Too Many Cars, Too Little Time

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Portland drivers and their passengers have a new primary excuse for being late: traffic. In response to the growing traffic problem, Portland students have resorted to blaming their late arrivals on dawdling siblings, doctors appointments, and having overslept; and workers occasionally improvise stories of fashion indecision, car failure, and bad hair days.

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A thorough cost evaluation of the money expended in traffic (Photo: Beatrice Endler ’17).

However, for the car-travelling population in Portland there is no longer a need for creativity. Weekday mornings, as well as the rest of the day, have seen a huge rise in the number of wheels on the road, making traffic a viable excuse.

According to the 2015 TomTom Travel Index, Portland is the 10th most congested city in the nation. As depicted by this statistic, an influx of drivers new to PDX, the use of trucks instead of barges for transportation of goods, and of course, the rain, have all led to increased traffic.

In 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) found that 75,748 new residents replaced out-of-state licenses with Oregon ones, which is a 29 percent increase from the 58,638 licenses administered to new residents in 2009. In an interview with KATU News, Don Hamilton, of the ODOT, described the effect of this increase: “the highways are really reaching and somewhat exceeding capacity.”

Given the economic opportunities that Portland presents, the rise in domestic migrants makes sense. According to a government-produced Oregon Economic summary, Portland is an especially appealing residential location right now, in that alongside its hipster-charm, “wages for the average Oregon worker are increasing quicker than in the typical state, and above the rate of inflation.”

The increased use of roadways and trucks, instead of our rivers, to distribute goods has also contributed to the growing traffic problem. In February 2015, the Port of Portland’s largest customer, Hanjin Shipping, which had previously bought 80 percent of the carrier containers, ended its service with Portland. Now transport of goods by boat has been replaced by 2,000 more semi-trucks on Portland roads each day.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has considered solutions such as the widening of roads and lane additions to highways, but these plans have proven too expensive to carry out, with estimated costs reaching billions of dollars. City planners have recognized this fact and have instead been working to improve and prioritize public transportation.

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) of the City of Portland, is in the midst of drafting Portland’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which is open to the public for review and comment. One section focuses on the importance of improving transportation: “The transportation system is essential to the functioning of the city. It connects people and businesses to goods and services, and … it also creates access to opportunity.”

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The rise in traffic can be linked directly to the high proportion of cars being used in Portland.

To address the problem of vehicle overload, the plan suggests the prioritization of non-vehicular and public transportation, and Policy 9.6 lists the “transportation hierarchy”: (1) Walking, (2) Cycling, (3) Transit, (4) Taxi / commercial transit / shared vehicles, (5) Zero emission vehicles, and (6) Other private vehicles.

Policy 9.7 addresses “moving goods and delivering services,” and proposes to prioritize the freight system “over general motor vehicle mobility.” This could counteract the increase in semi-trucks on the road after Portland’s loss of the Hanjin Shipping company.  

Although BPS has a promising plan in development, Portland’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan is a long-term one, and sadly, there is no hope for students and workers to be on time for a good 20 years. Perhaps we need to work on getting up earlier, which is an unlikely solution, carpooling, or biking despite the rain.