Stressful and Unpredictable

Portland traffic is “stressful and unpredictable,” according to one of the co-authors of the Texas Transportation Institute’s urban mobility report. In fact, by some measures, Portland has the sixth-most-congested freeways in the nation, after DC, New York, Los Angeles, Bridgeport, and (strangely) Provo-Orem.

There are other measures by which Portland isn’t quite so bad, though overall Portland ranks 17th even though it is the 23rd largest urban area. The significance of the freeway number is that it is based on actual measurements of traffic by Inrix, while most of the other measures are calculated based on estimates of miles of driving and lane miles of roads. The Antiplanner has never trusted these calculations because a lane mile of highway built in 2000 has a far greater capacity to move traffic than one built in 1950. Thus, the measure that ranks Portland sixth-worst is probably one of the most reliable in the report.

Portlandia supporters, of course, attempt to double-talk their way out of this. The mobility report, says one, “ignores differences in trip distances among metro areas and how trip distances have changed over time.” The Texas people disagree, saying they do take distances into account. Moreover, a look at census data reveal that the average Portland commuter takes 24.2 minutes to get to work, which about the same as in other urban areas of similar size (Minneapolis is 23.4 minutes; Denver is 25.7; St. Louis is 23.6; Cincinnati is 22.8; San Antonio 23.8). Since census data also show that 85 percent of Portland-area commuters still take autos to work, Portland’s investments in transit and bike paths have, at best, merely nibbled at the edges of the problem.

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17 thoughts on “Stressful and Unpredictable

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    The Antiplanner has never trusted these calculations because a lane mile of highway built in 2000 has a far greater capacity to move traffic than one built in 1950.

    Two thoughts:

    (1) Many (unfortunately not all) of the freeways designed and built in the 1950’s have been reconstructed or will be reconstructed if the money is available.

    (2) Any freeway will be more effective if we can assure that the freeway runs at an optimal flow (in most cases, something slightly less than 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour). We can do that by pricing scarce highway capacity to prevent volumes from getting so high that traffic flow breaks down (level of service “F” as the transportation geeks call it).

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    Beyond pricing, the Antiplanner also knows a lot about self-driving cars, which will presumably allow us to get more capacity out of the highway network.

    National Geographic has a pretty good posting about self-driving vehicle technology here.

  3. LazyReader

    While freeway building was a national pasttime in the 50’s; It was by the 60’s onward that almost every city began the mass opposition of new freeways. Atlanta, Baltimore (my hometown where we as kids dispised the loud, dirty, litter strewn and ugly freways that always appear to be under construction), Boston, Cleveland, Long Island, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. all assembled huge protest and opposition to new freeways many of which would bisect their neighborhoods or force them to be evicted. Massachusetts was the greatest example of protest; The Central Artery had cut a swath through Downtown Boston neighborhoods, creating one of the greatest eyesores in urban America during the 1950s. Because of this, it would earn its nickname “The Green Monster”, both a play on its greenish color and it’s vast size. Portland saw it’s fair share. In addition to the cancellation of three proposed freeway routes, Portland saw another milestone in the freeway revolts: the destruction of an already-existing freeway. The first freeway to be built through the city, Harbor Drive. The removal of Harbor Drive was not very controversial; the construction of I-5, and I-405 through the core, had made Harbor Drive unnecessary and obsolete. The Trans-Texas Corridor has been cancelled, given it’s 4,000 mile $180 billion fiasco which would have required about 584,000 acres (2,360 km2) of land to be purchased or acquired through the state’s assertion of eminent domain much to the dismay of Texan’s. I flow to the side of skepticism that more freeways would solve traffic problems.

  4. kens

    Portland’s traffic is surprisingly bad considering the metro’s size. When I lived in Sacramento, I sometimes had to take day trips to my main office in San Francisco, and would always try to leave by 2 pm to avoid backups on the Bay Bridge. If I left at 3, I’d definitely get stuck in congestion. Same thing is true in Portland. If I’m traveling home to SW Washington from Portland or beyond, I’m OK if I hit downtown by 2 pm, but am sure to get stuck in traffic on I-5 after 3. Actually not that surprising since Portland has done almost nothing to add freeway capacity in decades. Even in the suburbs on the weekends (e.g., Hwy. 217 in Beaverton) stop-and–go traffic is routine.

  5. prk166

    I don’t think Provo’s congestion is strange. Population in the area is booming. It’s doubled in the last 20 years. Capacity hasn’t kept up with the growth.

    2010 – 526,810
    2000 – 376,774
    1990 – 263,590

  6. C. P. Zilliacus

    LazyReader wrote:

    While freeway building was a national pasttime in the 50?s; It was by the 60?s onward that almost every city began the mass opposition of new freeways. Atlanta, Baltimore (my hometown where we as kids dispised the loud, dirty, litter strewn and ugly freways that always appear to be under construction),

    Though many freeways in Baltimore City were cancelled, in particular I-70 through West Baltimore and I-83 through Canton. I-95 was (properly) rerouted away from an overhead crossing of the Inner Harbor to the tunnel crossing now known as the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

    Boston, Cleveland, Long Island, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. all assembled huge protest and opposition to new freeways many of which would bisect their neighborhoods or force them to be evicted. Massachusetts was the greatest example of protest; The Central Artery had cut a swath through Downtown Boston neighborhoods, creating one of the greatest eyesores in urban America during the 1950s.

    But there was no great migration to transit systems, even in Washington, D.C., where the Metrorail system was pitched as a replacement for those cancelled urban freeways. And per-household and per-capital auto ownership continued to grow even as freeways were being removed from the planning maps.

    The Central Artery (in its new routing as the Big Dig) is still an example of doing urban freeway construction right and greatly reducing impact on neighborhoods. Only mistake was the failure of the Massachusetts state government to properly price most of the Big Dig network (ironic, since the project was being managed by MassPike (since merged into the Massachusetts DOT)).

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    Jardinero1 wrote:

    CP, Beyond pricing and self-driving cars, there is also the Antiplanner’s favorite hobby horse, MegaBus.

    I have not heard The Antiplanner say anything about Megabus that is not factually correct.

  8. Frank

    Don’t think it compares to Seattle traffic. The only terrible part of Portland is I-5 north from the Terwilliger curves through Vancouver, which could be eased by eliminating the bottleneck caused by the HOV lane consuming a third of the freeway. Also should toll the bridge as an incentive for those living in the ‘Couve to live closer to work Or to carpool. This stretch is predictably bad.

  9. Sandy Teal

    Phoenix voters did reject freeways in the 70s, but it was only because of the local taxes proposed. The land was set aside for freeways in the 50s and 60s, and the freeways are in those very spots today.

  10. C. P. Zilliacus

    TOLLROADSnews: Bill advances in Oregon legislature to support investor-built pike on SW edge of Portland area

    A bill (HB2696) is advancing in the Oregon state legislature to support a proposed investor-financed tollroad – the Coastal Parkway – on the southernwestern part of the Portland metro area. Bob Youngman of Coastal Parkway LLC says the group should be able to move forward if the law passes, and he thinks it has a good chance of passing.

    There’s bipartisan support he says and now an apparent desire of key officials to have the project proceed.

    HB2696 expresses support for the 12 mile, 20km 2×2 lane expressway project in the first part, and in the second part provides for approval of other such private projects if the proposers meet the terms of the 2007 Tollways law Ch383 as amended in the second half.

  11. redline

    Frank: On I-5, bottlenecks presently occur north and south at the Terwilliger curves, though work to remediate some of that is ongoing. Further north, another bottleneck affecting both directions occurs in the vicinity of the Rose Quarter, as the freeway moves from three lanes to two. This is the bottleneck that needs to be addressed, though politicians focus attention on the two Columbia River bridges and wrongly claim that they are the bottlenecks.

    The I-84 freeway also shows congestion from the I-5 interchange eastward, however remediation is unlikely due to the proximity of rail lines in the Sullivan Gulch area.

  12. Frank

    Yes, that bottle neck on I-5 is also problematic, but it wouldn’t be so bad if all the traffic didn’t have to squeeze into two lanes after the Fremont Bridge for the HOV lane. The Columbia River Bridge is only a bottleneck because of the terribly designed Jantzen Beach and MLK on ramps that force traffic over.

    Sullivan’s Gulch is both predictable and short. You can get off at Hollywood or Lloyd Center and take surface streets to avoid the terribly designed merging to I-5 north and south.

    Still, these issues pale in comparison to Seattle, where backups start at Boeing Field and go through the U-District, spanning a distance of nine miles, or more than four times greater than the Sullivan’s Gulch slow down. I’ve driven both, frequently, and would much rather prefer to drive in Portland than Seattle. Any day.

  13. sprawl

    I don’t care where you are going in the Portland area, it is bad everywhere during morning and afternoon rushes. And often during off times.

    I-84 to the Sunset or back often takes over a hour to go across town, that without traffic should take 20 minutes. Often a hour and a half.

    Heading north or south on I-205 during rush hour is often if not daily stop and go.

    The I-205 bridge is daily backed up to and beyond I-84 in the evening.

    The last time the I-5 bridge was usable, was after they open I-205 bridge.

    Portland and the Metro planners, have done a great job of building Portland in to their congestion problems. That seems to be the one thing the planners do very well.

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