Portland-Vancouver commuter traffic in need of clear solutions

As a Vancouverite living in Vancouver, Wash., the commute in and out of downtown Portland has always been daunting. It used to be common knowledge to avoid driving around Portland near the end of the work day, especially around 5 p.m. because everyone knew you would undoubtedly get stuck in traffic.

Now I find myself trying to avoid the drive whenever I can, because there doesn’t seem to be any time when the commute between Portland and Vancouver isn’t terrible. However, as a student at Portland State, I (like many people) haven’t found a way to avoid it altogether.

As I sit in traffic day after day, creeping along at 10–15 mph down the freeway, I can’t help but wonder how the traffic in the Portland metro area got so bad. I remember rush hour traffic being bad since I was young, especially on Friday nights. However, I don’t remember not being able to drive on the freeway at all during the day without hitting traffic. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I leave school at 2 p.m. or 6 p.m., I still have to sit in traffic. What happened?

While the population boom in the last decade might have something to do with the freeways always being so busy, I believe there are other factors at play as well. Traffic seems to experience an accordion effect right along the Washington-Oregon border, which in turn affects traffic all along the I-5 stretch. Traffic gets backed up in a few other areas as well, especially when one freeway merges into another, but I credit that mostly to people driving badly.

But the traffic that so many of us are forced to suffer through is not just because a few people are making stupid decisions behind the steering wheels of their cars. When it constantly takes an hour to drive a stretch that should only take about 20 minutes, there has to be something else wrong. I shouldn’t need to convince anyone that the traffic sucks, but if we all know that it’s a problem, why isn’t anyone trying to fix it?

There have been several proposals in the last few years that would help alleviate some of the traffic. One would be to fix the I-5 bridge (which will need to be done sooner or later), and to extend the yellow line MAX into downtown Vancouver. Yet despite the existence of these policies and the push to get them running, nothing seems to be getting done.

People from both Portland and Vancouver are forced to sit in annoying and stressful traffic. And for what? Whether it’s because Washington state representatives don’t want to make the effort, or there’s just a general lack of funding for these policies, what can we, the drivers constantly getting stuck in traffic, do?

It’s not as if we can just stop driving in and out of Vancouver and Portland. For one, many people hold jobs or go to school downtown. We could try to lessen the amount of unnecessary trips that we make in our cars, but that won’t solve everything—especially not the evening commute home. Portland is a big city, and people in the surrounding metro areas thrive on it being there.

We could also rely more on public transportation like the bus, MAX or streetcar to get to the places that we need to go. It’s a start, but public transportation doesn’t work for everything or everyone, especially if you live in Vancouver.

Rather than coming up with small alternatives or waiting for someone else to make the alternative for you, we need to focus on what each of us can do to alleviate traffic. We all need to realize that we aren’t the only people stuck in traffic everyday on the commute home. We are the main cause of traffic.

The fact that we exist in our cars on the freeway means that someone else in their car is stuck behind us. Each of us is just as much a part of the solution as we are of the problem. I think that if everyone were more aware of the impact they make driving on the road—even if they’re driving well—that is the biggest start we can make toward getting rid of the traffic we all hate so much.

While fixing the traffic issue between Vancouver and Portland, as well as anywhere in the metro area, is contingent on lots of people making an effort, it starts with each of us.

It starts with realizing that each of us is contributing to the amount of cars on the road, as well as feeling the impact of that fact. Maybe then we can start to make real meaningful efforts toward eliminating the majority of the traffic.

Maybe then we can start to take public transportation not just for ourselves and for convenience, but for all the other poor people who are stuck in traffic every day.

Maybe the traffic that plagues the stretch of highways going in and out of Portland will get fixed, or we can at least start voting and acting in ways that help to fix it.

But I think it all starts with each of us admitting that there is more that we can do to fix the problem. Because in the end, if we won’t do anything to help fix the problem, who will? Traffic isn’t something that we are all forced to be stuck in; rather, it is something that we are a part of and that we can do something to help, if even just a little bit.