Author Archive | Michael Andersen

Two things for Portlanders to consider while arguing about bike-share service areas


A 2012 map of possible bike-share station locations. Note that this isn’t the current plan, though the service area currently proposed is very similar to the one marked here in orange.

Bike sharing service areas are problematic in exactly the same way that public transit service areas are problematic.

With Portland preparing next week to finally approve a bike sharing system, this problem is back on the city’s mind. It should be. The most important problem in Portland right now is housing affordability, and this is inherently linked to geographically specific services like bike sharing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and won’t pretend to have all the answers. But I feel like two big ideas are missing from a lot of Portlanders’ conversations about this. Here they are.

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Actually, let’s not bother to fix federal transportation funding

We probably need higher gas taxes in the United States. We desperately need a federal carbon tax. But do we really need higher federal gas taxes?

No, we don’t.

As Congress debates highway-funding stopgaps and Oregon’s most influential transportation experts get ready for an Aug. 4 forum about the future of U.S. transportation funding, maybe it’s time for urbanists to shed our Rockefeller-funded patriotic umbrage drag and stop pretending that we really, really care about the sanctity of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

All our states have gas taxes. Raise them 25 cents each (or whatever) and they can do the job just fine.

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Did the great crime decline cause modern urbanism?

One of my big and untested (but unrebutted) hunches about the urbanism revolution, the drop in vehicle-miles traveled per person and so forth, is that it all flows from the rapid and mostly unexplained decline in crime rates that began in 1994.

As cities became safer, the first to notice were the young, poor, mobile and liberal. It seemed strange to our parents — but then, our parents’ bizarre fears of the central city seemed strange to us.

Just as, I’m sure, the rise of those fears (also known as the 1960s) seemed strange and unfair to my vaguely Germanic grandparents.

I’ve been watching the sixth season of Mad Men, the one that happens in 1968. Scenes on the main character’s once-quiet Manhattan balcony are being interrupted by screaming sirens; the middle-class couple who buy into the Upper West Side find themselves besieged by crooks. It was a rapid change in atmosphere that’s backed up by the statistics:

50 years later, local crime trends have reversed, perceptions of local crime have followed, and so have the tides of urbanism. As Mayor Hales put it in a speech last month, the flight to the suburbs was a round trip. The Don Drapers of the world are again buying Pearl District lofts, the Peggy Olsens are again renting two-bedrooms on Division or Thurman, and they’re both biking in to Wieden on Monday morning.

Was the crime decline that’s driving it all caused by pollution from leaded gasoline? Abortion rates? Data-driven policing? It’s not at all clear, though those seem to be the current favorites.

Whatever the cause, Americans do seem to be more or less aware that crime has gotten better, as long as you’re asking us about crime in our own personal lives. If you ask whether crime is a problem in the United States in general, most people, fed on Nancy Grace and Fox 12, will tell you it’s bad and getting worse. But when it comes to our own trains, parks and streets, we tend to be in closer touch with reality.

On the other hand — and if my hunch is wrong, I actually think this is why it is — there’s a chance the causality flows the other way. Maybe cities aren’t getting safer, and therefore more desirable and expensive, because urban crime has slowed. Maybe urban crime has slowed because poor criminals were, as early as 1994, being joined in the central city by gentrifiers and, ultimately, priced out of central cities — driven into neighborhoods where even a decent crook has to own a car to make a living.

Whatever the reason, I’ll be watching the various theories closely as they develop. Here’s why: what fortune giveth unto urbanism, fortune is just as likely to take away.

As someone who’s staked a lot on the continued desirability of living in the central parts of U.S. cities, I’m worried about the final two data points on this chart. And if I were you, you’d be worried too.

5 Surprising Things our Low-car Voter Guide Taught Me About the Local Elections

This guest post is by Michael Andersen, editor of Portland Afoot, PDX’s 10-minute newsmagazine about buses, bikes & low-car life.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of a handful of volunteers for Bike Walk Vote, there’s been quite a bit of attention in this election season to local candidates’ positions on bicycling and walking. But the contenders in the May 15 primary haven’t had as many chances to go on the record about transit issues.

Inspired by Bike Walk Vote’s work, my friend Aaron Brown and I decided to do something about that.

Aaron, a local transportation advocate working at The Intertwine Alliance, rounded up the leading candidates in each council and Metro race and put to each of them a series of questions that we thought would matter to transit riders. Earlier this week, I summarized his findings on Portland Afoot’s blog. But we saw a few interesting trends running through all the races, too – and those are what I want to share with Portland Transport.

Streetcar might be in trouble.

Portland StreetcarOf the three top mayoral candidates, only one is enthusiastic about Streetcar’s citywide growth plan. (Guess who.) Presumptive Councilman Steve Novick is downright bearish. Amanda Fritz and Mary Nolan have satisfyingly opposite views: Nolan thinks Streetcar is mostly about transportation, and should expand Lloydward; Fritz thinks it’s mostly about densification, and should, if it goes anywhere, leap 80 blocks east to Lents.

TriMet board reform has surprisingly broad support.

TriMet boardPortland Transport host Chris Smith isn’t the only guy who wants TriMet leadership appointments moved somehow to the Metro level. Charlie Hales, Amanda Fritz, Jonathan Levine, Steve Novick, Mark White, and Jeri Williams all endorsed the notion.

The most interesting argument against such a change was Mary Nolan‘s. Nolan said (persuasively, since she was a major transit ally in the state House) that such a move would make the legislature less willing to subsidize TriMet’s capital projects.

Everybody says they love YouthPass, though it’s not clear that they all understand it.

a PPS student ID with YouthPass stickerWe asked eight City Council candidates what the city should do about 10,000 PPS high schoolers losing free TriMet passes after this school year. Seven of them answered with a variation on "whatever it takes." (Jefferson Smith even cited YouthPass as a way to make transit more cost-effective, which seemed odd.) Only one council candidate suggested dialing it back: Steve Novick, who said it should be offered only to low-income students.

Two important things it wasn’t clear the candidates understood about YouthPass:

  • The state requires PPS to give free transportation to about 3,000 of its 13,000 YouthPass-eligible students: the ones who are on free or reduced lunch; who attend their neighborhood high school; and who live more than 1.5 miles from it. When we talk about saving YouthPass, we’re already talking mostly about kids in middle-class homes.
  • PPS taxpayers are paying for school buses throughout the state, but suburban and rural taxpayers aren’t paying for school passes in the PPS district — even though under the deal negotiated for YouthPass, TriMet is both cheaper and better than yellow buses. This inequity comes from the state level, and stems from the fact that people outside dense urban areas think YouthPass is a handout for PPS. It’s not. It’s a reflection of the fact that living in a dense urban area is extremely efficient.

The local left may be near consensus around a ‘utility model’ for road funding.

a PPS student ID with YouthPass sticker Bob Stacey and Jefferson Smith, two of Portland’s most progressive and wonkiest politicos, both alluded to ditching Oregon’s gas tax for a three-part system: a universal road maintenance fee (presumably paid by person or by household); congestion-based tolling, to reduce peak-hour congestion; and a usage fee (presumably paid by the mile or mile-ton).

BRT has some unexpected bedfellows.

EmX bus rapid transit in Eugene I wouldn’t have pegged either Stacey or Nolan as politicians who’d give up on light rail to Vancouver. But the Columbia River Crossing might tip their scales.

Both said they’d be willing to accept bus rapid transit as part of a compromise that could scale back the planned expansion of I-5 across the Columbia River.

One last thing.

Finally, I can’t resist sharing my favorite moment: Stacey’s confession that he sometimes uses the Internet to look at subway porn — that is, at photos that make Washington Park MAX station look like part of an imaginary Portland subway system.

If I’ve learned anything from helping assemble this fun, hopefully useful project, it’s that every viable local candidate this year is a strong supporter of low-car transportation.

That’s because in the Portland we’ve built, it’d be politically suicidal not to be. In other words, we are the change Ray Polani was waiting for.

The May issue of Portland Afoot is a guide to good places in Portland to fix your bike.

Creative Commons I-205 photo by Doug Kerr, and EmX photo by Gary Cziko.