Traffic congestion now costs Portland-area residents hundreds of millions of dollars a year in wasted time and wasted fuel. It also increases the prices of goods and services, and it reduces our quality of life.
In Oregon, the governor appoints the directors and commissioners who oversee the performance of TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation. Is there anything affordable that the present or the next governor can do to get Portland off the list of U.S. metropolitan areas with the fastest growing traffic congestion?
Most people believe Oregon's governor has two basic choices available to accommodate the future growth of the Portland area's population and to control traffic congestion:
• Plan A raises taxes significantly and spends most of the money on new highways and what's left on public transportation. Opponents believe this approach will cost more money than voters or legislators are willing to provide; uses too much land; limits travel choices; increases environmental and energy problems; and fails to halt the long-term growth of traffic congestion.
• Plan B raises taxes significantly and spends most of the money on big-box (i.e., fixed-route bus and rail) transit and what's left on highways. Opponents believe that this approach will cost more money than voters or legislators are willing to provide and that door-to-door travel by big-box transit is too inconvenient and too slow to attract sufficient riders.
No growing metropolitan area in the U.S. has been able to reduce the long-term growth of traffic congestion via either plan. The opponents of both plans are right.
I hope Oregon's governor will have the wisdom to reject both of these high-cost, low-payoff approaches and adopt some variation of Plan C, which is advocated by Joel Garreau, author of 'Edge Cities.' Plan C uses low-cost information technologies to make regional transportation systems more cost-effective.
Garreau was in Portland in early December to give a speech on future technical trends, as part of the Linus Pauling Lecture Series on Science & Technology.
Although Garreau believes that public transportation systems can shape the future of communities in the United States and other countries, 'it must (first use Plan C to) drastically change the way it operates.'
The foundation of Plan C may be found in a speech that Mel Webber, professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at UC Berkeley, gave at a conference on transportation and telecommunications I organized in Hawaii in the 1980s. He said:
'Our traffic congestion and mobility problems are not caused by a shortage of transport capacity. We have an excess of capacity. We have more than enough front seats in our cars to carry everyone in the country at the same time, leaving all the back seats empty; and we have enough road space for all of them to drive at the same time without congestion. Our problem is that we don't use all that capacity very well.'
Garreau's Plan C utilizes palmtop computers (including some cell phones) and wireless-Internet services to safely match qualified riders with qualified drivers in single-trip car pools or 'smart jitneys.' This new type of cashless, public transportation service offers the comfort and door-to-door convenience of a limo or taxi and the low-cost and environmental benefits of a car pool.
When he was in Portland, Garreau and I discussed ways to integrate smart jitneys with conventional transit, paratransit (e.g., taxi, dial-a-ride minibuses, shuttles) and ride-sharing services in order to make public transportation systems more user-friendly and more taxpayer-friendly, even in low-density areas.
Smart jitneys would operate in travel corridors when and where big-box transit is not cost-effective, including feeder services to bus and rail stations, and to handle peak loads. They would provide backup transportation to those who prefer to car pool or walk or bicycle most of the time.
Market research conducted by the University of Washington for the U.S. Department of Transportation found that 42 percent of drivers of single-occupant vehicles would consider using smart-jitney services if they were available.
Garreau and I also discussed integrating smart-jitney dispatching and congestion pricing with many other wireless-Internet applications to form 'smart community' systems that could reduce traffic congestion, gasoline consumption, air pollution, parking and mobility problems, and create a wide variety of new business, employment, education and recreation opportunities for local residents at a low cost to users and taxpayers.
Finally, we discussed finding a governor who would be interested in joining a public-private partnership to make his or her state a leader in a 'green,' high-tech industry that develops smart-community products and services to improve quality of life.
Oregon has the necessary wireless-Internet infrastructure to develop and test smart-community software and services in Umatilla County and soon will have it in Portland. If I were Gov. Ted Kulongoski, or one of his challengers, I would try to find out more about Plan C.