Portland Winter Weather

Recently I re-located to Portland, Oregon. While Portland has a reputation as a rainy, gloomy place, we had a great April through November, with lovely and mostly sunny weather. In December, however, things have taken a turn for the worse.

I grew up in the Midwest where it snows all the time. The difference, however, is that we salt our roads and plow them with vigor. This wikipedia article shows the “salt belt” of states that use this method; Oregon is not one of them.

While snowfalls are infrequent in Portland (some parts of Oregon see immense snowfalls… like this town and anywhere near Crater Lake) we have already had 2 “major” snowfalls that snarled traffic to an inordinate degree – the city ceases to function and everyone stays home when they heed the weather warnings (if they turn out to be accurate). On Wednesday, however, the snowfall and ice occurred during the evening rush hour and caused chaos with hundreds of abandoned cars litering the streets and highways. Commutes that would take 20 minutes could take 4 or more hours; many (including myself) went on foot.

Streets were still icy and treacherous a day later, since the temperature remains below freezing. Cars that drive were generally either all-wheel drive, trucks, or used chains. I had to buy a pair of chains for my Jetta for $85 but I hope to never need to use them.

When the streets get icy / snowy they are generally impassable to most cars due to the fact that the area is very hilly which makes whole neighborhoods inaccessible. The city center is low lying and flat but you need to cross hills to get almost anywhere else and that’s where the danger is greatest.

Many folks in Portland bicycle or take public transportation. The system is extremely stressed, since many bus routes don’t run and those that remain use chains which means that they are very slow and limited by the pace of traffic and all of the abandoned vehicles blocking streets. The trains, on the other hand, were viewed as very reliable – but this didn’t prove to be the case since frozen switches led to delays on the major train lines (that’s what they announced to us anyways). I watched as nine westbound trains passed until a single eastbound train finally arrived. I was standing out on a freezing cold platform for over an hour, waiting, along with dozens of other hapless commuters.

When we did get on the train it was completely and utterly packed since it was the first east bound train (we were told that there was a mostly empty east bound train right behind us, but no one wanted to get off and risk it and wait for it to arrive). People would hurl themselves onto the train at every stop, making it even harder for those that wanted to get off. Since this is Portland, most people were friendly and not panicking and making a bad situation even worse.

It seems ridiculous that only an inch of snow can completely snarl a major metropolitan area and bring it to its knees, but that is absolutely the case. There are drawbacks to dealing with salt (massive corrosion and impact on wildlife) but the risk to human life in the cold due to accidents and cars being abandoned and parents unable to pick up their kids from school seem to be much more significant, in my opinion. Since this is the second major storm of the season (and it is only December), perhaps Portland will need a better plan than “stay home” every time the weather gets bad.

Cross posted at LITGM

15 thoughts on “Portland Winter Weather”

  1. Carl,

    You got a special kind of snowflakes in the Pacific Northwest. The ones in Seattle tried to prohibit the salting of roads because that would make Puget Sound salty. Before then they had caused a pontoon bridge to sink during resurfacing, by successfully prohibiting disposal of water from water blasting into Lake Washington. So the waste water was directed into one of the pontoons with obvious results. And they got all indignant when the US Coast Guard judge of the contractor’s admiralty law civil suit said the City was liable for an obvious bone-headed decision. See:


    “All of the sinking was captured on film and shown on live TV. The cost of the disaster was $69 million in damages.”

  2. Was that pic taken of the snowfall at it’s height? OMG – in Utah of a winter, that would have been an average winter day.
    Which I suppose is the point. A snowfall of that degree and a hard freeze like that would have absolutely paralyzed San Antonio as well. (Something like that only happens once every two decades, anyway.) But still – Portland being considerably farther north of South Texas, I would have hoped that city management would at least be acquainted with the concept.

    Ah, well – stay warm, Carl. At least, you have the proper over-garments in hand (I hope!) Round here, a windbreaker with a flannel lining counts as a warm winter coat.

  3. It is pretty serious business here. If you walk around or look on TV there are hundreds of cars abandoned by the highways. In some of the intersections there are like 10 car pile ups (they happened in slow motion so it wasn’t like a big highway crash at 75mph) and all the cars are sitting there, abandoned. It is crazy. It is hard to explain to people that aren’t here how much mayhem this caused.

    Your town too would fall to ruin if they didn’t salt in any major metro area.

  4. Hi Carl,
    Welcome to Oregon! I’ve been in-state since 1971 and I’ve lived in Portland since 1998. The climate and scenery are great, as are the people. The less said about the politics, the better…

    I was surprised by your comment about the trains being viewed as very reliable. My experience riding the Max was that even in normal weather, about 10-20% of the time it would be very late. I’ve read that the switches stop working in cold or hot weather (say below 35 and above 90). When the system was built starting in the mid-90s, it was felt that that would not be an issue and we’ve been paying for it ever since. I had to chuckle about your comment about people not being willing to wait for another train. After waiting a couple of times for empty trains that never arrive, I board the first train that comes along, regardless of how full it is.

    You’ve probably already noticed that the average Oregon driver panics when confronted with snow. What still amazes me is how bad they are at driving in the rain…

    At least the commuters in the picture seem to be appropriately dressed. I had a neighbor, who was originally from Iowa, tell me years ago that the average Oregonian doesn’t have much of a survival instinct and usually isn’t prepared for cold weather.

    True story– back in 2008, when the weather was worse than it is now (we had snow on the ground for something like three weeks) I was taking the max into work and I noticed a girl sitting across from me who only had flip-flops for her feet (no socks). Since I was going to have to walk through snow from the max stop to my workplace, I had brought along a spare pair of socks, planning on changing into them after I got to work. I was worried she was going to get frostbite and I offered them to her, only to have them declined. When I told my younger female coworkers that story, they all said they would have done the same thing.

    Contrary to popular belief, Oregon often gets very little rain between the Fourth of July and early October, which can make for a very pleasant summer.

  5. Snow, what snow? There’s a sprinkling on the ground is all. Hell I have 5″ on Vancouver Island. Not that I care, my prayers were answered, and my Sammy has been playing in the snow.

  6. I drove regularly between Seattle and Los Angeles over a period of fifteen years. At least three times Portland south to Roseburg and north to Castle Rock had heavy snow. I5 was open. I’d like to tell you people drive crazy there—and they do—but people drive crazy everywhere.

    I owned chains, used for my travels from Seattle to western Washington. Along I5 I was one of few who had them. I saw people driving on packed snow with barley-visible lanes at 70mph. (Use of chains limits speed unless you want to damage your car.) And I watched speeding drivers spin out and wind up in ditch. I saw no serious wrecks.

    Infrequent ice and snow in western Washington and Oregon have left drivers, many of whom are used to wet, very wet weather, unfamiliar with driving in snowy, dangerous conditions. And yet these some of these same people drive into the mountains to ski!

  7. “I would have hoped that city management would at least be acquainted with the concept.”

    I think you are attributing to leftist Democrats a level of practicality not seen in decades, if ever.

    My wife’s oldest son lives in McMinnville, south of Portland, and that area is rural and seems like another state.

    Seattle gets those wet hard freezes sometimes and cars slide sideways down the hills.

    When I lived in New Hampshire for a year, I had studded snow tires and never had a problem. Chicago is miserable in winter because of the mess made by dirty snow and slush but at least drivers pretty much know how to handle it.

  8. “Infrequent ice and snow in western Washington and Oregon have left drivers, many of whom are used to wet, very wet weather, unfamiliar with driving in snowy, dangerous conditions. And yet these some of these same people drive into the mountains to ski!”

    And, speaking as a native of that part of the state of Washington which does routinely get snow and real winter weather, I’m here to tell you that those people don’t drive with any more sense when they’re visiting up here for the grand Christmas Lighting Festival or skiing. You can always tell the “206er” by the slick tires, the inability to comprehend basic physics, and the look of fear blended well with shock as they go sliding by you on the ice.

    I used to have to drive between Tacoma and where I live now on a weekly basis; the number of idiotic driving “events” I witnessed over that period of several years has left me with a very negative attitude towards these people. Where I once stopped and tried to help them, I now wave cheerily as I drive past on my winter studded tires at 15mph, and call the State Patrol to make sure they know there’s been an accident.

    You really cannot exaggerate the level of ignorance/idiocy these people are capable of demonstrating. I once had a family of deranged dipshits pass me on Blewett Pass, locally renowned and cautioned against due to the reputation it has for being dangerous in the winter, and they insouciantly blew past me on the downhill section, honking their horn at me because I was going “too slowly” at 15-20mph. They chose to be doing closer to 70, and when I happened on the accident scene, where they’d managed to involve three other cars, the driver of the SUV that blew past me was in a state of shock–“We just slid…”. No! Really? On ice? You slid? I’m amazed that happened… Especially considering that a.) you were driving on summer tires which were nearly bald, and b.) my heavy studded winter snow tires with inch-deep lugs and siping were having problems maintaining traction and control at 15mph. The jackass actually tried blaming me, when the cops showed up, because he “…was only going that fast because that guy (me) delayed us, back up the pass…”. The idiot talked himself into three tickets that evening, and the state cop wanted to pull his license for sheer stupidity.

    West-siders come over here for recreation, and they are a palpable menace on the roads. The worst are the recent transplants to Seattle from California or other warm locales, and they just don’t get it.

  9. “the driver of the SUV that blew past me was in a state of shock–“We just slid…”

    When I was in New Hampshire back in the winter of 1994-5, I was driving in a heavy snowfall, when I slowed down to turn into a driveway at a vet office and dog boarding place.

    The guy behind me was way too close, and when I braked to turn he slid off the road into the ditch. He was too close and going too fast.

    When I came out of the vet place after dropping off my dog, a cop came over and told me the driver who slid had accused me of having no brake lights.

    I turned the lights on and braked and he thanked and went away. They were fine. The driver who slid was probably a Democrat,

  10. Chicago is miserable in winter because of the mess made by dirty snow and slush but at least drivers pretty much know how to handle it.

    Not any more. The last ten years I have noticed a lot more idiots driving I55 getting into and/or causing accidents in the first few heavy snowfalls. Damn near all of them are driving 4WD vehicles and will pass me driving 70+ mph, weaving in and out of traffic, when I am doing less than 40.


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