Learning from Portland (Me.): Better Transit

Congress Street, Portland, Me.; photo by Corey Templeton

Portland, Me. is northern New England’s other big city–sure, Nashua is bigger, but it hardly has the regional sway or metropolitan feel of either Manchester or Portland–so it comes as little surprise that there’s a little bit of rivalry between the Queen City and the Forest City (as evidenced by this 2005 series in the Maine Sunday Telegram).  In fact, such a rivalry can be healthy; both Manchester and Portland do somethings better than the other, and each could grow by learning from the things the other does better.

There are differences between Manchester and Portland, for sure–former mill city, seaport; riverside, oceanfront; at peak population, growing but well below peak; Boston satellite city, major tourist destination; and so on–but there are plenty of similarities.  Both Manchester and Portland are, by far, the largest city in their respective states, both have large student populations among many different schools, both have relatively new and burgeoning downtown art schools, both have highly regarded art museums, both have relatively dense city centers with outlying prewar suburbs and are surrounded by postwar suburban neighbors, and both are major employment centers.  One thing Portland has done a much better job of than Manchester, though, is attracting and retaining young people, middle-class families and retirees to its city center neighborhoods.

Of course being on the ocean and benefiting from all the tourist-oriented restaurants and shops are big draws that Manchester lacks, but the main reason Portland is succeeding in this area is because it’s doing a much better job of building on the strengths that Manchester and Portland share.  Portland seems to understand better than Manchester that businesses, workers and residents looking to move to Portland or Manchester are looking for an alternative not only to the higher cost-of-living in places like Boston, but also to the suburbs and sprawl surrounding both of northern New England’s major cities.  They want the benefits of urban living offered in Boston and other larger cities, but on a smaller scale, not the suburban-style, auto-dependent development patterns and haphazard land-use policies of towns like those lining I-93 or the Maine Turnpike.  Portland’s investment in better transit is an investment in attracting residents, businesses and visitors.

Portland Metro bus

While Manchester is considering further cutbacks to the MTA despite growing ridership, Portland is taking active steps to increase transit convenience, reliability and efficiency, thus likely increasing ridership.  In doing so, they’ll also increase the walkability of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, encourage bicycling as a commuting mode, and make the city more attractive to the type of businesses, middle-class families, young professionals, college students and retirees who, in the coming years, will be looking at Manchester and Portland as alternatives to Boston, as well as the suburbs of southern New Hampshire and Maine.

Among some even more ambitious ideas for the future, Portland is currently recommending the creation of a bus priority corridor along Congress Street.  Like Elm Street in Manchester, Congress Street is served by most of the city’s bus lines and acts as a downtown transit hub.  The priority corridor will enhance that status, while reducing congestion and delays, by giving buses the right-of-way, and limiting traffic flow and turn movements of cars.  Cars won’t be shunned, though, as the plan will also result in more parking, as well as street amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists.  In essence, the priority corridor will reclaim the street for many different modes of transportation from its current use almost exclusively for cars, making the area safer and less congested for all users, and making public transit more attractive to more people.

Portland Metro bus system: lines in and entering the city center share route corridors, increasing service frequency to major destinations

Manchester could likely do something similar along Elm Street or Canal Street, but even more important, the city should at least look into making the bus system more convenient, frequent and efficient overall.  Like the MTA, many of Portland’s Metro bus lines run at one-hour headways, but many run more frequently.  In addition, even bus lines that run only once an hour sometimes share major corridors for part of their routes and are staggered along those areas, so that frequency of service to downtown or other major destinations is much greater.  In Manchester, this could be done in places like Valley Street, so that bus lines that might run from various points in the southeast of the city to downtown once-an-hour could be staggered so that service would be every 15 or 20 minutes from the dense neighborhoods around Valley Street to downtown.

MTA system map - Portland's Metro system is simpler, more efficient and ess intimidating to new users while covering a similar area

The hard work of the MTA notwithstanding, Manchester’s transit system could use a complete overhaul.  Routes should be re-aligned, service hours should be extended, lines should share route corridors on major streets rather than each winding down individual side roads, routes to major destinations and in the city center should run more frequently (this can also be accomplished by staggering lines along shared corridors), better amenities such as bus shelters and maps should be provided, and long, single-directional routes should be eliminated.  (See the map at the bottom of the page for some schematic ideas for improving Manchester’s transit system.)

These improvements would lead to a more efficient, convenient, reliable and attractive transit system, but they should be accompanied by zoning to promote transit use.  Portland also does this much better than Manchester by allowing developers to pay a fee-in-lieu of parking, which is designated to a transit fund.  This not only leads to additional funding for transit, it also gives developers greater flexibility, enables more land to be developed and increases the tax base, and represents an innovate public-private partnership.  Something similar should be considered in Manchester and the denser areas of surrounding towns, particularly South River Road in Bedford, Pinardville in Goffstown, and Downtown Derry.

Also unlike the MTA in Manchester, the Metro in Portland is a regional system, extending coverage, costs and service to suburbs surrounding the city.  With many people in greater Manchester crossing town lines daily to reach work, shopping and entertainment destinations, it makes sense for a transit system to be concentrated on Manchester, but offering reliable service to and sharing costs with neighboring towns.  This would enable commuters from Bedford and Londonderry, students from Saint Anselm in Goffstown, and shoppers in Hooksett and Derry, for instance, to get into Manchester without the need to drive and find parking.  Perhaps such a system could be placed under the direction of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission (SNHPC) or another organization made up of members of the communities to be served.

Oak Street Lofts, Portland, Me. - the sort of infill project encouraged by transit and urban-appropriate zoning

The MTA needs to serve the elderly, disabled, recent immigrant and refugee communities, and lower-income residents who often rely on public transit, but it should also work to attract elective riders,
those in Manchester–and to a limited extent in the surrounding towns–who could otherwise choose to drive.  Most people in Manchester and Portland will continue to drive most places, but public transit can be made attractive to elective riders by providing frequent, reliable service, combined with the benefits of eliminating the stress of traffic and parking, reduced auto maintenance and fuel costs, and tax credits and insurance discounts.  Improvements to transit won’t just benefit elective riders, though; the increased ridership spreads costs among a larger pool, enables greater frequency and longer service hours, and provides a more sustainable system for all users.

More people of every background are looking for the convenience and excitement of urban living, even in smaller cities such as Manchester, than have been in any period since World War II, and they’re looking for the sort of urban amenities that Portland is doing a better job of providing and investing in.  Actual investments and changes may not be feasible in the next year or two, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be discussed and seriously considered.  If Manchester wants to remain the largest city in northern New England, and compete with Portland and other mid-sized New England cities, as well as offer an attractive alternative to the suburbs, it could stand to learn a thing or two from Portland.


Above is a schematic map of possible improvements to the MTA bus system, learning from some of the successes of Portland’s Metro system, and intended to increase ridership, attract elective and commuter riders, and increase frequency, convenience and efficiency systemwide.  It does not show individual routes, but rather major destinations, possible transit hubs (where multiple routes converge), corridors (where multiple routes run concurrently and could be staggered for more frequent service), and areas that might warrant frequent service even if only on a single line.  Please offer your comments and what you’d like to see in an improved bus system in greater Manchester.

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3 thoughts on “Learning from Portland (Me.): Better Transit

  1. Well, I am hoping to locate my business in Manchester (retail) and eventually move to Manchester for the reasons you stated above (smaller scale urban living) it is a cheaper alternative to Boston and I wouldn’t mind the convenience of walking to a store over driving 20 minutes to pick up a few groceries. However, Portland is much more attractive than Manchester, but with my business going to be located in NH I must stay local.

    I know that a large reason Portland has a stronger bus system is that is is regional. And I don’t doubt that positive changes would be noticed within the city and southern towns of NH if we had a strong regional bus system. But the Merrimack regional transportation in Haverhill and area IMO is a bit weak as a system. So a regional system would not be a fix all solution. But with the way the MTA is run now, if it was regional, I feel it would be strong enough to not only make it prosper, but grow as a regional transit system benefiting all of Southern NH.

    Now I have never ridden the MTA, but have attempted (lack of bus frequency, signage, and maps made me just walk or drive)

    If this was a regional system, maybe even if it was not, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Salem to Manchester bus route only because if the buses were stronger within the city, I would use it from time to time. However (there is the Boston Express now) I would hesitate doing so at this time because once in Manchester, the buses are not a reliable form of transport because they come so infrequently.

    I don’t see the Nashua route on the map, I think however little the ridership of this is it is important.

    1. good thoughts Mike, I think the reason why providing a bus to Nashua is not included, is that it would be a planned stop on the capital commuter line Concord-Manchester-Nashua-Boston. Good integration with a potential commuter rail line is critical for a good network. (as Portland has)

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