The corporate expansion decisions of a small oscilloscope maker in the 1950s are considered the symbolic spark that ignited the explosive growth of Portland’s western suburbs.
First, the young Tektronix Inc. moved its only manufacturing facility in 1951 from Southeast Hawthorne in inner-city Portland to create its Sunset plant near what is now Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Washington County. A few short years later, Tek opened its landmark industrial campus in Beaverton.
As a high-tech pioneer in Oregon, Tek wanted to locate in a place where workers could find affordable housing, as well as have a short drive to work. That was considered an enlightened and a well-meaning workforce strategy for industry, but — decades later — a commuting dilemma for Oregon.
Here’s the irony. The Tektronix story is a local example of what happened across the nation in the following years as thousands of employers relocated or started up in the suburbs of our nation's largest cities. The legacy is a nation of urban transit systems posing great challenges for commuters trying to get to a job in the suburbs.
By 1960, the Portland area was served by a disconnected network of privately owned bus companies — Rose City Transit in the city and the suburban Blue Lines. Privately operated transit in Portland, as in most other American cities, was in a free-fall toward extinction. The state legislature created TriMet, a tax-supported public transit system in 1969, when a new trickle of public investment began to grow bus ridership.
When I commuted to Tektronix in Beaverton by bus from Southeast Portland, the one-way trip took about an hour. That was in 1990. When corporate headquarters moved to Wilsonville a year later, the trip took 90 minutes.
It appears I was just an average commuter, according to the Brookings Institution, which joined the discussion on the future of transit with a research report released July 11, which included a set of recommendations.
“Even though most jobs are located near transit, the typical employer can access only 27 percent of metropolitan workers within 90 minutes,” said the Brookings Institution in a summary of the report entitled “Where the jobs are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit.”
“More than three quarters of jobs are in neighborhoods served by transit, but only 27 per cent of the workforce can get to those jobs via mass transit within 90 minutes,” The Brookings report says
If our inadequate suburban systems are to improve, communities must make a deliberate decision to change, the report says.
“Our research shows that current transit systems are unprepared to adequately connect workplaces with the workforce, but there are several steps metropolitan leaders can take to improve their networks.”
The Brookings Institution study points to Atlanta as a community at the crossroads with a willingness to change. “It’s a city that has a relatively high transit coverage rate, 94 percent, while suburban transit covers only 45 percent of its jobs.”
“This dichotomy highlights the consequences of uncoordinated transportation investments and land-use decisions. An upcoming transportation referendum in the Atlanta region, one of the largest in the country, could help better connect employers to workers by increasing transit investment,” concludes the report.
As for the Portland area today, the region operates bus or light rail systems — or is busy laying tracks — to several suburban centers. A modest, cash-strapped bus network provides local service within suburban communities such as Beaverton, Gresham and Oregon City.
Local public investment is most visible as a transit-only bridge rises above the Willamette River, part of the light-rail construction to Milwaukie and the suburbs beyond. This fall, Clark County, Washington residents will vote on whether to fund an extension on TriMet’s light rail service north across the Columbia River into Vancouver. And the Portland Streetcar will begin operation on the city's inner eastside later this year.
“The numbers for the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton metro region are better than the national average,” 1,000 Friends of Oregon observes, “with 88.7 percent of the jobs reachable by transit, and 38.4 percent of the workforce able to access jobs by transit within 90 minutes. However, in the suburbs, only 23.9 percent of people can reach jobs within 90 minutes."
Commenting on the Brookings research, 1,000 Friends says: “There is much work to be done in the Portland region, and in Oregon's other communities, to make jobs accessible via transit. One important way to do this is to have people live in places where jobs are, and where they have access to public transit.”
And the Brookings Institution adds: “Another is to have the jobs be in more accessible places. One method to address the discrepancy between city and suburban labor access is for employers to locate in more transit-friendly suburban locations.”
The question is which comes first — business or transit? Again, the irony for Portland is we were busy ripping rails out of the suburbs in the 1950s just as businesses were looking for a change of address.
Now, do we have the grit to fix the problem, which is, as the report says, to “connect workplaces with the workforce?” It may not seem like it this September when transit service is sharply reduced because of an inadequate transit finance system.
CFM Senior Associate Doug Babb, a lifelong Portland transit user, is a former TriMet public information manager and a former Tektronix corporate public relations manager.