Rebels By Bus

Slow Travel With Low Carbon Footprint

The littlest rebel returns!

The RBB March 26, 2010 post features Max, my adorable grand nephew.   Max has returned to the great Northwest, with his Mom (Sarah), Sarah’s friends Riana, and Riana’s two year old daughter, Shiway. 

In early November these two brave women and their two always-on-the-go two year olds took Portland by storm.

Following is Sarah’s write-up of the trip…she is convinced using public transportation with toddlers is the way to go!  Yeah, Sarah! 

I’ve spent the majority of my life in Alaska – a state that’s not exactly known for its public transportation systems, outside of the Marine Highway (the ferry system that serves Southeast Alaska and goes as far as Bellingham, WA – what an RBB adventure that would be!).   With a landmass four times the size of Texas and the great number of people who live outside of urban areas, the developmentof a public transportation infrastructure has presented a challenge.   In my 25+ years in Alaska, I’ve never lived anywhere that had a bus stop within walking distance, and park-n-ride options were routinely further away from my home than my workplace.

I did, however, live in Portland, Oregon, for three years while attending graduate school, and  learning to use – and love – public transportation was a big part of my experience there.  So when my friend Riana and I were planning a trip to Portland for the two of us and our two-year-olds, Max and Shiway, this fall, we quickly realized that having a car-free vacation was a distinct possibility.

In fact, it was easier that we could have imagined.  Riana too has never really lived in an area that had available public transportation and had never been to Portland before, so she was understandably a little reserved about learning to navigate a new city while juggling the toddlers.  But she trusted me when I told her it could be done, no problem.  After returning home – and this is after getting herself, her toddler, and their luggage back to the Portland Airport by themselves, since Max and I detoured to Olympia before heading back to Alaska – her exact words were, “I can’t believe how easy that was!”

Since we were going car-free – and because the majority of our activities were going to be in the downtown area – we decided our hotel needed to be downtown in Trimet’s free zone.  We ended up with a great deal at the Residence Inn Portland Downtown/Waterfront through the Marriott Rewards program.  (Our stay was especially great because the clerk who checked us in took one look at the two of us, the two toddlers, and our heap of luggage and asked, “You’re checking into one room?  Let me see if we can upgrade you to a suite.”)  The hotel is located right across the street from the SW Water Ave Portland Streetcar stop, which happens to be the very last stop within the free zone.  From there, it would be just a quick hop,
skip, and a jump up into downtown, where we could easily connect to the main bus mall on 5th/6th Avenues and the MAX line. Before leaving home, we did some advance planning with Trimet’s extremely user-friendly Trip Planner, which is available on their website, and mapped out several routes – including to and from the airport!

Our adventures in public transportation thus started at around 8:00 p.m. PST after a full day of air travel and a lengthy layover in the Seattle airport.  The four of us retrieved our luggage – two adult-size suitcases, two toddler-size suitcases, two carry-ons, and one carseat (lugged along since Max and I would experience car travel in Olympia) and somehow schlepped towards the airport’s Trimet ticket kiosk so we could hop on a MAX train and head downtown.  Adult all-zone tickets are $2.40 (kids under 7 years ride for free on Trimet!), and the tickets are valid fares/transfers for all Trimet lines – bus, MAX, and streetcar – for the allotted time period.  We hauled our luggage onto the MAX, and after a short wait, we were downtown-bound.

It was here that we discovered one weakness in Trimet’s otherwise fantastic Trip Planner.  I had plugged in the approximate times I thought we’d be traveling, just wanting to get a general route to the hotel on paper.  The Trip Planner takes its objective to give you the quickest trip possible very seriously, though, and will sometimes plan a route for you that doesn’t have very much flexibility time-wise.  For example, our planned route recommended we take the 8:32 p.m. #35 bus after getting off the MAX downtown.  The bus would take us to a stop right across the street from the hotel (right next to the  Streetcar stop, it turned out).  However, we ended up being earlier than we’d anticipated, arriving at the bus mall downtown around 8:10 – and just having missed the previous 35 bus, meaning we’d have to wait there – with two very tired toddlers – for almost 25 minutes before the next bus arrived.  Which we did, and it was fine – the weather was gorgeous (and significantly warmer than home!), and the kids were troopers.  But I later figured out that taking the Streetcar would have been a much better idea than waiting for the bus; it departs every 7 minutes, roughly; it would have been a shorter walk from the MAX; and it would have dropped us just as close to our hotel.  And Trimet’s Trip Planner would have concurred – had I entered the times we were traveling to be 8:29 instead of 8:32, for example.  So my one recommendation for visitors planning to use Trimet is to spend some time playing with the Trip Planner, putting times in slightly differently and taking note of all the different routes that come up, so you already know in advance some alternatives.

During our trip, we mostly stayed within the Free Zone, using the Streetcar/shuttle bus and sometimes also hopping on the MAX.  Since our hotel was designed for extended stays, every room and suite is outfitted with a kitchenette or full kitchen, and so several times we took the (free!) 10-minute Streetcar ride up to Whole Foods in the Pearl District to grab groceries which we could then prepare at “home.”  This was budget-friendly and also kid-friendly.  (This would have been even more of a money-saver if the ritzy Whole Foods salad bar wasn’t so tempting… we probably ended up spending less there than we would have if we’d been eating out, but minimizing the toddlers’ restaurant time was definitely worth it.)

Portland landmark Powell’s Books is right across the street from Whole Foods, as is Anthropologie and, of course, many, many other great stores and restaurants.   Our other destinations within the free zone included Portland State University, the park blocks, Pioneer Place Mall, and the Saturday Market.

Our other major outings were both to Washington Park, a lovely 400-acre area that houses parks, an arboretum, museums, and, most importantly (for our purposes, anyway) the Portland Children’s Museum and the Oregon Zoo.  Washington Park has its own MAX stop that is served by the red and blue lines, so it’s only too easy to get there from downtown (but it is outside the free zone).  Adult one-zone tickets are $2.10, and the timestamp was valid long enough for this to cover both our to- and from- rides.  (And again, the kids were free!)

When Riana and Shiway headed back to Fairbanks, Max and I met up with original Rebel Mary (my aunt!) and headed to Olympia for a visit.  Though we traveled to Olympia by car, we had one last fling with public transportation before heading back to the great white north – we used Intercity Transit’s free Dash shuttle for our visit to the Hands On Children’s Museum in downtown Olympia.  This was another fun, convenient, and free ride that helped us avoid the hassle of trying to park near the museum.

Looking back, I have to say that this was a great way to travel, even though – actually, especially because – we were traveling with small kids.  I realized that any extra time we spent waiting for buses/streetcars, or on slightly longer than usual streetcar routes, was time we would have otherwise spent installing/uninstalling carseats and looking for parking.  (It also meant that Riana and Shiway didn’t even have to bring a carseat, which definitely lightened their luggage’s load.)  Instead, the kids got to be outdoors bouncing around, and then had the time of their lives when actually on the bus, streetcar, or MAX.  They loved it, and even now (two months later), “riding” the bus/streetcar/MAX train is still a favorite game around our house.  Whenever friends ask for recommendations of things to do with kids in Portland, I now say, “The children’s museum is fantastic, the zoo is amazing, but what you’ve really got to do is ride the MAX.”)  And the cost was definitely in our favor – instead of spending upwards of $200 on a rental car and who-knows-how-much in parking (the hotel alone charged $20/day for parking), we each spent under $10 total on transportation for the entire five-day trip.  A definite win in my book – needless to say, I can’t wait until we have the opportunity to do it again!


For suggestions for fun things to do in Portland, check out Finder: the Willamette Week’s Guide to Portland, which is available free on their website.

 Links in case the hyperlinks don’t work

Portland Children’s Museum

Hands On Children’s Museum

Dash Shuttle – Intercity Transit

Trimet –

Oregon Zoo –

Marriott Residence Inn Portland Downtown/Waterfront –

Whole Foods –

Powell’s Books –

WW Finder:

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