Everything you need to know about driving in Portland, Oregon (2024)

Everything you need to know about driving in Portland, Oregon (2024)

Having lived in the Portland area for a decade now, I’ve discovered something. Driving in Portland can be overwhelming if you’re not prepared for it. So I’ve created this guide to help you navigate Portland like a local, and to keep your travels headache-free.

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Is Portland a Walkable City?

Yes, Portland is a walkable city. Portland streets generally have good sidewalks. And many of the neighborhoods have great shops, restaurants and cafes for exploring.

Plus, the city has an abundance of parks, trails and paths to encourage walking. However, just because a city is walkable does not mean you won’t want or need a car to get around.

Do You Need a Car to Visit Portland?

Yes, you will want a car to navigate Portland. Although Portland may be considered a walkable city, many of the locations and attractions you may want to visit in Portland will not be within walking distance of one another.

There are plenty of car rental options conveniently located at the Portland International Airport (PDX). Click here to search car rental options through Rentalcars.com.

Portland, Oregon

General Geography

Bridgetown is one of Portland’s several nicknames. The nickname was earned for Portland’s 12 bridges, zigzagging across the city and its two rivers.

The Willamette River divides Portland into the east bank and the west bank. Then the city is bordered on the north by the Columbia River.

Major Freeways

Being familiar with the major freeway systems will help you navigate driving in Portland with a little more ease. I’ll cover the major freeways and highways in both Portland proper as well as the surrounding metro area.

I-5 runs north to Seattle and south to Salem, the state capital. And the 405 encircles downtown Portland.

I-84 will take you east to the airport, the Columbia River Gorge, and Mt. Hood. And I-205 is an auxiliary freeway to I-5, serving the surrounding area east of Portland.

Highway 26 (Sunset Highway) will take you west, to the Oregon coast. And Highway 217 is a connector highway, communicating I-5 to Sunset Highway, west of Portland.

driving in Portland

Driving in Portland Traffic

Portland’s streets are narrow, many of the streets are one-way and there’s a lot going on here. You’ve got to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Portland is certainly a city full of bicyclists, but it’s not necessarily a bicycle-friendly city.

Some streets have bike lanes and some do not. That means there may be bicyclists mixed in with the main traffic at times. So in an effort to increase safety, there are at least three different types of bike lanes in Portland.

Probably the most unique bike lane to be aware of are the green bike lanes. There are 15 such lanes in Portland and they have their own unique set of rules.

Here’s what you need to know about this special bike lane. First, right turns are illegal on a red light. And second, vehicles turning right must yield to bicyclists on a green light.

TIP: Always be sure to check your blind spots for bicyclists when making any turn.

But then there’s also buses, streetcars, and trams (AKA the Max). You can drive on streetcar tracks since they follow the same traffic rules as cars. But the Max makes up its own rules, so be sure to steer clear of those tracks!

Although Portland’s streetcars and the Max look similar, here’s a few ways to tell the two apart. Streetcars are shorter and narrower than the Max, and will never be linked together like a train when in service. Also, the Max tracks have a deeper rail bed.

Oregon Traffic Laws

Here’s a few important laws you’ll want to be aware of before driving in Portland.

  • Cell phone usage is prohibited for those under the age of 18, and only hands-free devices are permitted for adults.
  • Texting while driving is strictly illegal for drivers of all ages.
  • Right hand turns are allowed on a red light, after you have come to a full stop, and as long as you yield to oncoming traffic and pedestrians.
  • U-turns are not permitted at traffic signals by Oregon law, unless otherwise stated.
  • Unless otherwise stated, speed limits are typically 20 mph in a business district, 25 mph in residential, and 55 mph on highways.

Rush Hour in Portland

Rush hour traffic in the greater Portland area typically spans from 7am to 9am and 4pm to 6pm. During these hours, it may take you over an hour to get from one side of town to the other.

It’s a good idea to plan to have dinner or go shopping during the rush hour, rather than sit around in traffic.

Parking in Portland

The majority of parking in Portland will be parallel parking on the street, or in a parking garage. Plan to walk a block or two to your destination, depending on availability of nearby parking.

Street parking is paid, not free. So be sure to look for a nearby meter to avoid a parking ticket!

TIP: Download the Parking Kitty app on your phone to make paying for parking a little easier.

Pumping Gas in Portland

Up until quite recently, Oregon was one of only two states in which you weren’t permitted to pump your own gas. (The other state is New Jersey.) However, a new law went into effect in 2023 allowing self-serve gas in the state of Oregon.

Most gas stations in Portland now offer both options—self serve or attendant served. There’s typically signage indicating which line is self-serve and which is attendant-served. So be aware sure to select the proper line when going to fuel up.

Tips for driving in Portland in the weather

Portland is known for the rain. But the city may also see sleet and ice in the winter months. Here are a few tips to help keep you safe when driving in Portland in bad weather.

  • When driving in Portland in the rain, keeping your headlights on can increase your visibility and decrease your chances of a car accident.
  • The first rain after a dry spell may cause more slippery conditions than normal. Allow extra room between you and the vehicle ahead of you.
  • In below and near freezing weather, watch out for black ice and allow extra breaking distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you.

It doesn’t snow terribly often in Portland, but when it does, the entire city tends to shut down. Traffic is exceptionally backed up during these times, and I typically try to avoid driving unless necessary during these times.

Public transit in Portland

If you prefer not to, or cannot drive, you can get around Portland using public transit. In fact, Portland has a relatively good public transit system, and many locals choose public transit when visiting downtown.

Portland’s public transit system includes the Max (light rail), street cars, and buses. WES is an additional light rail system that connects to the Max and services Beaverton and Hillsboro (the surrounding metro areas to the west of Portland).

They’ve made it easy to pay for your fare as well. Look for the “Hop readers” at light rail stations or inside the bus. Then all you have to do is tap your credit or debit card, phone, or Hop pass at the Hop reader and you’ve paid! Get more information on Portland’s public transit at Trimet.

Best things to do in Portland

Portland is a city full of outdoor enthusiasts, introverted-book-loving dreamers, and creative types. And the city teems with fun things to do that reflect its people’s interests.

Portland has an abundance of parks and gardens, three of the most notable being the International Rose Test Garden, the Portland Japanese Garden and the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Plus, Forest Park offers miles great hiking opportunities.

And for those who lean more towards the creative side, you can visit the Portland Art Museum, or Portland’s new interactive art museum, Hopscotch. You can also visit Powell’s Books in downtown Portland, the largest used bookstore in the world!

Day trips from Portland

Portland couldn’t be more ideally situated. It’s only one hour to ocean or mountains, and it’s just a few hours to high desert. And with so much beauty and adventure within reach, it’s definitely worth getting out of the city for a day trip from Portland.

Some of the most popular day trips to take from Portland include a visit to the Oregon coast, like Pacific City, Seaside or Rockaway Beach. Other popular day trips will take you to the Columbia River Gorge or up to Mt. Hood. Where ever your day trip takes you though, you’ll be glad you went.

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