Portlanders Are Riding Public Transit Less Often. Is More Housing the Fix?

How can we get more people to ride public transit?”

Reader Judy Welles submitted that question for our series on what Portland can learn from the Bay Area about managing growth — and it’s interesting timing.

TriMet just announced that ridership has dipped nearly two percent since last year, continuing a downward trend that started in 2016.

This decline isn’t unique to Portland. In almost every major city in the United States, including San Francisco, transit ridership has decreased as more people work from home or use alternatives like Uber and Lyft.

What’s the fix? Giving buses priority at stoplights, increasing service reliability, and making it more expensive to drive are all on the table in Portland, but according to officials here and in the Bay Area, a big part of the answer has nothing to do with transit. It has to do with housing.

Why Housing Matters to Public Transportation

Studies have found that the likeliest people to use public transportation are those who live within a half-mile of bus or rail stations.

So for transit advocates, the math is pretty simple: If you want more people riding buses and trains, make it possible for more people to live close to them.

In California, lawmakers introduced a bill this spring that would have overridden local zoning laws and allowed multi-story housing to be built around rail and ferry stations.

The bill, SB 50, was supported by progressive groups like YIMBY Action and East Bay for Everyone, but it faced fierce resistance from many homeowners and neighborhood groups that didn’t want to see apartments in their communities. And last week, a legislative committee decided to shelve the bill for an entire year.

Portland hasn’t tried to “upzone” transit-adjacent neighborhoods as aggressively as California, but even a more modest rezoning proposal in our city has faced similar backlash.

The so-called Residential Infill Project would allow duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes to be built in neighborhoods that have been zoned for single-family housing since the mid-1900s.

On paper, Portland’s upzoning plan shouldn’t be all that controversial. It doesn’t allow multi-story apartments to be built in residential neighborhoods where they’re currently banned.

It makes it harder, not easier, to replace historic homes with gaudy McMansions.

It overturns an exclusionary housing policy that’s rooted in racism and classism.

And it makes a dent (albeit a small one) in Portland’s housing shortage, while allowing more people to live in neighborhoods like Laurelhurst and Rose City Park that are well-served by public transit.

But despite those benefits, the infill plan has been hobbled by a combination of bureaucratic missteps, neighborhood backlash, and legitimate concerns about displacement, and it’s not yet clear if City Council will approve the proposal this summer.

Plan B for Building Housing in Transit Corridors

As the upzoning debate rages on, transit agencies are looking at ways to take advantage of the land they own.

In the Bay Area, BART’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) program has built nearly 2,000 units of new housing adjacent to transit hubs, with another 1,900 under construction.

About a quarter of those units are designated as affordable housing, which is important, because studies have shown that low- and middle-income people are more likely to use public transit than wealthy residents.

Here in Portland, that’s why Metro and TriMet are already thinking about how to preserve and build affordable housing along the proposed Southwest Corridor MAX route to Tigard.

Officials know that once the MAX extension is approved, land and property values along the route will spike due to the improved access to Portland.

That would make it more expensive to acquire and build affordable housing, so Metro hopes to preempt the market and make investments now that will pay big dividends down the road.

If the strategy succeeds, Metro and TriMet will not only bring a new transit line to the Southwest Corridor, but also create housing for the people most likely to use it.