Getting on Track

Talking Traffic in Portland and Seattle

Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon are very similar in size and scope, but the decisions they made years ago help explain why one city is still stuck in traffic and the other has found better things to do with its time. While the average Seattle commuter is caught in gridlock—alone in his or her car—an increasing number of Portlanders are walking home from work or reading a book while using public transportation.

Portland"s Tri-Met light rail system offers "intermodal" connections with its state-of-the-art trolley system and bus line. Seattle"s working on light rail.© Steven K. Beals / Caelestia Productions

While both cities are still experiencing high levels of traffic congestion, Portland is moving more people, on a more-frequent basis. Portland’s transportation infrastructure has transformed many of the once-lingering districts to densely populated urban cores. With light rail transit as the key, Seattle is moving in the same direction, but internal division is hampering progress.

Portland signaled its change in direction when it canceled planned construction of the Mt. Hood Freeway in the 1970s, deciding instead to improve transit options. Since then, Portland has built up a $5.4 billion transportation infrastructure, including North America’s first modern streetcar system, the Max light rail and the TriMet bus system. The systems are fully intermodal, meaning that passengers can easily switch from one to the other. In the 10-block radius of downtown "Payless Square," travel is free.

Portland has become a transit-friendly city, providing frequent service and more than 91 million transit rides a year. "Transit works outside the work day," TriMet transportation planning director Ken Zatarain says. "In Portland, we try to make transit a livability choice. You can make public transportation a part of your lifestyle."

But for Seattle, public transportation is largely confined to the workday. While buses are available at many stops every few minutes in the morning and evening rush hours, they’re scarce in the afternoon. Seattle is doing a better job than Portland of capturing the work-related commuting traffic, however. The 2000 Census reveals that more than 17 percent of Seattle commuters travel to work using public transportation. Portland has less than 12.5 percent.

Seattle has a built-in advantage because its Metro bus system is complemented by ferry service that runs from the nearby islands to the city. Thanks to recent initiatives, Seattle is planning both a monorail and light rail system, each running 14 miles. But actual construction has moved very slowly. One of Seattle’s handicaps, says Mary Jo Porter, a transportation consultant, is its political hang-ups. "Portland has its political ducks in a row and that has helped the city move forward," she says.

In 1978, Portland voters approved an elected regional government, called Metro, which is still the only one in the country. "It has proven very effective in overseeing growth management policies," reports the Michigan Land Use Institute. "Efforts to limit sprawl in other regions have been hampered by the clashing self-interest of various municipal, county and state authorities. Portland has not eliminated sprawl
but it has contained it. Suburbia stops on all sides of the city between 3 to 18 miles from downtown, giving way to green expanses of fields and forests." Seattle’s transportation decisions, however, are made by many independent parties in three different counties, all with different allegiances.

Much of Seattle’s problems stem from urban sprawl, including the massive Microsoft campus in nearby Redmond (which compounds the problem by being notably unfriendly to telecommuting). Seattle’s isolated neighborhoods with low densities make transit options difficult for commuters, but even more so for the transportation planners who try to accommodate those commuters.

Seattle is beginning to explore what has become a major force in Portland: transit-oriented development. Jeff Bender, senior transportation director for the Seattle department of transportation, points to the Sodo district development, which started to grow after a mile-long bus tunnel was placed under the city. The tunnel created a hub for downtown buses.

Zatarain says Portland has seen many areas develop after transit passed through. He uses the example of the Lloyd district. After light rail began running in the area, housing, office towers and businesses sprouted up. He calls the district a complete community, meaning that the area is balanced with jobs and housing, and people can walk or bike. Zatarain says 20 to 30 percent of basketball fans take transit to the game.

Portland, which now offers a rail link to the airport and other amenities, such as bike-friendly buses, remains out front. "I think Seattle is envious of Portland," says Eric de Place, research associate at Northwest Environment Watch (NEW). "While both Seattle and Portland are getting denser in downtown areas, Portland is getting much denser." The greater Seattle area is now the most sprawling metropolis in the Pacific Northwest, according to NEW, which also found that the Seattle metropolitan area uses 25 percent more land per resident than Portland. De Place says he believes that Seattle’s light rail and monorail projects will increase residential density along their corridors, but the unserved suburbs will remain a problem.

Bender agrees, and sees urban center living as key to developing an effective transportation infrastructure. He says the light rail will connect four of Seattle’s major urban centers, and the monorail will connect the fifth. But Seattle will still be disconnected from the destination-rich eastern side of the county, which includes Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond and Issaquah. High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes have been used to reduce peak traffic to the east, but Bender says that traffic is now heavy in both directions, and a two-way HOV system is needed.

Seattle is slowly waking up to the possibilities of public transit, and there’s a growing consensus that when it grows up it should be just like its sister to the south, Portland.