The History of the Transit Mall

Nov 16, 2021

Making History book coverThe Portland Transit Mall is Downtown Portland’s transit hub, spanning more than 57 blocks along 5th and 6th avenues. It’s the nation’s first mall with one-way streets intended specifically for mass transit. Pedestrians, buses, trains, cars and bikes all use the Transit Mall – it’s truly Portland’s main transportation artery. 

How did the mall come to be? How has it evolved? For answers, here’s an excerpt from Making History: 50 Years of TriMet and Transit in the Portland Region.


The Origins of the Transit Mall

The most visible capital accomplishment in these early years was the construction of the Portland Transit Mall as part of the strategy to reduce air pollution in the downtown area by 60 percent.

Removing cars from the mall was a politically risky proposition and there was opposition from some downtown property owners. 

The mall concept won approval from the Portland City Council in January 1972. Counselors required new off-street parking for all displaced on-street parking before construction could begin. Fifth and Sixth avenues were to be rebuilt from building face to building face. Existing parking garages had to be reoriented to cross streets.

Work began on the downtown Portland Transit Mall in April 1976 and the mall opened in December 1977, gaining credit over the years for triggering extensive new downtown construction and solidifying the downtown’s status as a retail center. 

The mall covered 22 blocks on Southwest Fifth and Sixth avenues through Portland’s high-density office, retail and commercial core. While not the nation’s first, the Portland mall was lauded for exceptional design quality and strategic operational innovation. The mall won architectural design awards and became the defining feature of Portland’s people-friendly downtown. It also became a prototype for similar redevelopment initiatives in other cities. 

In 1994, the Mall was extended seven blocks north into the Old Town/Chinatown District, linking the original Mall with Portland’s intermodal transportation center at Union Station. The design of the original Mall was replicated as closely as possible, although the narrower right-of-way north of Burnside provided a little less space for transit and pedestrians.

The Mall Evolves

In April 2003 Metro Council approved the south corridor project, outlining transportation options for Clackamas County. The first phase of this plan included an 8.3-mile light rail project from Gateway Transit Center to Clackamas Town Center along I-205 and the Portland Mall between Union Station and Portland State University.

The new Green Line joined the existing track between Gateway and the Steel Bridge. From the Steel Bridge the new tracks—added as part of the Green Line project—would run to Union Station and turn south along the transit mall to Portland State University. Placement of light rail on the Portland Transit Mall had been considered as early as 1978 during the design of the Banfield project. The idea was set aside because placing rail on the mall would require tearing up what was then a pristine, new transit facility. 

By 2007, however, the Portland Transit Mall was 30 years old and showing its age. Pavement was crumbling, and design elements needed updating. With two MAX lines (Blue, Red) already using the downtown alignment on Southwest First Avenue and Yamhill and Morrison streets, additional service on that alignment would constrain operations. The Steel Bridge would continue as the only river crossing for four MAX lines (Blue, Red, Yellow, Green), but the new mall alignment would relieve congestion downtown. 

There was another good reason for running MAX on the transit mall. Portland State University, while served locally by the Portland Streetcar, had no nearby access to the light rail system, and it was (and is) the region’s largest transit destination. 

Beyond Portland State, the light rail network in future years might extend to the southeast (a reality with the Orange Line) and/or southwest, and a new downtown alignment on the mall would provide a take-off point for those possible future system extensions. 

Designing the revamped Portland Transit Mall presented enormous challenges. The automobile lane on the original mall was limited to three-block segments, after which drivers encountered a forced left turn. The business community, City of Portland and TriMet agreed that each one-way street forming the transit mall needed a truly continuous automobile lane—leaving two lanes for MAX and buses to share and crisscross to reach stops. The solution raised eyebrows.

Skeptics also raised concerns about pedestrian safety. A series of computer, table-top and parking lot simulations demonstrated that buses and light rail could operate successfully and safely if the placement of bus stops changed from every second to every fourth block. The Portland Bureau of Transportation and Professor Rob Bertini’s students at Portland State University helped TriMet develop the concept. With most of the transit mall buses shifted temporarily to Southwest Third and Fourth avenues, construction commenced in February 2007 and took more than two years to complete. To minimize impacts on stores and offices, work was concentrated on three- to four-block segments for up to eight weeks or less in any one segment. 

In May 2009 the Portland Transit Mall reopened for buses and test runs for the new MAX alignment. The fifth MAX line, the 8.2-mile Green Line, opened on September 12. The new MAX tracks were brought into use on August 30, when the Yellow Line was diverted onto the Mall from the Morrison Yamhill alignment, which the Blue and Red Lines continued to use. The project cost $575.7 million with 60 percent federal participation. The MAX system now extended 52.6 miles with 87 stations. For the first time, all three counties in TriMet’s region were linked by light rail. Overblown fears of multimodal chaos on the transit mall did not materialize.

Read more on the history of transit in Portland in Making History, available for free here [PDF].

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