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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.

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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resiliency

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 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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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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Huey Lewis
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Huey Lewis

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.

Teddy
Guest
Teddy

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.

Tony H
Guest
Tony H

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!

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

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.

resopmok
Guest
resopmok

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..

joel
Guest
joel

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.

Matti
Guest
Matti

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!

9watts
Guest
9watts

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

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

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.

Adam
Subscriber

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

Spiffy
Subscriber

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…

JF
Guest
JF

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.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

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

SE Rider
Guest
SE Rider

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

K'Tesh
Guest
K'Tesh

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

Source: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/376317

fourknees
Guest
fourknees

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.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

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.

moorecycles
Subscriber
moorecycles

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.

J_R
Guest
J_R

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

bjorn
Guest
bjorn

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.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

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!

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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)

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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)

Random
Guest
Random

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

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

Chris
Guest
Chris

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.

Mongoose
Guest
Mongoose

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.

Andy
Guest
Andy

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.

Bill S
Guest
Bill S

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.

BradWagon
Subscriber

Covered Bike ways with grade separated crossings please.

Josh Chernoff
Guest
Josh Chernoff

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

JeffS
Guest
JeffS

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.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

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.

David Lewis
Guest
David Lewis

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

Andy
Guest
Andy

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.

rick
Guest
rick

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.

Suburban
Guest
Suburban

There was some things (snow, cars, dorks, chairs, glass) in the bike lane. So I went around it.