My Trip: Jumping the Queue

I recently flew to the East Coast for a long weekend. As usual, I left straight from downtown Portland, leaving my bike at work, and riding the Red Line MAX to the airport. As we sped by alongside I-84, I looked at the hundreds of cars creeping along, nearly at a standstill, and I couldn’t help wondering–why would anyone want to drive to the airport?

My trip was comfortable, convenient, stress-free, and, best of all, I knew exactly how long it would take me to get there. Sure, in the middle of the night it might take less time to drive to the airport, but at any other time…who knows? It could be smooth sailing, or it could be a parking lot.

I’m interested in this experience because it’s one of the few times when the alternative transportation user actually has a clear advantage over the private automobile driver. I’m afraid that’s not always the case. The key to helping people make the change to environmentally-friendly modes isn’t to appeal to their sense of responsibility, and even less so to make them feel guilty. The key lies in making the alternative mode trip better than the car trip: faster, easier, cheaper, more fun, more beautiful, more reliable. Even one of these may be a deciding factor, but better yet is if we can combine them.

I can think of a few other local examples. During rush hour, bike lanes on major streets are like shortcuts for cyclists, allowing them to zoom past stopped cars. Likewise, bike boulevards (such as SE Ankeny or SE Clinton) offer cyclists direct routes while slowing down cars and restricting car access (such as enforced turns for cars while bikes can go straight through). Bikes also park free downtown (and everywhere), while the drive-alone worker faces a hefty monthly bill for the privilege of parking downtown. And, at least theoretically, HOV lanes on freeways offer an advantage to drivers who share their trip with others. Similarly, employer-funded transit passes offer a free ride on transit compared to the expense of driving.

These examples are few and far between, though. If you already own a car, it’s still the fastest and most convenient way to get around for many trips in the city. What can we do to truly make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do as well? And how can we make sure that both politicians and the public understand and support these efforts? What are the tangible benefits we’re trading for?

Here are a few ideas about what we could try:

  • No more right turn on red–provide a truly protected phase for pedestrians to cross the street
  • More bike priority signals (like at the Esplanade/Rose Garden) allowing bicyclists priority crossing
  • A new Willamette River bridge only for streetcar/light rail, bikes, and peds
  • Neighborhood intersections blocked to cars but open to people on foot and on bike
  • More traffic calming to slow down traffic and make neighborhood routes less appealing to cars
  • More bike boulevards that give priority to bike traffic and offer a truly superior route
  • Rush-hour pricing on our most congested freeways and bridges (and maybe, eventually, into downtown?)
  • More bike boxes, that allow cyclists to safely bypass stopped traffic and “go to the head of the line”
  • Car-free days and car-free areas in our city
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21 responses to “My Trip: Jumping the Queue”

  1. OK I get it now. The way to get people to use your favored (non-auto) modes of transport is to use transportation policy to make driving as slow and inconvenient as possible.

    When I read it I first thought you were joking. But I’m afraid you are serious, and worse, that readers of this blog actually think like you.

    You seriously propose using the power of government to make driving so slow and inefficient that people in their frustration get out of their cars and use the modes of travel you favor?

    Do you see how tyrannical that is? Do you have any idea what the effects of what you suggest would be on the quality of life for the vast majority of people whose lifestyles are such that regular car travel is an absolute necessity? Say for the mom in Beaverton who has three kids in various after school and weekend activities, must do shopping, has doctor appointments and whatnot….

    Or the sales rep whose livelihood depends on meetings all over town. Or the delivery business, or heating oil company, or the contractor… you get the idea.

    So the answer is to make the roads even more clogged up than your policies have already made them, so people stop using cars!?? Are you serious?

    Well, the high preist of the I hate cars church Rex Burkholder had a great idea to do just that: 10MPH speed limit on all neighborhood streets.

    Why stop there? If we put speed bumps on the freeways, that would really slow down the cars and more and more people would turn to bikes and rail.

    So the soccer mom can schlep the $400 worth of groceries from Winco on her bike. Or the contractor can take light rail with his portable table saw.

    And your suggestions, here on this blog, represent mainstream thinking. Amazing. Simply amazing.

  2. State law or Metro law that taxes all non-residential spaces in the city (sq footage based). Make it modest but a disincentive to provide parking.

    Eliminate all bogus parking requirements from zoning:

    2 parking spaces required for all Pearl District studio lofts, 15 spaces/sq foot for each barber shop, 200,000,000 spaces required for each Wal-Mart, etc.

    Why the hell should the municipalities set parking MINIMUMS for businesses? I mean, it’s the damn businesses choice whether or not to provide parking – if they don’t want to, and it makes them go out of business, too bad! If they don’t want to and maximize development opportunities (which… isn’t this what we want anyway?)… why should they be penalized into building multi million $$ garages?!

    Disclaimer: the figures used in my post are ‘random’ and used for colorful illustrative purposes, not literal on-the-nose numbers (duh)

    I would think anyone who is interested in less government would agree with me. I do think, however, that maxiumum #’s of parking would be a good idea as well. This could be used to prevent many bix-boxers from invading as well…

  3. I didn’t see it either, but I’m not gonna argue the point here. Feeding the trolls just encourages them.

    In terms of “A new Willamette River bridge only for streetcar/light rail, bikes, and peds” the proposed SE light rail line probably would do that: the plans anticipate a combined light rail/streetcar bridge at Carruthers/Division, and probably would include a multi-use path grafted on to one side of the bridge.

    I’d also look into whether the Steel Bridge could be made a bike/foot/transit bridge without undue impacts on local automobile traffic circulation. I get the impression that most drivers in that area use the Broadway and Burnside Bridges anyway, and car traffic on the Steel Bridge is almost always light.

    Car-free areas are difficult. Eugene tried it with its downtown mall, and it pretty much killed the businesses down there. Portland is looking to increase car traffic on its transit mall, because businesses along the mall did pretty poorly. Yes, there are some great models of car-free districts in Europe (including most of the city of Venice), but I’m not sure any of them are replicable here. Better to just make sure bicyclists and transit riders can get everywhere easily, and they can walk around safely once there.

    Let me add my own suggestion: a more complete network of grade-separated multi-use paths with safe road crossings. I suspect such paths would be less intimidating to new bike riders than sharing the road, even a bike boulevard, with cars.

  4. Eating lunch on the north park blocks I thought that it’d be great if not every street cut through them. Those roads get blocked all the time for fairs and festivals, and it would make walking and hanging out there much nicer. Plus, there would still be car access to all those businesses, and there would be MORE park to enjoy.

    A lot of the roads in any given neighborhood seem sort of silly when all they do is connect the grid system but no one needs them for access.

    I’m in favor of more deadends! (especially in residential areas) Walking from Hawthorne to Belmont past 39th is so nice because there aren’t many cars at all. No streets go straight thru, so traffic stays on main roads, but again, there is still access to everything.

    Roger Beebe: Just because someone is helping things for bikes and peds, doesn’t mean they are hurting things for cars.

  5. Interesting to see someone advocating more dead-ends in residential neighborhoods. Many (most?) suburban neighborhoods are full of them, which means the few through streets have lots of traffic and aren’t good for cycling or walking.

    I have seen a lot of discussion on transportation planning lists regarding the need to have more streets go through neighborhoods to spread the traffic out.

    Not suggesting one or the other is right; just interesting that people with the same goals can come to opposite conclusions depending on where they start.

  6. If you’re going to talk about road pricing, what about the fact that the Big Pipe is partly for road runoff, yet none of its cost is being paid for by road users? Washington County’s Major Streets Transportation Investment Plan, used to widen roads but funded by property taxes?

    As for road connectivity, I think the best idea might be to have dead-ends, but only for autos. Bikes, peds, etc. could still go through. The lack of through, non-major, non-high-speed streets in suburbs is one of the things that seems to discourage bike travel.

  7. The street grid issue is an interesting one for neighborhoods. Of course a functional grid is important to avoid congestions points and promote mobility, but local streets can also begin to function like arterials when they are alternatives to nearby congested main routes.

    When doing the NW District Plan a few years ago, we compromised with the following principals:

    – Generally support a complete grid (breaking up “superbocks”)
    – Where a property owner does not want to break up a superblock, at least create pedestrian and bike access in the grid pattern.
    – Selectively allow interruptions in the grid where it creates a traffic calming effect.

  8. Imagine replacing lightly-used intersections with four streets that dead-end in a neighborhood plaza, playground, pocket park, community garden and/or baskeball court. The dead-ends result in traffic calming; a walkway allows pedestrians and bicyclists to continue through; and the neighborhood gets some public/play space.

  9. I was out at the opening of the new multi-use path to the airport terminal (after 30 years of being car access only, and 4 with transit, biking to the airport is now possible). I had been pulling a bunch of 12 hour days and had an hour free and decided to ride my bike back to my office in Lloyd district.

    To my surprise and delight the trip only took 37 minutes–and those who know me and my riding style will realize that I am an older duffer who rides a commuter bike pretty sedately. Just a little less than a Max ride and about 10 minutes more than driving (not counting finding a parking space and walking to the terminal).

    Learn something new every day.

    The new path will make it much easier for the employees of the airport and supportive services to get to work without having to drive and pay for parking. Rush hour for the airport is 3:30AM, well before the transit system begins operation.

  10. I like it. It sounds a lot like Europe and I always remember thinking after I visited that I wanted to live there someday. I still do, but after I live in Portland for a bit. Keep up the good work.

  11. Why is it a troll? Jessica writes this:

    The key lies in making the alternative mode trip better than the car trip:

    and all of her proposals (such as banning right on red) are clearly designed not to make non-car use absolutely more convenient, but relatively more convenient by making car driving more difficult.

    And Jessica, you wanted an example about the airport. Sadly, this shows how downtown centric our thinking is. From where I live, a car ride to the airport takes 15-20 minutes, max, even during rush hour. A bus + MAX takes 45 minutes to an hour.

    Even downtown centric, a bus to downtown from my house takes 35-50 minutes, a car ride takes 10 minutes. And I live in the very close in SE of Portland.

  12. A popular saying goes, “You catch more flies (or ants) with honey than vinegar.” So, instead of decclaring war on cars, and making it frustrating and impossible to drive why not provide more amenities on public transit to lure people out of their cars. I don’t know what would ultimately prove most cost-effective but here are some options: Alternate express buses (stopping only at transfer points) with request-stop buses; high speed bus lanes; wireless connectivity; coffee; free fare zones; long term passes. I am sure a brainstorming sessions would produce many more ideas and I understand that in other parts of the world and the US there are innovations. Portland isn’t first in everything…

    AS far as a bridge new bridge over the Willamette we already have one! The lower sections of the Marquam bridge, with huge piers and cross beams, could easily support streetcars rails and a bike/pedestrian path. The additional weight would be negligible when you compare it with the steel and concrete pavement that the Marquam is already constructed of. I would add a liftspan (also suspended from the existing structural components) so that even at the flood stage of the river vessels could go underneath it.

    Many of our planners however would like to tear this usable structure down and invest multiple billions in a buried expressway through eastside Portland and also launch into a controversial mall in downtown, before all the questions are answered. I say we could resolve our major heavy transit problems for about two billion dollars, by reworking and more effectively using existing routes, rather than the upwards of ten billion some are proposing. For example to improve Vancouver to Portland commuting we need to examine the North Portland Road corridor and rail bridge, since high density development in Vancouver is moving westward, anyway. This would be immensely cheaper than tearing down the present I-5 bridge(s) and would provide alternate routes.

  13. It’s always fascinating to watch how language gets in the way of ideas. Jessica conveys a number of ideas that would have great benefit to pedestrians and cyclists. Yet others perceive the language as being anti-car.

    A lot of this depends on your frame of reference and your assumption set. Many alternative mode advocates start with a frame of reference in which we have a complete system for auto travel, and incomplete systems for transit, bikes and pedestrians (on the last, I would reference the 15% coverage of sidewalks on streets in SW Portland).

    From that frame of reference, it’s pretty easy to get around in car, and making it easier for other modes is just a matter of balance.

    On the other hand, if you’re stuck in rush hour traffic on your way home from work, suggestions to restrict auto turning movements probably strike you rather differently!

    As usual, the reality is probably somewhere in between. There are no doubt opportunities to improve the bike and ped network that might involve removing a few options for cars, while having little overall impact on the ability of drivers to get from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time.

    But the words we use can paint a different picture for different listeners. It behooves all of us to look for the ideas behind the language.

  14. The vision we see here is one where density and mass transit are necessary elements of the future.

    Why isn’t new “exurbanism” just as viable a vision of the future, and one that comports much more closely to the realities of American values and lifestyle than does new urbanism?

    Look forward 20 years. The last combustion engine fell quiet a few years ago. Everyone drives silent, non-polluting hydrogen powered vehicles.

    Major urban areas had their heyday in the 90s and 00’s, but by the teens, the advantage of a decentralization was evident. Sprawl was no longer a bad word, but was embraced.

    Exurbia inherited suburbia as the place where most Americans lived. Most own single family homes (constructed rapidly and cheaply out of recycled materials), live on 1/4 to 1 acre lots and those that do not telecommute drive 1/2 to an hour to light industrial or service firms located in suburban rings that surround what was once a dense urban core.

    Entertainment and food were once draws of urban centers, but now most entertainment is distributed via ultra high speed connections. Food has similarly decentralized, as new technology and the end of the hydrocarbon era has actually made transportation far cheaper, so millions of small “satellite” stores, local shops, and restaurants replaced the centralized (and difficult to navigate) malls and urban cores of yore.

  15. Exurbia is VERY expensive to build. Lots of asphalt involved, greater distances for things like water and sewer lines to cover.

    And even with hydrogen vehicles, where are you going to get the power to generate the hydrogen?

    As energy costs continue to climb, we’re going to find it hard to afford the ‘American Values’ that have propeled exurbia so far. If the 2B+ Chinese and Indians attempt to adopt those sames values, the planet simply doesn’t have the carrying capacity.

  16. If exurbia is so expensive to build, why are the houses so cheap?

    I don’t understand why decentralization is necessarily so expensive. I presume we’d use solar + nuclear to generate the hydrogen.

    The Chinese and Indians don’t have the space that we do. And depopulating some of those “dense” areas in India would, it seems to me, be a definite good thing.

  17. Housing is less expensive in the exurbs for two reasons:

    1) Land costs are lower.

    2) Infrastructure costs are underwritten be existing taxpayers (read property owners). System Development Charges (despised by developers) cover some of the cost of new roads, sewer lines, schools, etc. required to support development outside existing urbanized areas, but they never cover 100% of these costs, which mean the existing property owners in the jurisdiction get to underwrite the costs of growth.

    There is an excellent discussion with the former planning director for the State of Maryland of these kind of cost tradeoffs on last week’s Smart City radio program.

  18. Chris –

    I disagree with your reasons.

    While its true that exurban development has a lot of costs picked up by the public, this only explains why it is profitable for the developer to build there despite the lower prices they can expect to get for the units.

    The reason housing in the exurbs sells for a lower price is simply the market. The housing there is less desireable for most people. While there are some aspects of exurban life that appeal to people, there are others that don’t. And, on balance, most people prefer to live closer to entertainment, services, jobs, friends, schools etc.

  19. Why “exurbian” development remains profitable:

    Lots of cheap, illegal labor! Undercutting US citizen wages. Don’t believe me? Go look.

  20. Don’t believe me? Go look.

    I’m not sure why low wages are an advantage to exurban as opposed to urban development. But how would you tell by “looking” how much someone was paid?

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