virtually every month we have people fly in from not just all over the country but all over the world, to see what were are doing. We are uniquely positioned as leaders in sustainability across the country.”
Reduction versus prevention
Greg Evans knows sustainable public transportation will never reverse the effects of a warming climate but knows how to reduce the causes.
“The more people we get on buses and light rail and trains that run on alternate fuels and electricity, the better off our environment is going to be,” Evans says.
With the “Green Movement” becoming more a more prevalent aspect in the U.S., Oregon continues to lead the way in providing environmentally conscious transportation.
“Public transportation is essential to the whole equation of environmental stewardship,” Evans says. “You can’t do without it.”
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Pedicabs: A fun, convenient mode of transportation in Eugene
Pilar Chavez desperately needed a job.
With no experience or any idea what she was getting into, the University of Oregon senior accepted a job as a pedicab driver.
Pedicabs, also known as rickshaws, are small, pedal-operated vehicle that serve as a taxis. Chavez started working for Eugene Pedicabs in the summer of 2011.
“The next day I was on a cab in Salem and worked for 11 hours two days in a row in 90-plus degree weather, which in retrospect, it is unbelievable I even got through the first six hours,” Chavez said.
Soon, Chavez found it changed more than just her form of income.
“Before I started cabbing I was really out of shape, a half-a-pack-a-day smoker and I had a horrible diet,” Chavez said. “Once I started pedicabbing that all changed. I started exercising regularly, quit smoking and ate better. It completely changed my life for the better.”
Although a popular form of transportation in the bike-oriented town like Eugene, the pedicab season can be sporadic.
“If the weather is bad, which in Oregon is most of the time, it is hard to get any customers,” Chavez said. “Once football season ends, the pedicabs don’t generally come out until spring.”
Many students like University senior Kaylee Thronson would like to see more pedicabs more often. “I would definitely get a pedicab home from the bars if they were more prevalent,” Thronson said. “I think it would also improve campus safety if they worked on big party nights and such.”
In turn, Chavez wouldn’t mind seeing more customers.
“Some customers get so excited they would scream the whole way or be so thankful because we saved them from a long walk from the Cuthbert Amphitheater to their car,” Chavez said. “Customers are always a great surprise, and I would often find myself being entertained by them when I should have been the one doing the entertaining.”
Despite the entertainment and appreciation of customers, transporting people across town does not come easily. Chavez highlights the hardest part of pedicabbing as “the slight inclines,” such as the bridge crossing the Willamette River towards Autzen Stadium, a popular route during football season.
“By itself is easy to get over the bridge, but if you add two or three or even four passengers, it can be grueling getting over it. For football games I will generally take people over the bridge to Autzen (Stadium) and then go back and do it all over again,” Chavez said. “I typically do this for about an hour and then have to take a break because of how much energy it takes out of you.”
University senior Ali Bo, among many other football game patrons, has experienced this. “I left a football game early, and since there wasn’t a big crowd it was a safer option than walking in the dark from Autzen alone,” Bo said. “The pedicab got me home quickly and safely. Not to mention it was entertaining.”
From the positive feedback and the range of benefits, pedicabbing seems to have found a good home in Eugene, Oregon, providing transportation to a wide range of customers.
“I think pedicabbing works so well here because Eugene is a very bike-oriented city,” Chavez said. “They are very open to alternative forms of transportation.
Despite the soreness and long hours, Chavez is clearly passionate about her job.
“If I could pedicab for the rest of my life I would be perfectly content. It combines my love of cycling with moneymaking,” Chavez said. “I am doing what I love which is the apparent key to a successful and happy — seasonal —career.”
Check out Eugene Pedicabs blog and Pilar Chavez’s profile here
Campus car sharing: A new form of transportation goes collegiate
Walking was enough for University student Caroline Mensendiek to get to and from class. But when she needed to run an errand off campus, she lacked a car to get there and didn’t find the bus convenient enough for her needs. Recently she’s found a mode of transportation providing her freedom and convenience: Car sharing.
The University of Oregon made car sharing on option on campus less than a year ago, bringing in the industry-leading companies Zipcar and WeCar. Car-sharing programs, such as WeCar, are found on over 50 college campuses across the U.S.
WeCar spokesperson Robyn Frankel says car sharing “provides students with alternative transportation options and reduces the need for cars on campus, which supports sustainability efforts of a campus like Oregon.”
The program offers hourly car rentals and reserved parking spaces for fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles, an important issue considering the limited parking space on or near campus.
“Students and faculty all had a very positive attitude toward car sharing programs,” says former Zipcar intern and university student Hayley Britt. “Noting that gas prices and parking spaces are getting more expensive and limited, many found the convenience of being able to use a car, but not own one, very attractive.”
While students who used the programs noted the benefits of car sharing, some were not satisfied with the costs or complications.
University sophomore Jackson Whitlow used WeCar to commute to Lane Community College every day last year. “It’s pretty expensive, and you have to reserve it for the time you need it, which can be annoying,” Whitlow says. “Sometimes people use it for longer than they signed up for.”
However university senior Maddie Burke found the benefits of car-sharing outweighed the cost when she needed to commute home. “They are cheaper than making my parents drive back and forth from Tualatin and are convenient when you don’t have a car here.”
Click here for WeCar information on the UO campus
Click here for Zipcar information on the UO campus