Portland battling the slow go

Transit, shorter commutes limit the city’s relative misery, a national study shows

Portlanders benefit from efforts to reduce sprawl.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The Oregonian

Rush-hour traffic clogs the nation’s cities more than ever, but the Portland area appears to be fighting the growth in misery behind the wheel better than many regions.

Portland-area motorists were delayed 38 hours in 2005 because of rush-hour congestion — about 14 percent less than the 44 hours a year average for the nation’s top 85 metro areas.

Take away our mass transit, and the region’s congestion delay would be 21 percent longer.

The results of a Texas Transportation Institute study released Tuesday also confirm what many veterans of stop-and-go interstate headaches already know: The Portland-area’s rush-hour commute moves in relative slow motion. Streets and highways move traffic 29 percent slower during rush hour than they do in nonpeak times, a rate that almost exactly matches the average for the 85 biggest regions.

That puts Portland’s rush-hour pain in league with some very big cities — we just experience our pain over shorter distances traveled more slowly.

The same report caused local disbelief in 2003, when it ranked the Portland area’s congestion worse than Seattle’s. But the Texas A&M University analysts took a year off to refine their research methods. This year, Seattle ranked higher, meaning more delay, than Portland on the report’s main indicators.

But rankings don’t capture the daily toll commuting exacts on the region’s motorists, who suffered a collective 33.7 million hours of rush-hour traffic delay in 2005.

Autumn Hayball of Sandy on Tuesday morning drove down Burnside Street from Gresham to her job at AIG Insurance in downtown’s KOIN Center. A radio station had warned of trouble on Interstate 84, so she took Burnside as an alternative.

“A couple months ago, a big milk tanker dumped over, and we were out there forever,” she said. “You’ve jut got to hope that your boss is OK with you being late every now and then.”

This year’s report appears to affirm the region’s compact growth policies and transit investments, said David Bragdon, president of the Metro Council, which governs Portland-area land-use and transportation planning. It doesn’t mean traffic is nonexistent in the Portland area but it’s growing at a slower rate than elsewhere, he said.

An average Portland-area commuter’s 38 hours of delay in 2005 was 15 percent more time slogging through traffic than in 1995. In the nation’s 85 largest metro areas, average hours of delay per traveler grew by 22 percent to 44 hours in the same decade.

“We can’t say, ‘Gee, things are better here than 30 years ago,’ because that’s not true,” Bragdon said. “But we are performing better than most other metropolitan areas our size.”

Congestion has touched every urbanized corner of the nation. And it has crept up in regions of all sizes and shapes.

In 2005 alone, it caused urban Americans to collectively travel 4.2 billion hours more and buy 2.9 billion gallons of gas to do so. And it sliced $78.2 billion from the nation’s economy in gasoline expenditure and commuters’ time.

“Congestion’s getting worse: It affects more areas, more neighborhoods,” said Tim Lomax, a research engineer and co-author of the study.

The study ranks 85 urban areas of the nation along a variety of measures of congestion and transportation efficiency. Overall it surveys 427 urban areas.

The Los Angeles-Long Beach and San Francisco-Oakland regions had the worst congestion, with 72 hours and 60 hours per motorist per year, respectively. Spokane and Brownsville, Texas, tied for 84th, with just eight hours of delay per year per traveler.

Considered an authoritative look at rush-hour congestion nationwide, the report plays into ongoing debates over whether the nation should raise gas or other taxes to relieve bottlenecks and maintain an aging, out-of-date infrastructure.

Congestion relief doesn’t just mean making mornings and afternoons less stressful: The time of rush-hour delays means real money. One Portland economist estimates that short commute times for motorists save the Portland area $2.6 billion a year, boosting the metro area’s annual economic output by 3 percent.

“Rush hour” has expanded in Portland from 4.8 hours a day in 1982 to 7.6 hours a day in 2005.

Transit use helps ease the rush-hour headache — significantly in the Portland area, the Texas study said.

Buses, MAX trains and streetcars saved the region 6.7 million hours of rush-hour delay — placing Portland 13th in the nation in savings because of public transportation use. That means Portland saved more hours than larger areas such as Denver, ranked No. 17, and San Jose, Calif., No. 21.

Even Houston, with a far larger population, ranked only No. 14 — that’s despite the many thousands of people a day who use its huge bus system.

A Portland-area commuter’s average 38 hours a year of congestion delay would be eight hours longer — 46 hours a year total — if buses and rail service halted tomorrow. That includes the cumulative effect of more riders adding more congestion to the roads, Lomax said.

“TriMet’s ridership is huge compared to cities our size,” said Andy Cotugno, planning director for the Metro regional government. “We’ve got twice the number of riders that we should have.”

The study judges congestion in two key ways. Portland rates poorly in one and better in another.

First, the study compares rush-hour travel time with travel time in off-peak hours. Portland’s index of 1.29 means a trip that would take 20 minutes at noon would take 25.8 minutes in rush hour.

On that measure, Portland ranked No. 21, relatively high for the No. 25 metro area by population. But Seattle ranked even worse at No. 17, in a three-way tie with Baltimore and Orlando, Fla.

Seattle had an index of 1.30, meaning a 20-minute trip would take 26 minutes.

Does that mean we’re as bad off as Seattle again?

Not really, Cotugno said. That’s because Portland-area commuters have shorter distances to travel, he said.

“If you’re driving on that freeway system in Seattle you’re driving probably 50 percent longer distances than you are here,” he said. “Even if you’re stuck in congestion, you’re doing it for fewer hours a day than they are elsewhere.”

A second, more popular measure of congestion makes the Portland area look more favorable. The “annual delay per traveler” estimates the extra travel time during morning and afternoon rush-hour periods, divided by the number of motorists at those times.

Portland-area drivers, with 38 hours a year in delay, ranked No. 33 out of 85 metro areas. For a region ranked No. 25 by population, that’s a relatively good result. Areas with more hours of congestion per traveler ranked higher: Seattle, with 45 hours of congestion ranked No. 19.

So what’s better, to be in a place like Atlanta or Houston, where freeway speeds send commuters farther faster? Or a more compact place like Portland, New York or Chicago, where trips are slower but shorter?

“The shorter tends to overwhelm the slower in my mind,” Lomax said. “The closeness of where you start and where you wind up means you actually spend less time on the road than say if you were in Atlanta.”

Dylan Rivera: 503-221-8532, dylanrivera@news.oregonian.com

©2007 The Oregonian

To address The Oregonian’s Rush Hour Solution…

There were a couple articles this week on the front page of the Oregonian by Dylan Rivera that showed that you waste a week’s worth of work due to sitting in traffic, 38 hours to be exact. Now that study was in 2005, and if you’re driving in the same traffic I am at peak hours, I can already tell it’s getting worse every time I hit a rush hour in this city. If they did a September 2007 study, I’m sure it’d be well over 40 hours a year.

Continue reading To address The Oregonian’s Rush Hour Solution…

No easy way to get there from here

Of the News-Register

More than 14,000 members of Yamhill County’s nonfarm workforce commute to jobs outside the county every morning, according to Pam Ferrara of the state Department of Employment.

Nearly 2,400 head to Multnomah County, bound largely for Portland, and 7,000 to Washington County, bound for Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and points between, said Ferrara, a workforce analyst for Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties.

And almost to a one, they wish there was an easier, quicker way. After all, it would be nice to get a couple of hours of extra sleep in the morning.

Options include private cars, YCAP buses, TriMet buses, Max trains and Metro vans. Many combine at least two of those options, and some combine three.

Katie Allwander has one of the nastiest commutes.

She lives south of McMinnville in the farming community of Hopewell. She works for the Small Business Administration in Portland, and the run between them is both long and difficult.

A business development specialist, she is currently driving to a park and ride lot in Sherwood and relying on TriMet from there. She spends about 30 minutes in the car getting to Sherwood and another 60 minutes on the bus getting to downtown Portland.

That’s a lot of time on the road, and she figures she’s not alone. “I see a lot of people in McMinnville who I see on the road and on TriMet coming into Portland,” she said.

The SBA reimburses the cost of commuting via mass transit, so it would be advantageous to Allwander to cover more of her trip that way. However, she’s had a hard time finding something that will work for her.

She recently looked into joining a new Metro VanPool running from Newberg to the Lloyd District in Portland. A program at carpoolmatchnw.org helps match riders with similar needs, and that sounded good.

“It would be nice to kick back and relax, read books, make me more effective,” Allwander said.

But the VanPool, considered eminently flexible by its organizers, isn’t flexible enough for her. The local van doesn’t leave Newberg early enough in the morning.

YCAP offers bus service from McMinnville to TriMet’s Hillsboro rail stop and Sherwood bus stop, both of which feature park-and-ride lots.

For the ride up, northbound buses depart at 6:02, 8, 9:30 and 10:10 every morning. For the ride back, they depart at 3:25, 4:16 and 6:40 every afternoon.

In addition to those runs, designed to serve commuters, YCAP offers morning runs south, afternoon runs north and mid-day runs both ways. Still, it doesn’t fit everyone’s schedule.

That would leave Allwander waiting in Sherwood for 45 minutes for a bus back to McMinnville. “It would make my day longer than it already is,” she noted.

Today, gas is running $2.69 at most McMinnville stations. That would make an 80-mile trip to Portland and back $7.17 in a car getting 30 miles per gallon.

Allwander figures she burns two gallons getting to Sherwood and back. With the SBA reimbursement for the rest of her commute, she’s only out $5.38.

But that doesn’t count insurance, maintenance, repair and depreciation, of course. The IRS computes the average per-mile operating cost at 48 cents, at which price a daily commute to Portland would run $38.40 and Allwander’s Sherwood run around $30.

Though the Newberg VanPool didn’t pan out for Allwander, it’s looking for additional passengers for its Highway 99W run, and it might work for others.

Metro covers half of the cost of leasing a van for any group willing to carpool under its program.

Will Worrall is leasing a seven-passenger van from Enterprise for the Newberg VanPool’s weekday run to the Lloyd District. The riders split the cost of gas and insurance, which ranges from $2.60 to $4.13 each, according to Metro.

Worrall would like to find some people from Newberg, McMinnville or elsewhere in the region interested in joining his VanPool. His seven-passenger van still has space left, and he could swap it for a 15-passenger van if demand warranted.

Alternatively, he wouldn’t mind seeing someone in McMinnville launch his own.

“The deal is, the way to get a VanPool started is that it has to have a champion,” Worrall said. “What I would love to do is get four or five VanPools going along 99. If somebody from McMinnville wanted to champion it, he would need to find at least four riders.”

Allwander thinks the ideal solution would be a train. “Trains haul a lot more people than cars or vans or even busses,” she said. “If I could catch a train in McMinnville to take me into downtown Portland, I would drive the 15 miles.”

Newberg businessman Matt Simek and Newberg legislator Gary George have set about championing that very idea. In fact, Simek has lined up an array of public and private support sufficient to cover the cost of an initial feasibility study.

However, any rail run up the valley appears to be a long way off. And so does any bypass through the Newberg-Dundee bottleneck to speed auto and bus traffic.

So for now, Allwander will have to be content with driving from Hopewell to Sherwood and taking TriMet’s 94 Express to her downtown office.

Hood to Coast 2007, Team Fluffy Bunnies place 2nd!

As Hood to Coast has “gone green” this year, EcoShuttle thought it’d be quite opportunistic to sponsor a team. Although there is nothing green about thousands of vans constantly starting and stopping and in congestion for what can be for miles at any given exchange, we provided a carbon offset for one team: The Fluffy Bunnies. Congratulations for placing 2nd in this year’s Open Master’s Race, finishing in a time of just over 20 hours!!!
Continue reading Hood to Coast 2007, Team Fluffy Bunnies place 2nd!

It’s confirmed: Bus takes too long

By Peter Zuckerman, Oregon Live

Getting to work by bus often takes more than an hour in Clackamas County because TriMet bus routes and schedules don’t fit commuting patterns.

A consultant who plugged more than 1,400 select Clackamas County employee and employer addresses into TriMet’s trip-planning software found commutes for those workers would average 78 minutes one way, far more time than most people are willing to spend.

“We’re behind our neighbors and the rest of the nation,” said Yung Ouyang, who presented the analysis to Clackamas County commissioners Tuesday. “Nobody can get to work on time using TriMet.”

Although most Clackamas County workers are within walking distance — defined as a quarter mile — of a bus stop, they use public transportation less than workers in Multnomah and Washington counties.

Clackamas County commuters who take the bus spent an average of 45 minutes one way, according to figures from the 2000 U.S. Census, compared with 39-minute trips for Multnomah County and the state.

“The amount of time it takes to get here is ridiculous,” said Jeffrey Washington, 48, of Northwest Portland, who was waiting Wednesday at a bus stop in Oregon City. “I have to buy a bus ticket twice because by the time I transfer the first one has expired.”

Washington, who doesn’t have a car, said he wouldn’t take a job in Clackamas County and rarely shops in the area because of the two-hour commute.

His attitude echoes concerns presented in the Clackamas County study, which concludes that the lack of public transportation makes it harder to attract workers and business. The disparity is likely to grow, with Clackamas County’s population and employment growth projected to outpace the Portland area’s in coming years.

Only about half of Clackamas County workers would be able to take the bus to work if they wanted to, largely because the wait for the bus is too long and the consequences of missing one too dire, the study concluded.

The Clackamas County commissioners vowed to hold more meetings examining ways to improve the public transportation system and to launch a campaign to persuade TriMet to improve services in Clackamas County.

A subsidized bus pass might make the commute less expensive, said Commissioner Lynn Peterson, but that won’t be enough. “We need to get TriMet to improve services, and we need to get our services in the right place.”

Less driving is more cash for Portland

By Dylan Rivera-Oregon Live

Because Portland-Vancouver drivers log 20 percent fewer miles a day than most U.S. urban dwellers and spend less on cars and gasoline as a result, the region’s economy saves $2.6 billion a year, or about 3 percent of the area’s annual economic output, according to a new study for the Chicago-based CEOs for Cities.

And most of that money, which otherwise would go to far-flung car makers and oil companies, appears to go instead to housing, entertainment and food in the Portland-area economy.

“It stimulates local businesses rather than rewarding Exxon or Toyota,” says the five-page report titled “Portland’s Green Dividend” and authored by Portland economist Joe Cortright.

As cities from Los Angeles to Miami look to remake themselves with rail transit and mixed-use housing, the report could have widespread implications.

It raises the question of how much it costs Americans to live in cities that require residents to drive for nearly all their daily needs. Though transit, bicycling and walking are relatively minor contributors to Portland’s savings, the study implies that development patterns that shorten commutes and facilitate walking, bicycling and using transit can have a positive economic impact.

“This isn’t all about transit,” Cortright said in an interview last week. “Most people are still commuting by automobile, and shorter commutes are better than longer commutes, and that’s a principal factor here.”

Driving comparatively less saves the region $1.1 billion in out-of-pocket expenses that come with car ownership, Cortright estimates. That equates to about 1.5 percent of all personal income earned in the metro area in 2005.

Spending 100 fewer hours a year behind the wheel saves $1.5 billion in time spent traveling. That figure, added to the $1.1 billion, yields the total $2.6 billion.

The study uses standard transportation planning formulas for calculating the personal cost of traffic tie-ups, said Todd Litman, a transportation consultant with the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, B.C. But estimating the cost savings for the entire region may be an innovative step, he said.

And, it might actually undercount some of the value of driving less, Litman said. That’s because as the region curbs the growth of car travel time, it also adds relatively pleasant transit travel time that is not figured in — and the pleasant travel time is less expensive to commuters, he said.

Cortright’s study relies heavily on the number of “vehicle miles traveled” per person, per day in the metro area — 20.3 in 2005, compared with 24.3 for the median of the 33 top U.S. metro areas that year. Based on a speed of 27 mph, Portland-area residents spend in total 100 million fewer hours traveling each year.

Oregon transportation planners peg the cost of an hour of automobile travel at $15 an hour. At that rate, saving 100 million hours a year adds up to the $1.5 billion figure Cortright estimates.

But that $15 an hour treats all time spent traveling the same, when those minutes are not equal, Litman said.

Time spent alone in a car is largely unpleasant and costly, and therefore people are willing to pay to avoid it, Litman said. But time in high-quality transit environments is less unpleasant than driving — and Portland is adding those kinds of minutes, he said.

“A lousy bus ride is expensive, and waiting for a bus by the side of the road is an expensive minute,” Litman said. “But waiting in a nice transit station with a monitor telling you when the next bus or train will arrive with a Starbucks espresso in your hand is an inexpensive minute.”

Like much of the debate about land-use and transportation planning, perspectives on Cortright’s study vary. Bill Conerly, an economic consultant and chairman of the libertarian-leaning Cascade Policy Institute, said fewer miles traveled per day do not necessarily mean fewer minutes spent stuck in traffic.

Portland-Vancouver area residents spend more time traveling than people in other cities because the region hasn’t built enough roads, Conerly said.

“One way to get people to travel less is to make the whole traveling experience more miserable,” Conerly said. “Anyone who comes in on the Banfield and Terwilliger Curves knows that the daily commute is miserable here.”

Critics often argue that the region’s land-use and transportation systems change the playing field, prompting consumers to pay more for housing close-in, to avoid spending time in rush-hour traffic.

But there are many indications that people are happy with the system they have, Cortright said. About 60 percent of area residents rate their transportation system “good” or “excellent,” compared with 35 percent nationwide. And no one forces homeowners to pay more for close-in housing, he said.

Portland residents are twice as likely to use transit to commute to work and seven times more likely to bicycle than the average urban U.S. resident. They also buy hybrid Toyota Priuses at the highest rate in the nation, double the rate in Los Angeles, where drivers could presumably benefit more from greater fuel efficiency.

“No one’s holding a gun to anybody’s head to make them buy Priuses,” Cortright said. “This is consistent with making choices about living in denser neighborhoods.”

Oregon governor signs Biofuels legislation

Gov. Ted Kulongoski was joined recently by legislators, environmental and agricultural leaders at a biofuels facility in Eugene, Ore., to sign House Bill 2210, which creates a renewable fuel standard and tax incentives for both consumers and producers of biofuels.

“These bills will not only create financial opportunities for Oregon’s agricultural sectors, but it will help reduce our green house gas emissions while creating thousands of jobs in rural Oregon,” Kulongoski said.

House Bill 2210, coupled with Senate Bill 838, the Governor’s Renewable Portfolio Standard of 25 percent of Oregon’s electricity coming from renewable sources by 2025, will make Oregon’s commitment to renewable and alternative energy among the most ambitious in the nation.

The major components of Bill 2210 include that all gasoline sold in the state must be blended with 10 percent ethanol after Oregon production of ethanol reaches 40 million gallons per year.

All diesel fuel sold in the state must be blended with 2 percent biodiesel when the production of biodiesel from sources in the Pacific Northwest reaches a level of at least 5 million gallons per year.

The biodiesel blending requirement increases to 5 percent when annual production reaches a level of at least 15 million gallons per year.

The legislation creates aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals of 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; and 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. It also creates a Global Warming Commission and a university-level climate research center.

Governor signs climate change legislation

Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed the state’s first climate change legislation Tuesday, capping what he called the “most momentous legislative session for energy and the environment in more than 30 years in Oregon.”

The bill sets ambitious standards for greenhouse gas reduction in Oregon, including reducing greenhouse gas levels by 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The state’s greenhouse gases have been on the rise, according to federal data. Oregonians emitted 30.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, in 1990. In 2003, Oregonians emitted 40.4 million metric tons, a 32 percent increase.

The legislation, House Bill 3543, establishes both an Oregon Climate Change Research Institute within the Department of Higher Education and an Oregon Global Warming Commission. The Global Warming Commission will be charged with spearheading the greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

Despite the success of the bill, Kulongoski said he’ll revisit the issue in the 2009 session when he asks legislators to create a cap and trade system for carbon emissions.

“If you want to know where I’m going in this next session, this is the issue,” the governor said.

The governor also announced a new state effort to draft a comprehensive inventory of the state’s carbon footprint, the first such audit in the nation. He also announced that he has asked the Department of Environmental Quality to draft greenhouse gas reporting rules for the private sector.

Several winemakers attended the bill signing, saying they have committed to offsetting or eliminating all of their greenhouse gas emissions within 18 months.