As a transportation consultant, travelling around, working cities throughout the U.S., I am struck always by all the things we are doing right here in Portland. On a recent visit to Dallas, Texas, where I was raised, a hideous haze of air pollution sent my asthma into full flair. I met with the Parks Board of a fast-growing bedroom suburb south of there. This town has close to no land-use or zoning regulations, land is cheap, demand is high. The town is growing so fast that plots of land that the most current maps show are vacant, and that City staff think are undeveloped, are already platted out and construction has started. Houses are built right up to the edge of flood-prone drainageway creeks and country roads are being widened to the standard seven-lane cross section. Working in these towns, you realize how much we have learned, how much we have to share. Welcome concepts include requiring developers provide sidewalks, improving the streetscape, developing trails and bikeways, purchasing or requiring conservation easements and streambank protection, and introduction of native vegetation.
Coming back home, I biked from SE Portland to Metro for a meeting, breathing in the fresh air, grateful for how easy it is to get around by foot, bicycle, or bus in the inner parts of Portland. And yet we have such a long way to go. Downtown Portland remains a frightening place for new and less aggressive bicyclists; we need a fresh and comprehensive look at needed downtown bicycle improvements. Some of the suburbs are making great strides in becoming more bicycle/pedestrian/transit friendly. For example, the progressive leaders in Wilsonville, where we’re working on a bicycle/pedestrian/parks/transit plan, are guiding both new development and retrofit of existing development in the right direction. But much of our suburban development remains auto-centric, with little relief in sight.
I live a few blocks from SE Portland’s Edwards Elementary, which is being closed along with the neighborhood school program at Richmond. This leaves one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Portland without a school in walking distance. We have cherished our walks to and from school with our 6-year old son, our close-knit community of close-by families, the ease of a 2-minute bike ride or 8 minute walk to school. In concept, the closure is due to declining enrollment (although not at Edwards). It also reflects Portland Public School (PPS) District’s focus on expansion of special-focus magnet schools over traditional neighborhood schools. Furthermore, it reveals a disconnect between the City of Portland, which is investing signficant funds into “Safe Routes to School”, or helping increase bicycling and walking to school, and PPS, which leaves bicycling and walking opportunities, health-oriented transportation, and neighborhood cohesion out of the picture. Safe Routes to School programs in other cities are having rapid and positive results, with more kids and parents bicycling and walking. Hopefully we’ll have the same positive results here.