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Don’t blame the weather for this mess (or snow plows, or bad drivers, or…)

Posted by on December 15th, 2016 at 9:58 am

Portland made national news last night — and this image told quite a story.

Welcome to the morning after.

After a few inches of snow fell on Wednesday afternoon, our region’s transportation system ground to a halt. Major freeways, arterials, and even many neighborhood streets were either completely gridlocked or impassable due to abandoned cars left in scrap heaps of twisted metal and broken dreams. Thousands of people were stranded for hours and backups continued on Highway 26 until midnight (midnight!). Thanks to an Associated Press story, the insanity of it all has brought us national attention.

Now we’ve entered the autopsy stage where everyone is trying to figure out how it happened.

The Oregonian broke it down to five reasons: We don’t use salt on our roads; people don’t carry chains; people don’t know how to drive in the snow; Portland doesn’t have enough snow plows, and transit is, “not equipped for hilly Portland.”

Sigh. Of course they forgot to mention something.

Here’s the inconvenient truth: Our over-reliance on single-occupancy motor vehicle use has real consequences. It leads to lots of injuries and deaths, it poisons our lungs, and it makes our transportation system extremely fragile and inefficient.

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And let’s not act like what happened last night was a big surprise. Twice a day every weekday we see another example of this. It’s called rush-hour. You know that thing everyone has been complaining about because it keeps getting worse every year? Despite many billions of dollars invested in our roads to facilitate auto use, just one fender-bender on a busy freeway can cause massive backups. Add in rain and it gets even worse. The Oregon State Police even has to issue a traffic alert for I-5 when there’s a big football game or a busy shopping day.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

This lack of resiliency in our transportation system happens by design. Elected officials, interest groups and road agencies throughout the region and state prioritize single-occupancy motor vehicle travel far ahead of every other mode. The result is a system prone to choking. A system where other, much more efficient and resilient modes, can’t breathe.

Yesterday our social media timelines were full of misery from people in cars and sheer joy from people on bikes. It was a striking contrast.

This morning we’ve read many Tweets from people opting to ride bikes or take transit instead of their cars. If only more people were able and willing to do that yesterday we might have avoided this mess.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. 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

  • Huey Lewis December 15, 2016 at 10:12 am

    I have some friends in an unnamed Midwest city that are always all “lol Portland snow hysterics”. Meh. They visit and we ride and I’m all “lol you are from a flat city where there is maybe 100 feet of elevation change. maybe”. And let me tell you, I’m no crusher on the climbs. I blame people from the sunny southwest/California that can’t drive in bad weather and people that can drive in bad weather but never account for any kind of hills, which renders their driving skills almost totally useless.

    Too many cars is what it comes down to though.

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    • q'Tzal December 15, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      It’s funny… I was stationed at a Omaha, Nebraska military base for 5 winters and got to watch the yocals not have a frelling clue how to drive in the snow either.

      Now, it was usually only the first and second solid snow storms of the year and then they got used to it; same as we PacNW’ers are used to driving in the rain in ways that LA drivers are not.

      But every 1st snow storm Omaha’s street network would shut itself down through idjit driving hijinks.

      By the local drivers who are supposed to know better.

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      • Huey Lewis December 16, 2016 at 8:06 am

        Yeah, same in the city I’m referencing. I moved there from here. Snow crushed my soul. But what you said, first snow and traffic was crippled as crashes spiked. Just that first snow. After the plows ultra mobilized and epic amounts of salt were embedded in everything, traffic returned to normal.

        I’ll take rain any day over snow. No two ways about it.

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  • Teddy December 15, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Who knew 3 inches could be so impressive.

    Sure wish I could afford to live in Portland instead of Tualatin since biking or taking public transit to the international airport for work would be so nice. I agree there are a bunch of factors that caused yesterday’s cluster flippative, but at least I had a friend’s couch cushions to sleep on instead of trying to get home.

    I grew up in the Southern Tier of New York so I was totally game to go home yesterday too, but nope, too much traffic.

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    • Dave December 15, 2016 at 11:29 am

      And, if we had the political guts to have the state assertively, firmly control the cost of housing (not just rent control but an absolute value ceiling) we might also help rationalize our transportation culture.

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      • AC December 15, 2016 at 12:36 pm

        Interesting idea. Curious, after you decide where to cap the value of other people’s property…. who do you expect to be motivate to build the housing?

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        • dan December 15, 2016 at 5:54 pm

          Remember that housing was built, sufficient to meet demand, in the 100+ years before Portland real estate became unsustainably expensive. I’m guessing people that can’t get unreasonable profits will settle for reasonable ones. Institutional investors might abandon Portland in favor of less regulated areas. All of that sounds like a net benefit to people who actually live here — and I say that as a property owner in a hot neighborhood.

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          • AC December 15, 2016 at 8:11 pm

            In those 100+ years there were certainly boom times and rents were likely high at those times, too. That encouraged development that may have built your house. If values were capped, it is my guess that those with the ability to build would seek better returns elsewhere, netting no greater density.

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            • dan December 15, 2016 at 10:16 pm

              haha, I just read the parent comment. I actually agree with you that an absolute ceiling on the value of property is not realistic. The amount of regulation and enforcement alone would make it a non-starter. You’d get into under the table payments for homes ostensibly trading at the allowed prices, etc. Just not practical…we can’t legislate the market away. Having said that, I do think that minimums for affordable housing in large developments are good policy and achievable, and the city should have strings attached when they sell city-owned land to developers or give tax incentives. Wouldn’t hurt to tax capital gains on real estate too…maybe it wouldn’t be charged if you hold for 5+ years or something. Use the proceeds to fund affordable housing.

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              • AC December 16, 2016 at 5:15 pm

                Roger that. BTW, capital gains taxes on sales of real estate is a thing. Theres also a couple of ways to kick that can down the road like 1031 exchange, designed to encourage reinvestment in housing, for better or worse depending on how you view it. In any case, taxing supply to solve a lack of supply seems a counter-intuitive regardless of the well meaning intent. More importantly, Snow! Bikes! Yay!

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    • rick December 17, 2016 at 9:48 am

      More housing needed in Irvington

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  • Tony H December 15, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Nice bike ride home from work yesterday. And very nice walk to dinner last night. Our 5 year old granddaughter had a wonderful time in the snow!

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  • John Liu
    John Liu December 15, 2016 at 11:05 am

    I completely agree that our transportation system is overly reliant on single-occupancy cars and that we need more light rail, bus, shared vehicle, bike/walk trips. For many reasons: environmental, health, land use, financial, safety.

    However, a once in 5 years evening commute event is a flimsy reed upon which to base any argument. Frankly, who cares if every five years, one commute turns into a big mess.

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    • Schrauf December 15, 2016 at 11:11 am

      Maybe you missed the part of the article regarding a lesser but similar disaster happening twice every day – rush hour. Rush hour with primarily buses and bikes on the road would be much different.

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      • Dave December 15, 2016 at 1:48 pm

        Greenburg road was blocked by two buses that got stuck. Yeah, buses are the solution.

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        • Bob A December 16, 2016 at 7:33 am

          Is it your contention that because two buses got stuck during a maybe once every other year type of event, that they shouldn’t be part of the solution for public transit and keeping more privately-owned vehicles off the road?

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        • rick December 17, 2016 at 9:49 am

          I’d love bus 56 to get to Sylvan.

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    • dan December 15, 2016 at 11:27 am

      Yeah, this exactly, I don’t see any reason to optimize for snowy weather because I really don’t think the ROI is there. (Haven’t attempted to run the numbers, if someone can prove me wrong, I’d like to see the numbers.) And I think rush hour should be self correcting. People can drive for as long as it takes or switch to transit. It seems that most people still prefer a long car commute to transit – I think we should respect their individual freedom (because ‘Merica!) and let them sit in their cars as long as they want 🙂

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      • mh December 15, 2016 at 12:43 pm

        Yeah, but we breathe the resulting pollution.

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        • dan December 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm

          True, that is a drawback. Still, I’d rather breathe some extra exhaust on my bike than take an hour to drive to Vancouver every day.

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    • Dave December 15, 2016 at 11:28 am

      This was the one example that is good for illustrating the idiocy of our whole transportation culture. I will admit to listeming to a police scanner app on my phone; last night there were Trimet people talking about how the Max Red Line was blocked by stalled cars. There was an ambulance dispatcher advising against driving on I-205; “We’ve had a rig stuck there for an hour already.” Jonathan’s opinion is borne out by fact.

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    • bikeninja December 15, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      Because it is like the canary in the coal mine. An indicator of what could happen all the time if geology, climate, or net energy availible changes.

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    • Duncan Watson December 16, 2016 at 8:47 am

      Actually, every commute is a big mess. That was the point. It is just the extreme makes it more obvious.

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    • matthew, but who cares December 18, 2016 at 5:04 pm

      John, did you read the article? The argument stands not on a tiny reed but on a f**king banyan tree of collective experience, testimony, practicality, and research.

      “Twice a day every weekday we see another example of this. It’s called rush-hour.”

      This is true in every major metropolis around the country and beyond. Stop making excuses and join the war on cars, bro.

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  • resopmok December 15, 2016 at 11:53 am

    There is another reason: lack of foresight. Despite the fact that virtually the same issues happened a mere week ago, and there was more than adequate prediction about the weather system that was on its way, people refused to think ahead about where and how they were going places and put themselves in this position. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice..

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    • Mike 2 December 15, 2016 at 2:25 pm

      Not everyone has the ability to just leave work or school when they want. Some people can’t afford to lose a shift.
      It’s great that you have that flexibility!

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      • resopmok December 15, 2016 at 3:34 pm

        It’s interesting you interpreted my comment to mean that I thought everyone should just stay home. Read it again.

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      • Adam H.
        Adam H. December 15, 2016 at 3:35 pm

        Not everyone can drive a car.

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        • Tom Hardy December 15, 2016 at 5:27 pm

          Yes Adam. Definitely proven that most drivers cannot drive a car. The BMW going down the street off Tewilliger last night after the driver flipped it. :=)

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          • rick December 17, 2016 at 9:52 am

            Where on Terwilliger ?

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  • joel December 15, 2016 at 11:58 am

    blessing and a curse-

    rush hour and snow slow and stop a lot of traffic- no one speeds inside a gridlock, but people do cut through on other streets. i really enjoyed the lack of cars and how careful they were today and last night- and they also helped my commute by bike

    my five mile commute this morning normally 20 minutes took 30. my 5 mile commute last night the same- thanks to cars compacting the snow . i went downtown just for fun this morning and added 4 miles to my route

    Chain marks added a little grip this morning, the gravel too, it will be different when there is hard ice. but when i tried to go through untouched powder snow where it had drifted up it was very slow going. on the flat and on the hills i have very much been happy there were some drivers who had cut me a path through the snow.

    the worst part was the hawthorne bridge sideewalk- the only time it was tough and i was slowed down.

    yeah if there wasnt cars we would be safer, cleaner, healthier- and one could argue more frequent bus service would create compacted snow and paths to bike easily. im guessing the point of this article is that this “mess” is a result of design- sure. however it was the cars that did drive that made it so easy for myself to bike…. for cars and bikes that lost control and got in trouble though it was a bummer.

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    • 9watts December 15, 2016 at 12:11 pm

      “however it was the cars that did drive that made it so easy for myself to bike”

      Yeah, nuclear power plants also provide a few jobs…

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      • dan December 15, 2016 at 1:03 pm

        I’m not sure that we can write off nuclear power plants as failed / unsafe / impractical. I know that outside the US (where public opinion is dead against it), development has continued on making a reactor that is safer and produces less or no waste. I don’t think we should say “no nuclear power ever,” maybe just “find us a design that solves existing problems and has operated safely elsewhere.”

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  • Matti December 15, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    I rode my bike home on SW Terwilliger last night, passing idleing, stalleand abandoned cars all along the way… My 700c x 35 tires worked just fine in these conditions, and I noticed other bike riders on the route as well.
    Bikes are resilient!

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  • 9watts December 15, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    A great piece, Jonathan.
    I loved the whole thing!

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    • KTaylor December 15, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      I second that emotion!

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      • Teddy December 15, 2016 at 3:32 pm

        Grateful Dead reference?

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      • rachel b December 15, 2016 at 3:59 pm

        I third it!

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        • rachel b December 15, 2016 at 4:00 pm

          …and Smokey Robinson.

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  • bikeninja December 15, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    I agree 100% with your point about the lack of resiliency in the single occupancy auto transportation system. We have been lucky ( or unlucky) that our civilization has had the money and cheap energy to keep such a fragile system going 98% of the time. But as we go in to the future and both these things fade in to the rear mirror of history and we will find out just how fragile it really is. As an example, FEMA has estimated that in the case of the big subduction zone earthquake the road/auto system could be down for 2 years.

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    • Mike Sanders December 16, 2016 at 2:40 pm

      I always cringe when I see a car ad. Expensive to buy, insure, maintain, gas up, etc. That Ford pickup ad that touts that it has more HP than any other in its class is so out of touch. If people took transit or walked instead of clogging up the entire region with cars that can’t get uphill in snow, we’d be better off. New Yorkers walk more than we do, and they know when to avoid driving when it clogs up (especially when Trump’s in town). We need to create more ped/bike options. In Boston, they plow major ped/bike trails in winter. If we did, we wouldn’t have clusterfunks like this. Encouraging folks to walk or transit instead of clogging the region with unnecessary traffic has to be more prominent. Car bans, if need be. We should be able to do better than this. Facebook and Twitter were full of folks who saw the news footage and laughed at our inability to move in 2″ of snow plus ice. We should be able to be better than this. People are joking that if the Big One comes, no one will be able to get out of town because of traffic jams. It’s a valid point. We should be better than this.

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  • Adam H.
    Adam H. December 15, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    This native Chicagoan can’t help but laugh at all the people who abandoned their cars over what we call “a light dusting”.

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    • Kyle Banerjee December 15, 2016 at 12:31 pm

      Agreed. What they call weather out here is a joke. Heat isn’t, cold isn’t, what gets called a “thunderstorm” is a joke, even rain is tame.

      I tell people we have two kinds of weather — not too bad, and not too good.

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      • B. Carfree December 15, 2016 at 6:24 pm

        Heehee. I tell my friends our weather is “mild wet” alternating with “mild dry”. We’ve got it good.

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    • Keviniano December 15, 2016 at 12:39 pm

      In Chicago they also salt the roads. I think that’s a major factor.

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      • Adam H.
        Adam H. December 15, 2016 at 12:42 pm

        True, and they pre-salt the roads before a snow event. But even the sidewalks here are impassible during winter weather. Last week, I was the only person on my block that salted their sidewalk; even though the city requires this of all property occupants.

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        • rachel b December 15, 2016 at 4:05 pm

          I…don’t think we’re supposed to salt sidewalks here. The environment, and all.

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          • Adam H.
            Adam H. December 15, 2016 at 4:07 pm

            They had salt at my local hardware store, so I bought it and used it to salt my steep concrete stairs, as well as the sidewalk.

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            • Mike Sanders December 16, 2016 at 2:46 pm

              My neighbor put salt on my back porch after he got the snow and ice off my steps with a 2×4 piece of wood. And then he used that 2×4 and the salt to create a path to the street (and an adjacent bus stop shelter). It worked fine.

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          • Gary B December 15, 2016 at 4:33 pm

            As far as I know, it’s not actually banned. It’s just not used because it’s more environmentally harmful, and does more damage to the road (and cars).

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            • rachel b December 15, 2016 at 5:13 pm

              Think of the salmon! All the little creatures.

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            • Adam H.
              Adam H. December 16, 2016 at 8:54 am

              I was thinking of my pregnant wife whom I didn’t want to slip and fall. 😉

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              • rachel b December 16, 2016 at 2:15 pm

                Understandable. 🙂 But remember–more salmon soften the fall!

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        • Todd Boulanger December 15, 2016 at 5:07 pm

          Yeah – moving to the NW from snow country – it always surprises me how very little local property owners / renters / business owners and government offices do to remove snow and deice local sidewalks…most just look at you in dumbfoundment…

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          • rachel b December 15, 2016 at 5:14 pm

            It’s just too rare, and is gone in no time. I think most think–“Why exert self? Snow gone soon!”

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      • BB December 15, 2016 at 12:47 pm

        They also don’t have any hills. It’s common for midwesterner transplants to make that mistake.

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    • 9watts December 15, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      Referencing worse weather in other places strikes me as irrelevant. I’m sure folks living at the Arctic Circle also have an easier time dealing with snow, and those in Florida less. So what?

      The logical conclusion of this unifocal view of weather-as-it-impacts-transportation would be for everyone with a car to buy and have experience using tire chains or special tires, hone their snow driving skills, etc. But none of that makes much sense to me given how infrequent snow is around here (and getting less frequent over my lifetime). Our roads would be in worse shape with more studded tires and chains, and better confidence by drivers-in-the-snow may or may not be an improvement overall. Besides why spend millions of dollars on chains and snow plows for the chance event once every couple of years?

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      • KristenT December 16, 2016 at 2:19 pm

        I would say that the same skills to keep safe in snow can be applied to any other driving condition where the road surface becomes uncertain. This includes rain, mud, gravel, unexpected ball bearings, oil slick, etc etc.

        We don’t train drivers how to respond to bad conditions– we don’t require they take a rally driving course or the Pro-drive skid school. We should.

        Most drivers have heard or read how to do it but have no practical training and so can’t apply the philosophy to the actual situation.

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      • Mongoose December 16, 2016 at 6:49 pm

        Chains used a couple of days per year would not damage the roads. Chains or studs should be required in Oregon to drive on snow or ice covered roads, by law. Problem solved. Doesn’t cost the government one cent. Chains are cheap – cable chains work great. I have driven on steep ice/snow-covered mountain roads during many blizzards in my rice-burner front wheel drive car – it is unstoppable unless the snow is so deep that it high centers. $30 for chains or many thousands for a wreck – take your pick.

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    • Stephen Keller December 15, 2016 at 12:50 pm

      My wife is from Michigan and has a similar response. I had to drive from St. Johns to Clackamas early this morning. We managed fine without chains and didn’t have to abandon the car in a fit of apocalyptic panic. I’m not sure what the fuss was about last night.

      Maybe folks simply weren’t mentally prepared last night.

      I saw at least a half-dozen cyclists out and about this morning. They made me grin and wish I could have gone by bike. Unfortunately, this trip included a passenger who was unable to walk, so cycling wasn’t a good fit.

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    • Paul December 15, 2016 at 1:00 pm

      Well, if the car doesn’t move, it doesn’t move—in Chicago or Portland.

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    • MaxD December 15, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      I grew up and learned to drive and bike in the snow in Michigan. I hate all the crowing about how wimpy Portlanders are for not driving in the snow. In my experience, the snow here is completely different for a number of reasons:
      1. We (rightfully) have very little infrastructure to deal with snow, plows, salt, etc.
      2. Our topography is steeper and our roads are not built to handle snow- steeper grades, no plowing schedules determing when you park on the street, etc.
      3. THe citizens have little to no experience or equipment to deal with snow- because it is very rare and short-lived.
      4. The trees are different- they are not all adapted to snow loads and have not developed under snow loads. That is why we see more snow and ice damage than in the midwest.
      5. It is warmer here, generally. That leads to snow compacting into ciy surfaces and a greater chance of freezing rain. I have experienced my share of ice storms in Michigan and all those macho drivers fare about about as well as the Portland drivers.

      Sorry to call you out, but I think that macho attitude about driving is a part of the problem in Portland. All the people who think they can handle it, or don’t need to slow down, or whatever and set out to prove something on the roads in their cars.

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      • Adam H.
        Adam H. December 15, 2016 at 1:17 pm

        It all comes down to people doing stupid stuff in the snow. Like the dude who totally thought his Jeep could handle this weather but managed to slide down the hill at 21st and Clinton. Point is that if you know you can’t handle the snow, and you have the privilege of working remote or being able to take transit, then there is NO REASON for you to be out driving. Period. It’s not as if we didn’t know the snow was coming. Even if the weather forecasts didn’t pan out, worst case is you took the bus to work, school, etc. I’ve talked to a few car-dependant people that act like taking the bus is literally the worst thing ever, and they are above it. Then they complain about traffic every day. It’s maddening, to say the least.

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      • pengo December 16, 2016 at 4:06 pm

        Agreed. I grew up driving through winters all over the northeastern US and it makes a lot of sense to me that it’s easier to do so there than it is here even with relatively little snow on the ground. The inevitable chorus of transplants who use every story about a traffic wreck or stranded commuter as an opportunity to pat themselves on the back is deeply lame.

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      • rick December 17, 2016 at 10:02 am

        People drove their Cadillac and dug out a trail post in West Slope. The walking and biking trail on public row now has more ruts.

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    • canuck December 16, 2016 at 6:46 am

      This native Canadian is not surprised that it is more difficult to drive here when it snow

      Because unlike Portland, Chicago has plows, uses salt, doesn’t have any elevation change.

      This type of weather has Portland siting in and around 32F. That means freeze thaw cycles when it snows, resulting in icy conditions that salt would alleviate. The elevation changes means we have roads that go from rain to freezing rain to snow, which means there is almost always a transition zone of ice.

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      • Mongoose December 16, 2016 at 6:53 pm

        No salt. It destroys cars. Buy a set of cable chains, drive slowly. Problem solved. Period. End of story.

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  • Spiffy December 15, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    as mainly a transit rider I was annoyed that all those cars were messing up the system…

    we need more dedicated bus and bike lanes, and not just for days like these but for all the time there’s too much car traffic…

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    • Kevin December 15, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      Agreed. I didn’t want to bike during the snow so I took transit (which I really enjoy). Because of all the vehicles on the road, neither of my buses ever arrived. I ended up walking 4-5 miles to connect up both sides of my trip to the MAX. This morning I reversed my commute, and while the 6 was running, seems like no bus from Sunset TC was operating.

      I see it all the time, even with no snow. All the cars make the buses unreliable, which is just a huge shame. Which is why I typically cycle to work instead of taking transit.

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      • rick December 17, 2016 at 10:04 am

        MAX was packed Friday afternoon at the Sunset TC.

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  • JF December 15, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Single Occupancy Vehicles did not cause yesterday’s traffic problem. The unpreparedness of the individual, and the corporate bottom line trying to treat yesterday similarly to “business as usual” caused this.

    The threat of snow for PDX area was on the news for at least 2 days before the event. Businesses sometimes need to think more about the welfare of their employees and perhaps, just perhaps, give up a couple hours of working time to allow employees to go home a little early (or at least give them the option). Schools announce closures or delay opening in advance most of the time when the threat of snow occurs overnight. Maybe, if afternoon snow is threatened, the same thing should occur.

    I am all for getting people out of cars when possible, however, the events of yesterday were not caused by single occupancy vehicles. It was caused by everyone who needs a paycheck, to continue to be a hard worker until the end of the day. Business as usual, however, it snowed.

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    • Kevin December 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      It is clear that many people did not exercise good judgement yesterday when they drove.

      It’s not fair to lay blame on the feet of “organizations” such as businesses and school. Life goes on – even when it snows.

      Better and more variety in alternative modes of transportation would have helped alleviate the problems we saw yesterday. More rail would have run, even with the snow. If we had dedicated bus lanes, more resources could be directed toward keeping those lanes clear. This would have helped move more people.

      Given the daily grind we have during commuting hours it’s not fair to say a significant cause of the problem isn’t with the way our transportation system as been developed. But, we live in the reality we have — which for the time being is dominated by mostly single occupancy vehicles. With time I hope to see that change.

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      • Allan December 15, 2016 at 1:37 pm

        The schools should have closed. When schools close, enough people stay home that traffic can work. When they don’t, chaos. This is not rocket science. Hopefully this will be the lesson for the next 10 years.

        Additionally, TriMet has some substantial problems yesterday with the trains due to multiple switches failing for various amounts of time. Hopefully they will be more prepared for the next storm.

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        • Dave December 15, 2016 at 1:50 pm

          They also had problems with buses blocking roads too.

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        • Kevin December 15, 2016 at 2:19 pm

          The Max ran clear over the Steel Bridge by the time I got over the river (~5:30).

          How long was 26 severely congested?

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          • rick December 17, 2016 at 10:07 am

            I rode my bike around Sylvan at around 11:00pm Wednesday night and it was a parking lot on highway 26.

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        • Alex Reedin December 15, 2016 at 3:08 pm

          Didn’t TriMet recently do a multimillion-dollar switch-heater project? How long does it take until they get this right? Aren’t there functional designs from other cities that get plenty of snow and ice that they can just copy?

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          • Kevin December 15, 2016 at 4:02 pm

            I’m not going to get into a big back and forth, but I’ll just point out that 1) the train service wasn’t impacted for that long, and 2) since we infrequently get freeze events, it’s not unreasonable that it would take a few times to shake out the bugs.

            Now, the bus service does need improvement and there are legitimate gripes to be had. I do recognize that part of the problem with bus service is that they share the road with cars/trucks, which as we just saw, are generally prone to being stuck and are generally a nuisance.

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        • Chris I December 15, 2016 at 7:40 pm

          Most of the MAX problems were due to vehicles blocking the trains. There were some switch issues on the Steel Bridge around 4pm, but it was resolved quickly. Most switches have heaters and Trimet has learned in the past to deploy crews to thaw the critical ones that tend to freeze.

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          • Alex Reedin December 20, 2016 at 5:24 am

            OK good! I just happened to be on the MAX over the Steel at 4. I got off and walked and saw a lone TriMet employee pushing the switch with a broom handle. I said, “Man, that is crazy.” I’m glad it was resolved quickly and, indeed, I haven’t seen media reports of switches being problematic since.

            And, the night when TriMet ran the MAX all night long to keep ice buildup down – that spoke volumes of commitment to a more resilient transit system, thanks TriMet!

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    • 9watts December 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      ” not caused by single occupancy vehicles. It was caused by everyone who needs a paycheck, to continue to be a hard worker until the end of the day.”

      I’m not sure this is an either/or thing. I suspect most of the people in your category were in single occupant vehicles. If they had been on buses or bikes I doubt the gridlock would have been like it was.

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    • Dave December 15, 2016 at 1:51 pm

      There’s a threat of snow for Monday. Should be just cancel everything for Monday now?

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      • JF December 15, 2016 at 3:21 pm

        I believe Portland public schools already did cancel school for Monday January 19 🙂

        However, the threat should be monitored, and if on Sunday night or Monday during the day, snow accumulation appears eminent, then people should be adequately notified and prepare accordingly. Many of us are lucky that we have the ability to ride our bike to work or have easy access to public transportation. However, that did not help people’s children who were stuck on buses for hours. It did not help the elderly person get home from their afternoon Doctor appointment. What I am trying to say is Employers should be aware that their employees and clients/customers may have other, more important things going on. Everyone should take what happened yesterday and use it as a learning experience. Most peopled tried to treat it as business as usual, but it wasn’t.

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  • Go By Bike
    Go By Bike December 15, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Do not forget land use and city planning! To make a walking and biking city you need density.

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  • SE Rider December 15, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    The widths in the triangle pictured also represent the distance capacity for the average commuter by mode.

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  • K'Tesh December 15, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    To the people of PDX, I want to remind you of this…
    The year was 1950 and the snowfall was was 41 inches for the month.

    Prepare as if it could happen again.

    1950 Snow and Ice
    January 1950

    Maximum daily snowfall: 8.0”
    Three days: 14.0”
    Ten days: 22.0”
    Maximum snow depth: 15.0”
    Month: 41” Airport, 32.9” Downtown
    4-5” sleet on January 18, then freezing rain.

    Other Snow Storms
    1978 and 1979 ice storms
    1969 – extreme storm for most ofOregon
    1937 – 17.5” Portland storm total
    1919 – 17.5” Portland storm total
    1909 – 19.3” Portland storm total
    1892 – 27.5” Portland storm total
    1884 – 22.5” Portland storm total


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    • 9watts December 15, 2016 at 2:24 pm

      “Prepare as if it could happen again.”

      If you’re going to prepare for an event I would suggest devoting that amount of energy to preparing for a subduction earthquake, since I think the probabilities of our experiencing that are considerably higher than experiencing 50 inches of snow in a future December.

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    • KTaylor December 15, 2016 at 3:13 pm

      Reading this actually made me sad. Agree w/9Watts – unlikely we’ll ever have a winter here with 41 inches of snow again. I always wonder when we get a dusting like we did yesterday if it’s going to be the last.

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      • rachel b December 15, 2016 at 4:11 pm

        🙁 Me too. Have been overjoyed about the snow and cold! We are so increasingly hot and dry much of the year now. I’ve wished I could leave Portland and go to Greenland March-November the past several years.

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  • fourknees December 15, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    Another factor compounding events yesterday, in my observation, was everyone in the entire metro area left work to travel home between 2:30pm and 3:30pm.

    Really made me think about the minimum issues our area will face when the big earthquake hits.

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    • Bald One December 15, 2016 at 7:33 pm

      Yes, I think this had a large factor in carmaggedon of Thursday. Compressed rush hour + snow. If they would salt the short section the sunset from the tunnel up the hill, (and perhaps W Burnside) it would have greatly relieved the congestion of downtown.

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  • bikeninja December 15, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    A number of other factors combined to make this one worse than usual for Portland: More new cars don’t allow chains according to the owners manual, todays wider lower profile tires are much more expensive as snow tires, fewer people ( apt dwellers) have room to store snow tires, more transplants have moved here from Ca, Az, TX and are even worse snow drivers than portlanders, and due to the climate releated decline in winter snow sports a smaller portion of Portlanders are equiped to head to Mt. Hood on any given weekend.

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  • moorecycles December 15, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    I’m not convinced the Oregonian needed to call out “overreliance on cars” as a factor for yesterday’s traffic jam nightmare. You are asking for them to acknowledge a very basic tenant of our transportation network – the dominance of private motor vehicles – when the bigger concern for most people in our region is, “why did it take me longer than normal to get home yesterday?” And to answer that question does not require such broad strokes as blaming our culture’s development around the automobile; in fact, the network as it exists works well enough for most people (emphasis on “well enough,” not ideal) most days despite the overabundance of motor vehicles perceived by many on this site. I for one appreciate reporting on the nuances of yesterday’s network breakdown, and require neither a shout out to the societal ills of single occupancy vehicles nor a schadenfreude-laden praise of commuting by bike while my neighbors sat in traffic on the freeway.

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    • bikeninja December 15, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      The point is that our system of private motor cars is not very resilient. In a resilient system any number of disturbances can be fed in to the system and it can still maintain its stability. In a non resilient system a few minor disturbances can bring the system to instability and even crash it to a halt. With private motor cars the number of disturbances that can bring the system crashing down is legion. Just because it has not happened often does not mean the potential is not there. A few more things that could put a temporary ( or permanent) end to happy motoring in Portland.

      a) Break in the pipeline that carries petroleum south from the Refinery in Washington

      b) Distruption in electricty making filling stations non-operable.

      c) geologic event that knocks down a few key overpasses or bridges

      d) Geopolitical event cuts off the inbound flow of oil ( no we are not energy independent)

      e) a collapse of the credit system makes the loans needed to transport, explore, refine and pump oil unavailible.

      f) System wide computer glitch shuts down card readers at filling stations.

      It is a very complicated and fragile system and we are complacent that it will always keep working.

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      • Mongoose December 15, 2016 at 11:35 pm

        True, many of those things could cause car drivers problems and some of those things could bring a halt to the normal routines of everyone else also.

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    • Mongoose December 15, 2016 at 11:39 pm


      Excellent reply. Snow/Ice is an infrequent problem in Portland so it’s not a big deal. In places where snow/ice is common, people know how to deal with it and it isn’t a problem. ODOT/PBOT could solve this problem for EVERY future snow/ice storm by simply requiring every vehicle on the road to chain up. Problem solved. Not one cent by the government spent to solve it. Amazing what a little personal responsibility can do.

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      • fourknees December 16, 2016 at 10:08 am

        I recall once as a child when I lived in Wisconsin, during blizzard conditions(36 inches of now), the city/police required if 4 wheel drive (or chains) to drive. You were ticketed if you didn’t. Very few cars on road, accidents, etc.

        Also kids were not bused and didn’t leave school unless picked up. We hung out in the library and gym, had dinner at the cafeteria. I was picked up, but about 50-100 kids spent the night. Neighbors nearby brought pillows and blankets. Everyone who was picked up and went home was jealous!

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        • Mongoose December 16, 2016 at 7:01 pm

          Many people believe their 4-wheel drive will get them safely over icy roads. It will not; unless the tires can get traction. 4 wheel drive will not help stop your vehicle on ice. 4-wheel drives contribute significantly to traffic problems when streets are slick – because those without experience think all they need is 4 wheel drive. My small front wheel drive car with chains will do a lot better than any 4 wheel drive without chains on icy, steep roads. Fortunately chains are cheap and you only need to use them a few days per year. If you live on top of Skyline or some place where you need traction more often, get studded tires.

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      • Kevin December 16, 2016 at 11:30 am

        Whoa, whoa, whoa… let’s not get extreme here.

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      • 9watts December 23, 2016 at 8:09 am

        “Not one cent by the government spent to solve it. Amazing what a little personal responsibility can do.”

        I don’t think you’ve thought this through very well.
        Requiring chains leads to all manner of serious costs weeks or months down the road, so to speak.

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  • J_R December 15, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Just out of curiosity, how many readers shoveled their sidewalks to make it easier for users of the “most resilient mode” of transportation?

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    • Adam H.
      Adam H. December 15, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      I salted my sidewalk and chiseled out the snow with a metal rake last week during the ice storm.

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    • Me December 15, 2016 at 4:05 pm

      Me. Always. Peds come first.

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    • rick December 17, 2016 at 10:12 am

      St Vincent hospital didn’t shovel all of the sidewalks and failed to tow the old Volvo parked on the sidewalk ! On Barnes road!

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    • Nate Young December 21, 2016 at 5:14 pm

      I was thinking there is probably a high correlation between people’s commute time on Wednesday with their failure to clear any sidewalk for the rest of the weekend…
      I cleared mine Wednesday and then again Thursday. I also think of it as an excuse to play in the snow.

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  • bjorn December 15, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    It is difficult to convince people that depending on transit is a good idea when Trimet basically shuts down when it snows. The line by my house was just cancelled last night, so I walked a mile and waited close to an hour for a bus that was supposed to be about 20 minutes away but never arrived. Eventually it just disappeared from the transit tracker. I’d love to see some aggressive enforcement that says no driving if you don’t have traction devices or tires once the snow starts, but it needs to come with another option and right now we basically don’t have one.

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    • Adam H.
      Adam H. December 15, 2016 at 3:51 pm

      Last year during the three-day ice storm, I took the Powell bus to work, rather than ride. It took a bit longer, but was still very reliable and I arrived to work on time.

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    • J_R December 15, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Agreed. Several years ago I decided to leave my bike at work when the snow arrived midday and I saw cars sliding all over the street. I waited for 20 minutes for a #19 bus at the south end of downtown. When it arrived it was standing room only but I could have gotten on without excessive crowding. The driver told me there was another #19 right behind him. I decided to keep warm by walking in the direction of home. Four miles and 90 minutes later that bus that “was right behind” still hadn’t shown up. I should have just used my bike. Trimet is pretty much worthless in bad weather.

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    • Kevin December 15, 2016 at 4:09 pm

      This is legitimate. I hope we will all help work toward making the bus service reach more people and be more reliable.

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    • jonno December 15, 2016 at 4:54 pm

      Was anyone else around in the 2008 snowpocalypse where the snow and ice stuck around for days? I recall TriMet (buses anyway) being slow but basically useable during most of that event. Not so yesterday and last week. What’s changed?

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      • Ann December 15, 2016 at 6:19 pm

        I remember two very long walks in December 2008 along my bus route, when buses didn’t ever come by or pass me. So 2008 had its issues. But that storm series lasted a couple weeks, so they had a chance to get into a groove.

        The buses have extra trouble when snow comes midday, because they start without chains and have to stop to get them put on midroute.

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      • Bjorn December 16, 2016 at 8:47 am

        We nearly missed our flight that day even though we left for the airport an extra 2 hours early, the reason being that the 12 just never showed up. We waited for over an hour for what should have been an every 15 minute bus. In the end we finally called a friend and begged them to come drive us to the airport, which they did and we barely made our flight. Sometimes and on some routes the bus works in the snow but often it just doesn’t and there is no way to tell how it is going to go. I have to imagine that there are things that could be done to improve it but since we don’t get snow very often they just choose not to.

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  • rachel b December 15, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Yes–if you’re going to encourage everyone to give up their cars, you must go BIG in transit investment. And dedicate those damn bus lanes, already!

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    • Alex Reedin December 20, 2016 at 5:28 am

      Start with outer Division!

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      • rachel b December 21, 2016 at 12:44 am

        And Powell!

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    • 9watts December 23, 2016 at 8:13 am

      “Yes–if you’re going to encourage everyone to give up their cars, you must go BIG in transit investment. And dedicate those damn bus lanes, already!”

      Or better yet, default back to human powered ways of getting around. No need for investment; just get out of the way.

      I know, I know, some well known folks here will intone that not everyone can bike, bla bla. But that is a red herring. Not everyone owns a car or has a place to store it. The point being that if we discourage auto use and put our eggs in the human powered basket we’ll be surprised how cheaply and effectively we can solve these ‘problems.’

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  • Todd Boulanger December 15, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    And to build on Jonathan’s comments: it is the lack of resiliency for most commuter’s commute mode choice (not knowing how else to get home if they were to leave their car at home – even with Google)

    BUT the compounding issue is the long commutes joined with living in isolated pockets of areas without walking space or transit connections.

    Last night all those stuck drivers on 26 (etc.) were generals who lost the battle due to:
    – over stretched supply lines (long commute);
    – poor equipment choice / poor training;
    – did not understand their “enemy”; and
    – ignored updated battlefield conditions (even with news reports talking about snow for 4 days and reports of highway gridlock before the peak hour…they still tried to drive home on West Burnside and Hwy 26 etc. after 4PM)

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  • Todd Boulanger December 15, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    And perhaps this snow crisis also reflects the modern outcome of anther lack of resiliency:
    dual income families (w/ no multigenerational households) + school busing from more resistant school sites + suburbia to suburbia commuting)

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  • Random December 15, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    “and it [car transport] makes our transportation system extremely fragile and inefficient.”

    Because public transit was functioning **so** well yesterday.

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    • 9watts December 23, 2016 at 8:14 am

      don’t you think it possible that one chief reason buses weren’t getting anywhere is that they were stuck behind hundreds of ill-suited automobiles slipping around our streets? There’s no a priori reason why trimet buses with chains can’t solve this if the streets aren’t clogged with horseless carriages.

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  • Chris December 15, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    I’m not so sure it is a matter of the number of vehicles. Chicago is extremely crowded and I never experienced the mess there that Portland has here.

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    • Adam H.
      Adam H. December 16, 2016 at 12:12 am

      It’s because Chicago knows how to maintain the roads in the winter. Shutting down Chicago takes two feet of snow, rather than two inches.

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      • SE Rider December 16, 2016 at 7:47 am

        That sounds about right since Chicago averages 37 inches of snow a year and Portland averages 3.

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  • Mongoose December 15, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    I’d blame most of the snow/ice driving problems in Portland on people not using chains – perhaps that’s because they don’t know how to drive in snow/ice. If you put chains on the front wheels of a front wheel drive car it can go anywhere with no difficulty up until the snow gets deep enough to high-center it. Vehicles with 4 wheel drive are a huge problem – the drivers believe 4 wheel drive is enough but it isn’t – if the wheels can’t get traction they will be having problems.

    3 inches of snow is not enough to cause significant problems. Ice is trickier, but chains will get you over it most of the time. Studded tires also work. If you are not willing to chain up when the roads are snow/ice covered you should stay home or use another mode of travel.

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    • 9watts December 23, 2016 at 8:18 am

      this is in my view absurd. Your answer to this mess is for everyone to (be required to) mount chains on their single occupancy vehicles. I think Jonathan is taking a larger view: how can we solve half a dozen interlinked problems that this snow brought into sharp relief? Chains aren’t going to do anything for climate change, air quality, carnage, threats to cycling, etc.

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  • Andy December 16, 2016 at 12:16 am

    I grew up back east where this weather is normal. I think it mostly rests on folks just not giving themselves enough distance to stop and the inability to understand that if you hit the gas and your wheels are spinning you’re doing it wrong. That said, I think everyone went to work trusting it wasn’t going to be a significant weather event…then it was. Last week, everyone stayed home because the snow call was much earlier in the day. Portland never was much of a gambling town.

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  • Bill S December 16, 2016 at 12:54 am

    Getting from Columbia Blvd to SE Portland Wed. night was tricky with or without chains, mainly because an Interstate highway was in the way, thus forcing me and others to funnel onto one of the arterial roads to get under/over it. Otherwise there were enough neighborhood streets to navigate through. Good thing the Mt Hood freeway never got built.

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  • BradWagon December 16, 2016 at 11:01 am

    Covered Bike ways with grade separated crossings please.

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    • Eric Leifsdad December 18, 2016 at 11:16 pm

      If we spent nearly as much subsidizing biking as we do driving, there would be a tailwind in that enclosed bikeway alongside every interstate.

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  • Josh Chernoff December 16, 2016 at 11:31 am

    Only issue I seen trimet had getting me home was all the other private car drivers causing issues in the road.

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  • JeffS December 16, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Most of this, and every other storm comment section is just people looking to use this one event to prove that their existing narrative was true. Which site you’re reading determines whether you’re seeing anti-car, anti-bus, pro-salt, pro school-closure, etc. arguments.

    Last week I went skiing on the snow day and later that night had to drive my daughter to the emergency room later that night (unrelated). Other than the stress of the injury it was uneventful.

    This week, drove the daughter to music lesson in the snow and other than having to avoid the cars stuck on Hawthorne, it was uneventful. The next day, we drove to ski again and walk to the grocery store whenever we needed something.

    I don’t enjoy driving, but it serves a purpose for us, as does the bicycle and the bus.

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  • GlowBoy December 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    As everyone has said, many good reasons a snowstorm shuts down Portland and causes epic traffic jams. Very few plows, no rock salt, temperatures closer to freezing, drivers not used to it, and hilly terrain. All good reasons, but I think people who chalk it all up to terrain are exaggerating the difference that hilliness makes. It’s not the only factor, nor necessarily even the biggest one. St. Paul is easily as hilly as east Portland (where most people are biking), and Duluth is far, far hillier. In both places drivers and buses manage just fine because of road maintenance and driver experience. Same deal with Pittsburgh and many East Coast cities. Actually, I think the bigger problem caused by Portland’s hills isn’t so much in steepness of roads people have to drive, but in drastically reducing the number of alternate routes people can take.

    I guess what puzzles me is that so many people should be surprised this happened. It’s nothing new. I lived in Seattle and Portland for 24 years, and have seen epic snow jams like this many, many times. The first time was just a few weeks after I moved to Seattle from the Midwest, when the city got clobbered with 18″ of snow. Like this week’s storm, it started in the afternoon when everyone was at work, and destroyed the evening commute. Took me an hour and a half to drive two miles home from work, and I considered myself lucky: I had friends who were stuck in cars for 6-8 hours that night. (And of course anyone who’s lived in Seattle has to chuckle a little bit with everyone talking about how “hilly” Portland is).

    Biggest lesson I learned upon moving to Portland (besides stay inside during ice storms, which are a lot more common than anywhere else I’ve lived) was to never, EVER go near the Sunset in a snow or ice storm. That sucker shuts down every time. Fortunately I learned this lesson vicariously, when a friend told me about having once spent the night in his car on the stretch of Sunset going downhill towards the tunnel.

    I think Jonathan is right that over-reliance on private automobiles is a big part of the problem. Of course many cities that do better with snow are more reliant on cars than Portland, but as pointed out above Portland’s (and Seattle’s) problem is that it can be hard to entice people out of their cars when it snows, because transit becomes so unreliable. Contrast that with here in Minnesota, where automobile traffic is *more* heavily impacted by snowstorms than the transit system is, and Metro Transit actually uses winter weather as a selling point in their advertising.

    I’m not sure what else TriMet can do to improve reliability in snowy conditions. Disappointed to hear there were still major delays after all they’ve spent upgrading switches. Of course buses are often stuck not just because of hills, but cars blocking their way. Not an easy problem to solve, but I’m sure a lot of Portlanders would gladly leave their cars at home when wintry weather is forecast, if they thought they could count on TriMet in those conditions.

    Like I said above, Portlanders need to stop deluding themselves that snow and ice are too rare to prepare for, or that these epic snow jams “hardly ever” happen. It’s not worth spending what Minneapolis or Cleveland spend, but it’s probably worth doing more than has historically been done.

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    • rachel b December 16, 2016 at 2:24 pm

      The situation is not new, but the people are.

      And they apparently are prone to plowing ahead, damn the torpedoes, with abundant, unmerited confidence, then freaking out and–without a qualm–ditching their cars where they get in other people’s way, creating chaos. Like–in the middle of a freeway. ???? Mindboggling.

      I’ve lived here all my life and have NEVER seen anything like it. Epic self-absorption. I really do think Portland has become a world class narcissist’s destination.

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    • wsbob December 16, 2016 at 3:05 pm

      “…Biggest lesson I learned upon moving to Portland (besides stay inside during ice storms, which are a lot more common than anywhere else I’ve lived) was to never, EVER go near the Sunset in a snow or ice storm. …” glowboy

      Daily traffic conditions on Hwy 26, or Hwy 217. are a major clue as to what they’ll be in adverse weather conditions such as ice and snow: much worse. When word of impending snow comes out, why does everybody head out to the road at the same time? Much better for them to hang out in their warm office, their home, school, shopping malls, etc, than in their car, hardly moving if at all, until the worst of the storm related traffic congestion dissipates.

      Area leaders could maybe be taking stronger measures towards encouraging people to put together alternatives to heading out for the roads and trying to beat the weather and traffic, when these storms occur. Stronger, more detailed advice given, should be all that’s necessary.

      Fortunately, I wasn’t one of the people that had to be stuck out on 26 during the big traffic snow jam, but I know someone that was. Four to five hours sitting in their car in the cold? That’s just nuts. A little more foresight on the part of people driving, could resolve much of the problems with snow and ice aggravated traffic congestion.

      People expecting all of their personally created travel problems to be solved by transportation dept’s, is a formula for disaster that seems to be repeated year after year.

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    • Mongoose December 16, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      Buy and use chains every time it snows or we have ice. Problem solved.

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  • David Lewis December 16, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    You said it, Jonathon. I agree with this piece 100%, and that’s rare.

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  • Andy December 16, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    I read a comment here that a bus driver pulled over and made everyone get out Wednesday night even though the bus was working normally. Some had to walk miles to get home apparently. Buses on certain routes were cancelled altogether. You expect me to take the bus when the weather is bad? I’d like to know if this isn’t true, because my first thought was to take the bus, but in the future I won’t consider it when a storm is forecasted. As for light rail, the nearest stop is 7 miles.

    The best option is to stay home if at all possible. The next best option is to take Max if at all possible. The next best option is to have chains and know how to put them on. Taking the bus isn’t an option if they are going to strand people in storms or cancel service.

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    • rick December 17, 2016 at 9:34 am

      Which bus?

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  • rick December 17, 2016 at 9:33 am

    It was so great to walk and bike in Sylvan late on Wednesday night. So quiet with some people walking around. I should have rode my bike over to West Burnside to the local QFC for the peacefulness.

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