Westside Bypass: The Zombie Dinosaur

Mary Kyle McCurdy
Thu, 05/26/2016 - 5:20pm

Why we don't need a freeway through farmland

The Westside Bypass Freeway was a dinosaur in the early 90s, when regional leaders wisely determined that transportation dollars could be better spent to move more people and freight by investing in transit, a grid street pattern, bicycling facilities, and walkable communities.  Instead of building an oversized and costly freeway through some of the world’s most valuable farm land, Washington County and Metro successfully implemented a more efficient, cost-effective, and integrated transportation and land use system.

Study after study shows that adding freeway lanes and building new freeways do not solve congestion, and in fact make it worse.  Even the Mayor of Houston, Texas recognizes this: “[T]he traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems.”[1]  Yet a recent op-ed in the Tribune proposes just that – by turning the justifiably dead Westside Bypass Freeway into a zombie dinosaur.

Twenty-five years later, traffic congestion in Washington County - while real – is less than it would have been had the Westside Bypass been constructed.  Since 2000, the Metro region has added more than 122,000 commuters.  However, less than half that net growth is from people driving alone in cars.[2]  Why? Because the region invested in transit and bicycling facilities, and more people are working from home. This is true region wide and in Washington County.  Even with growing employment and commuters, Washington County saw large increases in the percentage of commuters using transit and bicycling, and in those working from home.[3]

Washington County and the region are experiencing the same commute patterns as the rest of the country:  commuting to and from work is a shrinking percentage of the daily trips we all make, accounting for less than 30% of all trips made each day.  And those other trips we all regularly make – to school, the store, an appointment? The average trip length of those is less than 5 miles, [4]  and most are less than 3 miles. These are trips that can easily be made by many by foot, bicycle, and bus – if we invest in safe, connected sidewalks and bicycle ways and more transit service.  Approximately 10-15% of morning rush hour traffic is caused by people driving their kids to school.[5] In Washington County specifically, it is estimated that school drop-offs contribute up to 25% of morning rush hour traffic.[6] Imagine how much “capacity” could be created if all neighborhoods were ones with safe routes for children to walk and bike to school – just like most of us over 50 did when we were growing up.

On a per-person basis, the Portland region has been driving less since 1996; we drive about 25% less per capita than other major US urban areas – thanks to transit, bicycling, and walking opportunities and walkable neighborhoods.[7] The cheapest, fastest way to increase capacity of current roads and highways is to give people options to get around some other way.

More big roads won’t fix congestion.  They will just get clogged up, while adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and burning through some of the richest agricultural land in the world – the Tualatin Valley of Washington County.


[1] CityLab, New Houston Mayor to Texas DOT: Wider Roads Mean More Traffic, Feb. 1, 2016.

[2] BikePortland, February 17, 2016, citing study by Roger Geller, PBOT, based on PSU and US Census data.

[3] BikePortland, citing research by Roger Geller.

[4] Metro, A Snapshot of How the Portland Region Gets Around, April 18, 2016, data from 2011 Oregon Household Activity Survey, http://www.oregonmetro.gov/sites/default/files/2011_travel_behavior_surv...

[7] Metro, Snapshot of How the Portland Region Gets Around, April 18, 2016, citing data from Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report , http://mobility.tamu.edu/ums/