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.