Portland buses are about to move a whole lot faster.

At least that’s the hope. 

On Thursday, Portland’s City Council unanimously approved an experimental project to get the city’s buses and streetcars moving swiftly through its most congested streets.

The plan is to create a network of priority lanes for public transit. The easiest to spot will be freshly painted bus-only lanes. But there are other, less obvious ways the city plans to give buses and streetcars a boost: including traffic lights that give buses a head start, and queue jumps, which give them priority at intersections.

There are already previews of what the result might be of what supporters call the “Rose Lane Project.” Over the last year, Portland’s Bureau of Transportation has done a few experiments: a bus and bike-only lane on Southwest Madison, a bus lane on Northwest Everett, and a bus-only lane on the Burnside Bridge. According to the Bureau’s director, Chris Warner, the SW Madison bus lane has reduced delays up to 75% during rush hour and the NW Everett Lane has improved times by 34%. He said buses now cross the Burnside Bridge two minutes faster.

The City Council has now directed Portland’s Bureau of Transportation to start in earnest. Work will begin on 29 pilot projects, most of them clustered in the central city. 

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, has spearheaded the initiative. 

The Rose Lane Project has two lofty goals: Make Portland a more environmentally-friendly city, where people regularly choose buses over cars; and make it a more equitable one, where bus riders — disproportionately people of color and people with limited incomes — can commute as quickly as their wealthy, mostly white neighbors.

At Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who lives in East Portland, took issue with framing the project as an equity initiative, as the initial projects the bureau has planned are clustered downtown. In phase two, the Rose Lane Project is expected to be expanded. 

“I’m more concerned about what happens in neighborhoods like mine with a very limited public transit infrastructure, with almost no bus shelters that shelter people from the rain,” Hardesty said. “If we invest in the Central City and the economy takes a downturn then once again East Portland’s going to be told, ‘Whoops, sorry, we just don’t have money to do phase 2.’” 

“I guess I would not call this a racial justice initiative if we are not prioritizing the people who are most transit-dependent,” she added. 

Eudaly responded that the pilot projects were congregated downtown as that was the area with the worst congestion - and by making buses move swiftly through these areas, she said, they will get to less well-served areas of Portland faster.

“If you’re waiting for a bus in East Portland, it’s probably because it got stuck downtown,” she said. “We are absolutely serving people in East Portland in phase 1.”