Traffic Congestion Should Drive Transportation Innovation

As traffic congestion worsens, frustrated motorists, planners and politicians are starting to demand new ideas, including giant buses that straddle roadways, using airspace not wider right of ways.

As traffic congestion worsens, frustrated motorists, planners and politicians are starting to demand new ideas, including giant buses that straddle roadways, using airspace not wider right of ways.

Mayor Charlie Hales says Portland should be viewed as a major American city, and the worsening level of congestion here proves his point. Portland ranks ninth among the most traffic-jammed cities in America, trailing Washington, D.C., but worse than Chicago.

The good news about growing congestion: the situation is getting bad enough that motorists, planners and politicians are demanding fresh ideas and better answers. 

First the bad news. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, North American traffic congestion has jumped 17 percent since 2008 compared to a 13 percent global increase. Congestion declines in Europe, especially in Italy and Spain, may be due to weaker economic performance.

A more recent survey by INRIX that was reported in the Portland Tribune pinpointed several Portland-area corridors as among the most congested in the country. No surprise to regular Portland-area commuters and truckers, they include potions of Highway 26, Highway 217, I-5, I-84 and I-205. 

The growing presence of light rail, buses, cars and pedestrians across Portland adds to the congestion on surface roads.

The growing presence of light rail, buses, cars and pedestrians across Portland adds to the congestion on surface roads.

“Urbanization continues to drive increased congestion in major cities worldwide,” the INRIX survey said. “Strong economies, population growth, higher employment rates and declining gas prices have resulted in more drivers on the road and more time wasted in traffic."

The Portland Tribune cited a report by the Value of Jobs Coalition that projects worsening congestion could cost the Oregon economy $1 billion by 2040, with most of that price tag in the Portland area.

At a personal level, slower commutes can eat up between 50 and 60 hours per driver a year. Slow-motion traffic often becomes an invitation to check out phone messages or engage in other distracted driving activities, which can lead to accidents that slow down traffic even more. Or as one cynical Portland driver put it, “A fender bender can bring Portland traffic to a crashing halt.”

Now some good news. Los Angeles, which remains the most congested city in America, is attempting to diversify its transportation network with an expanded light rail network to take pressure off its overloaded freeways. Some of Portland’s highly congested corridors already have parallel light rail routes. Planners are now exploring a new light rail line extending from downtown Portland south to Tigard and Tualatin.

The challenge of light rail, street cars and buses is they are ensnared in congestion on surface roads the same as cars, trucks and bicycles. Fixed guideway transportation sometimes shrinks road space for cars.

This map traces the route of a tunnel that will replace Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. The expensive project has been fraught with drilling complications.

This map traces the route of a tunnel that will replace Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. The expensive project has been fraught with drilling complications.

Many urban areas don’t have a lot of room – or political appetite – to expand roadways. That has caused some cities to consider other options. Seattle is replacing the aging, unsightly Alaskan Way Viaduct with a massive and expensive underground tunnel. If not for the expense – and complications of drilling long tunnels, Portland might consider ditching the Marquam Bridge and putting I-5 underground as it goes through downtown Portland.

Another line of thinking is to use the airspace above roadways. Chinese engineers have developed a modern-looking straddle bus that can roll down a roadway overtop cars without adding to congestion or taking up a lane of traffic. The bus, which resembles a moving bridge, runs on rails built flush with the road, not requiring sequestered road space. Unlike subways that require a lot of digging, the only infrastructure needed for the straddle bus are elevated stations.

A prototype of the Chinese straddle bus, which is electric powered, reaches speeds up to 40 mph and carries as many as 1,400 passengers, will be tested this summer after the idea has languished since it was first conceived as far back as 1969. 

With tempers flaring and commute times expanding, there has never been a better time to think differently about how we get around.

Polling Misses Mark in Oregon Presidential Primary

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A major public opinion poll conducted before the Oregon primary showed Hillary Clinton outpacing Bernie Sanders by double digits. Actual election results were almost the exact opposite.

A well publicized public opinion poll conducted between May 6 and 9 showed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton leading challenger Bernie Sanders in the Oregon primary by a 48 to 33 percent margin. Actual election results were almost the opposite, with Sanders carving out a double-digit victory.

How could a poll be so out of whack? One frequent reason is failure to account for voter turnout. However, the Clinton-Sanders poll took higher-than-average turnout into account, which showed Clinton’s lead narrowing to 45 to 38 percent. Still wrong, by a wide margin.

The same poll, which interviewed 901 likely Oregon voters, under-predicted Donald Trump’s vote count. He received 45 percent of the GOP presidential vote in the poll, but almost 65 percent of the actual vote. Another big miss.

Telephone surveys have become somewhat less reliable if they don’t include a percentage of cell phone users, which ensures that younger and minority voices are heard. While that sampling flaw might understate the vote in Portland or college towns like Eugene, it doesn’t explain Sanders’ strong showing in rural Wallowa and Lake counties or his dominance in all but one of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Candidates usually do better in states where they campaign in person. Sanders appeared in Oregon four times before the primary. Clinton made no appearances, but did send Bill Clinton to campaign. That’s a hard factor to capture in a public opinion poll, but it is a question worth asking to see if being here breaks someone’s vote one way or another. 

The Los Angeles Times carried a story over the weekend about the intense Democratic push in Oregon to register new voters as Democrats before the April 26 deadline. Many of the new voters were automatically registered as a result of Oregon’s Motor Voter law, but not affiliated with any political party. Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins reported a larger than normal registration switch, which favored Democrats. These factors would have been hard to track in a poll, but they may have been worth asking about to gauge the velocity of a late shift toward Sanders, who predicted he would win if the turnout was large. He obviously knew what he was talking about. 

Polling is a tough business, and it is getting tougher. Fewer people are willing to be interviewed by phone, which means pollsters need to make more calls to achieve a representative sample, which is more costly. Respondent reticence means polls have to take less time and include fewer questions, sometimes the questions that would be useful in improving confidence in poll findings.

While Sanders’ success in Oregon is not a huge surprise, it may be more telling than at first glance. His victory points out the foibles of one-off polls and the political benefits of an intensive ground game. 

More significantly, the results in Oregon show Sanders’ message packs some punch, and not just where you would expect.

The Library App for the Digital Age

Think libraries are for a bygone era? Think again. Libraries remain viable as brick-and-click resource centers, especially for lifelong learners and people eager to add skills, earn credentials and find job opportunities.

Think libraries are for a bygone era? Think again. Libraries remain viable as brick-and-click resource centers, especially for lifelong learners and people eager to add skills, earn credentials and find job opportunities.

Libraries are often lumped together with horse-and-buggy carriages. But just as horse-drawn carriages gave way to motorized vehicles, libraries have become electronic hubs.

According to the Pew Research Center, many of the e-services libraries offer – which include job search and training resources – often go unrecognized by library patrons, especially those who actually go to a library instead of its website.

In a report last month, Pew Research noted library visits have continued to decline and library website use has leveled off. Of the people who go to a library, bookmobile or library website, nearly 100 percent view themselves as “lifelong learners.” Almost three-quarters of adults taking advantage of library resources say they read how-to materials or participate in other learning activities.

Women are more frequent library users than men. College grads use physical library resources at two times more often than high school dropouts, and they employ library websites three times as much. Urban and suburban residents tap their libraries at slightly higher rates than rural residents. Racial differences in library use aren’t particularly different, though Hispanics seem less prone to use online library services.

An unavoidable conclusion from Pew’s assessment is that the people who might benefit most from under-utilized library professional and job training and credentialing services are least likely to access them in person or online. They may not use these services because they aren’t aware of them, which may reflect that libraries and their government sponsors haven’t done as good a job as possible in making people aware of new-generation library resources.

Pew’s findings suggest an avenue of appeal to library non-users – self-identification as a “personal learner.” It seems people take pride in going to the library and using library services. It also may pay off in terms of improved skills, a professional credential or job leads.

For some, libraries may seem like yesterday’s news. They have been replaced by the Internet. What is missing in that assessment is the knowledge librarians have in organizing and harnessing useful information on shelves and online. Libraries even have an app for that.

Design Websites From Your Viewers’ Eyes

If you want to drive more eyeballs to your website, talk to the people who view it to find out what attracts them, what they look for and how they look for it.

If you want to drive more eyeballs to your website, talk to the people who view it to find out what attracts them, what they look for and how they look for it.

The role of websites continues to evolve, but what hasn’t changed is the need to design websites for the viewers that click on them. Research plays a pivotal role in learning what attracts viewers to a website, the content they want when they arrive and they like to access it. 

Analytics tell part of the story, especially what pages gain the most views and sustain interest. While that gives you a clue about website content and design, it doesn’t flesh out the viewer persona. The best way to discover the needs and preferences of individual viewers is to interview them.

This kind of qualitative research doesn’t require a formal survey. You need a few basic questions to explore what a target viewer looks for on your website, how it could be packaged for ease of access and suggestions for content. You also want to find out what drives them to go to your website, so you make that access as seamless as possible.

Because websites have become engagement hubs for organizations, there are often more than one type of viewer persona for you to interview. How young eyes view your website versus older eyes can make a huge difference in what you place on a page. Make sure to chat with a reasonable sample of each viewer persona group to obtain a well rounded perspective and tailor your questions to each viewer person group.

The insight you glean from interviewing viewers is invaluable to determine the most effective architecture, navigation, content and look and feel of your website. This is a very different approach than laying out a website map and looking for great images.

Finding the desired functionality of a website from the perspective of viewers and designing to that functionality is the most reliable way to ensure the website does its job, whether it’s marketing products or services, sharing resources or providing useful information.

Contemporary websites tend to be more visual with less text. Information is packaged rather than forcing viewers to search for it via drop-down menus. Viewers appear comfortable with scrolling down a home page to find what they are looking for, but they want a one-click journey to that information. Websites, even ones with video content, need to load quickly and be optimized for mobile devices. Those broad guidelines provide the frame for the website you create. Viewer insights inform the choices you make in terms of visual assets, navigation tools and content packaging and placement.

For organizations with multiple viewer personas, the design challenge is more complex. However, that complexity is easier to address if you are following the advice of people who view, use and rely on the website.

Website redesigns offer a great moment to rethink – or think about for the first time – how to inform your internal audiences. Employees are a critical website viewer persona, which also may have varied interests and content needs. Content creation for a website should take into account how it can repurposed or promoted in internal communications vehicles that can range from an enterprise system such as Yammer or Slack or an intranet.

Refreshing your website is never ending, not a one-and-done exercise. While that may seem like a pain, talking regularly with your website audience should be viewed as a pleasure. If you tie a website refresher to viewer contacts, you will keep your website on point – and your business on track.

Examples of Viewer-Centric Website Design

Here are three examples of websites that reflect a viewer-centric design and navigation strategy. These examples, plus 12 more, were singled out by HubSpot. Click each image below to see full-size views of the websites. 

The Dropbox website makes a difficult task seem simple through the simplicity of its design. It answers the viewer questions of “How does it work” and “How hard is it to use.

The Dropbox website makes a difficult task seem simple through the simplicity of its design. It answers the viewer questions of “How does it work” and “How hard is it to use.

The White House website looks like a news site, which is its purpose. The site is constantly being upgraded with fresh content.

The White House website looks like a news site, which is its purpose. The site is constantly being upgraded with fresh content.

The Basecamp website uses colorful, friendly looking illustrations to explain what it is and why it is useful to businesses as a project management tool. Notice the website’s scrolling design, with several places to respond to the website’s call to action – using the product for 60 days for free.

The Basecamp website uses colorful, friendly looking illustrations to explain what it is and why it is useful to businesses as a project management tool. Notice the website’s scrolling design, with several places to respond to the website’s call to action – using the product for 60 days for free.

Why Representative Samples Really Matter

If you want market research that matters, make sure the sample of people in your survey matches the audience you want to reach with your product or message.

If you want market research that matters, make sure the sample of people in your survey matches the audience you want to reach with your product or message.

A favorite story involves meeting with a client interested in promoting first-time homeownership. I mentioned the need for market research. No problem, the client said, we have that covered. I was handed the research summary and, as a matter of habit, jumped to the page about the telephone survey sample. It was very revealing. 

More than 50 percent of the respondents were 65 years or older. They were the majority of people who answered the phone and were willing to spend 15 or 20 minutes talking to a stranger about owning a home. Unfortunately, they weren’t the people the client had in mind as first-time homebuyers. 

Survey data is worthless unless the sample of who you interview reflects the audience you seek to reach. The sample in my client’s survey would have been terrific if the subject was reverse mortgages. It stunk as a reflection of who to address potential first-time homebuyers. 

Conversations between clients and research professionals must start with who to interview. If you have the wrong sample, the answers you get from the questions you pore over won’t matter a lick. 

Too often, the question of who to interview is glossed over. Sometimes the most obvious sample goes overlooked. When I was a lobbyist, a client hired me to “fix” his message that wasn’t gaining any traction with legislators. I started by interviewing about a third of the legislature, including virtually all of the lawmakers on the committees that were most engaged on my client’s issue. 

The interviews produced a wealth of insight. My client’s issue had latent support, but needed to be explained and demonstrated in a far different way. Lawmakers basically wrote the script my client and I used to lobby them. And it worked. 

Representative samples are harder to achieve for a mix of reasons. For example, increasing numbers of people don’t have landline phones and, if they do, they shield themselves from unsolicited calls with Caller ID. It takes a lot more calls, at greater expense, to collect a representative sample. Market research must cope with growing segmentation, which adds extra layers of complexity in selecting the right group of people to survey. 

The value of representative samples goes beyond quantitative research. Focus groups must be representative, too. And why would you do a customer satisfaction intercept survey for Nordstrom by interviewing people coming out of a rival department store? Representative samples matter in public opinion polling. A poll of New York voters wouldn’t be all that useful in projecting election results in Indiana. 

Despite the difficulty, solid research is grounded on good samples. Who you talk to matters if you want findings that mean something for your marketing.  

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Housing Supply Key to Price Inflation

Making room for more housing, whether by physical expansion or zoning changes that allow upward growth, is a key to modulating housing prices – and possibly to bolstering family incomes.

Making room for more housing, whether by physical expansion or zoning changes that allow upward growth, is a key to modulating housing prices – and possibly to bolstering family incomes.

Cities that make room for more housing have faced less housing-price inflation, according to an analysis by BuildZoom which drew the eye of the Wall Street Journal.

Issi Romem, an economist for BuildZoom, divides the urban landscape into “expansive cities” versus “expensive cities." 

He cited as an example the San-Francisco-San Jose area, which experienced a sharp population increase, but added only 30 percent more land for residential development between 1980 and 2010. Housing prices during that time period, he said, rose 188 percent. Romem contrasted that to Atlanta, which in the same time period expanded by 208 percent with housing prices increasing by only 14 percent.

The BuildZoom report shows Seattle expanding its residential footprint by 69 percent as housing prices rose by 119 percent. Portland was among the cities analyzed with the least physical expansion and rising housing prices nearing 80 percent.

WSJ reporter Laura Kusisto wrote, “Mr. Romem’s research reads on its face like an argument for suburban sprawl, which has come under fire both for its environmental consequences and tendency to lead to oversupply that can lead home prices to crash.”

Romem says the issue is less about sprawl than supply and demand. Ideally, he explains, cities would relax regulations to allow building up. However, adding density to existing neighborhoods can be unpopular, regardless of whether it involves the addition of tiny houses, building on open space or replacing single-family homes with multifamily apartments.

“If you don’t let the city grow,” Romem said, “you’re going to get prices going upward and see the middle class being pushed out.”

The Portland City Club’s recently released housing affordability study echoed many of Romem’s points as it recommended removing barriers to a wider array of housing types and a housing land bank to convert underutilized or foreclosed properties to housing.

While the BuildZoom research centers on major urban areas, the supply-and-demand problem also vexes suburban areas. Portland suburbs have seen price escalation in part because of voter rejection of annexations that would add more housing. Opponents have claimed sizable housing developments would overtax already congested roads and crowded schools.

The Portland metropolitan area’s land-use is constrained by an urban growth boundary, which is intended to restrict urban development and protect farmland from urban sprawl. The strategy has resulted in relatively small urbanized land expansion, forcing higher-density uses on and within the urban growth boundary. It also has led to sometimes awkward infill development and the exodus of families to what have become commuter communities outside the UGB such as Newberg, North Plains and even Keizer.

Housing patterns are being heavily influenced by different demographic preferences and economic realities. Baby Boomers are retiring and moving to smaller housing units nearer central cities. Young professionals, often burdened by high college student debt, are looking to rent, not buy. Some younger people are forsaking the whole “home is my castle” idea and settling for smaller, simpler housing that applies less pressure on their pocketbook and lifestyle choices.

Romem suggests businesses will be attracted to cities with available affordable housing and perhaps be turned off by cities without a supply of affordable housing. The economic consequences of inadequate housing supply are not just a concern for homebuilders and local boosters. President Obama’s White House advisers have pointed to a lagging housing supply as a major barrier to full economic recovery and higher incomes.

Artificial constraints on housing supply hinders mobility and increasing mobility is going to be an important part of the solution of increasing incomes and increasing incomes across generations,” says Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.