Portland’s layout is fairly straightforward, with most streets conforming to an easily understood grid. Most streets are named and run east–west; most avenues are numbered and run north–south. Generally speaking, the city is divided into quadrants divided by the Willamette River and Burnside Street. Therefore, streets and avenues with an SE (Southeast) prefix are south of Burnside and east of the river; streets and avenues prefixed by NW (Northwest) are north of Burnside Street and west of the Willamette, and so on.
There is also a section of Portland with the single prefix N. for North; it’s best thought of as the part of Northeast Portland that is west of Williams Avenue. Also worth noting: Northwest Portland streets proceed in alphabetical order from Ankeny, moving north with streets keyed to the names of early settlers (hence Burnside, Couch, Davis, Everett, all the way to Yeon).
Bridges are a major part of getting around in a river city. The east and west sides of Portland are linked by a dozen bridges, 10 of them in the core of the city. Some of these are drawbridges and regularly lift to allow ship traffic to pass. This is particularly a feature of everyday life during the Rose Festival, when the naval fleet arrives at and departs from downtown moorages.
Apart from increasing gridlock on the freeways and major arterials, driving in Portland is mostly straightforward. Avoid taking the interstate highways at rush hour, if at all possible. Because Portland is a city of bridges, traffic tends to back up when approaching the rivers, particularly on the I-5 and I-205 bridges across the Columbia River.
Street parking downtown is metered, though parking meters have been replaced with parking-sticker kiosks. Pay with change, a credit card, or a debit card and receive a sticker to place on the street-side window as proof of payment. Valid stickers (those with time left on them) can be used at more than one parking place. In addition, the city is filled with parking garages; the seven city-owned SmartPark parking garages are usually the cheapest options and also accept merchant validation stamps (on the garage receipt) for a limited period of free parking. Street parking is free 7 p.m.–8 a.m. weekdays.
Portland has an excellent public transport system called TriMet (503/238-7433, www.trimet.org), and it includes buses, light rail (MAX), and commuter rail. There is also the Portland Streetcar and an aerial tram operated by the City of Portland. Nearly all Portland’s primary tourist destinations are easily reached by this system, so unless you actually need a rental car for your visit, consider using public transport. In fact, riding MAX, the Portland Streetcar, and the tram can be part of the fun of visiting Portland.
The most widespread of TriMet’s transport services are buses, with 93 bus lines, 78 of which connect to MAX. For most lines, bus service begins 5–5:30 a.m.; selected lines continue service until about 1:30 a.m.
Like many large cities, Portland once had an extensive streetcar system, but by the 1950s the antiquated lines were retired and replaced by buses. In 2001, Portland started streetcar service on the first modern streetcar system built in the United States in 50 years. Streetcar service currently links the Nob Hill district of NW 23rd Avenue, the Pearl District, and downtown (along 10th and 11th Aves.), and also Portland State University, the South Waterfront development, and the Portland Aerial Tram. The Portland Streetcar has proved very popular, and construction on an Eastside extension was started in 2009.
MAX is the Portland region’s light-rail system. It currently has four different lines, the longest being the 33-mile Blue Line that connects Gresham on the east through downtown and west to Beaverton and Hillsboro. The Red Line travels some of the same route from Beaverton in the west through downtown to the Gateway Transit Center, but then it turns north and travels to Portland International Airport. The Yellow Line travels between downtown and the Portland Expo Center via the Rose Quarter Transit Center and North Portland along Interstate Avenue. The new MAX Green Line runs between Gateway Transit Center and Clackamas Town Center, and on 5th and 6th Avenues in downtown Portland between Union Station and Portland State University.
Throughout downtown, 5th and 6th Avenues are referred to as the “Portland Mall”: most buses run along these two one-way streets as they pass through downtown. Each part of the transit system uses the same tickets or fare structure, and bus transfers and streetcar or MAX tickets can be used throughout the system. Tickets purchased at MAX stations are valid for a maximum of two hours of travel. Tickets purchased on buses are good for one hour of travel during the week and two hours on weekends. Keep your ticket (or transfer, as it’s also called) with you, as it is your proof of payment, and you can ride the system until the expiration time shown. You can also purchase an all-day ticket that is good until the end of the service day. MAX and streetcar (but no longer bus) transport is free within a downtown area called Fareless Square (bounded by I-405 on the south and west, Irving Street on the north, and Lloyd Center on the east).
Most of the destinations that travelers will visit in Portland are in TriMet Zones 1 and 2, for which tickets cost $2 for adults; if you’re traveling to the suburbs or Portland airport, you’ll need an all-zone ticket, which costs $2.30. All youth tickets (ages 7–17 and students in high school or pursuing a GED) are all-zone and cost $1.50. All “honored citizen” tickets (ages 65 and older, people on Medicare, and people with disabilities) are all-zone and cost $0.95. Bus operators do not give change, so carry exact change (the ticketing machines accept both coins and bills). At the MAX stations, including transit centers, machines accept cash and credit or debit cards and will give change. In addition, an all-day ticket is available and is valid for unlimited rides on buses, MAX, and Portland Streetcar until the end of the service day when the ticket was purchased; these cost $4.75.
Regular per-ride tickets can be purchased at TriMet’s primary ticket and information center in Pioneer Courthouse Square (SW Yamhill St. and SW 6th Ave.), and as you board any bus or streetcar. In addition, there are ticket vending machines at all MAX stops. All-day tickets can be purchased from MAX ticket machines, from the TriMet office, and from bus operators; all-day passes are not available from streetcars. You’ll need to insert and validate your all-day ticket in the validator machine if you’re traveling on MAX or the streetcar.
Another publicly owned transport option is the Portland Aerial Tram. This gondola travels 3,300 linear feet between the South Waterfront District and the upper campus of the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). Round-trip tickets are $4; the tram is not part of the TriMet system, so bus transfers and MAX or streetcar tickets are not valid on the tram. However, TriMet monthly or annual passes are honored. Tickets are available from ticket machines at the lower terminal and are checked only on boarding at the lower terminal. The tram is easily reached via public transport, as the lower tram station is adjacent to the Westside streetcar line SW Moody & Gibbs stop.
The tram operates 6 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday, and 1–5 p.m. Sunday late May–mid-September.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel