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Quarterly check-ins on things that matter to everyone in the Portland region. Housing. Jobs. Transportation.
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Every day, the Portland metropolitan region's 2.4 million people have places to go – to work or school, to doctors and grocery stores and parks and back home again. All these trips knit the region together – from Forest Grove to Troutdale, Vancouver and Portland to Wilsonville and every community in between.
As with so many things, the journeys are as important a part of our experience as the destinations. Access to transportation options that are safe, reliable and affordable is essential to the region’s economic prosperity and quality of life.
Here are seven takeaways about how we are doing, along with short video profiles of five people who share the system every day.
1. We’re a region on the move.
As the region’s population grows and the economy recovers, more people have more places to go. According to the 2011 Oregon Household Activity Survey, the average household in the Portland region makes 9.2 trips per day with an average trip length of 4.4 miles for trips taken by car.
But there are differences in where each of us go every day, providing insight into the region's distribution of housing and jobs.
Take the flow of the daily commute, for example. Multnomah County has the most working residents and the most jobs. According to data from the Census Bureau, two-thirds of working residents in Multnomah County stay in their home county for work. Of those who leave, most head into Washington County, the region's second-biggest job center.
For working residents of Clark and Washington counties, it's roughly an even split between working in the county and leaving, with most workers who leave commuting into Multnomah County. Clackamas County sees two-thirds of its working residents commute elsewhere, also mostly to Multnomah County. Washington and Clackamas counties also swap thousands of working residents each day – though not nearly as many commuters as each county sends into Multnomah County.
2. More people are getting around the region, but they’re driving less.
On a per-person basis, the Portland region has been driving less since 1996, even as people take about the same number of trips each day. According to Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report, the region's residents drove just 5,000 miles per person in 2014 – that’s nearly 25 percent less than other US metro regions of similar size.
Why are people driving less here? Part of the reason is that people in the Portland region are making different choices about getting around – a reflection of the options available. US Census estimates from 2014 show that while the national average for drive-alone commuting is 76.4 percent, the Portland metro area's average was just 70.7 percent.
And here's good news – though a growing population invariably means more commuters, just under half of the workers added since 2000 drive to work alone. The majority are choosing other modes, or working from home.
While trips from home to work and school are often at the forefront of transportation discussions, they make up a relatively small portion of all the trips taken throughout the region. In fact, more than 70 percent of the trips taken in the Portland region are for reasons other than school and work. When we look at how people get around for all trips, we see that people walk, bike and carpool much more often.
Transit ridership is climbing, too. In 2014, people in the Portland region took more than 103 million rides on transit. Although ridership has fluctuated over the last 10 years, weekday transit ridership among the region's major transit services – TriMet, SMART, C-TRAN and Portland Streetcar – has grown while the average miles each person drives daily has declined.
Rail transit like MAX light rail, WES commuter rail and Portland Streetcar carry a big share of the region's transit passengers. For example, although the MAX network only has 88 total track miles compared to the bus network’s 822 miles, MAX lines carry almost two-fifths of all transit trips. The Blue MAX line alone carries nearly 60,000 people per day – more than enough to fill the Moda Center three times.
There are numerous ways to measure the busiest transit lines in the region, but here's two: the total number of passengers boarding and the productivity of the line – that is, the number of people boarding for every hour it operates. Here's what those lists look like:
The transit system is especially important in ensuring mobility for people with low-income and people of color, who are twice as likely to be frequent transit riders as higher-income persons or white people. It is also critical to ensuring mobility for people who can’t drive due to age or disability, or who simply choose not to own a personal vehicle.
3. The Portland region is the state's gateway to international markets.
With its location on Interstate 5, the West Coast artery of the Interstate Highway System, the Portland region is ideally situated to move freight by truck. But with Portland International Airport, two Class 1 railroads, the southern terminus of the 400-mile Olympic Pipeline, and a location at the confluence of two major rivers with ocean access, the region’s freight transportation system is a multimodal network.
The majority of the region's freight is still moved by truck. However, as Oregon’s economy has shifted from bulk products like farm exports and timber to lighter products like semiconductors, electronics and specialized machinery, the the region is moving fewer tons of goods around. But these lightweight products are higher-valued – as a result, the overall value of freight exports increased by 55 percent between 2007 and 2012.
Data from the Oregon Department of Transportation shows that truck activity (in terms of truck weight per mile traveled) was still below year 2000 levels in 2013. Meanwhile, truck crossings over the Columbia River in 2014 were down 15 percent from pre-recession levels recorded in 2005.
4. Traffic congestion is growing, but relative to other regions we’re still doing well.
We’ve all been there – cruising along smoothly only to see a sea of brake lights up ahead in the distance.
Historically low gas prices and economic and population growth have led to more cars on the road in the Portland region, and that means slower travel times for buses, truck freight and individual drivers.
But what causes traffic? The Federal Highway Administration reports that roughly two-fifths of congestion is due to bottlenecks and traffic volumes. The rest is caused by less predictable factors such as crashes, weather conditions and construction. These unpredictable factors impact the reliability of the transportation network, meaning that people may have little way of knowing whether a trip will take 10 minutes or 20.
See a map of the corridors where we’re seeing the most traffic congestion, according to rankings released in March by INRIX, a transportation tracking company.
So how bad is it here compared to other regions?
In 2014, Texas A&M’s annual Urban Mobility Scorecard showed the Portland area tied with Austin, Miami, Detroit and Atlanta for 12th place out of 101 regions in yearly delay per auto commuter. The delay per auto commuter is reported as 52 hours per year – exactly the average amount of delay for all 101 cities in the study. The cost of our region’s congestion to truck freight was ranked at 16th out of 101 regions, with an estimated annual cost of $375 million.
Despite such delays, we spend less time commuting to work than people in most other regions. In 2014 the average commute was 26 minutes – about a minute longer than in 2010. The Portland region is tied for fifth-best metro area in the nation for the share of people with a 30-minute commute or better – nearly two-thirds of commuters in the region have a commute under a half-hour. In part that’s because people here don’t have to travel as far to get to work. The average commute distance in the region is just 7.1 miles.
5. How much does it cost to get around? It depends where you live.
On average, households in the Portland region spend $11,683 on transportation costs per year, or about 20 percent of the median income, according to The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H&T Index.
But on an individual level, transportation costs depend on where you start, where you’re going and how you can get there.
If a person lives close to where they work, shop and play, they can travel fewer miles to meet their needs and save money on direct transportation costs like gas, vehicle maintenance or transit fare. Over time those daily costs add up. The Federal Highway Administration reported in 2015 that households living in compact neighborhoods close to jobs and amenities can spend as little as 9 percent of their income on transportation, while those living in more disconnected areas with further distances to travel spend closer to 25 percent.
Location influences transportation costs in less direct ways, too. While the auto network is well-developed in most parts of the region, networks for bicycling, walking and transit are less complete and even car-sharing services like Car2Go are limited by geography.
Depending on where a person lives in the region, they might have access to many transportation options – or not. Location can dictate what is available, as the maps below show.
Having options is important because different ways of getting around have very different costs.
Thus while housing is sometimes cheaper on the periphery of the region, transportation costs can be much higher there because inexpensive options like walking, bicycling and transit are less available.
6. People that most need inexpensive transportation options often have the least access to them.
People with low incomes and people of color depend more on means other than driving alone. Transit is especially important to ensure mobility for these communities, who are twice as likely to be frequent transit riders as higher-income persons or white people.
That connects to another challenge – displacement. Since the early 2000s, many people of color and people with low incomes in the Portland region have shifted from close-in urban neighborhoods to neighborhoods further from jobs and services. As noted above, housing is sometimes more affordable here but these areas generally have less access to frequent transit service or safe, connected biking and walking routes. As a result, people here are more likely to need to take on the expense of car ownership to meet their needs.
People with limited transportation options may also have further to travel. A 2015 report from the Brookings Institution noted declining numbers of jobs within a typical commute distance for US metro area residents between 2000 and 2012. The problem was much worse for high-poverty neighborhoods and neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color – these neighborhoods saw the average number of jobs nearby plummet at least 10 percent, and as much as 17 percent for high-poverty suburban neighborhoods.
By having to travel further to reach their jobs, these communities experience additional transportation costs in the form of more gas, maintenance and transit expenses as well as increased commute times.
7. Our roads are safer for people driving than they used to be – but people walking and biking are most at risk.
Making roads safer to protect lives remains a key transportation priority.
In 2014, the Portland region had 23,300 traffic crashes resulting in fatalities, major injuries, minor injuries or property damage – one every 23 minutes. Fortunately, 98 percent of those crashes resulted in only minor injuries or property damage.
However, dozens of lives are lost every year on the region’s highways, arterials and local streets. Several hundred other people suffer a serious, life-changing injury.
Improved vehicle designs and safety technology have reduced fatalities for people in motor vehicles. But outside the armor of a car, people walking or bicycling are still disproportionately killed and injured when they are involved in crashes. While just 6 percent of crashes involve a person walking or bicycling, 48 percent of fatal crashes do.
Several factors influence the number and severity of injuries from crashes, but some factors stand out from the rest. A disproportionate amount of serious crashes occur on arterial streets – high-speed, high-volume streets such as Powell Boulevard or Tualatin Valley Highway that have four or more lanes.
Only 6 percent of the region’s roads are arterials. But 67 percent of serious and fatal crashes occur on them.
Although these arterials make up only 6 percent of the region’s roads, 67 percent of serious and fatal crashes occur on them. Many of these dangerous streets extend through neighborhoods with high concentrations of communities of color and people with low incomes, where people are more likely to be walking, biking or using transit. As a result, these communities also bear a disproportionate amount of the region’s serious crashes.
The maps below show where crashes involving people bicycling and walking occur in the region, compared to areas with higher concentrations of people of color and people with low incomes live.
Crashes involving alcohol and drugs are also much more likely to be fatal. And even as technology has made driving much safer in many respects, it has introduced new challenges. Distracted driving has increased in step with the proliferation of cell phones in society, introducing a relatively new hazard onto the roadways. A recent study by the Oregon Department of Transportation shows that between 2000 and 2014, distracted driving contributed to a crash every 2.5 hours and a traffic-related injury every three hours.
Improving safety on the region’s roads will therefore require not only engineering changes but also fundamental changes to cultural norms and behavior.
So what's making it challenging to resolve some of the issues highlighted here? Find out on the next part of this Regional Snapshot.
This page has been updated as of May 5, 2016, to replace a transit ridership chart based on modeled data with one based on ridership counts from major transit agencies in the Portland region. See the modeled-data chart here.