Have you ever been stuck in Montana traffic?


Have you ever been stuck in Montana traffic?

We’ve all seen the flyers showing all of our wide open spaces and the very sparsely populated interstates with majestic mountains as a backdrop I’m sure, but once you get into the Montana towns that have seemingly grown up too fast over the past 40 some odd years, you might want to take another look at the wide open space mantra that we’ve become so used to hearing.

Poor city planning and explosive growth have both teamed up to give Missoula the dubious distinction of being first place in Montana as having the worst traffic, according to INRIX, a traffic data and analytics company.

Montana is growing, and all of those sleepy little towns in western Montana that were once filled with plaid shirts and Elmer Fudd hats are taking the brunt of that growth. Small valleys in the west are bursting to the brim with literally everybody and anybody that bought into that whole wide open spaces deal that our flyers are so known for.

Stuck in Montana traffic? Clark Fork River, Missoula Valley
Clark Fork River, Missoula Valley (tap or click image to enlarge)

The Missoula valley is small and tight as far as valleys go, so it’s no wonder that all of the surrounding hills are full of houses. Streets are narrow, congested, and were seemingly built by those who thought it would be great to follow that cow around the pasture.

Travel farther east to Bozeman and you’ll see a lot of the same thing. The core of these towns were built back in the by-gone era of the horse drawn model T with no thought to any possible future growth or development. It was only in the mid to late 80’s that folks in these towns started to wake up to what might lay ahead in the fanatical growth department. Being proactive (with regard to growth) wasn’t a term that had ever existed in the western Montana city planner lexicon until the mid to late 90’s. By then, it was too late. The gnarly wait times at un-synchronized traffic lights on the narrow streets were now a thing.

Stuck in Montana traffic? Great Falls, Montana
Central Avenue, downtown Great Falls, Montana (tap or click image to enlarge)

Enter Great Falls, Montana. The only known to be planned city in the entire state. With Missoula being stuck with all of it’s tiny 1 foot approach transitions, Great Falls sports it’s 5 foot approach transitions (street construction speak). I’ve built approaches in both Missoula and Great Falls. Great Falls is literally the very definition of what it might be like to live in a land with all of those wide open spaces. Even the downtown core, minus Central Ave, is spacious with plenty of room to park. Central Ave. in Great Falls was FUBAR’ED into some quasi-quaint little something or ‘ruther throwback to what Missoula’s core functions are like today for some reason that defies any and all explanation and it’s about as tough to get around on too.

Being stuck in Montana traffic is more of a thing these days in western Montana than it is in eastern Montana. Missoula’s traffic woes have even gone so far as to include the near entirety of the US93 corridor, from Eureka to Sula.

The air quality in our western Montana valleys is atrocious. People sitting, idling, waiting, sometimes for seeming eternities, burning all of the fuel that ads to the already saturated valley inversions that western Montana is so known for. Doesn’t anyone find it odd that most of our state’s environmentalists have chosen to live in the areas of our state that are the most polluted?

But I digress — The problem here is traffic.

Stuck in Montana traffic? Bozeman, Montana Main Street
Bozeman, Montana main street (tap or click image to enlarge)

Have I ever been stuck in Montana traffic? Of course I have. Way back in the far reaches of my brain, I can recall having to sit at the now infamous malfunction junction in Missoula. I remember driving Reserve St. from Brooks to the interstate in a record time of 50 minutes back when Reserve St was only two lanes (was normally one hour and 20 to drive it).


Long wait times in Montana traffic can only be measured in local terms statewide because I’ve driven areas much worse. It’s going to be all about a certain perspective.

I used to bitch about Seattle traffic, that is, until I drove Houston.

When I worked the FEMA houses after hurricane Ike in southeast Texas, it was normal to spend 20 hours a week on the interstate. I think about those days in Texas, from Sugarland to Bay Town to Galveston to Beaumont as they might relate to my Montana driving experiences, and these days, places like Missoula gets a nod and a wink from me with regard to it’s traffic.

Of all 280 U.S. cities covered in the INRIX report, Missoula ranks 63rd for traffic delays.

National polls are what they are and sometimes are fun to read because of their entertainment value. The poll with regard to Montana commute times, what with all of their best city/worst city case scenarios only hits the mark when making reference to Missoula.

I’m guessing that if the poll was taken today, we might be seeing Kalispell included in the mix somewhere along the line. To go even a step further with the whole poll deal, I’d like to see fuel consumption rates included for our western Montana friends as it might relate to the commute times.

The reason why I might mention fuel here is because I use less fuel driving from Vaughn to Malmstrom than I do driving from Broadway to Lolo on average — fuel consumption can say a lot with regard to the difficulty of any commute as far as I’m concerned. I’d be interested in looking at the stats from some back east poll service that would have natural resources factored into the commute. Time is pretty easy to calculate, adding fuel consumption into the mix might mean that poll researchers would actually have to come to Montana to get the real numbers.

Mentioning actual time lost being stuck in Montana traffic is all just fine and dandy and all, but what would really drive the point home, and make the polling a bit more useful on these so-called long commutes would be if they included the actual real cost of the fuel, and the carbon footprint that might be involved whilst sitting at light after light after light.

You can sign up to receive the INRIX 2022 Traffic Scorecard Report here: https://inrix.com/scorecard/#form-download-the-full-report

At any rate — ’till next time.

Thanks for the read.

Happy Trails.


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