Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Transit Works

Transit Works

Traffic levels in Portland and Seattle tell tale

March 24, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Patty Cantrell

Morning and evening commuters depend heavily on Seattle’s bus system, but it must expand service and add rail lines if it is to ease the metropolis’ severe traffic problems.

Years of building roads and highways have only proved one point: America can’t build its way out of congestion.  New evidence that compares transportation in Seattle and Portland, though, shows just how important sane investments in public transit are to a city’s well being.

Seattle and Portland are very similar in size and scope. But decisions city leaders made years ago help explain why the average Seattle commuter is caught in gridlock — alone in his or her car — while an increasing number of Portlanders are getting out of their cars to use public transportation.

In the 1970s, when many cities across the country were expanding their highway systems, Portland declined, choosing instead to improve public transit and establish an urban growth boundary to rein in sprawl. Since those decisions, Portland built a $5.4 billion transportation infrastructure, including North America’s first modern streetcar system, the Max light rail, and the Trimet bus system. Portland’s vision was to be become a transit-friendly city that provides convenient, safe, inexpensive service to its residents.

Portland Prospers, Seattle Sprawls
Reaching that goal has turned Portland into a singular American urban success story. The city’s system provides 91 million transit rides a year and has helped to build Portland’s business core and neighborhoods into some of the most vibrant urban landscapes on the continent. Because public transit is available all day and night, and it’s safe and fast, private vehicles in Portland are actually a luxury, not a necessity. Residents can walk rather than take a car to do errands. Businesses have followed the new pedestrian culture. In sharp contrast to central cities all over the country that are losing neighborhood grocery stores, for instance, in Portland the nearest grocery store is often just a short, five-minute walk from home.

In Seattle, though, public transportation is largely confined to the workday hours. Seattle’s transit system is based on buses that are available at many stops every few minutes in the morning and evening rush hours. But they are scarcer in the afternoon. Almost one in five commuters use Seattle’s buses to get to work, which is better than most cities, including Portland, where a lot of people walk. But aside from work, Seattle citizens don’t much care about transit.

And that is a big problem. Years of avoiding big investments in public transit have caught up with the greater Seattle area, which is now the most sprawling major metropolis in the Pacific Northwest, according to Northwest Environment Watch, a research and communication center. The Seattle metropolitan area also uses 25 percent more land per resident than greater Portland. If greater Seattle increased the average density of its developed areas to that of Portland, suburban development would cover only a fifth as much land, which would save 135,000 acres.

Seattle has roused itself a bit because of these numbers. The city plans a monorail and light rail system, each running 14 miles. But actual construction has proceeded at the pace of drive-time congestion, in part because there are so many people making decisions.

Obstacles and Opportunities
Seattle’s transportation policy is decided by local governments and boards in three different counties, all with different allegiances. This is a far cry from Metro, Portland’s elected regional government, the only one like it in the country. Metro makes focused decisions that have helped to limit sprawl and improve public transit by encouraging development that is not so spread out. Portland’s Lloyd District, for instance, really began to hum after light rail started to serve the area in 1986, attracting new housing, office towers, and businesses. The district is now a complete urban community, meaning there are jobs, housing, entertainment, and recreation resources and people can walk and bike.

That lesson is starting to take root in Seattle, though the problem is harder to solve there. Seattle has isolated neighborhoods thrown across the landscape, each so distant from the next that it is difficult for commuters to easily get to bus stops without driving. And once they’re behind the wheel — well, that tune is familiar.

Portland, bless its Smart Growth soul, is teaching Seattle that putting homes, schools, shopping, and offices closer together is essential for a successful public transportation system. Seattle’s International District also makes the point. The city built a mile-long bus tunnel just blocks from the district and established a transit hub that loads and unloads thousands of passengers. The hub succeeded in turning the surface streets and shops into an active center of entertainment and commerce.

Enlightened leaders understand that more lanes, more concrete, and more highways won’t solve congestion. They look to Portland, which is proving to the West Coast and the nation that wise transit investments coupled with Smart Growth planning pays off in a better quality of life. Portland is moving more people without building more highways. Portland is showing that good public transit is part of the formula to achieving a vibrant city. Portland developed a winning transit plan, built it, and transformed itself into one of America’s magnet cities, attracting young people, families, and business owners who are building a new economy and way of life. Seattle — and any other American city, for that matter — has the same opportunity.

Sarah Loehndorf is a writer and staff reporter for the Sammamish Review and Issaquah Press in Washington State. She is a former editor for Planet magazine in Bellingham, Washington. Her work has appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine. Reach her at sarahloehndorf@hotmail.com.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org