Durable Growth

You can’t go home again, part 1: Highway 97 in Bend

Head of the Metolius near Sisters, Oregon

Head of the Metolius near Sisters, Oregon

Returning to a place once known well, and now changed in ways both big and small, can reveal new truths about the place and the observer.  I was reminded of this during recent travels in the Pacific Northwest.

In past posts, I’ve made reference to my geographical past, although never in a comprehensive manner.  Perhaps some readers have assembled a complete picture of the places that I’ve called home.  But I should offer a biographical sketch to provide context to my recent travels.

Born and raised in California, I had enough wanderlust that I didn’t want to spend my entire life in the Golden State.  In 1982, I transferred with my employer to Seattle, where I managed a water resources department.

For family reasons, I moved to a smaller town in 1987, picking the community of Bend in Oregon’s high desert, east of the Cascades.  Now with a different employer, I still worked in water resources, but also in land use.  I lived in Bend until I returned to California in 2000.

I retain strong attachments to Seattle and Bend.  Seattle, despite its weather and lack of diversity, remains my favorite big city.  Not that I dislike San Francisco, but I’d pick an afternoon in Seattle over a week in San Francisco.  There just something about the air, the streetscapes, and the neighborhoods that feels right.  I haven’t lived there in over 25 years, but when I set foot on a Seattle sidewalk, it still feels like home.

However, the connection to Bend is even stronger.  It was the first place where I felt fully integrated into a community and where I felt my contributions made a difference.

That isn’t to imply that I had great power in Bend because I didn’t.  I didn’t hold public office nor did I manage large resources.  But I sat on several local committees, provided engineering services for projects that changed the face of Bend, and could get my phone calls returned.  (This would have been in the days when phone calls were still the dominant way of conducting business.)

At one time, it seemed that I could walk in downtown Bend, especially in the non-tourism season, and have a nodding acquaintance with over half the people on the sidewalk.  It was a life I enjoyed.

And now I was heading back to visit both cities.  Every year, I join friends for a weeklong tour of minor league ballparks, breweries, and other assorted sites.  This year, we chose to visit the Pacific Northwest.

Over the course of ten days, I revisited the old places that were once so familiar to me.  And I was looking with eyes that were more attuned to urbanism.  It was ten days filled with surprises and urbanist observations.

Observation #1: Stroads can hide in plain sight – For many years, Highway 97 was the primary north-south route through Bend.  It was impossible to live in Bend without being on Highway 97 several times a week.

Despite that history, when StrongTowns introduced me to the word “stroad”, I never once thought of Highway 97.  (For those readers who aren’t familiar with the term, a stroad is a vehicular way stuck halfway between being a rural road and a city street.  It’s an uneasy blending of the two which results in a dangerous place to drive and an impossible place to walk.)

Highway 97 in Bend, Oregon

Highway 97 in Bend, Oregon

Upon my arrival in town, I drove Highway 97 to see what had changed along its route.  To my surprise, I realized that it was, and had always been, a stroad.  Although Highway 97 has sidewalks, they are unfriendly places.  I don’t recall seeing a single pedestrian during my recent visit.

Furthermore, the highway, which was already full of driveways when I lived there, now has even more driveways, with every driveway providing an opportunity for vehicular conflict.  (While in Bend, I spoke with an old friend who assured me that the state highway department access management group has been emasculated to the point that few driveway permits are denied.)

Highway 97 was an ugly place.   And a disappointing reminder of what we can overlook in our daily lives.  I drove on a stroad on a near-daily basis for 13 years, but never thought of the transportation failure I was seeing.

Observation #2: Induced traffic is real – I’ve previously mentioned induced traffic only in passing.  It’s a topic that deserves a complete exploration, but that will be at another time.  For now, I’ll offer a brief introduction.

The theory of induced traffic argues that drivers make decisions about taking trips and selecting routes based on the availability of traffic capacity.  At the simplest level, whether a driver makes an optional trip depends on whether the driver expects to encounter heavy traffic.

In real life application, the result is that new traffic capacity, whether from new lanes or new streets, is often consumed by non-essential trips.  Conversely, loss of capacity, such as from street closures or construction, often results in fewer trips being taken.  Congestion doesn’t remain static regardless of street capacity, but it’s closer to static than most older traffic models predict.

The theory of induced traffic is one reason that urbanists argue that we can’t build our way out of traffic congestion.  As long as a local economy remains active, new street capacity will be sucked up while providing little traffic relief.

A theory isn’t proved by a single anecdote, but I found a piece of supporting data for the theory of induced traffic during my visit to Bend.

Highway 97 was bypassed by the Bend Parkway during my final years in Bend.  The intent was to reduce traffic on Highway 97.  This was my first trip back to Bend with the Parkway in full operation.  I could have taken the Parkway, but choose to stay on Highway 97 to take a look at the town.  (This was when I realized that Highway 97 was a stroad.)

In the time I was away, Bend had grown, but only slightly.  Although it remains a popular tourist destination, population growth has been slight and property values had plummeted during the recent recession.

Under a conventional theory of traffic generation, traffic on Highway 97 should been far less than I remembered.  Total traffic growth should have been small and much of the previous traffic should have moved to the Parkway.  The prediction would have been wrong.  Highway 97 was bumper-to-bumper through much of Bend.  Induced traffic is alive and well in Bend.  Although I’ll wager that someone in Bend is arguing to add more capacity to deal with the congestion.

Next time, I’ll write about a Bend land-use decision in which I played a key, but unsatisfying, role.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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