February 28, 2011
- The DOTs appear set on picking the ugly design (PDF), even over the protests of their own Urban Design Advisory Group.
- The Northeast Coaltion of Neighborhoods will hold a public forum on the Columbia River Crossing on March 7th.
February 24, 2011
Last week I had the chance to vicariously experience the Community Streetcar Coalition meeting as new PBOT Director Tom Miller was tweeting the highlights.
The local reaction included a lot of frustration from bike advocates, including tweets like these:
If Obama truly "got it" he'd put way more $$ into mode w/ strongest ROI in cities... bicycling. But bike politics are toxic so they lose.
Why are streetcar politics strong? B/c rich ppl & developers <3 them. Political power for bikes lies in branding as glamorous.
If that's true, it's a difficult situation. I want bicycling (and transit) to be accessible more than glamorous.
Exactly. The same politics that are good for highways are good for streetcar. That's why I'm wary.
As somebody who spends time promoting both streetcars and cycling (and is on record saying I'd put the next $1 towards cycling if there were no other constraints), let me say first that I don't think glamour is going to be our trump card for cycling :-)
It's pretty clear to me that we won't achieve the goals of the Portland Bicycle Master Plan unless several things happen:
- A significant Federal funding category is created for cycling - a lot of our local spending decisions are driven by maximizing return on Federal match.
- Public opinion becomes a lot more favorable towards cycling and cyclists.
- Local movers and shakers really get the benefits of cycling.
So what are some of the tools we can use to frame the discussion to move us in this direction? I don't claim to have the definitive answer, but it's pretty clear to me that we have to move beyond a general sense of modal superiority (or entitlement as an underserved minority), and we have to work on our negatives (but that's a topic for another post). Here are some thoughts on some specific directions to think about:
- Placemaking - places designed around streetcars and bikes are great places. Places designed primarily for auto access are crappy places. Compare Alberta Street (originally built along a streetcar line and now a very popular bike district) with Beaverton Hillsdale Highway - nobody's complaining that the street fair on BV Highway is out of control...
- Cycling is healthy. The cost of health care will continue to be a BIG DEAL for a long time. This should be a primary theme in promoting cycling for folks of all ages.
- Cycling is cost effective. This comparison is really interesting. In an era where we have to tighten our belts on all kinds of government spending, the ROI on our transportation investments needs to get some intense scrutiny and that can only be a good thing for bikes.
And I wouldn't rule out leveraging electric bikes. I think as prices come down, e-bikes are going to be much more accessible, and as fuel prices drive people toward electric vehicles, e-bikes have the potential to become the affordable electric vehicle for a lot of trips...
Finally, let's remember to keep our eye on the numbers. In New York, the incredible Janette Sadik-Khan has in part been successful in driving rapid change by focusing on the data.
February 23, 2011
Yes, that's the wonky name for the category of bike treatments that includes cycletracks:
Portland State University
Center for Transportation Studies
Winter 2011 Transportation Seminar Series
Speaker: Chris Monsere, Nathan McNeil, Portland State University
Topic: Portland's Cycle Track and Buffered Bike Lanes: Are they working?
Abstract: Findings will be presented on an evaluation of two innovative bicycle facilities installed in late summer and early fall 2009 in downtown Portland aimed at providing a more separated and comfortable experience for cyclists. The SW Broadway cycle track (near PSU) and the couplet of buffered bike lanes on SW Stark and SW Oak were evaluated to understand how they are functioning on multiple levels. Each facility involved removing a motor vehicle lane by restriping to provide additional roadway space to bicyclists. The facilities were evaluated after they had been in place for approximately one year. Data collected to support this evaluation consisted of surveys of multiple user groups for each facility type, and video data collected by the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation at intersections along each of the routes to understand the facilities' impact on traffic flow, operations and user interactions.
When: Friday, February 25, 2011, 12:00 - 1:00pm
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204
February 22, 2011
Many will consider the title of this post to be preposterous. Many consider Oregon's only true commuter rail, the Westside Express Service, or WES to its friends, to be a dismal failure, and are not eager to repeat the experience. Indeed, WES suffers from low ridership compared to many of TriMet's other lines, and makes up for it with much higher operating costs. I've been rather harsh on the service myself.
Whatever the merits of WES, however, it would be premature to assume that commuter rail has no future in the Portland metropolitan area.
Not your typical commuter rail line
Many of the problems with the line are well-documented. It is expensive to operate, its ridership is low (around 2,000 riders per day--an improvement, but a drop in the bucket compared to the 120k+ per day that MAX gets). In some local circles, it seems to be giving commuter rail a bad name. But is that fair?
WES has many attributes in common with other commuter rail lines, such as Sounder in the Seattle metropolitan area. Its hours of operation are geared towards the peak commute times--weekday mornings and evenings; the line takes a break during midday and has no late-night or weekend service. Its twice-an-hour frequency is also appropriate for commuter rail applications. Inter-station spacing is more typical of commuter rail (WES has an average stop spacing of about 3.5 miles), although if anything, its stops are a bit closer than many other commuter lines. Stops are intended to serve entire communities, rather than being on neighborhood or street scale. And unlike a rapid transit line, WES runs on existing freight lines.
However, other attributes of the service are atypical. Rather than connecting major cities with prominent exurbs, WES connects four suburban cities. The overall size of the system is short--a single line spanning less than 15 miles; many other commuter systems involve multiple lines spanning dozens or even hundreds of miles. And the price for a single ticket--the cost of a single ride fare ($2.30), is far less that other commuter rail services, even for trips of comparable distance. And many commuter rail systems are separate from local transit agencies--your WES ticket lets you transfer anywhere else within TriMet; for many other commuter lines, local transit at either end of the trip is a separate purchase.
There are many ways in which WES does not "fit the template" of commuter rail--or at least of the numerous successful systems in the country. Many of the characteristics of the system identified in the previous paragraph are more typical of mass transit than of commuter services. The line is, in many ways, an attempt by Washington County to get mass transit on the cheap--i.e. without paying the capital costs necessary to build a dedicated, dual-tracked right-of-way necessary for frequent bidirectional operation free of FRA regulations. In other words, a technology which works well in one role is likely misapplied.
And there's some evidence this misunderstanding might continue.
What's next for WES, anyway?
The Wilsonville to Beaverton corridor is identified as one of the "near term" corridors by Metro's High Capacity Transit System Plan, published in 2008. The plan document, written before WES opened but in anticipation of the service, apparently considers the current service offerings in the corridor (WES, along with the local bus service provided by the 76/78/96 lines) to be inadequate in the long term, and identifies it as a corridor for future high capacity transit development. The HCT document itself leaves the question of what mode should be used open, but the parent webpage contains the following language concerning the project [emphasis added]:
The plan calls for a focus on three transit corridors for investment in the near-term: the corridor in the vicinity of Powell Boulevard, connecting Gresham to downtown Portland, the corridor in the vicinity of Barbur Boulevard/Highway 99, connecting downtown Portland to Tigard and possibly Sherwood, and the WES commuter rail corridor that connects Beaverton to Wilsonville, which could see WES service upgraded to all day service with trains running at 15-minute intervals.
Many readers, familiar with the problems associated with the line--limited service hours and frequency, enormous operating expenses, and reliability issues, might react to that idea with outrage or bemusement. Going from peak-time weekday service every 30 minutes, to all-day service every 15 (which I assume would include weekend hours as well), involves 4-5 times the number of runs as currently done--how can TriMet afford that? And what of Portland and Western Railroad, which still is in the business of running freight trains on the tracks in question (and whose need for freight operations is reportedly one constraint on the service hours WES can provide)? And ignoring the issue with competing freight operations, much of the line is single-tracked (and the stations are single-platform), further limiting the number of trains which can be run.
It appears that Metro seems insistent on making WES look even MORE like rapid transit, and less like commuter rail, if the intent is to run all-day service at fifteen minute headways (thus meeting TriMet's rather dubious definition of "frequent service").
However, a recent change in US law makes the prospect a little less daunting.
Making heavy rail a little bit lighter
In 2008, President Bush signed into law (over the objection of many of the nations' railroads) the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which mandates the installation of so-called Positive Train Control systems on the nations FRA-regulated railroads by 2015. Positive Train Control is essentially a system whereby all trains in a region of track are placed under the control of a central computer system which monitors them (and the status of switches and other equipment along the line) and is capable of stopping trains should risk of a collision occur. PTC does not replace an onboard engineer--it is only designed to prevent train-train collisions, not watch out for other obstacles--but once implemented, it will lead to several other FRA safety requirements being loosened in PTC-enabled regions. Among these are the "buff strength requirement", essentially requiring lead railcars (including DMUs) to be built like tanks, as well as replacing traditional block signalling systems--thus allowing more trains to safely occupy a given line. Whether this will ultimately affect crew requirements (the 2-man crew on WES is also courtesy of the FRA) is unclear.
However, to me this is barking up the wrong tree--even if forthcoming changes in the law make the tree not as difficult to scale. If a rapid transit line is needed in the corridor, then a rapid transit line should be built--a commuter rail line is not the answer. It probably would be possible to build MAX adjacent to the WES right of way (with intelligent deviations where it makes sense, such as direct service to Washington Square, Bridgeport Village, and Wilsonville Town Center)--but the fact that we DO have WES in operation provides a better option: conversion of the parallel bus corridor (76/96) to BRT of some sort. Right now, the current bus service, one of TriMet's more popular lines, suffers from numerous bottlenecks as it meanders down Hall Boulevard and Boones Ferry. But were the right-of-way to be upgraded in key spots (and stops to be consolidated), it could become a compelling service offering. And having WES in the same corridor to handle the too-good-to-ride-the-bus crowd, mitigates one of the key objections to BRT--lower levels of ridership.
Enough talking about commuter rail doing duty as rapid transit--let's talk about the prospect of commuter rail serving as commuter rail. Right now, the closest thing we have (besides WES) is the Amtrak Cascades service. While Amtrak trains are frequently used by commuters, especially over longer distances, they are fundamentally designed as long-haul services for travelers, not medium-distance runs for commuters. Amtrak's Salem-to-Portland fare is $13, higher than a typical commuter ticket over a similar distance. Trains run only once every 3-4 hours. Many amenities, such as checked baggage, are irrelevant to commuters. And the service passes by many towns on the route.
But there are quite a few possibilities that have been discussed.
First in the pipe is the Southwest Corridor project, which looks at providing high capacity transit to the corridor lying roughly along Barbur Boulevard, between Sherwood and downtown. The corridor has "MAX" painted all over it in yellow and blue lettering, but the page at metro wants us to know that many modes, including commuter rail, are under consideration. It ought to be obvious that commuter rail as a complete solution is nonviable--there are no existing tracks serving the length of the corridor that a commuter rail line can run on; but commuter rail might work as a partial solution providing between Sherwood and downtown via Tualatin/Lake Oswego/Milwaukie, while another mode handles the Portland-to-Tigard stretch. This project is probably a good ten years at least from completion, but commuter rail is explicitly mentioned as an option at this early stage.
Beyond that, the HCT Plan, on page 46, includes analysis of several potential commuter rail corridors connecting the Portland metropolitan area to various exurbs. Several, including runs to Scappoose, Sandy (an interesting inclusion given the lack of an existing rail line), and Hood River were deemed to be unworkable; but two were called out as possibilities.
- Commuter rail service to Newberg. The line discussed in the HCT Plan would run between Newberg and Beaverton (on existing tracks), presumably sharing the Nimbus and Tigard stops, then crossing over to the old Red Electric line, crossing back over the existing WES service in Tualatin, and continuing on to Sherwood and Newberg. (This is different than the Sherwood-Portland service mentioned above). The prospect of continuation of the line past Newberg was not discussed--but were it to go to Newberg, getting to McMinnville wouldn't be difficult--the "hard part" of this proposal is the Rex Hill stretch between Sherwood and Newberg due to track conditions.
- Extension of WES to Salem. The old Oregon Electric line on which WES runs continues right on to Salem, and doesn't see much freight traffic (though is reportedly in poor shape). It does, however, pass through or near the communities of Donald, Woodburn, Brooks, and Keizer before reaching Salem. A proposal to route HSR through Tualatin and along this line has been met with criticism, but a southward extension of WES might be a sensible thing to do. Track conditions are an issue, as is the fact that a few sections of bypass track will likely be necessary--the OE line doesn't serve the Salem train station.
- The HCT also mentions one other corridor which is interesting for this analysis--a second-tier rapid transit corridor connecting the Clackamas area (specifically Clackamas Town Center) with Washington County (specifically Washington Square), running through Lake Oswego. Were a full wye to be built at Willsburg Junction (where the UPRR mainline and the Tillamook Branch join, just north of Milwaukie), it would be possible to make this trip mostly on existing track. Obviously, this idea suffers from a similar flaw as WES itself--this is probably better suited as a rapid transit corridor, not a commuter rail line, and the existing tracks are not exactly a direct route--but it could be a possibility.
A few other "no-brainers" not discussed in the HCT plan.
- Portland-Salem service. As pointed out above, the current Amtrak offerings don't function well as commuter rail; this is a corridor just crying out for commuter rail service (which runs more frequently, has a lower fare, stops at towns along the way, and eschews the need for baggage handling and sleeper cars). Either the existing UPRR tracks or the Oregon Electric line discussed above would be viable candidates.
- Service to Washington State. Service connecting Portland to Vancouver, or potentially to other northwest Washington cities (Camas/Washougal or even Kelso/Longview) is also another possibility. A reader asked in another thread if this has been studied--I'm not sure if it has. The HCT Plan seems to have excluded any analysis of service in Washington.
- Extension of WES to Hillsboro. Mentioned for completeness, really; but another long term rapid transit corridor called out in the HCT is the TV Highway corridor between Beaverton and Hillsboro (or even Forest Grove), presently served by the 57. Extension of WES to Hillsboro along the Tillamook Branch, possibly with an intermediate stop in Aloha, might be a useful thing to consider. The 57 corridor has also been the target of BRT proposals, and a BRT/WES duplex might serve a similar role as proposed here.
All of these proposals are likely a decade or more into the future--but they are all possibilities. But (beating a favorite drum yet again), if gas prices continue to go up, they may be considered sooner than you think. At any rate, commuter rail is a proven and successful transit technology when used in the right places. There's ample evidence that the local example is a bad example, but it would be wrong to write off the future of commuter rail in Portland based on the WES experience.
February 21, 2011
Hat tip to RA, who got there in the open thread first.
Clackamas County chair Lynn Peterson, an ardent support of Milwaukie MAX and other land-use and transit initiatives within the county, is resigning her post on the county commission, to join the Kitzhaber administration as a transportation advisor. Her last day on the county commission will be Friday, March 11, and her first day at the new gig will be the following Monday.
A press release from the Kitzhaber team:
Governor Kitzhaber today announced the appointment of Lynn Peterson as his Sustainable Communities and Transportation Policy Advisor. Ms. Peterson is Chair of the Clackamas County Commission and a nationally recognized transportation and land use integration expert. She has dedicated her career to building safe and healthy communities.
"I am pleased that Lynn will be joining my team as my Sustainable Communities and Transportation Policy Advisor," said Governor Kitzhaber. "Her knowledge, dedication and expertise will be integral to helping get Oregonians back to work building a sustainable 21st century transportation system."
Prior to serving on the Clackamas County Commission, Ms. Peterson worked as a transportation consultant and as a Strategic Planning Manager for TriMet. She also was a transportation advocate for 1000 friends of Oregon and a transportation planner for Metro.
Ms. Peterson will lead the Governor's policy efforts on transportation initiatives including, high speed rail, freight and highway planning and improvement, the Solar Highway, and linking transportation to housing and sustainability. The Governor has asked Patricia McCaig to be his lead advisor on the Columbia River Crossing Project. Ms. McCaig has been serving this role during the transition and will continue this work into the Administration.
"It is an honor to join the Governor's team to help communities across this state achieve their goals for healthy, vibrant and sustainable growth and development," said Ms. Peterson. "I am excited to build on the successes we have had in such a diverse county as Clackamas and apply the lessons learned to assist cities and counties statewide."
Ms. Peterson holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from University of Wisconsin - Madison and two Masters degrees from Portland State University, in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Urban and Regional Planning.
She will resign from the Clackamas County Commission effective March 11 and begin working in the Governor's office on March 14.
What her role exactly will be with the Kitzhaber administration, and her relationship to the established transit bureaucracy at ODOT, is unclear.
The earliest a special election to replace Peterson could be scheduled is the primary election in May. She was elected to the board in 2006, and her term was scheduled to expire in 2012.
Should be interesting.
February 18, 2011
OPAL (Organizing People Activating Leaders) doesn't think so.
They'd like TriMet transfers to be extended to 3 hours (and after 7pm, until the end of service). They're holding a rally on Monday:
Kickoff your Campaign for a Fair Transfer
Monday, February 21st
St Francis Parish 11th and SE Oak (Bus #70)
Dinner, childcare available (RSVP 971-340-4866)
TriMet riders who depend on the bus and MAX are facing greater hardships. Many transit riders, especially working-class families and people of color, rely on single-trip fares to meet basic needs and can't afford to invest in transit passes. TriMet has cut bus service by over 170,000 hours leading to longer wait times between buses, overcrowded buses that pass us by, and missed transfers. Service cuts have decimated evening and weekend service. TriMet's transfer policy is unequal and insufficient to give bus riders the time required to take care of our daily needs.
OPAL Bus Riders Unite! has a Solution:
1. EXTEND ALL TRIMET TRANSFERS TO 3 HOURS FOR BUS AND MAX
2. SUPPORT EVENING RIDERS WITH UNLIMITED TRANSFER TIME AFTER 7PM
I imagine TriMet might counter-argue that this will reduce farebox revenue (and risk further service cuts). What do you think?
February 17, 2011
- The word that the House Transportation Committee would hold a hearing in Vancouver, USA has a been floating out there for a couple of weeks, but the details have been mysterious. Well, now we know: 9-11AM on Monday 2/21 at the Vancouver PUD (1200 Fort Vancouver Way). Via BikePortland.
- The President's transportation budget has folks like me smiling (Reconnecting America has a nice analysis [PDF, 164K]). But it seems to be 180 degrees out of phase with the House plans to slash expenditures. Stay tuned...
February 16, 2011
Sarah Mirk at the Merc is reporting that the Port of Portland provided $50K in funding to the business-centric "Columbia River Crossing Coalition" which advocates in support of the project.
"Astroturfing" doesn't quite describe this, we need a different word...
This post, admittedly, is inspired by a brief conversation over in the February 2011 open thread on the merits of zoning, centered on an Edward Glaeser article criticizing land use laws in many cities restricting the supply of skyscrapers.
The subject today is therefore market urbanism, a movement of libertarian-thinking (or leaning) urbanists whose essential case is that suburban sprawl, and other inefficient land use forms, are in significant part the result of zoning codes, parking minimums, and other legal intrusions into the marketplace. Rather than being a response to the demands of a "free market", as many defenders of suburbia (including many other self-described libertarians) like to assert, market urbanists claim instead that suburbia is in fact codified and mandated, and propose that by merely rescinding or loosening this legal regimen, that more sustainable development patterns will result.
There are many notable writers on the subject, among them:
- The aforementioned Edward Glaeser, a libertarian-leaning professor of economics at Harvard.
- Ryan Avent, an economist (and frequent contributor to The Economist), who hosts a blog called The Bellows.
- The blog Market Urbanism, written by a Chicago real estate developer. (Market Urbanism comments on the Glaeser article here).
- The blog Reinventing Parking which focuses on parking requirements in particular.
- Other prominent libertarian writers who occasionally endorse market-urbanist positions (although do not focus on them) include Andrew Sullivan, Will Wilkinson, and Conor Friedersdorf.
The Zoning Debate
One area of public policy where market urbanists certainly have a point is the subject of zoning. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, New York Times columinst, and self-described liberal Paul Krugman wrote several columns (in 2005 and 2007 respectively) in which he partitioned the US into what he termed "flatland" and the "zoned zone", roughly corresponding to the interior of the country and the coastal regions. Krugman then noted that the housing bubble (which was starting to burst by 2007) was more pronounced in the "zoned zone", a phenomenon that he attributed to more stringent land use regulations that restricted the supply of housing, driving up prices and creating the conditions necessary for an asset bubble. Many conservative/libertarian writers, including Randall O'Toole, have extrapolated Krugman's columns to a broader claim that land-use laws were the primary cause of the housing bubble (and some go so far as to blame the subsequent near-collapse of the financial markets on land use regulations). The columns have been criticized in some quarters; a common question is how Krugman's model accounts for cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas (Krugman responds here). My biggest beefs with the column itself is that it fails to control for other aspects, such as the state of the economy generally and the levels of organic demand needed for a bubble to start--the reason there was no housing bubble in Detroit or St. Louis or Buffalo has little to do with a land-use laws or a lack thereof.
However, I have one other (minor) criticism of Krugman's work here: Zoning, strictly defined, is not the problem. (Krugman's a sharp enough fellow that I suspect he knows this and was merely using "zoning" as a metaphor; though I'm less certain about many of his readers and critics). All major US cities not named "Houston" have zoning, and Houston has other regulatory regimes (and aggressive enforcement of covenants) which have largely the same effect. More to the point, many of the cities where bubbles didn't occur have widespread zoning laws which essentially mandate the creation of low-density suburbia, prohibiting more compact urban forms which allow the placement more dwelling units within a given area of land. The vast majority of zoning regulations specify maximum densities, not minimums, and thus act to restrict the supply of housing within a given area. The biggest difference between places like Atlanta and Portland isn't what's permitted within the urban footprint, but the rate at which that footprint is able to grow. And while Oregon's land use laws constrain the power of zoning boards to change zoning (upzoning lands outside of an urban growth boundary is seldom permitted), the nexus of the constraint lies elsewhere. (In some cities, geography or nature rather than law limits the growth of sprawl). Within the "zoned zone", there was lots of construction going on in response to the ridiculous levels of demand that occurred during the bubble (and this is a necessary condition for a bubble to occur--massive overproduction in response to the rising prices). The difference between Portland and Atlanta in this regard is that here, homes here weren't being built on quarter acre lots. Places, like San Francisco or Manhattan, which have truly constrained supplies of housing, haven't seen crashes in the housing market. (Real estate in both locales was expensive before the crash, and remains so now).
The freedom to not live near renters
Yet in many quarters, the notion that zoning (and land-use regulation in general) is somehow a pernicious tool of urbanistas looking to force everyone into "Soviet-style" housing (the Soviet Union has been dead and gone for nearly 20 years, yet still is routinely invoked as a strawman), remains a common belief; as is the belief that suburbia is the "natural" state of affairs in a free country, and other urban forms result from market distortions and unwarranted political interference.
In 2007, the GOP-controlled Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring counties to designate so-called "urban development areas", areas within the county boundaries which would be upzoned to a higher density than commonplace. The law doesn't require any higher density development (or redevelopment) to actually occur; no restrictions are imposed upon property owners. (In fact, the affected owners have restrictions eased somewhat, as the number of dwellings which are permitted increases). However, a conservative political group, the Roanoke Tea Party, is sponsoring a new bill (HB1271) in the General Assembly to essentially make the provisions of the bill optional--and many other conservative organizations, affiliated with the broader tea party movement, are lending support. Their arguments, unsurprisingly, are couched in terms of liberty. Quoting from their website:
Speaker Howell [William J. Howell, a Republican] is siding with big corporate developers and eco-extremists to rob you of the right to own and control the use of your private property. He is blocking a critical piece of legislation that is vital to preserving the property rights of every Virginian. If he has his way, you'll be forced to forfeit your land in the suburbs for the development of high-density 'urban development areas' also called 'smart growth'. This is a gross violation of property rights. The inalienable right to own and control the use of private property is perhaps the single most important principle responsible for the growth and prosperity of Virginia.
Virginia Campaign for Liberty is leading the charge against one of the most egregious schemes the political establishment pushes to control our lives and bankrupt our communities. I am talking about the land use provisions imposed on us in 2007 that Speaker Howell was instrumental in getting passed into law. These provisions are now being used by special interest groups to tag team Virginians with abusive regulations to strip you of your livelihood and property. You see the corporate developers stand to gain high profits from the construction of up to twelve homes on a single acre of land. They also get huge tax breaks for their green building practices in the "new urbanism design".
Eco-extremists are heavily funded for their lobby effort to grab and preserve up to 90% of all the land that would be off limits to humans and move you into government controlled high-density feudalistic transit villages. They use global warming and environmental disaster to scare the citizens and politicians into abolishing private property ownership. If they have their way, single family homes will be a thing of the past. We'd become mere lease holders of the homes we live in.
The land use provisions passed in 2007 mandating "urban development areas" enables corporate developers and eco-fanatics to capitalize on your loss of property ownership. You and I have an opportunity to stop this violation of our property rights if we can get HB1721 to the floor for a vote and ultimately passed into law. HB1721 would simply make "urban development areas" optional rather than mandatory.
If passed, the decision whether or not urban development areas are appropriate for the community would be kept local where it belongs. It is essential that vital planning decisions for communities stays local, and not in the Capitol, where they can easily be manipulated by nefarious special interests.
Please join me in the fight to pass this crucial legislation! Contact Speaker Howell today and tell him to stop blocking a vote for HB1721. You can contact him by phone at [redacted] or email [redacted].
The right to own private property is as sacred as life and liberty. You either have the right to own property or you become property.
It goes without saying, of course, that the despised law in question does not have any of the effects alleged by the Roanoke Tea Party. It doesn't impose any regulations, or require homeowners or developers to do so much as lift a finger. It has nothing to do with the spectre of "Eco-extremists" trying to "grab and preserve up to 90% of all the land that would be off limits to humans and move you into government controlled high-density feudalistic transit villages." It only requires that zoning restrictions be loosened in a few areas--yet this is painted as a grievous assault on civil liberties. The Roanoke Tea Party seems terrified of the "urbanist" bogeyman, a straw-man commonly conjured up in such diatribes that paints environmentalists and their allies as an unstoppable (even in a conservative state like Virginia) juggernaut which will destroy civilization as we know it the moment that a downtown highrise condo is built.
But the only freedom being threatened is, as Conor Friedersdorf so brilliantly noted, the "freedom to not live near renters". As noted in a prior article here, many land use regulations aren't implemented in order to increase density, but instead to limit it in order to keep out the riffraff by pricing them out of the market--in particular, to prevent the construction of apartments, which might cause poor people to move to the neighborhood. (And there is evidence that anti-density zoning contributes to other social problems as well).
There has been much debate over the proposed Virginia legislation in market-urbanist and libertarian circles. David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington criticizes the Roanoke Tea Party for a blatantly "statist" piece of legislation (for those unfamiliar with libertarian dogma, "statist" is a not a nice thing to say). On the other hand, Marc Scribner from the Competitive Enterprise Institute expresses some concern with the 2007 law, claiming that it doesn't go far enough in undoing zoning and other land-use laws, and that it doesn't protect affected landowners from "eminent domain abuse"--he's concerned that upzoning might be followed by condemnation were affected landowners to decline to (re)develop their properties voluntarily. (The law is silent on the subject, and AFAIK no such condemnations have occurred).
However, no non-tea-party affiliated libertarian groups have come out behind the bill, to my knowledge. One interesting thing about the above-cited rant is its frequent anti-corporate language--according to the theory, big business is in league with the political left to screw hardworking Virginians out of their birthright. (Which ought to be news to both big business and the left, who seldom cooperate on anything.) And the non-libertarian right is fond of inverting concepts of freedom and liberty in other contexts as well--the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other anti-Jim Crow legislation were opposed on grounds such as "states rights" and "freedom of association", and many religious conservatives oppose recent expansions of gay rights as an affront to their religious liberty--essentially asserting that in the name of religious tolerance, those so inclined should have the right to practice discrimination in the public sphere, as allegedly required by their faith.
The other side
The market-urbanist position, however, does not enjoy uniform support from the US libertarian movement. Many writers claim that low-density suburbia is a widely-preferred development form in the US, and arises primarily due to consumer choice, and that land-use policies in many cities (as well as other policies, such as the mortgage interest deduction) simply codify what the bulk of consumers want. USC professor Peter Gordon writes, in an interview with Reason Magazine:
Compact cities are archaic forms, and they are not coming back. When you study the economics of location, all the textbook models say a firm wants to locate near the urban core or other advantageous sites, and workers must make their living arrangements so that they are close to their jobs. That may be the way it was once upon a time.
But all these firms have become much more footloose. And they go where the workers want to live. The orientation has flip-flopped. Even manufacturing businesses are no longer locked into specific sites, so they have more locational choices. They want to go where the labor force wants to go. The workers and their families want to live where the land is cheap and the air is clean and the schools are good and there are high amenities and so forth. There's a lot more spatial flexibility than ever before, and the consequences are pretty benign.
Another "sprawl supporter" is ex-Portlander and noted transit/urbanism critic Randall O'Toole, who also writes under the nom de plume of The Anti-Planner, summarizes the argument that sprawl is natural and good for you here, taking a few swipes at market urbanism for good measure. He concludes with:
Sprawl is not the result of central planning and libertarians need not hesitate in their opposition to smart growth. The real hypocrites are the so-called progressives like Yglesias who claim to care about low-income and disadvantaged people yet support policies that will prevent most such people from ever owning single-family homes.
O'Toole does embrace the reduction of zoning laws, while calling for increased use of deed restrictions and covenants (as is done in Houston) to promote the same effect of ensuring neighborhood "stability".
My first observation is to note that as far as the intra-libertarian arguments go, I don't really have a dog in that fight. I'm not a Libertarian, and don't start from the political axiom that government and law is bad until proven otherwise. So whether Glaeser and Ryan are more in line with libertarian dogma, or Gordon and Randall, I don't much care. However, in terms of describing reality, I think the market urbanists are closer to correct.
While there certainly is a market for detached single-family homes on large lots (many people with sufficient income to live wherever they want choose suburbia), there's a market for high-density urbanism as well, especially when co-located with high-quality urban amenities. However, there are a lot of forces at work--and not just legal codes--which tend to encourage suburban development. Cheap(er) construction costs in areas where land is not scarce. Much more stringent building codes for multifamily housing. Lending and finance policies, and numerous government subsidies, which encourage home ownership. Historical (albeit now illegal) practices such as redlining. And the longstanding phenomenon of capital flight--migration of people with money out of political entities containing poverty, into separate entities where it is excluded. And yes, many residents of lower-density housing prefer to avoid any higher-density housing nearby, particularly if it consists of rental units.
Furthermore, many of the other benefits assigned to suburbia don't really have anything to do with density itself, but with other factors. "Good schools" essentially means "few poor people in the district"; likewise with observations about amenities. "Clean air" was truer back in the days when point-source industrial polluters were routinely located in downtowns, but is far less true today; transport-related pollution is easily worse in suburban areas than downtown. (Air pollution from cars downtown is frequently a problem, but one frequently caused by suburban commuters).
The interesting question, though, is one posed by the Roanoke Tea Party's panicky broadside, and by O'Toole's missive, and one which ought to give pause to those who claim to value liberty: To what extent should one property owner be able to restrain his neighbor? Some uses are fundamentally incompatible, of course; but many of the arguments about "stability" or "neighborhood character" strike me as questionable--to what extent should a homeowner have to expect that his neighborhood not change, and how far should those rights extend? Deed restrictions, arrangements which are typically imposed on a neighborhood by its initial developer, rather than negotiated and agreed to by neighbors acting at arms length, are very difficult to get rid of, and frequently used for far more nefarious purposes than simply keeping out renters. On the other hand, issues of safety and fundamental incompatibility are easily dealt with via general nuisance laws and building codes.
Sadly, this is directly opposite the Mayor's "State of the City" address. I'm going to have to catch the podcast...
Portland State University
Center for Transportation Studies
Winter 2011 Transportation Seminar Series
Speaker: Stephanie Routh, Willamette Pedestrian Coalition
Topic: Getting Around on Foot Action Plan
About the Action Plan: The goal of Getting Around on Foot is to explore priorities for pedestrian improvements throughout the Portland
metropolitan region and to present solutions that can translate to better walking conditions and policies.
The Getting Around on Foot Action Plan represents a broad overview of our region's challenges for walking and needed improvements from the perspective of those who daily navigate our streets. The Action Plan is designed to encourage decision-makers who draft policies and direct investments to design a comprehensive pedestrian network as their priority and to fund its development. We hope community members can and will use this Action Plan as a resource to advocate for more walkable/rollable neighborhoods.
Read the Action Plan: http://www.scribd.com/doc/43219356/Getting-Around-on-Foot
When: Friday, February 18, 2011, 12:00 - 1:00pm
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204
February 15, 2011
Meanwhile, the chair of the Columbia River Crossing Bridge Review Panel will present the three recommended design types this Thursday:
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011
Portland Expo Center, Hall D
2060 N Marine Drive, Portland
February 10, 2011
The Community Advisory Committee for the Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project has recommended the Streetcar alternative, using Macadam Avenue in Johns Landing.
The committee further recommends that the other two major alignment questions, how to route through Dunthorpe (on the existing rail right of way or on Riverwood Rd) and whether or not to dip into the Foothills area in Lake Oswego, be carried into the Final Environmental Impact Statement process.
The vote was 16 votes for Streetcar, 2 for Enhanced Bus and one for the no-build option.
The Project Management Group (staff) will make their recommendation next week, and the project steering committee (mostly elected officials) will consider both recommendations and forward a recommendation to the variety of local governments involved for final adoption.
Our recent post on the 'Street Smart' Walk Score brought lots of comments about issues with the quality of the 'places' used to computer the rankings.
Well, now Walk Score has a tool to add and remove places.
February 9, 2011
As former Governor Barbara Roberts adds her name at the last minute to the least of folks seeking to replace Council Robert Liberty. I wonder what her CRC stance is?
The final list (the cutoff was at 5pm today):
- Martha Dibblee, a retired health physicist and consultant who has served on the Energy Facility Siting Council and the board of the Climate Trust.
- Kenneth Heggem, a sales representative with Columbia Northwest Heating and board member of the Woodstock Neighborhood Association.
- Jonathan Levine, a former project manager with the University of Western States.
- Walt Nichols, a bookkeeper with Watson Plumbing Co. and chair of the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association. Nichols was an unsuccessful candidate for Portland City Council in 2010.
- Alesia Reese, a clerk with the U.S. Postal Service and member of the Parkrose School District board. She is also chair of the Woodland Park Neighborhood Association and the East Portland Parks Coalition.
- Barbara Roberts, former Oregon Governor.
- Bob Shiprack, a labor relations consultant for Pac/West Communications and a former executive secretary of the Oregon State Building Trades Council. He served six terms in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995.
- Bob Stacey, a consultant and former executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon. He also served as chief of staff to Congressman Earl Blumenauer and as executive director of policy and planning for TriMet. Stacey was an unsuccessful candidate for Metro Council President in 2010.
JPACT is poised to adopt (tomorrow) the recommendations of a task force (PDF, 267K) on how to allocate flexible funds between active transportation and freight projects.
It looks to me like the recommendations will limit freight projects to smaller projects that aren't likely to get funded in other categories. It would appear that this will help keep future allocation processes more civil.
I just want to highlight this comment left earlier this evening on an earlier post about the Columbia River Crossing. Hard to say it more articulately:
February 8, 2011 8:09 PM David Bragdon Says:
The real question, and the one which will determine whether anything gets built, is whether the Governors recognize that for the second time in six months the ODOT/WashDOT management group has been given a resoundingly failing grade by their own hand-picked experts? One law of bureaucratic physics is that agencies that have created a mess tend to spend more energy covering up the mess than cleaning it up. That's exactly what ODOT/WashDOT have been doing for many years on this project. Nothing will change until that management is replaced by a team that can get things done right. Simply referring the matter back to the very same management that made the mess (which the Governors made the mistake of doing last summer) will simply lead to more failure.
[The commenter information appears authentic, although I have not made any efforts to verify it in any depth.]
February 8, 2011
- The U.S. House Transportation Committee is going to hold a hearing in Vancouver, WA on February 21st. BikePortland is tracking the details.
- On February 28th at 9pm, OPB's Oregon Experience program features "Street Car City" about Portland's Streetcar history. Details at PBOT via the Commuter Central blog.
February 7, 2011
Portland Afoot has a very nice overview of all the apps for your mobile phone to help you navigate TriMet, neatly divided by category.
February 4, 2011
The Oregonian's Joseph Rose tweets the verdict. Sandi Day is guilty on 4 counts of careless driving, one count of failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, one count of illegal left turn, for her actions in the April 24 2010 incident where the TriMet bus she was driving struck five pedestrians in a crosswalk, killing two.
Total fine was $1,118, plus community service; with possibility of license suspension (Twitter feed isn't quite clear).
More to come...
As most of you are aware, I'm a supporter of several (although certainly not all) of the upcoming big-ticket transit projects, including one which has drawn immense criticism because of it's price tag and concerns about how it is being funded--namely the Milwaukie MAX project. I share concerns about things such as bonding future payroll tax revenues and use of urban renewal funds--and given that these things together are less than 10% of the overall project budget, I find it highly unfortunate that more "honest" sources of revenue haven't been found to pay for the project.
However, I consider the project an important long-term investment. In the short term, the line will offer significant but not earth-shattering performance and reliability gains over 33/McLouglin, which the line will replace north of Milwaukie. (Average trip time will decrease, but not significantly; reliability will improve due to running in an exclusive right-of-way). Capacity will instantly quadruple, assuming trains run at the same headways as the #33 in the corridor, and MAX will certainly attract some riders that won't ride the bus. (To what extent such passengers should be accommodated is a frequent topic of discussion). Passengers on the 33 south of Milwaukie will be inconvenienced by a transfer; unlike the proposed project across the river, it will be a transfer to a faster service.
But the key long-term issue that justifies the expense, in my opinion, is the likely possibility that we could soon see a day where gasoline becomes far more expensive than it is. There are also the environmental issues to consider. If and when that day comes--and it may come before the line's scheduled 2015 opening--we may find that we desperately need a high-capacity, high-performance, non-fossil-fuel powered transit line serving SE Portland and northern Clackamas County. And a few other places as well.
But there's that word: if. What if "if" never occurs? Might it be better to wait until we Really Truly Need the project, than build it "on spec" today?
Obviously, I'm playing devil's advocate with this question. I believe we need it today; that "if" in this case is as close to a sure bet as we are going to get, and that the cost of waiting outweigh the benefits. In addition, the bulk of the funding for the project is conditioned on the project keeping to schedule; were it to be indefinitely postponed, either of the lottery funds from Salem or the federal matching funds from Uncle Sam might vanish. They could be re-appropriated in the future, but given all the politicking needed to plan a project of this magnitude, it could be a very long time before the project is able to re-start. (And if conditions do change in such a way that public demand for transit is greater, there will be much more competition for funds).
Obviously, this is a hypothetical discussion in the context of Milwaukie MAX. The Final EIS has been written, a Decision of Record will soon be registered with the FTA, and construction is scheduled to begin this year. Preliminary work on the new bridge has commenced as you read this. Some of the funding sources may be jeopardized by forthcoming initiatives and politicking, but the proportion of funding which is presently at-risk is very small--a referendum by Clackamas County voters to withdraw the county's share of funding is unlikely to scuttle the project.
But since we are engaging in a hypothetical, let as assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that the project could be delayed and restarted without consequence, and that doing so might be advantageous. Obviously, there are some out there who consider this project a bad idea at any time, and would vote for "never" as a start date. While I and the other editors here disagree with that opinion, it isn't an illegitimate one--go ahead and chime in. But my assumption in the discussion is that the project is worthwhile, and ought to be built sooner or later--and which one (sooner vs later) is the subject of debate.
If you prefer, of course, feel free to replace references to "Milwaukie MAX" with references to projects further in the future, where the wheels aren't already set in motion--many of the arguments considered are not exclusive to MLR.
One line of argument, with arguments both pro and con, is the effect of the current recession and level of public debt. Many conservatives argue that during a recession (which arguably we're still in--even if Wall Street is doing fine, we've got 10% unemployment still, which is a Big Problem) we need to tighten our belts, and delay discretionary investments in response to a decline in tax revenues. Others argue that we need to increase spending in a recession, to help bring the economy out of it--and point that many (although not all) so-called "deficit hawks" are far less eager to raise taxes (which would penalize the rich) than cut spending (which tends to inflict more pain upon the poor). A response to the Keynesian school of thought is to point out the current humongous budget deficit, and note that whatever the merits of countercyclical spending otherwise, it is inappropriate with the current level of debt. Many liberal economists would respond that the US is a sovereign currency issuer, unlike countries such as Greece or Ireland (whose debt is denominated in a currency they cannot control the supply of), and that inflation is near zero; thus increasing the money supply (aka "printing money", which the Fed did a bit of last November) is a reasonable option. OTOH, when the Fed did engage in a bit of "quantitative easing" last fall, the bond market was less than happy--creditors to the US don't like it much if we devalue our debts via inflation, and inflation would be highly detrimental to Americans living on a fixed income--in particular pensioners, whose pensions would be effectively reduced by inflation of the dollar. OTTH, a good argument can be made that sovereign governments ought to be in charge of the financial sector, rather than the other way around.
That's enough macroeconomics for this post; the high-level debate over the correct fiscal and monetary response(s) to our current situation are covered by writers far more knowledgeable on economics than yours truly. However, I will note that if countercyclical spending is to occur, the money has to come from Washington. Neither John Kitzhaber, Sam Adams, or Neil McFarlane have the authority to engage in deficit-spending other than via limited means such as obligation bonds--local governments cannot print money, and are rather constrained in the sorts of debt they can issue. Right now, the mood in Washington seems to be against such actions--the "stimulus package" of 2009 was politically unpopular--so the money flow is slowing. OTOH, the Milwaukie MAX funding has already been approved, and the project has a very good FTA cost-effectiveness rating, and thus has a good chance of surviving the sharp pencils.
Various other factors which could influence the decision include:
- When will peak oil occur? As noted above, a major justification for the project is the price of gasoline and other fossil fuels. Petroleum is not produced in Oregon; it's something we have to import. Whether it comes from Alaska or Texas or Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, it nonetheless gets here on a freighter or in a pipeline. As a result, nearly every dollar spent on gasoline is a dollar sent out of the region; the local value-add is pretty small. The price of gas, essentially, is a tax on our economy, and that excludes the taxes that we ourself levy on fuel. It's a tax which confers no benefit on the region--and in many cases it's money that winds up in the hand of various unsavory characters. And it's a particularly regressive tax; millionaires pay the same amount for gas as do minimum wage workers. (OK, rich guys may buy premium for their fancier cars, true...). Every dollar increase in the price of gas represents hundreds of millions of dollars removed from the local economy; a $2 increase in fuel prices would represent an increased "tax" on the region which is comparable in size to TriMet's annual operating budget, but without paying for a single bus or train. This suggests that should gas start to get expensive again, increased transit capability cannot come too soon.
- The ability to redeploy highways: The previous item suggests a reason why waiting is bad; here's one that might weigh in on the side of delay. A major expense of the Milwaukie MAX line (and capital projects in general) is the cost of right-of-way. To be useful, the lines have to be built through existing urban fabric--and generally, there's already something there along the route. A big chunk of money is going to UPRR (buy me a beer and I'll tell you what "UP" really stands for) for the ROW between the freight lines and McLoughlin, and another big chunk is going to demolish perfectly good buildings in the SE industrial area. TriMet has long saved money by running in downtown streets, but tearing out a few lanes of McLoughlin (or Barbur or I-5) to make room for tracks (or a busway) is presently out of the question. In a post-Peak Oil world, we may find that the political climate has changed, however, and that converting highways to rail lines is suddenly a practical thing to do, given that nobody wants to drive at $5/gallon. This would be poetic justice, after all, many of our urban highways occupy former railway grades. More than a few transit advocates call for such conversions today--but today, removing highway capacity just ain't happening. Tomorrow, it might.
- Construction costs: Another issue to consider is this: Building rail in the US, at the present time, is expensive, far more so than in comparable countries elsewhere in the world, with similar levels of labor cost and environmental regulation. Lots of different reasons why have been suggested (large number of stakeholders each imposing their own requirements, a convoluted approval process with lots of red tape, above-market labor rates, rail being a "specialty" discipline in the construction trades and thus bids subject to far less competitive pressure than projects involving pouring concrete). If a project were delayed, or delay could be credibly threatened, then maybe costs might go down. OTOH, costs could go up as well, especially if a construction boom occurs in the future.
- Changes in technology: One other issue sometime suggested is that future technological improvements may make our planned choices obsolete (whether rail, busway, or freeway) in the near future. GM and Nissan both now manufacture vehicles capable of full-time electric drive; Toyota and Honda have had hybrids on the market for several years. Some rather exotic technologies (driverless autos, "personal rapid transit", etc.) are presently the subject of research, although many of these are decades out and would require far more substantial changes in infrastructure to deploy.
- The population forecast and the long-term economic outlook. One other important point to make is that many infrastructure projects which add capacity, whether road or rail, are based on predictions of future demand as much as on current demand. Current demand is often constrained by existing capacity, and induced demand is a long-demonstrated phenomenon--but projections on future demand are based on long-term projections of population growth, a science which is inexact, to say the least. Population trends are inherently tied in with economic trends (and vice versa) as well as demographics; a region with a robust economy will attract immigrants, and a region with a declining economy will often have people moving away. (Population and the economy are important for financial reasons as well). It is tempting to suggest that "wait and see" is a prudent approach, particularly given the current recession--the concern that "this is the new normal" and there won't be a substantial recovery for a long time, is a reasonable one. On the other hand, concerns about long term trends represent a level of uncertainty that will always be present, no matter how long one waits--for a project expected to last for decades, there's often no advantage in delaying for a few years.
- Organizational issues: Finally, there's the laundry list of issues specific to TriMet and other agencies involved--concerns about their finances (in particular, agreements with workers past and present) and their organizational competence. Some feel that TriMet has to get its finances in better order prior to spending any money on a project of this magnitude. Others may think that projects of this nature are part of the solution and not the problem--the bulk of funds available for construction are not available for pensions and other expense items, and that longer term, capital projects will help with the operating bottom line.
Thoughts? Any others? As noted above, this post is meant to stimulate a bit more discussion on the merits of big-ticket capital projects, and their timing. If you think that waiting is a reasonable course of action (whether in the context of MLR, another project in the pipe, or in general), feel free to say so--but please include in your missive what conditions ought to be satisfied for the project to proceed. If you think that full speed ahead is the correct course of action, please add your two cents about why delay is unwise and/or arguments for delay are unimportant. (And if you hate the project altogether, go ahead and say that too--though keep in mind that an underlying assumption of this discussion is that the project is ultimately worthwhile).
Happy Chinese New Year!
As reported by the O's Joe Rose, the "Bridge Review Panel" for the Columbia River Crossing, convened in response to the Independent Review Panel's concerns about the unproven "open web box girder" design has recommended terminating that design and choosing from among three other design types:
- Cable Stay
- Tied Arch
- Deck Truss
The 146-page report (PDF, 4.2M) also touches on other constraints, including possibly looking for some flexibility in the air-space restrictions around Pearson Air Park.
Question: what does this change mean for the project schedule, and does it require revisiting the Draft Environmental Impact Statement?
February 3, 2011
Bike Portland is reporting today that the Bicycle Transportation Alliance is objecting to a multi-year commitment of most of Portland's share of state alternative transportation funds to the Portland to Milwaukie LRT project.
Interestingly, the Mayor of Portland and a number of other local leaders endorsed the TriMet LRT request.
February 2, 2011
Listen to the show (mp3, 26.3MB)
Sara and Michelle interview Dr. William Lambert, the researcher behind the OHSU Bike Trauma Study.
February 1, 2011
Portland Transport is seeing lots of SPAM today; so far, none of it appears to have gotten through the SPAM filters. However, at least one user post WAS directed to the SPAM bucket--if you notice a post you made not making it onto the site in reasonable time, let us know!
I'm told that the room for the weekly PSU Transportation Seminars now allows food and drink. Take advantage at this presentation:
Portland State University
Center for Transportation Studies
Winter 2011 Transportation Seminar Series
Speaker: Joe Cortright, Impresa
Topic: How Sprawl is Lengthening our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse
Abstract: This report offers a new view of urban transportation performance. It explores the key role that land use and variations in travel distances play in determining how long Americans spend in peak hour travel. It shows how the key tool contained in the Urban Mobility Report - the Travel Time Index - actually penalizes cities that have shorter travel distances and conceals the additional burden caused by longer trips in sprawling metropolitan areas. Finally, it critically examines the reliability and usefulness of the methodology used in the Urban Mobility Report, finding it does not accurately estimate travel speeds, it exaggerates travel delays, and it overestimates the fuel consumption associated with urban travel. How we measure transportation systems matters, and the nation needs a better set of measures than it has today.
When: Friday, February 4 2011, 12:00 - 1:00pm
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204