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,

©2007 The Oregonian

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