Traffic picks up in Portland area, still below pre-pandemic levels

Special Reports

No, it's not your imagination. There have been more drivers on the road lately.

Cars move along I-5 in Portland traffic generic

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — If you’re looking for a sign that things are somewhat returning to normal, look no further than Portland’s traffic situation. 

The Oregon Department of Transportation says traffic in the Portland metro area is only down about 10% from spring traffic levels in 2019. That means there are a lot more drivers on the road than there were in spring 2020. 

In March 2020, when school closures and crowd size limits were announced, traffic levels started dropping. They plummeted after Gov. Kate Brown issued her “Stay Home, Save Lives” executive order, forcing many businesses to close and people to avoid social gatherings. 

Before the pandemic, in March 2019, between 70,000 and 80,000 drivers traveled Interstate 5 southbound at the Interstate Bridge on any given weekday. In March 2020, the number of drivers plummeted to between 40,000 and 50,000 drivers. A year later, in 2021, ODOT says weekday traffic levels at the bridge are back up to between 60,000 and 75,000 on a weekday in March. 

I-5 Southbound at the Interstate Bridge – Chart published in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s “Impacts of Covid-19 on Traffic” report for the Portland region on April 5, 2021

The latest statewide report, published April 9, 2021, said I-5 weekday traffic volumes for March 22 – April 4 were 45% to 65% higher than the same time in 2020. Weekend volumes were 144% to 149% higher.

The ODOT report said I-5 traffic south of the Portland metro area, within the Willamette Valley, has weekday traffic volumes that are only down 2% from 2019.

Oregon Statewide Weekday Average Traffic Volumes 2019-2021 – Chart published in ODOT’s “Observed Statewide Traffic Volume Patterns Related to COVID-19 Monitoring” published April 9, 2021

ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton said there are a number of things that could be contributing to more drivers on the road. 

“We’re seeing people getting back to work,” he said. “I think people are getting impatient and they want to spend time out. They may make another trip or two than they might normally.” 

While traffic might still be lower than normal on I-5 at the Interstate Bridge, in some places, traffic volume is higher than it was pre-pandemic. 

ODOT is seeing this happen at Interstate 84 eastbound and westbound at Fairview and US-26 eastbound and westbound at Rhododendron. 

US-26 eastbound at Rhododendron – Chart published in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s “Impacts of Covid-19 on Traffic” report for the Portland region on April 5, 2021

Hamilton says each area has its own characteristics that could determine how many drivers are on the road. At I-84 in Fairview, for example, he pointed out that new job opportunities in Troutdale could be drawing more people to the area. 

“The new Amazon warehouse out there, which has a lot of jobs out there, we’re seeing some construction projects in those areas that are finally finishing up too,” he said. 

I-84 eastbound at Fairview – Chart published in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s “Impacts of Covid-19 on Traffic” report for the Portland region on April 5, 2021

He said as the weather gets nicer, more people might also be heading to visit the Columbia River Gorge. 

One good thing ODOT continues to see with traffic trends is that most areas are seeing about the same or fewer crashes per week than in 2019, especially I-84.  

I-84 eastbound crashes – Chart published in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s “Impacts of Covid-19 on Traffic” report for the Portland region on April 5, 2021

“We hope that we can continue this trend, that people, when they do get back out on the roads, continue to operate safely and in the good safe protocols,” Hamilton said. 

KOIN 6 News asked Hamilton if it’s possible, with so many jobs staying remote, that traffic in some areas might never get back up to its pre-pandemic weekly volume. 

He said ODOT will be monitoring the numbers closely. They don’t know exactly what will happen, but they’ll pay attention to things like work patterns to see what planning they’ll need to adjust in the transportation system for the months and years to come.

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