TriMet bus review: Line 8

Some lines when you get them just feel like home.

The 8 is one of those routes for me. It was the first route I drove by myself when I completed training. Fresh eyed and eager, I greeted all the weary eyed commuters along NE 15th with a “Good Morning!” too chipper for the January chill.

It’s also the first bus route I specifically remember riding. Sure, I had taken a ride on the MAX, and the streetcar, and a bus or two, but the 8 is the first one I remember where I got on and what bus it was.

The 8 is cozy: it feels like a bus route should, like it’s just always been there. In a way it has, it’s the only route that has not changed from end to end since TriMet supplanted Rose City Transit in 1969. Every time I drive the 8, it just feels good, like catching up with an old friend, or putting on your favorite t-shirt. You’ve both seen some things, but who hasn’t, and you just keep going.

The 8 starts at NE Dekum and NE 6th, and rolls down Dekum through the Woodlawn neighborhood’s odd triangles. As the neighborhood was the terminus for one of Portland’s streetcar lines in the early 20th century, the developer angled the streets to the streetcar line to make it faster for people to walk to and from the trolley.

Woodlawn is a cute neighborhood of mixed housing stock, and a small commercial strip with cafes, bars, restaurants, and a farmer’s market in the summer. However, before you know it, the 8 passes under some large leafy trees and makes its first turn of the route onto NE 15th Ave, where it will remain for a while.

NE 15th travels up the slope from the Columbia River to the crest of Alameda Ridge. It crosses Ainsworth, with its tree-lined boulevard. At Killingsworth it preforms the most challenging maneuver for the route with a difficult jog to stay on 15th as the grids don’t line up. It passes Alberta, goes down the ridge at Prescott, and continues past Fremont, and Knott, through the Irvington neighborhood.

The interesting thing about the 8 is that while it is a long-time bus route, it does not feature the extensive commercial development of other classic streetcar lines, like what you find along Hawthorne, Broadway, and Belmont. This might be because the original streetcar line terminated at Prescott and did not travel further north, but the 8 does have its own claim to fame. The Irvington neighborhood is a classical streetcar suburb, and the 8 passes by the large houses of Portland’s early well-to-do who fled the inner city of what we now call downtown Portland for the leafy streets of Irvington. Note: Additional research helped me find out that not only did restrictive covenants in Irvington prevent people of color from purchasing land in the neighborhood, the neighborhood also banded together to prevent any commercial development either.

Before public transit was viewed as a negative or only for those without the means or ability to own a car, extensive streetcar networks proliferated in most American cities and were seen as the future and benefitted all. See, before the automobile, the railroad and the streetcar in turn revolutionized where people could live and how they could get there. Before then, people were limited in where they lived by their ability to walk to work, meaning most folks lived within a mile of where they worked. However with public transit, suddenly neighborhoods like Irvington could reach downtown by a quick streetcar ride instead, and folks bought up the land and houses.

After Broadway, the 8 finally reaches Lloyd Center Mall and makes a right on Multnomah. Lloyd Center is a shadow of its former self. For those who grow up in Portland or have fond memories of it, its downfall has been hard to watch. Even before the pandemic, it was a ghost town: its lots empty, its storefronts bare. For any Portlander, it’s been hard to watch.

The 8 continues down Multnomah, past the Lloyd district skyscrapers, and cruises down under I-5 to Rose Quarter Transit Center. Rose Quarter feels like the beating heart of transit sometimes, and during rush hour before the pandemic, there were masses transferring between buses and trains. It’s also home to the Moda Center (aka the Rose Garden) and Veterans Colliseum, home of the Blazers and Winterhawks teams. Even if you’re just waiting for a bus or a train it can be fun; I’ve seen a mom and a kid camped out in the grass there just watching all the big vehicles going by.

The 8 crosses the Steel Bridge into Old Town. The Steel Bridge, Portland’s second oldest, is a wonder, an actually useful multimodal bridge that carries buses, cars, bikes, pedestrians, freight trains, heavy rail passenger trains, and light rail passenger trains. I love going over it in the bus, hearing a freight train blowing its horn and rumbling on the lower deck while the MAX train ding dings its way on the upper deck.

The Steel Bridge dumps you off into Old Town/China Town neighborhood. Even before the pandemic, it was already an “interesting” neighborhood to drive through as the site of many of the city’s social services and remaining single room occupancy hotels, but the pandemic has upped the sketch factor. The tents of the unhoused occupy every sidewalk and spill out into the street in places. The mentally ill howl at the sky and thrash from the sidewalk into the street and oncoming traffic. The addicted scratch themselves. Smoke fills the air. A person shoots up in the alcove of an unoccupied building. Someone pulls down their pants and goes to the bathroom in the middle of the sidewalk. Feces and discarded needles litter the sidewalk. It’s not a pretty sight, a poster child for dystopia.

The 8 turns left onto Fifth and travels down the Bus Mall. The Bus Mall is an intricate dance, of signals, trains, buses, and that one commuter waving and running down the bus at the last minute. The 8 meets the Blue and Red Line trains near Pioneer Courthouse, and intersects with the Streetcar at Portland State University.

The 8 now has the second half of its journey. There are two groups of people who ride the 8. Those who live in Northeast who are headed downtown to work or shop, or moving around Northeast to shop or work, and those who get on the 8 in downtown to take the bus up the hill to the hospital.

Marquam Hill, or Pill Hill as its jokingly called by some, is the location of Portland’s major medical facilities, the VA Hospital and OHSU Hospital. Lots of people work up there, and because of its location on top of a steep hill surrounded by parks and forests, parking is limited. Also OHSU has a partnership with TriMet where all its employees and students get a bus pass, and TriMet makes sure the hill receives excellent bus service.

The 8 leaves the mall, making a quick left on Carruthers and then a left on Terwilliger. Terwillger loops up the hill, following the ridge. Built as a scenic parkway for picnicking Portlanders in the early 20th century, Terwilliger boasts beautiful leafy trees and spectacular views of Mt Hood, the Ross Island Bridge, the Willamette River and the Cascade foothills. Nothing is quite more beautiful than chugging up there during sunrise in the fall, catching a pink east sky looking radiant around the Cascades and making the City of Roses look beautiful for a minute.

The VA Hospital is first, with two stops on its campus. Then a quick loop through some apartments near OHSU, then back down the hill to the main hospital entrance and emergency room. From there, you pass under the Portland Aerial Tram, and go back downtown, on 6th Avenue this time, and then through Old Town and back over the river and up 15th and through Northeast Portland.

When you pull up to the hospital, you never quite know what you’re going to get. Usually it will just be nurses, doctors, orderlies, and janitors on their way home, maybe a patient or two. However, every once and a while you will get someone with mental health issues. OHSU pushes former patients out to the curb with a hospital blanket and a bus ticket, and it’s up to the bus driver to get them down the hill from the hospital. Once, I had a woman howl in my ear most of the way down the hill that I needed to turn off the fans because Satan was in the fans and was trying to infect the bus. Another time, a woman had a hard time keeping her pants up and told me about her former life in Lake Oswego and how she interpreted the characters at the Chinese Garden and how she needed me to take her straight away to the Department of Elder Complaints downtown. Once a man tried to bring a lit cigarette on the bus and then spent most of the trip switching seats and yelling occasionally. You never know who you’ll pick up there.

The 8, being a longtime route means it has lots of long time riders. You have the people reading Moby Dick out loud to themselves in the back of the bus, the kids off to school, the office drones headed downtown, the nurses in scrubs off to perform heroics at the hospital. People have grown up and gotten old on that bus, and you get a good sense of the neighborhood and when I drive it, it just feels like a good place.

While most routes have been affected by COVID-19, the 8 is the route I feel it the most. Morning rush hour on the bus would be packed, standing room only front to back into downtown, only to let everyone off, and get even more people on board for a packed ride up the hill. Evening would be much the same, with full buses coming down the hill, and full buses headed into Northeast from downtown.

Because the 8 feels so much like home to me, when it is empty, it feels that much more empty. What is a home if it isn’t filled with laughter, chatter, bickering, or tired sighs? An empty bus is like an empty house, a sad, lonesome place. I’ve wanted the world to go back to normal so much the last few months, but only on the 8 has it felt so acutely.

Most trips during the PM straight I did a week ago, I picked up about five passengers the whole trip. It’s astounding to think how full a 5 p.m. trip before coronavirus would have been and then to see a mostly empty bus, traveling down mostly empty streets. Not that Northeast Portland was ever a happening nightlife spot, but one night I had an 10:30 p.m. trip up 15th, and the whole way from Broadway to Dekum, I did not have any cars behind or any cars coming the other way, or any cars moving on any of the side or main streets, and I picked up no one. The empty buses, and empty streets made me miss the old hustle and bustle of the city, the commuters running for buses, and even the patients pushed to the curb with a ticket.

My last trip of the week up NE 15th, a man got on my bus at Killingsworth, the only person I’d picked up my whole northbound trip. He hopped on the bus, started walking back but then stopped suddenly.

“Man look at all those signs on the seats,” he said. Every other seat has a do not sit here sign. “How long they gonna keep those up? I guess not that it matters,” He said gesturing to the empty seats.

I told him I didn’t know.

“I guess none of us know how long this is going to last. It ain’t gonna end any time soon.”

I nodded my head. “When I was driving earlier I daydreamed and wished it was all over. I’m just sick of it all.”

“I hear you. Everybody just wants everything to go back to normal.”

I dropped him off on Dekum by Woodlawn Park. “Hang in there, it’s gotta end one of these days,” he said when he got off the bus.

Hopefully it does end.

Would I sign it?

Yes I would, and I did as a mini-runner. I love the 8, it’s what drivers in the business call “good work.” My only complaint is since it doubles back on itself, you essentially see the same stuff twice every trip, which can get monotonous over a signup. Also, COVID-19 took away the rest rooms at the end of the line at Jack In The Box, meaning you have to plan your bathroom breaks mid-route at Rose Quarter or plan extra time to drive to Jubitz.

Favorite Moments:

Passing under all the big old elm and maple trees along NE 15th in the Irvington Neighborhood. Sunrise going up Terwilliger to the Hospital.

Fast Facts

Does it go to Walmart? No

Does it go downtown? Yes

Does it go to the Hospital? Yes, OHSU and the VA Hospital.

Does it go to the Bottle Drop? No

Does it go to the mall? Yes, Lloyd Center.

Does it go the MAX? Yes, by Lloyd Center, Rose Quarter Transit Center, and downtown on the bus mall.

Landmarks:

OHSU, VA Hospital, Lloyd Center Mall, Woodlawn Park, Holladay Park.

Favorite Memory:

Every morning I would pick up an old man with a walker in Old Town and bring him to Lloyd Center or Alberta to sell Street Roots. Every time he got on, he would ask, “Are you having fun yet?” One time I told him, I’d already had too much fun that morning. He said it’s only fun if it costs more than $100, anything less than that is just wasting money, and you don’t want to just waste money, because then you’ll just get in trouble with your honey.

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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Don Iler

Don Iler

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I’m a public transit enthusiast in Portland, Oregon. I love public transportation, history and writing.