Joe Recker is an environmental permits coordinator in TriMet’s Planning and Policy Department.
Portland has a long and interesting transit history, and the Oregon Historical Society has shared some photos that document the evolution of transit in the region’s core.
Like most American cities at the turn of the 20th century, Portland developed along streetcar and trolley car lines that extended from its downtown. Transit allowed the city to grow, with cable cars running into the steep west hills, and streetcars crossing newly constructed bridges that unified the City of Portland with communities east of the Willamette River.
After World War I, however, automobiles quickly became more affordable, and Oregon boasted the nation’s first gas tax in 1918, which funded improved road infrastructure for private automobiles as well as tire-based transit. As early as the 1930’s, streetcar lines were replaced with rubber-tired and electrified trolleybuses. The increased popularity of automobiles led to a steep decline in transit ridership, particularly after World War II. This trend continued until all streetcar lines had been discontinued or replaced with buses to take advantage of the relatively inexpensive oil required for tires, road expansions and gasoline.
This period of disinvestment in transit infrastructure and declining transit ridership turned around in the 1970s with construction of the downtown Transit Mall on 5th and 6th avenues. Also notable was a restructuring of bus lines on the eastside in the mid 1980s that resulted in some of TriMet’s most successful bus lines today—Lines 75 and 72 among other north/south routes—to serve more dispersed destinations resulting from increased automobile use. Finally, the re-introduction of rail-based transit with the MAX Blue Line in 1986 and its subsequent expansion has provided increased transit capacity and focused attention on transit-oriented development in the region.
Find out more about the history of transit in our region by visiting A History of Public Transit in Portland.