Jannine Hanczarek was a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio from 2017-2020.
Feature Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation
Last month, Oregon's legislature passed a $5.3-billion transportation bill in an effort to keep up with a growing population and increasingly inadequate infrastructure. As Portland continues to rise on the list of most infuriating cities to drive in, efforts to make our roadways more efficient have sparked intense debate about increased taxes and "value pricing" (translation: tolls). According to the 298-page document, highway safety is among the top priorities, and reducing congestion seems to be the main vehicle (heh) for getting this done.
Fat Pencil Studio does frequent work visualizing transportation projects, and many of the graphics address traffic puzzles that result from road closures. The initiative focuses mainly on roadways, the assumption being that improving access and increasing carrying capacity of highways will make the largest impact.
Maintaining our roadways is important, and I absolutely use them when I drive my own car. The trouble is that there's no real proof that widening a freeway reduces congestion at all. People tend to fill up the space that's given to them, and it's likely that a whole lot won't change after these projects are completed. The road just gets used more, resulting in even more congestion and pollution.
There are, of course, provisions in the bill for folks who commute on foot, bicycle and transit, though the details of these measures remain unclear. As a frequent pedestrian, I wanted to take a closer look at one intersection in particular.
SE Powell Boulevard @ Milwaukie
The package outlines that funds be reserved for improvements to SE Powell between SE 9th and 174th Avenues. Fat Pencil Studio is located just north of the intersection of SE Milwaukie/12th and Powell, one that I cross on foot every day. The bottleneck is palpable, and the line of cars sometimes stretches back from Powell for over half a mile.
Aside from the obvious backup of cars, this intersection is pretty challenging to cross as a pedestrian. Crossing is limited; traffic from several directions have to cycle through before the pedestrian signal comes on. If you forget to hit the crossing button you can count on being there for a few minutes. Plus, all the side roads that feed into the Hwy-99/Ross Island Bridge pipeline mean that navigation is just as anxiety-inducing at surrounding intersections.
From a pedestrian's point of view, it's hard to see how pumping money into auto infrastructure will make our streets any safer, especially if it creates the potential for attracting more cars to that route. Some think that the proposed improvements are in direct opposition to the Vision Zero program, which seeks to eliminate traffic deaths altogether.
A promising solution could be congestion pricing, which has been proven to work in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. The latter actually implemented congestion pricing in parking and found that combined with road tolls, a noticeable impact was observed. People were becoming more thoughtful about when they chose to drive and in how long they decided to park. People even saved money when choosing to use parking services during non-peak hours. While technically sound, this solution is politically challenging. Trying to get people to pay for something that's always been free is never popular.
The transportation bill is supposed to take care of the whole state once it's law, so it seems natural that big, state-crossing highways are high up on the priorities list. The reality is, however, that there are other solutions to our traffic woes. They just don't sound as appealing to taxpayers. An effective public outreach campaign could help taxpayers understand the benefits of congestion pricing. Let's hope they use good visual tools!