I grew up on Larch Mountain in Corbett, Oregon, twenty or so miles from Portland. A creek ran through our property; it’s called Buck Creek and it comes down from the mountain and feeds the Sandy, which in turn feeds the Columbia. My father grew up there too. He talks about trapping animals and riding dirt bikes in the woods with his brothers when he was a kid. He said he could never shoot a crow with his BB gun; they were too smart and would fly away when they saw him coming out of the farmhouse with his gun.
We were country folk too, but I think I was always more pulled toward the city than my father was as a kid; I’d often go to Hawthorne to buy clothes or NW 23rd with my friend Brooke to eat bagels and look into the fancy shops. I once called my dad from Lloyd center when I was in High School. I’d recently bought a car and had driven it into Gresham that afternoon after school, got on the Max and rode out the Lloyd Center Mall.
“Hey Dad,” I said from a payphone by the food court. “I just wanted let you know that I am down at the Lloyd center and will be home later.”
“What? You’re down at Lloyd Center? Come home right now! That’s a bad neighborhood!” My father was very upset.
I remember rolling my eyes. Sure, there’d been some news stories about shootings and beatings at Lloyd center, but I’d visited countless times with my parents and I’d never seen anything bad happen. I decided I would come home earlier than I’d planned but not rush it. What could he do? I had a car.
When you grow up in a small town, the only way to get out is by car. Your nearest friend lives a couple miles away. Any kind of coffee shop or movie theatre is a whole day’s walk. So when I was sixteen, as soon as I could, I bought a little red Subaru Justy with money I’d saved up from my dishwashing job. Since then I’ve owned another Subaru, a Toyota and now a Honda. My cars have been small, Asian, second-hand and cheap. Not special in themselves, but a way to get from point A to point B.
My family members have also owned their own variety of junkers and used cars. Many of them have been totaled in car accidents. On backcountry roads we’ve flipped cars, driven off the road into ditches, been t-boned and rear-ended. Part of the reason was ice, part of the reason was driving too fast on very curvy roads, part of it was just the risk you take when you get into a car. It was country-driving and most of the wrecks were solo affairs. I never thought we were bad drivers. I never thought there was anything weird about the fact that nearly all of us had wrecked cars, fallen asleep at the wheel, driven over the median etc.
Now that I’m a realtor I spend a lot of time driving. Distances seem collapsed. I can easily drive a hundred miles in one day, showing property or touring houses. I consider myself a very safe driver. You see, unlike some of my family members, I have never been the driver in an accident. Also, I try to avoid rush hour, am nearly always on time and don’t seem to get road rage.
A few days ago I took some of my real estate clients to a storytelling event. They’d both recently moved here from New York City. I asked them what they liked best and least about Portland. One woman said she thought the drivers in Portland were horrible.
I have often heard this and just shrugged it off because it didn’t make any sense to me. How were the drivers horrible? I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I’ve lived in San Francisco; I drove there for a few months, but was relieved when my little Toyota wouldn’t pass the emissions test. I gave it to St. Vincent De Paul’s and breathed a sigh of relief as the tow truck drove away with my car. My brief stint at driving had been so stressful I couldn’t wait to relinquish the privilege. The honking was incessant. Drivers changed lanes constantly without signaling. Trucks unloading and buses merging and erratic pedestrians blocked your way constantly. If you drove too slow people honked at you, if you didn’t go fast enough at a green light people honked at you. Sometimes people would just honk at you for no reason. No one would let you merge.
On subsequent trips to the Bay I would let my boyfriend at the time drive. He was a great driver on the freeways winding their way into the city, merging within a hair’s breadth of our neighbors’ rear bumpers. It was stressful to be a passenger in the fast-changing traffic, but I knew it was a better alternative than to drive myself.
A common complaint of Portland drivers is that they’re too slow. They drive under the speed limit, they don’t turn left on yellow lights, they leave too much room in front of them during rush hour, they don’t turn left into the right lane so that other people making right turns can also turn. They don’t use their lights on rainy days. They don’t pay attention. They don’t know how to drive in the snow and ice.
So hearing all these complaints I decided to investigate and see if I could find some objective evidence about how bad or good Portland drivers are.
I very easily found that two reports, one in 2013 and another in 2015, rank Portland as among the nation’s worst drivers:
“The average Portland driver will experience an auto collision every 7.9 years, which is about 27 percent more likely than the national average, according to the report.” (Allstate Insurance Report, 2013)
“A new analysis from the insurance giant Allstate of claims filed with the company found Portlanders are involved in a collision on average every 6.9 years — about 45 percent more often than the national average of 10 years.” (The Oregonian Newspaper, 2015)
So, not only was the lady from New York City right about Portland drivers, it seems to be getting worse. It made my stomach hurt actually. Did this report mean that I am way overdue for an accident? Was I a bad Portland driver? What does that even mean?
As I said, even though my family has been in many accidents, I personally have never been in an accident as a driver. The only accident I’ve been in was over fifteen years ago when I was lightly rear-ended by a little old lady in Olympia, Washington and then once more when a lady bumped me at the traffic circle on 39th and Glisan. She rolled down her window and said, “Sorry, I’m from Ohio!”
I’ve always known that I am the kind of driver that annoys the more aggressive. I am cautious. I don’t speed. This hesitation can be a risk factor for accidents with drivers that are expecting you to drive more aggressively. If you don’t drive the way people expect you to drive - that is how accidents happen. But then I have some other mitigating factors: I obey the traffic laws. I don’t text, I don’t talk on the phone if I can help it.
But then there are laws and there are customs. People complain that Portlanders are dangerously courteous drivers. But what about the custom of letting folks eastbound on the Ross Island Bridge merge in rush hour traffic? It’s not the law, but the infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the traffic and so it has become custom.
Maybe I am a bad Portland driver, the kind that everyone complains about; my favorite kind of driving is the kind where I don’t have to pay a lot of attention. I don’t do well in new cities or when I am unfamiliar with my surroundings, or when people honk at me or ride my tail. In other words, I am used to driving in a small city with which I am very familiar when I am in no rush to get where I am going. Some people say that driving more aggressively makes you less likely to get into an accident because you are paying more attention. But I don’t agree. If the other drivers aren’t paying attention, it doesn't matter how much attention you are paying.
In the last week I was almost t-boned twice by drivers who pulled out right in front of me. I had to lay on my horn, my heart raced and I was briefly upset. Both times I had forgotten to turn on my lights on an overcast day. But the things is….this is a new phenomenon. When I was a kid no one used their lights during the day. Oregonians were used to driving on overcast days. They were less used to driving in harsh sunlight because that weather is so much less common. Case in point, my sister was actually rear-ended a few years ago by a semi on I-84 westbound because the sun was so harsh at five pm that the semi didn’t see her slow down until it was too late. Her car was totaled and she still has back pain from the collision.
I can almost guarantee that our traffic woes and bad driving is directly correlated to two things: a new influx of people from other, more crowded, cities – and Oregon natives and our road system not adjusting quickly enough to this influx. Our state had the most in-migration of any other state in the United States this year. Last year we were deemed the most gentrified city in the country.
Right now what this means in practical terms is that newbies complain about the bad drivers, the locals complain about the traffic and the newbies. It means that on a rainy day just around a corner in Cully or Montavilla you will be greeted with a lake-sized puddle across the gravel side-street with no sidewalks, next to the open house where dozens of couples take their shoes on and off to view a refurbished one-bedroom that is listed for $220,000 but will probably go for much more. This means that the bike lanes down Powell are more used by low-income folks in motorized wheelchairs than bicyclists because there are no sidewalks and young Gresham kids in lowered Hondas zip past anyone turning left by using the wheelchair lane. This means that you can no longer use Clinton, Division, Hawthorne or Stark as through streets. This means that you don’t use the bridges over the Willamette during rush hour. This means that you now will consider dating someone in Vancouver because it feels fucked everywhere, so why bother?
And it also means that soon enough the city will be densely crowded and we will all adjust and the accident rate will go down. It means that pretty soon no one will call it 39th avenue anymore and will look at anyone who does like a racist, just like I do when I hear my grandpa say “Union” instead of MLK. It means they will probably eventually install a light on the onramp to the Ross Island Bridge. And I will probably find driving a lot more stressful in the city. This means that I might buy a piece of property in Damascus and never move back into the city.
I admit it… I say I am a good driver, that I am courteous and I obey the laws of the road. But lately, when I’m all by myself, I find myself taking the back roads home from my office in Clackamas to my apartment in Gresham. Driving on these windy, empty roads, I remember that I have new tires and I realize that for the first time in weeks there’s not another car in sight.
And then I turn up the stereo and I drive as fast and as badly as I can all the way home.