Portland – Interstate 5

On this trip to Portland, we drove down I-5 all the way down. One of the big differences that I notice right away as a Vancouverite is how wide the highway is on the other side of the border. South of Mt. Vernon, the highway widens to 3 lanes. Also, the on and off ramps are much longer allowing for smoother merging onto the highway. Although I am no big fan of urban highways, the way the Interstate is designed in rural Washington seems to work for intercity travel.

Where I start having issue with the highway is when get into major urban centres. Portland is like all North American cities in that freeways dominate much of the landscape. I-5 runs across the Columbia River from Vancouver, WA. It’s a 6-lane freeway split across two bridges. Then the Interstate runs along the east bank of the Williamette River and crosses to the west bank just south of Portland’s downtown.  It’s the only one of two crossings of the Columbia River out of Portland.  So the bridge becomes a huge magnet for traffic for both sides of the river.

Highway Bridges across the Columbia River out of Portland

Highway Bridges across the Columbia River out of Portland

As we drove into Portland around 2pm, we were backed up along I-5 deep into Vancouver, WA.  It took a long time to cross the river.  It was the same later that evening around 6pm when we crossed back across to visit a friend.  So either cross this bridge or go up stream and take the long way around to get across the Columbia.

I’ve noticed that highways seem to be magnets for traffic.  They definitely seem to draw vehicles from regular street routes and create even more traffic.  I guess that’s what people in the transportation field call induced traffic.  In our thinking, the highway should be the fastest way to our destination, so we are drawn to the highway.  In the case of the I-5, it’s the only way across the Columbia River from Downtown Portland.  Even with mostly 3 lanes in both directions, traffic could get snarled up very badly. If people were forced to cross town on regular roads, traffic would be more spread out.  If problems happened, then there would be alternate routes.  Unfortunately, with most highways, there is no way to get to an alternate route once you’re stuck.

However, in Portland’s case, the highway and traffic are all pushed onto a single bridge.  That’s also another problem.  It’s a huge bottleneck.  The Interstate 5 bridge looks really old and narrow.  Not to mention that this bridge is also a draw bridge. Can you imagine the mess that happens when rush hour traffic must stop for a boat to cross underneath?  I’ve read some articles against expanding the I-5 bridge, but in my point of view, a highway bridge should never be a drawbridge.  I’m not a fan of bridge expansion, but there doesn’t look like to be another option here.  The I-5 bridge is not practical for its purpose.  However, transit expansion should also be a priority if you plan to move people more efficiently between Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR.

So my very first impression of Portland was, unfortunately, the bad traffic that the Interstate induces from its environs.  That wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the USA’s most sustainable city.  However, it wasn’t a huge, huge damper on the trip.  More on Portland tomorrow.

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