We spoke with more than a dozen transportation experts from many perspectives about the issues they think are most pressing for the Portland region's transportation system – and found safety, reliability and affordability rising to the top again and again, with strong themes of equity and scarce funding connecting these three.
The experts we spoke with agree that the Portland region has done a lot of things right. But they also agree there's a lot more to do make our transportation system safer, more reliable and more affordable for everyone who lives here.
What's holding us back from a safer, more reliable and more affordable transportation system? Here's the Rundown.
The Portland region has a reputation as a livable, options-rich transportation place to get around. And that's true in a lot of parts of the region, especially in historic downtowns, inner and older neighborhoods where connected street networks and transit abound, and along major transportation corridors like MAX lines, Frequent Service bus lines, Neighborhood Greenways and other major biking and walking routes.
"In our low-income communities and communities of color we have a disproportionate number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways. That’s a huge equity issue. And a safety issue." – Leah Treat, director, Portland Bureau of Transportation
"You can’t think about getting to zero deaths and serious injuries without looking at who’s experiencing those deaths and injuries, that means youth and elderly and other geographic communities of concern. So, there’s no fixing it without using that equity framework and prioritizing investments in those areas first.” – Rebecca Bodonyi, program specialist, Multnomah County Health Department
“(Safety) impacts every one of us, and it’s something that we can do something about. In other words, you can’t ‘cure’ congestion, but you can make things safer.” – Dennis Mitchell, regional traffic engineer, Oregon Department of Transportation
But beneath that soaring reputation is a sobering reality: The region has a tragic track record of people getting killed or seriously injured on our transportation system. The first few months of 2016 have cast this challenge in sharp relief, with more than a dozen deaths in the city of Portland alone, more than twice the total at this time last year.
Although overall deaths and serious injuries are down from decades ago, that's largely because of improvements in car safety. People walking and biking are as vulnerable as ever. And they make up a disproportionate share of deaths on our roads; although they are involved in fewer crashes, those crashes are more likely to be fatal.
Many of the places where a walk to the grocery store, park or bus stop is most dangerous are also the same places where many communities of color and people with low incomes live.
A map of crashes and fatalities in the region shows clear overlapping patterns between where these populations live and where crashes happen. Pair that up with a map of high-crash corridors and missing sidewalks, and the same pattern emerges.
Advocates point out that these areas have long been under-invested, and need is growing as displacement drives many of the region's most vulnerable populations from the more option-rich inner neighborhoods.
Local communities are trying to reverse the reality. Portland has adopted a "Vision Zero" target of no fatalities or serious injuries on its streets, and is now working on a plan to implement it. Clackamas County has also adopted a "Drive to Zero" approach seeking a 50 percent reduction in fatal and serious injuries by 2022. Both of these efforts involve education, enforcement and engineering.
Washington County has begun work on its first Transportation Safety Action Plan to help reduce transportation-related injuries and fatalities for all road users, while Tigard has adopted a goal of becoming the most walkable community in the Pacific Northwest. And the Oregon Department of Transportation has a draft Transportation Safety Action Plan that also calls for zero deaths and fewer serious injuries on state roads.
"What we need is to invest significant funding in new sidewalks, new bike lanes, safer crossings, better lights, more signalized intersections and all kinds of things that we know work to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities down to zero. And the only thing that’s really missing from that type of an outcome is funding. If we had the funding to get it done and the political will, then we’d be there." – Gerik Kransky, advocacy director, Bicycle Transportation Alliance
"It's been an ongoing frustration for the people I've worked with that they've had good ideas planned or even designed but they don't have the funding to get there. I think Portland could always do more to be bolder with its goals and more forward thinking. Where it's not doing an amazing job is funding all that." – William Henderson, Portland Independent Chamber of Commerce
"We have these goals we want to reach. But when it comes to actually spending the money we have, we can only think of what we're experiencing right now as opposed to those long-term goals." – Kari Schlosshauer, Pacific Northwest regional policy manager, Safe Routes to School National Partnership
“We’ve dug a hole for ourselves in terms of planning on aging and accessibility. We put priority on the now, about what should go into a neighborhood to attract a certain sector of the populace, but we rarely plan for issues that will affect those same people years down the road, issues of safety and access.” – Alex Page, transportation planner, Ride Connection
What's making it harder to make transportation safer?
There's no shortage of shock and outrage when a person is killed on our streets, particularly when walking or bicycling. And regional and local safety plans abound, as do statements from elected leaders and advocates about needing to make streets safer.
But like everything else, safety costs money. And money – particularly from the federal sources that used to fund a lot of transportation projects – is tough to come by. Though a recent federal transportation bill gave Oregon a little more money, we're still billions short of where we need to be just to keep up with maintenance.
Meanwhile, the areas most lacking in basic safety amenities like sidewalks and crosswalks face a challenge if we want to fix them: They were developed during a period when speed was the top priority, with largely disconnected street networks, meaning more miles of sidewalks to build and more dangerous throughways to cross.
But safety advocates argue the problem isn't just the amount of money, it's that safety isn't sufficiently prioritized for the funding that is available.
Then there is an issue of perception. There's only so much roadway to go around, especially in older neighborhoods and along major throughways throughout the region. Typically, a lot of users are competing for that space, including people driving cars, freight trucks, buses and people walking and bicycling. These different users might have different ideas about the proper role of a street in a given community. Is it a local gathering place or a regionally significant pipeline for commuters and freight? Who should have priority?
And roads originally built as state highways – 82nd Avenue, Powell Boulevard, Tualatin Valley Highway, McLoughlin Boulevard and others – are now often called "orphan highways". With dual identities as historic throughways for cars but also vital community corridors and transit routes, the challenge of how to bring these roads up to local safety standards – and possibly transfer them to local ownership – remains knotty.
Nobody wants to get in a crash, of course. But when it comes down to brass tacks of how to update a street to increase safety, familiar conflicts often delay safety projects' implementation, or some say, leads to compromises that don't resolve the real problems.
Many of the experts we talked with also called for improved traffic enforcement by local police, especially for behaviors like driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or texting while driving. Advocates also push for education for drivers to make sure they know about safety issues, such as Oregon law stating that all intersections are crosswalks – whether white paint is present or not.
What's Metro doing about safety?
Updating the Regional Transportation Plan, the blueprint for transportation investments across the Portland region. The project includes updating a Regional Safety Strategy, which will assess the current state of safety in the region and recommend actions that governments at all levels should take to reduce deaths and serious injuries for people walking, biking and driving in the region. Its policies will be incorporated into the Regional Transportation Plan.
Metro is also updating its design guidelines for safe and complete streets as part of the Regional Transportation Plan update. Known as Designing Livable Streets, the project creates a series of toolkits with best practices for improving safety and comfort on streets both large and small. The handbooks were last updated almost 15 years ago, so this presents an opportunity to align transportation design in this region with current methods. The guidelines are used by Metro when allocating federal transportation funds for projects in the region.
"I believe most people are good – they want to do good, they don’t want to hit somebody, they want everyone to be safe. We need to pull those qualities out of people, so that they’re mindful of that in everything they do when they interact with the transportation system. … In order to get to zero deaths, I don’t think people need to change much. But you have to get people to want to change." – Joe Marek, traffic engineer, Clackamas County
This fall, the Metro Council and the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation will allocate around $130 million in federal transportation dollars known here as regional flexible funding. A large chunk of the money will go directly to projects that have a direct impact on safety around the region, whether large corridor projects like the Southwest Corridor Plan and Powell-Division Transit and Development Project, or specific local projects to build bikeways, sidewalks and access to transit stops.
When more people walk and bike, people walking and biking are safer. Through grants and individualized marketing programs, Metro's Regional Travel Options program helps more people from throughout the region discover how to use options other than driving for every trip. The program is funded through the regional flexible funds as well. Under a current proposal being considered by JPACT, $1 to $2 million in additional funding would specifically support Safe Routes to School programs to help kids and their parents get to school more safely.
In 2014, the Metro Council adopted two key pieces of policy: the region's first Active Transportation Plan, outlining a network of routes for biking and walking around the region and guidelines for safe infrastructure design, and the Climate Smart Strategy, a comprehensive approach to lower greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Both policies are being implemented in a variety of ways, including the Regional Transportation Plan update.
More than 41,000 people moved to the Portland region last year. Growth shows no sign of abating. All those people have to go places, and so do the things they buy, order and make.
"Every hour counts. If you’re going to force earlier cut-off times, because we have to leave the site to get to the point of shipping, it decreases competitiveness overall. We’re competing in a global economy, and you’ve got to get your goods to market, and that slowdown quickly becomes costly." – Jill Eiland, Northwest region government affairs manager, Intel Corporation
"No matter where you are in the Portland metropolitan region, you can get in a car and you can drive safely to your destination and there’s no question that that network exists. It’s redundant, it’s effective, and it may be in a varying state of repair, but it’s there. If you were to do the same thing with only your shoes or only a bike, even if you consider what options you have for transit, we have a woefully inadequate network of transportation facilities across the region." – Gerik Kransky, Bicycle Transportation Alliance
"In areas where you can't build yourself out of congestion, you have to figure out you're going to manage it better." – Geoff Bowyer, emergency incidents manager, ODOT Region 1
In a way, congestion can be a symptom of a good thing: a growing region with a strong economy just has more people trying to get around. A city with zero traffic is likely a city that's not doing well economically. But when growth happens quickly – as it has recently in Portland – we’re often stuck playing catch up to meet the new demand.
If you buy an airplane ticket, you expect that the airline will get you to your destination around the time that the ticket states. That, theoretically, is what you are paying for. It's when an airline fails to meet that promise that traveling gets frustrating.
That's what a lot of people experience on our transportation system every day. The Portland region's situation isn't as bad as many other metropolitan areas, thanks to shorter-distance commutes than the national average and options that keep some cars off the road.
But reliability is a major, challenging issue. Driving trips can take as little as 15 minutes in light traffic but an hour or more during rush hour. As anyone who listens to traffic reports knows, a single crash or stall can foul up a whole morning commute. Buses and trains fall behind schedule, held up by that same traffic or by aging equipment. Bike routes and sidewalk networks are often intermittent or interrupted, making it hard to rely on a direct, comfortable route for every trip.
It is more than frustrating. There are real costs associated with all this. People getting to work and goods getting to market represent huge economic value moving around the region every day – those people and products not showing up on time have a real impact on the region's economic productivity.
A more reliable system is not necessarily one that is built for faster driving, experts note – designs to help everyone drive faster can lead to both more traffic-jamming crashes and entice more people to drive, causing further reliability challenges down the road.
What's making it harder to make transportation more reliable?
To improve reliability, the region needs money to make strategic investments in relieving chokepoints, upgrading outdated infrastructure, repairing roads, increasing transit access and completing the reliable bike and pedestrian networks already in the plans. But with a shrinking pot of money available, there simply isn't enough to go around to do it all.
And even then we can be slow to act – do people see a big enough crisis in reliability to take action, even if it will cost them something in the short term?
"I think if you put together a really good package of capital improvements, if you’re very specific about how the money’s going to be spent, and you’re very careful about what’s in the package so it appeals to more people, I think you’ll succeed. I think that, too often, elected officials are afraid that they’re going to fail, and therefore they don’t ask – and they need to get over that." – Hal Bergsma, former Beaverton planner and current AARP Livable Communities volunteer leader
"What businesses need is certainty and predictability. So if you don’t even know for two more years whether vital investments in transportation infrastructure are going to be made, it’s hard to make the business case for greater investment in the region – for any business.” – Jill Eiland, Intel
"Traditionally, people want to see you build things – build new lane capacity, add new infrastructure. We’re targeting facilities that we already have, looking at how to maximize their use and make them safer without building new lane miles. It still costs money, but it costs a lot less than building completely new facilities." – Dennis Mitchell, ODOT
The good news is that there are relatively small and inexpensive actions that can have a big impact on roads, like tweaking traffic lights or small auxiliary lanes here and there, while we continue to seek funding for the bigger stuff.
Portland is a finalist for a Smart City Challenge hosted by the U.S. Department of Transportation that could make up to $40 million available to become "the country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network."
And the Oregon Department of Transportation is always working on improving its response to crashes and other incidents on regional highways, so fender benders don't tie the system in knots. For example, a consortium of agencies, including Metro and ODOT, received a $192,000 federal grant last year to improve traveler information and crash responses on Interstate 84 and parallel routes on the region's eastside. More efforts like this could go a long way without new asphalt.
What's Metro doing about reliability?
The Southwest Corridor Plan and Powell-Division Transit and Development Project will help with safety and affordability in the communities they serve. But at their heart they are about giving people more reliable options to get to work, class and other destinations. A transit ride that isn't as affected by traffic or weather would be a great leap for the tens of thousands of people that ride transit every day today in these areas. And by attracting more people to take transit instead of driving for every trip, the projects can also improve reliability for drivers – or at least help it from getting worse as the region continues to grow.
Metro's Transit System Management and Operations grants, also funded through federal transportation dollars, apply next-generation methods to improve efficiency and reliability throughout the transportation system. Last year the program awarded $4.6 million in grants to a variety of innovative programs, including better syncing traffic lights, assessing traffic incidents, tracking traffic and installing information systems to help people make more informed decisions about how and when to travel.
The update of a Regional Freight Strategy, another part of the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan, will help guide investments to make sure goods continue to flow smoothly around the region and to the world.
A portion of the regional flexible funds will directly support local projects that improve reliability (and safety) both for people bicycling and walking and for freight. This month, JPACT and the Metro Council will decide on the policy approach to allocating funds this year; they will allocate the funds in the fall.
There is strong evidence that residents of greater Portland pay less to get around than people in other metropolitan areas. Our commutes are shorter in both time and distance than the average US metropolitan area, in part thanks to things like the urban growth boundary that have limited outward sprawl.
"We move the cars at 35 miles per hour down this corridor and then we ask the pedestrian to walk a third of a mile to the nearest traffic signal, cross the street, and then walk another third of a mile to go catch their bus. And that in turn is going to affect their ability to get to their job, or it’s going to make their world very stressful because they know, every day, that they have to go out and try to cross this busy intersection and it’s not easy to do.” – Joe Marek, traffic engineer, Clackamas County
"Housing and transportation are so closely related and we rarely talk about them together. I don't think folks have as good a grasp of that as they should. Finding ways to communicate about it and doing it incessantly. It's hard to educate an entire region but when we talk about how much it costs to get around we should talk about housing and vice versa." – Kari Schlosshauer, Safe Routes to School National Partnership
"Making sure the system is well maintained is a keystone for economic vitality – getting people to goods and services and allowing them to get to work…. Every agency is struggling with this issue all over the country." – Andrew Singelakis, director of land use and transportation, Washington County
"We need goods to move, we need people to get to work, we need access to services. But to grow our ability to attract workers and companies, we need a transportation system that mitigates climate impacts. Those have huge economic impacts." – Heidi Guenin, transportation advocate and consultant
And more options for getting around means an ability to save on the costs of owning a vehicle or a second vehicle. Economist Joe Cortright has called this a "green dividend" for the Portland region, adding up to as much as $2.6 billion in annual savings for residents in the region.
But is our system as affordable for everyone as it should be? Many of the experts we talked to say it isn't.
Affordability has several dimensions. There are out-of-pocket costs, of course. Gas prices are down right now, but they will climb again. Transit fares are steady but could rise again in the future, one reason some advocates have launched a campaign calling for TriMet to institute a low-income fare.
But there's also the issue of time. The time that people spend getting places limits their opportunities to do other things. This cost is tied to reliability, but the lost time is fundamentally an issue of social equity.
People of color and with lower incomes have longer commutes and are more susceptible to sudden changes in transportation costs. They also have less access to frequent, reliable transit. Those add up to long-term, even intergenerational costs – because the longer you're commuting, the less time you have with family and the harder it is to pursue opportunities like education or a better job.
TriMet has been trying to address this issue with a bevy of service enhancement plans to add new bus lines and improve service throughout the region, particularly in areas poorly served today, like east Multnomah County and parts of Washington County, with the hope that it will help more riders reduce costs from lengthy transit commutes.
But it gets more complicated – because transportation costs are intimately linked to the rent or mortgage people pay. With rents rising quickly across the Portland region, keeping transportation costs lower helps to offset the total cost of living. Providing options and building more housing closer to places people need to go can help. But if zoning codes require developers to do things like build more parking than residents need, that can drive up the cost of rent to pay for the spots.
Then there's the dimension of whether our society can afford our transportation system. Policy and personal choices about transportation have costs for all of us. Take maintenance: As the whole region falls behind on repairing potholes and updating bridges, people experience direct damage to their vehicles but the costs to fix the problem also continue to grow – costing taxpayers more in the long run.
Society foots the bill for other impacts of our transportation system as well. There are health costs, whether because of a lack of physical activity or air pollution and injuries. Or the degree to which delays can hamper people getting to work or goods getting to export or people to work – wasting potential and profits. And of course there's the issue of global climate change, to which transportation is a major contributor.
What's making it harder to make transportation more affordable?
Partially it's understanding – since the cost of driving is spread out at the gas pump, on a car loan, to the insurance company, and to the repair shop, people are not good at estimating how much they spend on transportation, let alone the burdens others face.
There's a trust issue, too. Policymakers are trying to expand options and improve affordability for the region's most cost-burdened residents have to build trust to work collaboratively on solutions these residents want. Many communities have good reason to distrust the process, based on what past transportation projects have done directly or indirectly to their communities. Several of the people we talked with said they feel those barriers are coming down, but it takes time.
"The traditional position (for environmental justice) has been against stationary sources like coal refineries, industrial sites, waste dumps, and the like. But we know that a large proportion of air pollution and co-pollutants come from major transportation corridors. And we also see that communities of color are situated right along those corridors –disproportionately so. ... There’s a real need to look at local jurisdictional policies as well as statewide policies to ensure that there’s an equitable distribution of housing around the region, so we don’t have communities of color all living along these corridors.” – Maggie Tallmadge, environmental justice manager, Coalition of Communities of Color
"(We're) engaging communities differently and hearing their voices, changing how we build and fund and implement projects in their communities. … We are going to do more of that." – Leah Treat, Portland Bureau of Transportation
And calculating the overall costs and benefits of transportation on a societal level is a difficult task indeed (though economists try). Some things that seem affordable on a personal level – for example, free parking – can have more detrimental costs to society as a whole, but addressing those large-scale costs can be a heavy political and technical lift.
There is a funding problem again. Expanding transit or lowering fares is hard without adequate funding, and housing advocates see a huge shortfall in funds for building affordable housing near transit. Some hope the Oregon Legislature's recent removal of a ban on requiring developers to include affordable units in new projects could help – but many recognize the need for a broader housing approach that could help create more affordable places to live with many transportation choices.
What's Metro doing about affordable transportation?
First, Metro will continue pursuing the 2040 Growth Concept, a land use and development strategy that keeps a compact footprint for the region so that jobs and services are closer by than in many metro areas, even for new communities in areas added to the urban growth boundary.
What's happening inside the boundary? Metro is creating the Regional Transit Strategy as part of the 2018 update of the Regional Transportation Plan. The strategy will take a broad look at the region's transit service, including the marquee high capacity transit lines like the MAX and WES, buses operated by TriMet, SMART and C-TRAN, and local transit shuttles that operate around the region. The goal is to create a vision and investment strategy that will make transit a better option for more people in the future.
Metro is undertaking a transportation equity analysis, an assessment of how equitably the region's transportation system serves all its residents. It's another component of the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan, and in the future could help develop tools and best practices to make sure transportation investments make our system more affordable for people of color, people with low incomes or limited English proficiency, older adults and youth.
Since the mid-1990s, Metro's Transit-Oriented Development Program has applied federal transportation dollars to invest in housing near frequent transit, often with retail or offices mixed in. The program both buys land and makes relatively small grants to help push projects to add additional units or achieve other goals. Recently, the program modified its criteria to emphasize affordability.
Metro's Community Planning and Development Grant program, which wrapped up its fourth cycle of grantmaking last fall, helps communities plan for growth both inside and on the edge of the urban growth boundary. Last year, the Metro Council awarded more than $4 million in grants, including several seeking to create new housing along transit corridors and in neighborhoods struggling increasing housing costs and displacement.
Metro just announced a new Equitable Housing Grants program to help local communities reduce barriers to equitable housing development. With up to $500,000 available in the program's inaugural year, it's another tool in the mix to try to expand housing options and affordability for more people.
Want to help make transportation in the Portland region safer, more reliable and more affordable for everyone? Be a part of Metro's 2018 Regional Transportation Plan efforts.
Subscribe to updates from the Regional Transportation Plan and from Metro News to be notified about opportunities to share your thoughts with leaders.
Next up in the Regional Snapshot: lessons shared with Oregon by transportation leaders from New York and Los Angeles.
Justin Sherrill contributed reporting to this story.
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Oregon law has long held that all intersections are crosswalks. The story previously erroneously referred to this as a recent change in Oregon law; in fact, in 2011 the Oregon legislature changed the requirements for how a person walking must signal they intend to cross.