Bus Review: Line 20

Line 20 has a reputation.

Drivers have opinions about most routes, but only a few have a reputation.

All you have to do is say the 20, and operators will give a “mmhmm,” and nod their head. They know.

The 20’s reputation is deserved. It’s long. Two hours from end to end. It covers a lot of ground. It’s one of those crucible routes operators endure before they get enough seniority to get better work. It can be difficult to keep on time. It was one of the few 24 hour service buses and had the reputation of “Hotel TriMet” for those who have nowhere else to go.

You see things on the 20, drivers say. It’s the sort of bus where you’ll see a magician walking up and down the aisle holding a crystal ball and saying incantations and you’ll realize it’s not like the other buses. It has a certain element that rides it, drivers say. Honestly, I’ll say that’s true of most buses these days. If you are only interested in dealing with the housed, sober, washed, and employed, a job in public transit is probably not for you. If, however, you enjoy dealing with the public, in all its different forms, the 20 is a good route for that.

It starts at Gresham Transit Center, and before you can start heading west to Beaverton, you must first head even further east toward Mount Hood Community College. This is probably one of the greatest disappointments for me on the 20, especially on eastbound trips. Just when you get to Gresham, just when you think your time in the seat is almost done, you keep heading east, only to circle back around.

The people who ride it are mix, with distinct groups throughout the route. It’s not a route folks ride from end to end unless they are looking for a place to stay warm and dry while they nap. At the end of the line in Gresham, lots of folks make there way from Gresham TC out to Kane or Stark. Around Rockwood, people get on and off for shopping or to get home. You pick up more people as you move toward downtown Portland, letting bunches out at 122nd and 82nd. When you get to 102nd, you make a couple of turns to get you from Stark to Burnside, which will carry you all the way toward downtown. You then start to pick up more as you move toward downtown, through the well-heeled Laurelhurst neighborhood before you get to the inner east side and meet up with the 12 and 19 on Sandy.

Stark is not a dull street, but neither is it particularly interesting visually. It passed by in a blur of strip malls, apartments, and houses. East Burnside between 60th and 102nd is more interesting than not, with a curve to get around Mt. Tabor, and lanes that are too narrow for a bus.

The next group of people you’ll see on the 20 is all the residents of West Burnside. There are a lot of shelters, single occupancy hotels, clinics, and other social services on Burnside and you’ll get people getting on or off just to go a few blocks or to take a long ride somewhere else. Drivers recommend to not keep your door open for too long if you get stuck at a time point. They said they never know who might wander in just because they are curious.

West Burnside is good for people watching. A never ending parade of people talking to themselves, dancing with themselves, scratching itches that never go away. The road itself is a narrow four lane boulevard, cutting through the streets angled toward the river to the south of it and the north south grid above it. It rises up from the river, from the flophouses of Old Town to the condos and developments of the Pearl and the neighborhood around NW 23rd. You drive by local landmark Powell’s Books and the old Henry Weinhard Brewery. If you look left at the McDonalds, you can catch a glimpse of the Firemans Memorial and Providence Park, home of the Timbers and Thorns.

After the neon signs of the westside, the road rises quickly up into the woods and the West Hills. Suddenly you’ve left the city behind and the bus chugs through the forest. This is the magical part of the 20, the bus shaking off the city as it struggles up the mountain, cars careening around it to avoid a purgatory of 25 mph and breathing in bus diesel fumes. With the windows down you can smell the oak and maple leaves moldering on the ground, and that smell in the early evening Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar have after they’ve been warmed by the sun.

Suddenly, you crest the hill, the forest clears into the Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and the suburbs start, following you down the mountain to the hospital. This is the fourth group of people you pick up, those going to Providence St. Vincent Hospital, staff, patients, and visitors. You loop through the hospital and truck to Sunset Transit Center.

The first time I did the 20 on extra service, I got to Sunset coming from Gresham, and I thought I was done, this is it, I reached the end. I was about to get out of the seat, looked at the passengers seated who made no moves for the door. I then looked at the directions again and realized I still had a ways to go.

A few more turns and you end up at Beaverton Transit Center. You’ll pick up a person or two on Cedar Hills making their way back to the Transit Center, but if you’re lucky you’ll sail clear into your parking spot.

The 20 is not an easy route. It is a long marathon through the region. It is a route that makes you work, and you are rewarded with a region’s worth of sights and sounds. As you cut through Portland’s equator like an explorer in a galleon, you get a good pulse on the metro area, its working people and skid row scions. The 20, like the Blue Line, is a long, tough ribbon that binds the whole show together. With two plus hours in the seat from end to end, it’s hard on the bladder, but you are rewarded with seeing a metropolis from end to end. Not many routes give you that.

Would I sign it? Probably not. It’s too long for me, and while it has more turns than the 9 or 2 and some excellent curves up into the West Hills, it’s too straight for me. And you can’t help but have a sinking feeling as you drop out of the forest going east, and see Burnside and Stark and the whole grid of the east side stretch out before you, the next 90 minutes of your life in front of you, knowing there is no deviation from this path.

Favorite moments: Driving through Forest Park into the West Hills. Crossing the Burnside Bridge and seeing the neon White Stag sign flashing. Arriving at the Laurelhurst Gates only to realize you still have so much further to go.

Fast facts:

Does it go to Walmart? No

Does it go to the Bottle Drop? There is one in the West Burnside Fred Meyers.

Does it go to Fred Meyers? Yes

Does it go downtown? Yes, but not on the bus mall.

Does it go to the MAX? Yes, but depending on where you get on, it might take a while to get there.

Favorite memory of the 20: In February 2019, I’m a fresh driver and I hit the Will Work Extra button on the computer for the first time, hoping to get some OT out of my tripper. Dispatch sends me from Gateway up to Sunset to do a fill on the 20. Dispatch realizes I have a pretty high badge number but since I got there so quickly, they are reassured I can fill a 20 even though I’ve never driven it.

I leave Sunset and head east. I pass the cemetery and I’m rolling down through the forest with like 7 people on board. Suddenly we come to a stop. We don’t move for 15–20 minutes. Dispatch tells me a vehicle crash up ahead is blocking the road and there are two other buses in front of me trapped in the traffic.

I’m chatting with one of the guys on the bus, a young guy. He has a date at some place on NW 23rd. How long is this gonna take? I don’t know. Do you think I can walk there? I don’t know, it’s dark and there’s no sidewalks. Well it’s just gonna look really bad if I show up late. How long do you think it will take to walk from here. I don’t know, what does Google say? Finally he says let me off, I’m gonna chance it. I wish him good luck. Thanks man, I got a good feeling about this one.

Landmarks: Powell’s Books, Don Pedro #1, Burnside Bridge, Forest Park, The Penumbra Kelly Building, Mt. Hood Community College, the Dumbbell Building.

This is a personal blog, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet.

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