Thinking Big Thoughts

The Future of our Transportation – Big Ideas and Outcomes

We’ve been hearing from Metro that the Regional Transportation Plan Update just getting underway is going to be different. (See Council President Bragdon’s remarks (PDF, 31K) and Councilor Burkholder’s comments (PDF, 31K) from the April 20th stakeholder forum.) They say the new RTP is going to focus on outcomes. That it’s going to take into account the reality of shrinking federal and state dollars, as well as the wild fluctuations in oil prices that are projected for the future. It’s going to move us away from the laundry list approach to transportation planning and provide us with something different.

We think Metro’s vision of doing the RTP differently is a good thing … but what does it really mean? How do we break free of business as usual and start thinking about transportation in a completely new way?

One of the most inspiring success stories, I’ve heard about is Bogota’s transportation transformation. Their big idea was to “put people before cars”. What a novel idea! By restricting cars and aggressively investing in bikeways, pedestrian improvements and transit, they transformed the city. One of the outcomes they achieved in a mere six years was a shift from negligible bike use (less than a percent) to 5% of the trips in the city being made by bike. Their weekly car-free days got people of all incomes and walks of life out of their cars and onto buses and sidewalks. These are two incredible outcomes!

The transportation system we created in the 20th century is unsustainable. What are the big ideas that we should consider to transform our system so that it can be more resilient and sustainable? What should the outcomes of the new system be?


4 responses to “Thinking Big Thoughts”

  1. While I agree with you that the present system is unsustainable, I don’t believe that premise can be easily sold to much of the public (yet). To me it’s all about selling, and of course creating, a system that is more desirable then the status quo. Kind of like the infamous Stanford Jail Experiment: structure –> behavior –> outcome. If we design a region for people first rather than cars, the behaviors and outcomes should follow.

    Another reality that will need to be confronted is the country’s reliance on the auto industry as a source of jobs. I remember hearing on the news awhile back (this was many years ago) that one in six jobs was somehow tied to the auto industry. I don’t know for a fact that it’s high but if you sit there and think about it, it’s a lot more than simply the folks at the auto plants (sales, financing, oil, parts, roads, etc. etc.). Now you don’t keep an industry alive just so those people will have a job but A.) those people will be highly motivated to maintain the status quo; and B.) any large scale disruption would cause economic shocks and transitions.

  2. I think we need a symposium on the cost of high density housing, specifically highrises. Seriously. This would be an innovation Portland could be proud of. This is a key component of reducing dependence on automobile travel in urban settings, is proven to be effective, as per Vancouver BC, and should not be left solely to market forces.

    Because I am a union carpenter I have in fact worked on these very buildings, as well as other multilevel buildings in the commercial core of cities, and believe that the price can be palatable to mid-level income families. In fact in many cities around the world they are and have been in the past. If you were to see the components that go into the units of these buildings, the relatively low square footage, the minimal footprint of land usage, and the ultralow maintenace requirements, their potential affordability would be more easily comprehended. In earlier decades even retirement living for modest incomes could be compatible with highrise buildings. There are only a few steps in their construction which would be exceptional as comapred with single family, or even conventional multifamily housing.

    I would be willing to enumerate the costs on a step-by-step basis to provide a comparison to conventional construction. Would our elected leaders be willing to listen? We can achieve better urban planning, and reduce dependence on individual vehicles if more Portlanders are included—such as those for whom the several hundred dollars per square foot condos are out of reach.

  3. Ron Swaren: I would be willing to enumerate the costs on a step-by-step basis to provide a comparison to conventional construction.
    JK: Ohhh, I want to hear this!!! How is steel and concrete cheaper than wood frame?


  4. JK
    I didn’t say that one was “cheaper” than the other. I am saying that the materials used in modern highrise construction,as compared to standard wood frame, construction, do not justify the enormously greater cost.

    But, for the record: Concrete underground parking is more expensive than a woodframe garage, but even the latter requires a concrete floor, footings, driveway, steps and the structure itself. Metal framing replaces wood at negligible difference. Glass exteriors, in units, replace a several step process in the construction of a standard exterior wall. A poured concrete floor is perhaps the single most expensive feature, but does allow for pre-emplacement of piping and conduit rather than drilling out joists. Things like cabinets, doors, drywall, floorcoverings, lighting, wiring, closet packages, plumbing fixtures are all comparable.

    The big labor expense is the construction crane.
    The big material expense is the elevator, I would say.

    There are savings, also, on multistory condo units, in combining many things (avoiding redundancy): landscaping, sidewalks and paths, roofs. Heating is simpler, with less exterior wall square footage; air conditioning not as major factor; both processes usualy combined in a
    heat pump. If a building holds 150-200 units, just how much improved land would be required for that many single family homes?

    In standard wood frame construction things like vaulted ceilings, custome height walls, concrete tile roofs, custom stairwells, attic insulation and venting, exterior lighting, landscaping, etc. sneak in a lot of expense, yet the builders keep these competitive.

    Finally, how big is the average condo? The rooms are smaller, or combined together, loft style. Many start at 550 sq. ft and 900-1200 is typical. Should these cost the same as a 3000 sq. ft house? And these types of buildings are affordable to many commonfolks in cities in Latin America and the Commonwealth.

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