Applying a Startup Mentality to Local Government

I live in Vancouver, WA, which is about 20 miles from my office in the Pearl District of Portland, OR. When things go well my commute takes about 25 minutes each way. When the traffic gods are angry this jumps to 45–75 minutes each way. So you can imagine my utter lack of surprise when I learnt that Portland has the 8th worst traffic in the nation.

The result is a lot of time spent sitting in traffic thinking about how to reduce or eliminate these kinds of delays, except for the time thinking about what I’d do to whichever idiot caused the problem in the first place of course.

The Interstate (I-5) and Glenn Jackson (I-205) bridges together handle an average of 264,000 movements a day. Some back-of-envelope math (US average non-farm hourly wage of $24, 66% of traffic movements occur during rush hour and a guess that there’s an average of 1 worker per vehicle) throws out an estimated $2MM in lost productivity each and every time there’s a 30 minute delay during rush hour.

Whatever the real cost, traffic has a real impact on the area. Which makes me pretty tense when I notice there are some really obvious easy wins that nobody in government appears to be even considering.

To start with, despite hard times, there is some time and money being spent on transport in the Portland area. The mayor likes to talk about safety and traffic improvements, and there is some big money being spent on transportation projects. Here’s a sample:

  1. A new bridge is being built to extend the Max to Milwaukee.
  2. Various improvements to US-26 (like widening stretches to 6 lanes).
  3. Safety initiatives on inner-city streets like 82nd Ave.

Local government and startups have one thing in common: very meagre resources. But the similarity ends there. If our startup worked on things like this while ignoring the easy wins we’d go bankrupt pretty quickly. And taking a closer look at current transport initiatives, I really don’t understand why they got priority over other things that would have a broader impact.

Here’s a quick sample of some cheap and quick changes that would really make a positive impact for commuters all across the area:

  1. Use the existing digital traffic signs to provide “time to : 15 minutes” messages so motorists can decide if they want to route round traffic jams or bridge openings.
  2. Use the same signs to show the next the Interstate bridge is next due to open.
  3. Properly policed HOV lanes on I-205, I-84, I-5.
  4. A public/private partnership to develop a simple Portland traffic app to notify you of which routes you use are getting congested and why, in near real-time, not the 30 minutes delayed stuff we get on map sites.

While we’re talking about it there are a few other more expensive items on my shopping list that cost a considerable amount but are still affordable and would have an even bigger impact:

  1. Variable speed limits on all the Interstates and US-26, to reduce the impact of traffic waves. (These are a big problem in Portland, especially in wet weather.)
  2. Upgrade the I-205/Airport Way junction to have a separate on/off lane from I-205. Backlogs of traffic caused by vehicles joining and leaving I-205 at this junction cause massive tailbacks onto I-84 during rush hour.
  3. Expand the I-205N/I-84 exits so that (a) there are two lanes of traffic joining I-205N and (b) those lanes are not entering the slow lane of I-205N.

And then there are a few projects that are more focused on commuters from outside of Portland. These should still be on the list since they benefit Portlanders by reducing congestion and increasing the dollars spent in town (less traffic = more visits):

  1. An upgraded Park’n’Ride program operating frequently, through late evening. See C-Trans for the existing routes. Count the number of times it says ‘limited’ and ‘peak hours only’.
  2. AmTrak trains running every 30 minutes between Vancouver and Oregon City via Portland during peak hours.
  3. Tweak the Airport Way/I-205N on-ramp so that it can take two lanes of traffic instead of one. Anyone attempting to leave the airport during rush hour will attest to the long backups on Airport Way thanks to the way the on-ramp works.

These items are pretty modest compared to some really big projects like the Columbia River Crossing ($4B), upgrading the I-405/US-26 interchange and expanding light rail.

There seems to a real lack of leadership in transport for the metro area. Maybe it’s the co-ordination it needs between city, county, state and federal levels. I would love to hear from people in the know about either why some of these initiatives can’t or won’t ever happen. As an outsider I don’t even pretend to understand the local politics.

In the meantime, I’ll go back to dreaming about a more consistent commute while sitting in my daily jam on one of the interstates.