Author Archive | Brian Davis

Pok Pok Parking & Yogi Berra’s Lament

Andy Ricker, the mastermind behind some of the best chicken wings you’ll ever taste, caused quite a stir this week when he opined that allowing development along SE Division Street without accordingly requiring creation of new parking was, “a really stupid idea.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment among people who own retail-based businesses in the city. In fact, a portion of my professional practice (albeit a small one) focuses on helping entrepreneurs find creative solutions to precisely this problem. Parking spaces equal customers, the thinking goes, and so an undersupply of available parking is tantamount to a hard cap on one’s potential customer base.

You can see how this line of thought misses the forest for the trees, however. When we start asking the hard questions around increasing parking supply—Where will we put this new parking? Who will pay the real costs of building and maintaining it? And what opportunity cost does it represent?—it becomes clear that what folks actually pine for isn’t a real neighborhood with ample parking—that’d be an unlivable mess—but the fairytale neighborhoods embodied by the latest installment of the SimCity game where all the parking you could ever want is both free and invisible.

In this fantasy, cars simply disappear altogether when not in use, so we are free to ignore the consequences in travelling predominantly in 15-foot by 7-foot metal boxes that sit idle 95% of the time. But in the real world, of course, we do not have abracadabra parking, so we must carefully consider the various trade-offs involved in decisions around increasing parking supply. Luckily, we’ve got any number of examples to look to for insights about how various parking decisions affect other aspects of urban life and vibrancy. The close-in neighborhoods of Portland, parking headaches and all, are home to far too many amazing eateries, breweries, and shops to count. If a lack of parking were such a restricting factor, wouldn’t we see more of these sorts of attractions springing to life in areas where parking supply is not at issue? Yet suburban strip malls continue to be dominated by Panda Expresses and Subways, while all the cool stuff springs up in parts of the city where it’s impossible to park. Why is that?

As usual, Donald Shoup summarizes the answer neatly [pdf], earning bonus points by quoting Jane Jacobs in the process. In describing the benefits of a long walk to parking (or indeed, of not driving at all), Shoup observes:

The presence of open shops and people on the street encourages other people to be out as well. People want to be on streets with other people, and they avoid streets that are empty, because empty streets are eerie and menacing. Although the absence of parking requirements does not guarantee a vibrant area, their presence certainly inhibits it. “The more downtown is broken up and interspersed with parking lots and garages,” Jane Jacobs argued in 1961, “the duller and deader it becomes … and there is nothing more repellent than a dead downtown.”

In other words, providing an abundant supply of parking is a detriment to precisely the sort of sidewalk life that inspires innovative businesses like Pok Pok, and attracts the customer bases that make them so successful. The demand for the parking that is not supplied likely would have never materialized in the first place if not for the very dearth of parking at issue.

It’s no surprise, then, that the business owners most loudly lamenting the lack of parking are some of the most successful ones that Portland has produced. The problem they perceive is the one that Yogi Berra once cited as the reason he no longer dined at St. Louis icon Rigazzi’s: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

We can and should look at better ways to manage the existing parking supply along the SE Division corridor and our other fast-growing neighborhoods. But threatening the character of a neighborhood so that one might solve Yogi Berra’s lament would be, if I may say so, a really stupid idea.

Don’t Call It an Accident

Even as desensitized as our culture has become to vehicular violence, the tragedy of February 22nd, 2015 is a tough one to stomach. That day, three children—ages 4,5, and 8—were run down while crossing a street in Springfield. They were crossing legally, in a crosswalk, with the signal. The driver of the car that killed them had a simple explanation: “I didn’t see any red light. What happened was an accident.” In declining to press charges, Lane County’s DA agreed that the driver “unwittingly ran a red light.” And on Monday, the Oregonian’s Editorial Board joined the exonerating cacophony with a piece entitled “When a tragic accident is just a tragic accident,” in which they declared that “‘accident’ is the only way to accurately describe what happened at that intersection on Feb. 22.”

No, it is not.

To be fair to the O, this sort of misuse of the word ‘accident’ dates all the way to the 15th Century: “As the medieval world had few scientific tools to investigate causation, it was not surprising that the word eventually associated itself with the phrase act of God.” A century ago, a young automobile industry in the process of inventing the concept of jaywalking co-opted it to blunt public perception of collisions, and over time the act of driving—and the act of crashing along with it—were normalized. Experts have been calling for a change in terminology since at least 1997, yet use of the word stubbornly persists in the media (just look at that article on jaywalking!).

Defenders of the term ‘accident’ often argue that the word applies for reasons of intent. Since nobody drives with an explicit desire to harm people or property, a word that denotes the opposite of ‘purposeful’ seems to fit the bill. But this ignores the fact that the very behaviors most likely to lead to crashes—driving drunk, distracted, or too fast for conditions, to name a few—are very much conscious decisions. Calling the end result of an ill-considered choice an ‘accident’  ignores the prologue, substituting a clear implication of blamelessness. It’s a biased, erroneous description.

Another sneakier limitation of the ‘a’ word is that, unlike ‘crash,’ the word ‘accident’ does not readily do double duty as a verb. You cannot accident into a tree. Thus a writer preferring the term ‘accident’ is tricked into using a passive voice, which often has the curious consequence of personifying a vehicle. In describing a different “accident” in which a woman “was struck and seriously injured by a car,” The O reports that, “the vehicle that hit her was moving west on Division, weaving in and out of traffic…It swerved toward Davis and struck her, then continued over a curb and through a grassy area before stopping.” The driver, though huffing laughing gas at the time, is relegated to the role of a mere accessory.

While I don’t believe that running a red light without even slowing can ever be unavoidable, the culpability in the Springfield crash is not on the driver alone. The generations-long approach to transportation and land use that has favored automobility over all other factors is a clear cause as well. This is what forced a family to cross a five-lane stroad so unironically called Main Street in the course of walking between their home and the ice cream parlor. Further, it rendered a 68-year-old man with apparent medical conditions dependant upon a car he could no longer safely drive. This, too, is no accident. It is a flawed approach to engineering and planning that we must hasten to abandon.

‘Accident’ is an inherently weak word; it is an excuse and a conversation ender rolled into one. When we declare something an accident, we throw up our hands and plead ignorance. We can neither understand it nor learn from it; it was unavoidable, unpreventable, and thus not worth fretting much over. Accidents happen, as they say.

What killed Tyler Hudson, McKenzie Hudson, and John Day on an Oregon street was no accident. It was an entirely unsurprising outcome of a century’s worth of systemic prioritization of cars over cities, of travel time over lives. Insofar as language shapes perception, describing their death using such an inaccurate, inarticulate word is perpetuating the very systems that make tragedies like it anything but accidents.

Requiem for a Greenway

It was after 6:30, so the bulk of the evening rush had come and gone. Clinton Street would be quiet, relaxing, exhilarating…like the olden days. Or so I thought.

Before I’d even ridden a block, I got the all-too familiar “Clinton Street Salute:” a car zipping around me too quickly and too closely. It presaged a glut of traffic the whole way, and along with it the nerve-racking claustrophobia that’s kept me away from Clinton since a group jaunt back in August.

Just a few years ago, the thought of going two whole months without setting tire upon Clinton Street would have been unfathomable to me. One of the best things about my job is that I get to travel throughout the city to look at roads and intersections, and Clinton has long been my superhighway to all points southeast. If you got there early enough, you could often go from Seven Corners all the way to Southeast 26th without seeing a single car. On my many ambles through the corridor I discovered the best cup of coffee in Southeast, the best corn muffins in the city, and the best hot buttered rum anywhere. I realize now that I developed something of a sentimental attachment to the street while riding eastbound all those mornings, mesmerized by constant stream of people cycling past me on their way downtown. Those sign-toppers really meant something back then.

Neighborhood Greenways, née Bicycle Boulevards, are among the most innovative of Portland’s contributions to bike infrastructure. Because Portland’s density is relatively low, and our city blocks are relatively small, we’ve got a decent number of streets that are naturally low-volume. By identifying some of those streets and making a few modest improvements to them, the city created a fairly robust network of comfortable bikeways, quickly and cheaply. Quintessential “low-hanging fruit.” These would never cut mustard as a substitute for high-quality bikeways along our busiest and best streets, but they could be an excellent complement to them. Certainly, they’d suffice in the interim while we built out all of that truly nice stuff.

While I savored those early morning rides along sleepy Clinton, change was happening quickly a block to the north on Division Street. As the recession eased and development picked up, Southeast Division began to densify as fast as any street in the City. Many hands were wrung regarding where everybody would park, but we forgot to think about where everybody would bike. All the while, car traffic on Clinton crept upward. When the Division Streetscape project hit, it was over. Though the project improved Division Street by adding curb extensions at the expense of automotive capacity, we forgot to plan for the impact to bicycling even though it was easy to see this coming. In the course of detouring cars around the construction, we introduced them to a route that they seem to be sticking with in lieu of a slower, narrow Division. The transformation of Clinton Street from a low-stress bikeway to a vehicular cycling boot camp is now complete.

When your bike plan consists of leveraging your low density and your growth plan is to densify, you run the risk of moving backward by standing still. We’ve seen that happen in real-time over the last few years on Clinton Street, and we’re starting to see it more and more clearly in the lagging indicators. The good news—in the case of Clinton, at least—is that the solution is easy and obvious: diverters. The traffic study to determine what to do and where to do it would be a cakewalk, and the cost of installing a few planters to do the trick would be minimal.

So what’s stopping us? My fear is that, with the 2030 bike plan now clearly relegated to “pipe dream” status, Portland lacks a vision for our identity as a bicycle city and how to move forward as such with determination. Bringing bicycling to the best streets is not happening nearly so quickly as we had hoped, which makes it that much more urgent to do what’s necessary to keep the greenways as a workable alternative in the interim. We must defend the fruits that we picked when they were low. We must, at the very least, not move backward.

A few planters could speak volumes. They’d definitely reduce them.

California’s New Performance Metrics & Getting What You Measure

The way we quantify how well our roads are (or aren’t) working isn’t something that tends to get a whole lot of play outside of the transportation wonkery, but it has a drastic effect on policies and livability. The most commonly used metrics to describe our system, including the infamous level-of-service metric, are drawn from something called the Highway Capacity Manual. See how the name of the manual doesn’t really imply that it’d be terribly useful for designing safe, welcoming local streets? Most jurisdictions don’t, and that is one of the main reasons why too many urban streets have become de facto highways.

Over the last several years, traffic engineers have increasingly been letting go of their long-held fondness for LOS and other traditional performance metrics, and in many cases are even leading the charge against them. The inadequacy of LOS as a primary measure of performance is perhaps most clear in California, where the state’s all-powerful Environmental Quality Act buttressed the importance of the metric by (ironically) requiring that environmental analyses consider LOS when evaluating the impacts of a project. So perhaps it’s not surprising that California has struck the most major blow to date to LOS, with new guidelines that evaluate projects based not on how much they will increase auto delay but instead on how much vehicular traffic they induce.

It’s hard to overstate how radically that this departs from the status quo. For many jurisdictions, an over-reliance on capacity-based metrics have produced policies that favor anything capable of moving one more car. California’s new standards appear to turn this idea on its head, favoring policies and land uses that create one fewer trip (or one fewer vehicular mile traveled). Thus, it would appear that analyzing a particular idea with California’s VMT-based methodology—whether to widen an intersection approach to include a turning lane, for example—might lead to the opposite conclusion as analyzing it with traditional metrics. Though the turning lane would certainly reduce delays and thus improve LOS, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it would also induce new traffic and thus be undesirable (or impermissible, even?) based on the VMT-based metric. That’s huge!

The VMT-based metric is neither perfect nor wholly complete. Success of the methodology relies heavily upon our ability to estimate the number of trips a project may generate which, as I described here, is something of an inexact science. The need to include trip length in these projections serves to widen the gulf between the data that’s needed and the data that’s available. And the state’s guidance [pdf] for utilizing the new methodologies do not appear to significantly improve upon the half-hearted methodologies engineers currently employ to evaluate safety ramifications of a given project. Finally, a scathing white paper [pdf] from UCLA’s School of Public Affairs suggests that the VMT-based methodology may not even be all that great at its purported goal of teasing out the environmental impacts of a project, although I’d hasten to challenge some of the assumptions their analysis is based upon.

Despite its shortcomings, the new VMT-based methodologies represent a big step forward and I’ll be curious to see how they’re applied by colleagues in California. Those of us who favor a multi-modal and safety-oriented approach are regularly stymied by traditional metrics that concern themselves with only capacity and delay, only as they pertain to autos, and only during the busiest 1% of the day. Though it leaves important considerations unaddressed, California’s new methodologies offer a way to overcome these hurdles. Time will tell what effects this will have, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

So what does this mean for Portland? That’s a good question. It’s now been two years since the city launched a project to update our performance standards, but sadly this effort seems to have disappeared into the same memory hole as bike share. Keeping with a storyline that’s becoming too familiar, others innovate while Portland waits.

The Story Told by the Blinking Hand

Joe Rose penned an interesting Q&A yesterday that takes up one of my favorite topics: the Flashing Don’t Walk (FDW) phase. While he caricatures the consequences of the widespread non-compliance with the FDW indication just a wee bit—it may cause motorists (gasp!) delays, and in extreme circumstances may even cause (gasp! recoil!) cycle failures, where all the cars don’t get through on a single green—he is correct that non-compliance is indeed widespread in downtown Portland.

That’s precisely what makes it a favorite topic: The FDW indication, at least when it comes with a countdown clock, is in clear violation of Brian’s First Rule of Traffic Engineering.

When people are disobeying your traffic control device en masse, there’s probably something wrong with your traffic control device (See: Circle, Ladd).

So what, then, could the issue be with something as universally accepted as a FDW indication? Perhaps some insight can be gleaned from comparing how signals handle pedestrians to how they treat vehicles.

Though we claim to prioritize pedestrians above other modes, our assignment of green time suggests otherwise. Pedestrians see a Walk phase for a given movement downtown for about 9 out of every 56 seconds during daytime hours, or about 16% of the time. By contrast cars will be assigned a green for 25 seconds, good for about 45% of the overall time. On the transit mall these percentages are often more skewed, since the pedestrian signals sometimes ‘rest’ in the Don’t Walk phase to quickly serve approaching transit vehicles. So if you were to assume random arrivals at an intersection, a car (or bike) is much more likely to see a ‘go’ indication than a pedestrian.

Of course, arrivals at intersections aren’t random; we specifically time our signals so a mixture of cars and bikes can progress smoothly through downtown at about 13 miles per hour. Since this is a little faster than most people not named ‘Bolt’ tend to travel on foot, the relative chances of arriving at a green indication are skewed further. And since turning movements on the downtown grid are what we’re concerning ourselves with here, let us not forget that these are commonly allowed on reds.

To be fair, our signals do some good things for pedestrians. The quick speed at which our downtown signals rotate through the indications (cycle length, in the jargon) serves to reduce pedestrian delay at the expense of auto capacity. And a happy consequence of the 13 mph progression speed for vehicles is that, if you were to walk opposite vehicular traffic at about 4.2 mph—a nice, brisk pace—you’ll catch all the Walk signals (and incidentally, you’d make it across an intersection in just more than half the time the countdown clock thinks it takes you). Still, though, relative to their wheeled counterparts, pedestrians are asked to endure a lot of delay at signals if they’re to follow the letter of the law.

To blame, of course, is the length of the FDW phase. Since pedestrians move more slowly than other modes, the time needed to clear them of the intersection—the clearance interval— is necessarily longer and thus the Walk time is naturally limited. Moreover, as the population ages average walking speeds are getting slower, so FDW times are getting longer. Not fair, but unavoidable, right?

A fun fact about Oregon is that we’re only one of a handful of states that treat the FDW and yellow lights with consistent logic, requiring the user to stop at both. But vehicles can proceed if it is unsafe to stop at a yellow, so as long as you know how to say, “Sorry, officer, I thought it’d be safer to keep going!” then the law really just means that you’re okay as long as you’re not still in the intersection at the onset of red. Still, though, this is better than the majority of states, which give vehicles far more leeway to enter an intersection on yellow.

But a when a countdown clock is present, it provides a lot of information, and so perhaps it is a useful ally here. Former Chicago DOT head John N. LaPlante examined the effects of countdown clocks [pdf] in a 2008 presentation to the Institute of Transportation Engineers, finding that more pedestrians began to cross during the FDW phase when a countdown clock was present, but fewer began walking late in the FDW interval, and fewer remained in the crosswalk at the onset of Don’t Walk. And guess what? Crashes decreased.

So what if we applied yellow-light logic to the FDW indication, allowing pedestrians to enter during this phase so long as they were clear by the end of the countdown? Revising our crossing laws to better reflect how people naturally interact with the indications makes sense from an engineering standpoint, and would be a powerful way to reinforce our stated claims regarding modal priority. And lest our fair city’s new-found fear of solving a problem with some new thinking cripple us, we can take comfort in the fact that those wily urbanists down in Salt Lake City provide precedent:

A COUNTDOWN CLOCK (displaying time in seconds remaining in the pedestrian crossing phase) in conjunction with the flashing orange UPRAISED HAND means that a pedestrian facing the signal indication may start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal indication, but only if such pedestrian is able to safely walk completely across the street or to a safety island before the COUNTDOWN CLOCK shows no remaining time.

Traffic laws, right-of-way allocation, and signal timing combine to tell you just about everything there is to know about the transportation priorities of a particular place. That story is on full display when the countdown clock starts rolling.