Hell Freezes Over, Congestion Gets Better

The Business Journal is reporting on data collected by Inrix, a traffic data provider, that indicates congestion improved in our region between 2007 and 2008, with the region moving from the 21st most-congested metro to 23rd.

23 responses to “Hell Freezes Over, Congestion Gets Better”

  1. Transportation/transit improvements–or the recession reducing economic activity (and thus the number of daily trips) moreso here then elsewhere?

  2. I love it when they “rate” things like this.


    Our research is exhaustive and unparalleled!

  3. The move from the 21st most-congested metro area to 23rd was strictly related to the economy. Much of the economy in Portland is transportation based. When fuel prices spiked, there were less vehicles on the road including delivery vehicles and large trucks. Retail sales in many sectors also plummeted antagonizing and accelerating the looming recession brought on by the mortgate crisis. Even though the economy as a whole tanked and got worse in the second half of 2008, retail sales in many sectors improved when gas prices came down.

    Portland will always remain in the top 25 of the worst congested areas until Metro and PBOT come to the conclusion they need to improve traffic flow by adding motor vehicle capacity to accommodate growth. The current mindset that transit and bicycle infrastructure can fill the void of more motor vehicle capacity only works against the economy.

  4. If we got a 36% drop in congestion with “only” a few percent increase in unemployment, might we not get a pretty significant decrease in congestion if only a small number permanently made the switch to transit and self-powered transportation? Isn’t that what this whole thing is all about?

  5. Am I the only one that read the years 2007 – 2008 in the summary? In my recollection, the economy hadn’t taken a nose dive yet.

  6. TriMet first started publicizing last year’s jump in ridership with April stats. Oregon Employment Department shows increasing unemployment throughout the year but steeply rising towards the end of the 3rd quarter.

    The Forbes chart does differentiate between ’07 & ’08


    Does that help?

  7. Seeing as how the economy was not tanking (at the rate it is now) and gas prices had not exploded in 2007, I am tempted to say it is NOT the economy or gas prices which caused us to gain ground congestion-wise.

    I suspect it was the Portland Mall construction. Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive, but I think there has been good examples that when heavily trafficked roads go off-line, traffic havoc does not ensue if the populace is adequately warned about alternatives – alternative routes, alternative modes, alternative times – that actually lead to less congestion.

  8. I think there has been good examples that when heavily trafficked roads go off-line, traffic havoc does not ensue if the populace is adequately warned about alternatives – alternative routes, alternative modes, alternative times – that actually lead to less congestion.

    Case in point: when the Interstate Bridge was repainted in 1999, most of the lanes were closed down … and the expected massive traffic congestion never materialized. People adjusted their commuting behavior to avoid the bottleneck.

    This fact alone demolishes any argument that we need the superdupermegabridge for congestion relief.

  9. The analysis looked at 381 miles of roads and streets in the metropolitan area. Is it really very likely that any one or even a few projects had much effect on congestion as a whole?

  10. Chris

    Great job pointing out this data, which show a monumental reduction in congestion in the past 12 months.

    Alas, over at Oregon Live, their “Hard Drive” blog, written by Joe Rose, manages to get the story exactly wrong, making up a story-line that claims that contrary to the national trend, Portland made no progress in the past year.

    Rose writes:

    “The Portland area’s traffic was in line with its population – the nation’s 23rd worst congestion and its 23rd largest metropolitan area – Schuman said. But unlike most cities, he said, Portland’s congestion didn’t see a significant decline with 2008’s combination of high gas prices and sputtering economy.”

    As Chris’ post and the actual data illustrate, congestion in Portland declined a whopping 36% in 2008, compared with 2007. Our decline in congestion was significantly better than in the average city.

    It’s also worth noting at the “worst bottleneck”–the Marine Drive/I-5 N. Exit 307 segment, congestion went DOWN in 2008: According to Inrix, the number of congested hours per week (i.e. vehicle speeds less than half the uncongested speed) declined from 26 to 23. Average speeds during those fewer congested hours increased from 13.8 mph, to 14.8 mph. The I-5 bridge corridor is congested less often, and moving faster than a year ago.

    (See pages c-21 of the 2007 Inrix report and a-23 of the 2008 report).

    I’ve asked Rose, via email, to correct the story. Stay tuned.

    All this is powerful evidence that demand management — read tolling & hov lanes — could dramatically reduce I-5 congestion, and save us wasting $4 billion on a bridge we don’t need.

  11. Lenny, congestion does not equal prosperity. Volume does. And if the infrastructure is properly built, Volume need not equal Congestion. I don’t see why anyone would want to be stuck in some form of congestion (stop-and-go traffic, sardine trains, etc.)–if you were to poll most folks, they’d cite it as an annoyance if not an outright nuisance.

    Regarding tolling, I said on the CRC thread, it would violate an FHWA mandate that Interstates cannot be tolled (the east coast toll-Interstates were grandfathered).

    Also, another thing that hasn’t been mentioned–much of the congestion in the Metro Area has been on US-26 in the western suburbs. ODOT finally improved that freeway by adding some badly-needed lanes. Now, instead of taking an hour to get into downtown from Forest Grove, it takes about 35 minutes. I think that improvement has actually had a serious positive impact on Metro-area congestion.

  12. Alex, your information about tolls on Interstates is out of date. Do a simple search on “tolls interstate” and you will find a number of approved projects, some of which are already underway.

    From the FHWA:

    With the passage of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the Federal-aid Highway Program, Title 23 of the United States Code (23 U.S.C.), offers states and/or other public entities an enhanced variety of opportunities for tolling motor vehicles to finance Interstate construction and reconstruction, promote efficiency in the use of highways, reduce traffic congestion, and/or improve air quality.

  13. Jeff, thank you for correcting me on that front. However, according to one of the FHWA’s pages on the Interstate System Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Pilot Program.


    Under the next to last bullet point, it states that “Interstate Maintenance funds may not be used on the facility while it is tolled.

    If I’m understanding that correctly, while it would be legal to toll the CRC, it would become ineligible for federal maintenance funding.

  14. In today’s O there is an interesting article about Oregon’s gridlock/congestion. The worst in the state is on northbound I-5 in the Delta Park/Marine Drive area. A line in the article read as follows “The Portland-area traffic is in line with its population – the nation’s 23rd worst congestion and its 23rd largest metropolitan area.”

    In other words, on average, Portland is not ahead of the national curve as a whole, and all the excessive spending for hobby rail streetcars, Max on the mall, bicycle infrastructure, curb extensions and super-sized sidewalks is more about bragging rights, bicycle babble and political control over lifestyle choices than it is about the substance as it applies to the efficiently moving people and goods. People today live in the twenty-first century, and are far more mobile than in the 1920’s when nearly bankrupt, now obsolete streetcar systems served one and only urban center downtown destinations. Moreover, the article in the O also demonstrates the money being spent on alternative transport modes is not improving congestion, not replacing the need for more motor vehicle capacity that comes with growth, and therefore the one-sided regional transportation policies aimed at prioritizing transit and bicycle infrastructure are misguided and misaligned.

  15. Terry,

    Your logic doesn’t hold up… many critics of Portland-area transportation policy (including yourself, as I recall) have repeatedly asserted there has been insufficient freeway infrastructure investment in the area to meet demand. And yet, we’re in line with where we should be with respect to population, compared to cities with far more freeway investments.

    Meanwhile, the specific Delta Park area bottleneck is under construction for a 50% increase in southbound lane capacity as we speak.

    We’ve been able to grow our population, increase our density, and invest in livable communities without an over-emphasis on automobiles, and have congestion levels common to a city our size.

  16. Furthermore, statistics regarding automobile congestion don’t usually factor in the actual trips being taken by transit, and the actual vehicle trips eliminated by people choosing to walk. Thus, the region has a higher percentage of _trips_ being taken for various purposes by all modes, but a moderate level of congestion for the automobile-only trips.

    This phenomenon is sometimes referred to the “trip not taken”, but that’s a little bit of a misnomer because people _are_ taking trips, just not always by car.

  17. Bob,

    Under, Metro, the region continues to spend/waste massive amounts of transportation dollars on what could be called “feel good projects” that in actuality have little impact on reducing congestion. Take for example WES. Now I admit I do not have the exact numbers, but for the 50 plus millions of dollars spent on the project, the traffic reduction highway on 217 has only projected to be somewhere around, more or less, one percent. Moreover, with a fare of $2.40 each way, not only will the dollars invested in the project never be recovered, but undoubtedly taxpayers will be on the hook for generations to come continually subsidizing and bailing out the operations. Had those same dollars been spent to add highway capacity, motorist paid taxes would pay for maintenance, more people would have been served and congestion reduced, thereby getting more bang for the bucks spent.

    Moreover, for those who would respond by saying “you can’t build your way out of congestion”, I would add that for the transportation dollars spent on WES, capacity is very limited with only four rail cars in operation, the builder of the railcars has gone bankrupt so building any additional railcars will cost even more, and the highway improvements are still needed. In other words, in that no transit system could be built big enough, have enough destinations, be so economically feasible that any amount of money would be enough to make the exorbitant costs worthwhile, and the fares be set high enough to be financially self-sustainable; the reality check is that no transit system can replace the need to increase roadway capacity that accompanies growth. As long as the regional population continues to grow, additional roadway capacity will be needed.

  18. Terry –

    Since when have I been a big advocate for WES? WES wasn’t even open for the study we’re talking about, but MAX, the many bus lines, and the streetcar were, along with all those horrible freeloading pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

  19. I think WES is a necessary first step. It may not make much sense now, but may lead to a much more robust commuter rail network.

    The first steps are always the most expensive and least rewarding. But eventually they pay off, and we learn from each one.

    Once commuter rail goes to Salem, McMinville, and other points – we will wonder why we didn’t start sooner.

    But I laughed when I saw two articles in the same day citing the same study, one claiming congestion increased and one claiming congestion decreased.

  20. Personally, I don’t think the WES was the proper investment needed for that corridor. I don’t even think it was necessarily a logical corridor–who’s going to ride a train from Beaverton to Wilsonville that has a large headway between trains?

    I believe the money would have been much better spent on adding extra lanes to Highway 217, which has badly needed them for years. Right now, we’re stuck with ODOT’s “not until 2089” excuse otherwise.

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