Seeing Portland, OR without a rental car?
August 5, 2012 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Me and the wife will be flying out to Portland, Oregon roughly six months from now to check out the city to see if we want to relocate. We were thinking of not renting a car and just using light rail to get around, since good public transportation is a major factor of why we want to relocate. How good or bad of an idea is this?
posted by AdamOddo to Travel & Transportation around Portland, OR (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's a decent idea and will give you a sense for how limited the light-rail system is here. By "limited" I mean it covers a lot of ground, but light rail was designed to go from downtown to the suburbs (east, west, and south) and as such you don't really get a flavor for Portland itself. I would expand your parameters to buses and light rail; the bus network is much more extensive and will show you much more of the city.

One word of warning, though - Tri-Met does not run late into the night, as do a lot of major cities' transit systems. The last MAX is around midnight, and buses (especially outside the downtown core) generally get very sparse after 10PM and also stop around midnight. So if late-night transit is important to you, plan accordingly.
posted by pdb at 8:10 AM on August 5, 2012

Public transportation in Portland was a great thing when I lived there, and as far as I can tell it has only gotten better. So, I think exploring the city via bus and rail is a great idea. However, you might get a car for a couple of days, so that you can explore outlying resources, nearby towns, and maybe even take in some sights of nature (Mt. Hood? Mt. St. Helens? Bridal Veil Falls? The Coast?) Portland's greenery and proximity to nature is a big part of its appeal, and to leave that out of your decision seems doing it by half. So maybe plan for a couple of days with a car.
posted by pickypicky at 8:10 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you should rent a car for at least a day to get a feel for the "greater" Portland area, especially if you care at all about the hiking/recreational activities within an hour drive of the city (it's awesome). There are also interesting neighbourhoods that are not as well-served by transit and would be quite a hike, although very doable if you have bikes.

I was there twice, once without a car, stayed near downtown core, took the bus and walked to the NE. Loved the city. Second time, had a car for a few days, got a much better overall view.
posted by bread-eater at 8:10 AM on August 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Portland's bus system is fantastic. The light rail is great too, but limited. A lot of the Portlanders I know get around on bikes, too, the city is very bike friendly. That said I'd want a car for an exploratory visit, you'll be able to see a lot more with the flexibility. Public transit works better when you have a routine.

The important thing is that you're going in January when the weather is typical. A lot of people visit in summer and think "this is awesome!" and then move and become miserable about February. It's not just that it's wet, it's that it's rainy and dark for months with little break.
posted by Nelson at 8:58 AM on August 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

We've found both the light rail and the bus system easy to navigate when we visit. I agree that renting a car for a day or two so you can explore the surrounding area is a good idea.
posted by rtha at 9:23 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get a car. The light rail and buses are great for day-to-day commuting, especially if you choose the locations of work and home to be convenient. But if you're just exploring, driving will save you a lot of time and will let you see a much larger area.
posted by xil at 10:22 AM on August 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Get a car. This applies anywhere.
Of course you want to see if the public transport meets your needs, but your needs on a scouting trip can be far different from what your resident needs will be.
By all means use the public T, and study it. But it would be a mistake to limit yourself to it for this kind of visit.
I always take binocs for any kind of scouting.
posted by LonnieK at 10:26 AM on August 5, 2012

I vote not the best idea. Yes, Portland has a great public transportation, but relying on light rail will limit the number of neighborhoods you can explore. Once you find a great neighborhood or two you can quickly figure out you can take x bus to the y bus and then light rail or Max to your destinations/work/downtown. But using light rail alone for exploration purposes would be really limiting.
posted by click at 10:29 AM on August 5, 2012

Tip: if you do end up going around by public transport. Get the Tri-met app for your phone. It's indespensible now that lots of stops have forgone the typical schedule map. And pretty much everyone knows how to get around. So don't be embarrassed to ask anyone at a stop or your driver.
posted by amanda at 10:34 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's great for a visit. If you want to get off the tracks (heh), get a ZipCar account before you go. In my opinion, now that the yellow line is in, anything that's worth seeing is within about ten or fifteen quick blocks walk of MAX or Streetcar. I lived there for ten years and we're visiting next month; we'll land late at night at PDX and take the red line or an airport shuttle to a hotel, then we're staying in an AirBnB-arranged room that's three blocks from the yellow line for the rest of the week. Everywhere that we want to go (zoo/arboretum and parks, downtown bar scene, restaurants in NW, to see if my old professor is in at PSU) is on MAX or streetcar.

Fair warning: The only things that you're missing by sticking to MAX are the southwest suburbs that may end up living in depending on a variety of factors like housing cost and choosing schools for children, but they're pretty predictably "generica". If you do decide to take a bus out to the 'burbs, though, make sure that bus is still running when you want to go back. Stuff sort of shuts down early.

It's good that you're going six months from now; you need to be sure that you're OK with the rain. People who only visit Portland in the summer and then move there often find themselves ... ... disappointed.

Last bit of advice before you relocate: Make sure that you have a job secured. Portland's job market is tough because there are a lot of people who want to live there.
posted by SpecialK at 12:43 PM on August 5, 2012

Surprised nobody's yet mentioned Car2Go, which are absolutely everywhere here now. Imagine ZipCar, but pay by-the-minute with no monthly/annual fees, and completely on-demand. Just look up the closest one on your phone, swipe your card, and drive away. You're charged $.35/minute and can leave the car nearly anywhere in the major metro area. (The airport is a notable exception.) One of the best parts: all paid street parking is covered for free, saving you a ton if you commute downtown. I use it CONSTANTLY, especially great for one-way trips.
posted by waxpancake at 3:30 AM on August 6, 2012

My Dad has come for a visit once a year for the last 10 years or so and has only rented a car once. You'll be fine.
posted by togdon at 7:21 AM on August 6, 2012

Transit here is great, but at certain times of the year, it depends on what you think of as a reasonable distance to walk in the rain. Most people who rely on Portland transit are comfortable, or at least used to being in the cold rain, and don't mind a bit of a walk, but sometimes I've discovered "bit of a walk" is defined differently from person to person. Personally, I don't mind the possibility of being in the rain- I tend to always have waterproof clothing with me that time of year. Especially if you're branching out to using the bus and taking non-frequent service lines, I'd say be prepared, clothing-wise, to be walking or waiting in the rain a lot.

I haven't used Car2Go yet but I have friends that do, and it sounds great- if you're commuting in the metro area, it could be used instead of MAX or the bus (or in addition- if you miss the bus or MAX- look for the nearest Car2Go and reserve it!). If it sounds like something you'd be at all interested in, I suggest you give it a shot while you're visiting.
posted by Secretariat at 9:53 AM on August 6, 2012

I don't like the transit system here in Portland. I know that makes me an immediate pariah to some, but it's true.

Max trains (light rail) generally run on time, but their range is limited (as pdb mentioned) and when they're crowded, they're not exactly *fun* to ride. Plus, even though I'm a stout guy, I've been the victim of random intimidation on it (of the "What are YOU looking at?!" variety, which I shrugged off once and the group of teens turned their attention to a teenage girl riding by herself, then promptly hit her in the face with their flip flops and took off running...) and would never suggest having my kids ride without parents. I'm THAT concerned about the people on it.

The bus system would give you a lot more variety, since it covers a lot more ground, but without an app or a map, it can be confusing.

I love my car.
posted by tacodave at 3:51 PM on August 6, 2012

Seems to me people are confusing 2 questions:
1. Can I live well in Portland if I rely on transit? and
2. Should I rely on transit to assess this matter on a visit?

The OP asked the 2nd question, not the 1st, altho I expect he values opinions about both. But I'm adamant on this: a scouting trip is completely different from day-to-day living. I'd rent a car.
posted by LonnieK at 9:16 AM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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