Cars are from Mars, Busses (and Bikes and Trains) are from Venus

In the open thread, I mentioned that a Clark County legislator (Republican Liz Pike) wanted to “restart” the CRC project.  The Columbian has the scoop–and not surprisingly, Rep. Pike’s opening bid is to get rid of light rail.  Obviously, such a proposal isn’t going to be acceptable to those of us in Oregon–a state of affairs which was rather confusing to the folks in the combox, mostly Vancouverites, and mostly opposed to MAX expansion (but more than eager to have a wider freeway).

Part of the reason the debate gets so heated–and there’s plenty of bashing of Vancouverites that goes on in Oregon (including, unfortunately, in our combox), is that the two sides don’t understand each other and empathize with each other.  Rural Clark County (and Clackamas County) is full of people that don’t really care to live in urban environments–thinking them to be nasty, crowded, and full of crime.  (Sometimes such attitudes are informed by racism, though certainly not always).  That people who live in Portland may like it the way it presently is, and may view freeway expansion as a threat to urban living, does not commute.  Of course, the reverse is also true–many Portlanders like to snark about “Vantucky”, and engage in all sorts of stereotyping about “white trash” and such, and can’t imagine that someone might actually prefer to live in Battle Ground or Woodland  (or for that matter, Canby or Molalla or Banks), completely dependent on the automobile, and far away from the action here in the city.   Many people who live in rural or semi-rural areas like it that way, and are terrorized by the thought of waking up one morning and finding that the Big City has come out to them.  Right or wrong (and certainly, a LRT line to Clark College poses little threat of upzoning in  Battle Ground), people on both sides of the river fear change, and often see “foreign” infrastructure as a threat, not as a benign (let alone beneficial) improvement.

Unfortunately, there’s a more fundamental problem, and it’s summarized in the title of this post.  In a large human settlement (i.e a city and its surrounding suburbs), you can have parts that are optimized for a low-car lifestyle, and you can have parts that are optimized to be convenient for automobile usage (by persons of average income).   But you can’t have places that are both.

If a place is optimized for automobiles–and virtually all of Clark County is–you will have low density:  cramming lots of cars into a small space will instantly cause congestion; spreading them out across a more expansive road network will reduce the number of conflicts for space that lead to cars needing to stop and wait for other cars.  And you will have plenty of parking:  Large parking lots at major attractions, driveways and garages in residences, and lots of street space allocated for vehicle storage.  (And all of it free for users).  Drivers in such environments will want to drive fast (if nothing else, to traverse the longer distances more quickly), and road topologies will be optimized for speed.

The large distances needed to get from A to B will make walking and biking impractical (and the high traffic speeds will make them unsafe).  And the spread-out nature of everything will make efficient transit impossible.  Thus, if a place is optimized for cars, they will become necessary.

Much of inner-city Portland, OTOH, is optimized for active transportation and transit.  For transit to be efficient, and for more trips to be practical on foot or by bike, everything has to be closer together:  density must be higher–in many cases this means apartment living, rather than single-family homes with yards.  And maximizing the amount of functional land uses within a small space will require that very little space be devoted to parking–thus parking will be scarce, and expensive.  Lots of things crammed into a small space also greatly increases the number of conflicts between private cars, thus if people try and drive in such areas, traffic will result.  If a place is optimized for car-free living, living with a car becomes a pain.

(Unfortunately, there is a middle-ground where all kinds of transportation are a pain in the butt–Beaverton comes to mind as a notorious example.   Out here we have some decent transit–certainly better than most other Portland suburbs–but it isn’t frequent or reliable enough to support convenient car-free lifestyles; hence most people drive.  But traffic in Beaverton is infamously bad as well, particularly close to the downtown core.  There is hope–Beaverton politics is far more transit-friendly than Tigard or Hillsboro politics, and is moving slowly in the right direction–but the city is a long way from becoming a car-free utopia, both in terms of land use and in terms of transit and bile/ped infrastructure).

If you live in a car-dependent place, and use a car to get around–it is often to your advantage for public policy to maximize the number of places you can use your car easily.  Thus, motorists frequently advocate for more roads and more parking–including in places (like downtown Portland) where such changes would be utterly destructive.  If you live in downtown Portland and use TriMet to get around the city, it’s in your interest to expand the reach of TriMet (as without a car, many parts of the metro area are unreachable).  Thus expanding transit into the ‘burbs makes sense–even if said suburbs lack the land-use necessary to support transit, and the residents there may regard transit infrastructure as a threat.  In many ways, the fight about the CRC is about different people with different lifestyles trying to expand the scope and reach of their preferred mode of travel–which often means limiting the expansion of the preferred mode of the other side.  CRC planners tried to square this circle by including expansion of both highway and transit–but ended up pleasing nobody.  And thus the project is dormant (it can never be truly considered “dead”, unless perhaps barred by Constitutional amendment); too many people on both sides of the river, and both sides of the politics, would rather have nothing than see an expansion of the mode they dislike.

Is there a happy medium?

Unfortunately, as noted above, the middle ground is frequently not happy.  A big problem with low-density, car-friendly infrastructure is that it doesn’t scale well–once a metro area gets a population above, say, 200k, travel distances get too large to maintain a low population density.  This has arguable happened already in many parts of Clark County, where traffic jams are frequent occurrences despite an aggregate density far lower than the Oregon side.  And when that happens, if you aren’t careful, you enter the Beaverton Zone–or worse, the zone of suburbs that try to solve traffic problems by building wider and faster thoroughfares, and find that it just doesn’t work.  (WSDOT is busy turning SR500 into a full-fledged freeway, and has already done so with SR14, and recently completed a brand new SR502 interchange north of Salmon Creek, yet traffic is still frequently clogged).   C-TRAN does a fine job with a limited budget, but Vancouver is too spread out to make transit efficient for large numbers of trips.  The transformation between cartopia and carfree-paradise is hard and difficult, and disorienting for those affected.  Adding moderate amounts of density will often exacerbate traffic problems long before it provides relief by enabling efficient transit and car-free living.   (This is a big reason that even progressive, inner-city Portland neighborhoods are resisting the apartment boom; many residents perceive that the new arrivals will add to congestion in the short term, but the increased density won’t necessarily result in better transit service or closer/better  neighborhood amenities, even in the long term.)

In the past, I’ve joked about building a Columbia River bridge with a park-and-ride in the middle of the river, straddling the state line, and a MAX line going halfway across the bridge.   (In Baltimore, the transcontinental I-70 freeway, originally planned to terminate downtown, actually does end at a park-and-ride on the city’s west side, though not over water).  And park-and-rides are perhaps one solution to the problem (though many of us urbanists dislike them)–while I’d rather have efficient transit reaching all the way to Salmon Creek and Vancouver Mall–having Vancouverites driving to a garage in downtown Vancouver (or even Delta Park) and getting on MAX or the bus there is better for Portland and Portlanders than widening I-5 through North Portland and downtown, and adding more parking within the city.  (And of course, similar arguments apply to residents of Hillsboro, Tigard, Oregon City, and Gresham–Vancouver residents have a very good point that residents of Oregon suburbs aren’t facing the prospect of road tolls anytime soon).  And if car-sharing services were to deploy vehicles at suburban transit centers–we might be able to allow these places to function as “ride and parks” (or “ride and drives”), permitting car-free Portlanders bettter access to suburban destinations that aren’t efficiently served by transit, if at all.

Certainly, Portland has shown–after observing the destruction of many of its old neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s–that it isn’t about to be paved over for the benefit of suburban commuters.  And certainly, the suburbs aren’t going away any time soon–many people prefer that lifestyle and will fight tooth and nail to defend it.  Mars will not defeat Venus, nor Venus Mars.  But the metro area functions best when all parts of it are mutually accessible; there is the risk that our present political stalemates may make getting from different parts of the region too difficult.  One possible technique may be to find better ways to bridge the gap between the two (virtual) worlds, to reduce the barriers (of transportation, and of culture) that separate Mars and Venus.

At least that looks like a good idea from here on Earth.

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