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As Portland’s biking stagnation continues, it faces an unfamiliar problem: more congestion

Posted by on August 19th, 2015 at 1:03 pm

traffic trends

A funny thing happens when you stop improving the alternatives.
(Job projections: Metro. Historical data: Census Bureau. Charts: BikePortland.)

In the last couple years, Portlanders have started noticing something they haven’t been accustomed to for a decade: Auto congestion is getting worse.

“Oregon Department of Transportation reports traffic has gone up 6.3 percent this year, about twice the national average — and it’s still going,” KATU-TV reported last week.

Unlike other fast-growing U.S. cities, Portland managed to avoid new cars on the road for the entire decade between 2000 and 2010.

“It is the sight becoming synonymous with Portland’s travel scene: packed freeways and frustrated drivers,” KGW-TV said two days later, bringing in a recent Portland Business Alliance report that found that 346,000 jobs in the state “rely on an efficient transportation system.”

But here’s something those stories didn’t mention: Portlanders have a perfectly good reason for being surprised by this trend.

Unlike other fast-growing U.S. cities, Portland managed to avoid new cars on the road for the entire decade between 2000 and 2010.

How’d we do it? More than any other factor, we did it with bicycles.

Bike traffic on Broadway-20

Traffic on Broadway near the Moda Center.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Of the 24,000 or so new work commutes that Portlanders added to the local economy from 2000 to 2010, only about 2,000 wound up in the driver’s seat of cars. Instead, 13,000 of the new commutes were bike commutes.

But around 2009, Census figures show, Portland’s golden decade without new rush-hour congestion ended. The percentage of people riding bikes to work stopped rising, the percentage of people using cars stopped falling, and (thanks to ongoing population growth) the number of commutes that happen in cars started to grow again.

Census estimates due next month will give us the clearest picture yet for how Portland’s six-year-long biking plateau is combining with the economic rebound to increase the number of cars on the road. (Other factors, the late 2014 drop in gas prices and the 2015 turmoil in local marine freight, won’t show up in the data for a while yet.)

If Portland doesn’t change course, its decade from 2010 to 2020 could look a lot like the decade that a fellow growing city like Austin, Tex., experienced from 2000 to 2010: a 17 percent surge in the number of drive-alone car trips.

With this at stake and so many people in Portland talking about traffic trouble, we thought it’d be interesting to ask a question.

How much would Portland need to improve biking and other options in order to prevent congestion in the future?

The chart above is the same as the one at the top of this post, except it includes biking, walking, transit and working at home as well as driving. To make it, we used Metro’s projections for job growth in Portland and assumed that those jobs will be held by Portlanders at about the same ratios that they currently are. (Important note: all the numbers in this post refer to the commutes of Portland residents, regardless of job location.)

The above chart shows more or less what would happen if Portland fails to make it any more attractive to get around on a bike, public transit or foot.

The percentage of Portlanders driving alone to work would remain at 59 percent.

Where would so many new cars go? Presumably we’d all be in densely packed robot cars, or maybe we’ll have raised taxes in order to destroy the buildings alongside major streets to add auto lanes instead, plus maybe we’ll reverse all our road diets and pay for the additional traffic collisions on our health and car insurance bills.

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The chart below shows another scenario: what if Portland improved non-car transportation just enough to keep car traffic where it was in the 2000s?

The numbers here aren’t actually too hard to imagine. In the next 15 years, we’d have to increase bike commuting from 6 percent to 9 percent; transit commuting from 12 percent to 18 percent; walking from 5 percent to 8 percent; telecommuting from 8 percent to 11 percent.

There are multiple ways this could play out, of course, such as a bigger rise in telecommuting or a smaller rise in transit. The above chart assumes that each of those non-car modes improves in proportion to one another.

In a country where many cities are setting out to double bike commuting in the next five years, this transportation vision isn’t particularly ambitious. But it’d also represent much more transportation improvement than Portland has seen in the last five years, when the city, state and TriMet have been paralyzed by funding problems and by fears of political backlash if they’re seen as investing too much money in non-car transportation.

Finally, here’s a third scenario: what would happen to local car traffic if Portland built a full neighborhood greenway network and added protected bike lanes to all major streets, increased residential and job infill faster than it is currently planning to, put decongestion charges on local freeways and bridges and approved a huge new investment in TriMet (similar to the one included in this year’s failed state transportation bill), thus achieving the transportation goals in its Climate Action Plan?

The red bar is what the rush-hour auto traffic trend would look like in a Portland where 25 percent of residents bike to work, 25 percent ride transit, 20 percent drive alone, and 10 percent each get to work by carpooling, walking or telecommuting.

If you or your business wanted or needed to get around by car or truck, which Portland of the future would you prefer to live or work in? We’ll let you try and picture each of them.

This post was inspired in part by Portland bicycle planning coordinator Roger Geller’s related research on the subject.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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9watts
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9watts

I’m glad you added scenario 3.

And in my view (oft mentioned here) the modal distribution of Scenario 3 could come about either because we
+ do as you say, and increase the supply of human-transport infrastructure exponentially, or
+ demand for autos dries up and blows away due to a fatal-to-autodom mix of climate change and peak oil.

Ben
Guest
Ben

>More than any other factor, we did it with bicycles.

And also with a stagnant job market for most of the decade. I imagine a lot of the worsening traffic we’ve seen of late has to do with rising employment.

Allison
Guest
Allison

Imagine just half of those cyclist and transit commuters decided they no longer needed to own a car. $2k per car, instead of leaving the state in the form of insurance and car payments, gasoline costs, maybe getting spent locally. That’d be nice.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

I have to take these projections with a huge grain of salt. It is very likely that by 2030, our transportation landscape will be radically different than it is today. I fully expect automated cars to be common by then, which will create opportunities to increase safety and capacity for all road users without requiring lots of new roadways.

That said, I do believe we need to move forward aggressively with new bicycle infrastructure. We’re really lagging on that front.

Adam H.
Guest
Adam H.

I see the fact that we’ve hit peak highway capacity as a good thing. State and local agencies (ODOT, Metro, etc.) have stated many times that there is no way they’ll be expanding highways any time soon. Sooner or later, people are going to be demanding better ways to get to work – and that includes light rail and bikeways.

Roger Geller
Guest
Roger Geller

This is the same type of analysis indicating that if we don’t reduce our drive alone mode split, then we’ll need 23 more Powell Boulevards to maintain a steady state. That analysis is found here: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/452524

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

I didn’t read it except for the headline, but within the last couple weeks, the Oregonian did a story about Portland area highways having reached rush hour capacity.

Motor vehicle congestion on major highways and lower scale streets is a major problem cities likely aren’t going to be able to build their way out of by way of somehow making more road space for motor vehicle travel. How much of any communities land area should it reasonably be advised to devote to motor vehicle travel, beyond what they have already provided?

Not that motor vehicle travel will necessarily widely fall from favor, except perhaps for some of the relatively long distance (compared to bike commuting.) daily motor vehicle use commuting. Short distances, off peak hours, for many people in a range of situations not suiting them for bike travel, motor vehicle use is wonderful.

Definitely though, it seems to me that cities in our area ought to be carefully planning, informing their public, and budgeting for the design and realization of better than simply bike lanes, biking infrastructure on key routes within their city limits, between homes, employment, services and recreation.

Distancing the noxious aspects of motor vehicle use from routes useful or essential for practical bike travel, could do lots to address problems posed by practical limits to certain types of increase in motor vehicle use.

SD
Guest
SD

Driving alone to and from work is similar to throwing all of your recyclables into the landfill. Yet, cyclist commuters who have cut back on their use of road space and non renewable energy are often characterized as a needy special interest group.
Human perception is fascinating.
Is it cognitive dissonance, in that motorists who could bike find it easier to view people riding bikes as an entirely separate group rather than bikers being someone who is a lot like them and is making a better choice?

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

I’m voting for ‘this is what happens when your *bicycle friendly* city attracts scores of newcomers from other cities where driving is the primary and often the sole option’ – these people move to your city and just keep driving…

LC
Guest
LC

Welcome to South Seattle..

m
Guest
m

Cuts in bus service along with large fare increases was also a factor.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

This is just personal observation and therefore highly subjective, but it seems like we attract a very different population now than we did in the early 2000s. More moneyed, more car-centric (not just as wheels but as identity objects and status symbols), more trend-oriented, less concerned with conservation and treading lightly. Very interested in getting out, going to the latest restaurant, festival mad, and yelping/tweeting about it all, on the spot. In the past it felt like we attracted a lot of makers of things, or wannabe makers of things (music, yarn art). 😉 Now it seems like we attract a lot of wannabe tastemakers of things, modern day amateur curators/reviewers, eaters: extroverts. They like to go out, a lot. And they drive everywhere.

These people don’t give a crap about bikes or biking. I don’t think you can talk them into it or cajole them into it or bribe them into it. So I’d suggest the City just set hard and fast policies that shut down personal car ownership and use and make it necessary to take mass transit, cabs, bike, walk or share a car to get around. With personal automobiles gone, we’d have all the space in the world for mass transit and biking and ped paths and plenty of on demand shareable vehicles (a la SmartCar). With all the money we’d save on cars and the damage related to cars, we could subsidize safe, reliable and easy transit for lower income folks. I think people would be amazed at how pleasant it would become to get around. It’s something we’re all going to have embrace eventually. Too many people, too many cars. Might as well do it sooner rather than later. Lead, Portland–lead!

A lot of folks would be attracted to a city set up in this way, or at least ok with it (esp. if they were assured transportation will be available and reliable for them, living out past SE 122nd and needing to get to Beaverton for work, i.e.). And these are the people we want to attract. We can set the standard, be bold and clear about it. And then individuals can decide if they want to move here and live within that standard, or move someplace else that’s more in line with their own ideals.

MaxD
Guest
MaxD

This is a great article, and I really appreciate you highlighting the mix of transit, bikes and walking as providing a solution. Imagine road diets that replace a travel lane with a bike lane and a parking lane with streetcar!

m
Guest
m

“With personal automobiles gone…”

Sorry, but this is Utopian BS.

Cars aren’t going away in our lifetime. Yes, there may be more electric cars and more automated cars, but cars are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Instead of focusing on sticks, the better approach is to focus on carrots: encourage people to bike more by giving them SAFE alternatives. Car free bike roads and protected lanes are the answer. The Sunday Parkways crowd wants to bike more. They just need safe alternatives like the Sullivan’s Gulch Trail and more protected bike lanes. Silly stuff like the work on Williams ain’t gonna do it.

WAR
Guest
WAR

I love how the only two solutions were tightly packed robot cars or increasing taxes and destroying buildings for wider roads.

Lets be real. Self driving cars wont fix anything. We would still be getting run over when the car has to make the choice to save the passenger or the “person in the way.”

Maybe you should work at a car dealership in sales?

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

What political will in Salem would there need to be to permit a city to toll state roadways?

mikeybikey
Guest
mikeybikey

Traffic congestion has a negative effect on cycling and transit too. It makes it harder to cross busy streets. It means that you have to either cycle aggressively or sit in traffic on streets w/o proper infrastructure. It makes bus trips too long or too unreliable to be competitive options. All of these things add up to make non-car based travel less competitive. I would wager that if we continue down the path towards scenario one, the outcome will be even worse than the assumed constant mode split.

J_R
Guest
J_R

The decline or stagnation in automobile traffic volumes in recent years appears to have been a “dip” akin to the early 1970’s rather than the start of a long-term trend during which the automobile heads toward extinction. The “dip” is exactly what I predicted.

I think that what we’re going to see now is an increase in the number of hours of congestions. “Rush hour” will extend to 3 hours or more and we’ll see lots more traffic on our side streets, including neighborhood greenways. We’ll see more red-light running, more speeding as motorists seek to make up for lost time. We’ll see more road rage and we’ll see more, not fewer, fatalities. All highly undesirable.

We’ll also see somewhat fewer vehicle miles of travel per capita and more “linked trips” with multiple destinations. We’ll see an increase in internet shopping and telecommuting. Overall, I rather expect that we’ll see an increase in traffic that is only slightly less than the “worst case scenario” described in the article. I fear that we’re all going to suffer and bicyclists, pedestrians, and people who enjoy “livable” neighborhoods may suffer the most.

The only ways I see to avoid that dismal result involve substantially increasing the costs associated with private auto travel. For the short-term, that would be a massive increase in the gas tax. Mid-term, a carbon tax or maybe a vehicle miles of travel tax. Long-term, it’s a congestion tax. It’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be easy.

younggods
Guest
younggods

I’m wondering with all the increase in car use when the air is going to get dangerous? Walking and biking around town I’m constantly smelling exhaust fumes. I’d like to see Oregon to establish much stricter car emissions standards.

Andy K
Guest
Andy K

Great article!
I feel bad for the “drive alone” crowd that is convinced it is their only option.

Randy
Guest
Randy

Step one: get a mayor who understands more cars = more pollution = more healthcare costs

Eric
Guest
Eric

I worked at OPB when I first moved to Portland. I worked with a lot of native Portlanders, or people that had lived in Portland for a decade or more. The vast, vast majority of them drove alone to work. Yes, the plural of “anecdote” is not data, but it’s my experience that Portlanders have highly favorable opinions of transit and biking, but mostly drive.

Joe Rowe
Guest
Joe Rowe

Great article. Thank you. This is the same message I painted on my car. Kill bikers and we drive.

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2015/05/after_cyclist_seriously_injure.html

Jeff Bernards
Guest
Jeff Bernards

At my age, the decision to move to a walk able, great transit and bike country is looking better all the time. It will be 20 years till Portland solves this problem and I don’t have the time to wait. Good Luck with all this, your gonna need it.
Jeff- loving it in Slovenia.

rick
Guest
rick

What do people expect when ODOT and Wash Co. funnel $45,000,000 into the Helvetia Road / Highway 26 overpass project instead of fixing crash corner in Raleigh Hills by SW Scholls / BH Highway / SW Oleson?

Andrew
Guest
Andrew

One thing to keep in mind if scenario 3 happens to come true… Similar to building more lanes on a freeway, the potential exists for ‘induced demand’. If traveling by one mode becomes easier and more convenient than another, then the mode share would go up. In the case of lessening congestion, capacity is essentially added to the freeway network. Road diets are great for roadways that aren’t grade-separated and limited access. But a ‘highway diet’ would be a much different story.
Paying the true cost for the privilege to drive would get more people out of there cars faster than you can say ‘nipple wrench’.
The US oil industry is heavily subsidized for some odd reason, they seem to have enormous profits. Cheap gas will keep people driving and keep people buying needlessly large vehicles.
Driving in Europe is incredibly expensive. I was in the UK and it was 1GBP/L… at the time the pound was nearly 2:1 against the dollar so that worked out to nearly $8/gallon. If that doesn’t keep people out of cars I don’t know what will.

Ted Buehler
Guest

Folks, Scenario 3 is very impressive.

The Oregonian did a story on increased car congestion last week. You can bet that civic leaders took note.
http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2015/08/its_not_your_imagination_portl.html

If you want to see Scenario 3 become Portland’s future, you need to let people outside of the BikePortland comments section know about your wishes.

Start by emailing your elected officials a .jpg of Scenario 3 with a link to this BP article, and say something like:
“This is the Portland I want to live in — let’s prioritize active transportation!”

Start here:
Steve Novick, Commissioner responsible for PBOT
novick@portlandoregon.gov
https://www.portlandoregon.gov/novick/

Charlie Hales, Mayor
mayorcharliehales@portlandoregon.gov
https://www.portlandoregon.gov/mayor/60975

Ted Buehler

dan
Guest
dan

Average speed of vehicular traffic in the metro area (freeways+surface streets) ordered by urban density:

PDX: 36 mph
NYC: 26 mph
Tokyo: 15 mph

See, anyone can put out numbers with no attribution 😉

Mike Quiglery
Guest
Mike Quiglery

Have patience. The Big One will eliminate Portland’s car and congestion problem for decades, if not forever. Let Mother Nature deal with it her way.

Eric
Guest
Eric

CAUTION: RANDOM THOUGHTS BELOW.

I know one thing for sure. I HATE SITTING IN TRAFFIC. So I ride my bike as much as I can to/from work. If road capacity increases and congestion is temporarily relieved, I believe it will encourage more to drive that new “faster route” and bam! we are back where we started with congestion, just now on newer, nicer roadways. Induced demand.

I have not seen bike congestion from induced demand be an issue on new bike infrastructure. But it would be cool if bike traffic started to become a prevalent issue. Its a win-win.

I do hope that 50 or 60 years from now, our grandchildren (or whoever) will look at us in amazement and say “You used to drive a $35,000 4,500 lb gasoline burning car by yourself to work EVERY DAY!? and sit in traffic for hours each day, looking at your Facebook feed on your ancient iPhone!? Wow, that sounds really dumb Grandpa”

middle of the road guy
Guest
middle of the road guy

Well it sounds like we have new incentive to build the CRC!

invisiblebikes
Guest
invisiblebikes

The reality is the entire population of the US is growing and it has been predicted as such for decades.

if you really want to improve congestion then positive incentive is the way to go, all the negative (borderline Misanthropic) attitudes coming from the so called native Portlandians that like to Spew here will only single out and force them (portlandians) out of Portland. (which wouldn’t bother me a bit!)

Along with Safer streets and safe and complete bicycle infrastructure, Oregon needs to incentivize the people who drive to change their habits, not beret them because they drive single occupancy, people have many valid reasons for having to drive and the majority of them are safe drivers.
If we give them very positive incentives to only drive when necessary and chose to drive efficiently we will easily jump out in front of the rest of the country.

Positive incentives could be;

-trade in/trade up to more fuel efficient vehicles with tax incentives
– increased emission controls like C.A.R.B in California
– big electric vehicle incentives, again California dominates this with a huge tax incentive for buying an electric car.
– ride share incentives like gas credits or employment credits
– Tax incentivat the leading edge of bicycle infrastructure we should have many financial incentives for people that commute by bike!

And just simple positive reinforcement towards drivers to make changes to their driving habits. Make people feel good about even the smallest changes and be positive and inviting to people that are uncomfortable with change.

There are many reasons for people to commute by bike but have you ever listened to the reasons not to commute by bike? Really listened?
#1 reason I hear time and time again is Fear, not inconvenience but fear of being hurt. Its not even that they fear it will happen but just the looming possibility of being hit by a car.
The Fear outweighs the majority of other reasons by a huge margin and until we confront that… we’ll just keep treading water.

Jayson
Guest
Jayson

Parking charges and neighborhood parking permits will certainly help in discouraging car ownership, particularly for all the new apartment building residents that have sprung up along frequent transit routes in the city. I think we’re already well on the path of seeing this trend cut short. Of course, real improvements to bike and transit infrastructure (separated bus and bike lanes outside of general vehicle lanes) would be a huge help to move to scenario 3.

Robert Burchett
Guest
Robert Burchett

Carpooling is taken as a constant, not even increasing with population? Dude! If you’re having a war on congestion, or pollution, or SOVs, there’s your low-hanging fruit. I’d trade my share of so-called bike infrastructure for some comfy car sharing wait stations, some industry incentives, a Metro-sponsored website for matching drivers and riders, what else?
–This from a car hater. Ban cars, OK for me! But meanwhile, fill some empty seats. I think you could fix the congestion on I-5 N with a $10 million investment in carpooling. At least you could study and plan the heck out of it.

Robert Burchett
Guest
Robert Burchett

Confirming that the D-word sends your comment to moderation. Heehee.

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

Congestion can have a silver lining. An earlier post noted that PDX has only 16% of all trips being done by other than a car while congested L.A. has 25% of its trips being car-free. As congestion increases, people will naturally look to faster ways to get around. Sure, most of them will use public transit where it is available, but increased congestion may be the key to PDX finally moving past 6% on bikes.

It’s a pity that we will have all the other not-so-silver aspects of congestion like road rage, toxic air, noise pollution and roadway deaths.

Cynergy E-Bikes
Guest
Rich

There is no question that we need to keep improving our cycling infrastructure – more connectivity, protected bike lanes, greenways in towards the central city. The cost of improving cycling per rider is a small fraction of doing the same per driver and the quality of life is much improved.

But even with these improvements, some people won’t ride until cycling is made a little easier. Europe and Asia are expanding bike modal share with e-bikes. Carbon footprint is still a minuscule share compared to single occupancy vehicle. With much of our electricity coming from hydro, e-bikes have about 1.5% of the carbon footprint of an SOV.

AndyC of Linnton
Guest
AndyC of Linnton

(Simply subscribing to followup comments via the button- keep forgetting to check it)

Randy
Guest
Randy

Ya’ll remember: Congestion is a euphemism for significant air pollution. No clean air = no cycling