Author Archive | rbrowning

Our Streetscape Future: Turning Japanese?

The following is a dramatization of actual events. Actual dialog and concepts presented have been compressed and highlighted for loggification purposes:

So I’m sitting there at the sushi bar with Portland’s Consul General from Japan, asking him for advice on my upcoming fellowship study (which isn’t easy to do in Japanese – especially as the sake starts to take effect).

“So – the Architectural Foundation of Oregon has given you a grant to go to my country to study… what exactly?” he asks.

“Urban Design issues” I tell him. “I’m fascinated by all the activity that takes place in the pedestrian zones along street edges in Japan. The built environment seems so chaotic, no one seems to be following any rules, and yet it all works so beautifully. I really want to study this.”

The Consul General, an urbane, westernized diplomat to his toes, pauses for a second, sake cup halfway to his lips. “BAKA!!” (you idiot!) he exclaims, slaming the table and almost upsetting the sake. “My country has nothing to teach the West about urban design! We can only learn from you! Go to Europe!” He then launches into a monlogue about how much he hates walking on the street in Tokyo.

Hmmm. At this moment I have the realization — it’s going to be even more difficult than I thought. Before I can learn from my hosts, I may have to convince them they have something worth studying.

And yet – despite the GC’s extolling the “order” of European streets — the latest, hotest transportation design theory coming out of Europe is “shared space”, the concept of creating roadway anarchy – no directions, no grade separations, no signalized interstections – to promote harmonious use of transportation infrastructure. Can you imagine anything more threatening to a classically trained traffic engineer?

“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People have to find their own way, negotiatie for themselves, use their own brains” says Hans Monderman, an avante garde Dutch traffic engineer (not at the sushi bar with us, but talking w/a NYT reporter earlier this year).

As some of you know, selected towns in Europe have actually done it – ripped out all their traffic signage, their traffic lights and their sidewalks – and found that it works great. An intersection in the Dutch town of Drachten, reconfigured by Mr. Monderman, handles 20,000 cars a day without signage, traffic lights or sidewalks.

But Japanese urban design (or lack thereof) and streetscape environment goes far beyond this. The most common word used by Westerners to describe it is “chaos”. The most common reaction: paralysis due to total sensory overload. Do Japanese streets work in spite of it? or because of it?

How different is Portland with it’s minutely detailed design review directives for buildings (this architect knows full well), its heavily regulated streets and it’s draconian laws against any type of two or three dimensional information display! Portland’s goal is to create an urban environment where human activity can flourish and transportation via all modes is encouraged. But if that is the case – how much better the “chaos” of urban Japan accomplishes this than does Portland!
Bike/ped/transit splits in the cities I will be visiting (some no bigger than Portland) must be 80% or more. Shop densities and sales volumes put NW 23rd Ave. to shame.

We have certainly made immense progress in turning Portland into a liveable 24 hour city, but I think most would acknowledge we still have a long way to go. Have we reached a plateau, or even a state of diminishing returns where more and more design and traffic regulation is bringing about less and less desirable change and increased vitality?

All questions I am looking to – not answer, but to think more about during my travels in Japan. Please get me any ideas, questions, hot spots, etc.
you may have for my study. And stand by for future postings from the land of the rising sun. I leave next Monday for seven(!) weeks.

Why Doesn’t “Share the Sidewalk” Work?

America is an entitlement society. Unlike European – or even more strikingly, Asian culture – we don’t share. We don’t cooperate. Every special interest group has their own identity and expects their own separate but equal facility.

Non-transport example: look at how Portland solved the dogs in parks problem. Not by getting dog owners and non-dog owners to cooperate and follow common sense rules of civility better. No. Instead ugly chain link fences were erected like miniature Berlin walls in our parks, creating dog only areas and in the process further atomizing both our social and physical shared resources.

But this is a transport blog, not a dog blog. So how about sidewalks and bike lanes? Why do we need bike lanes AND sidewalks even in constricted downtown right of way situations where the space simply doesn’t exist?

And in those cases where there isn’t enough room – why does a winner take all ethic operate so that NO bike lane is built but sidewalks are FULL IDEAL width?

Without going into any details – hard fought “visionary” urban corridor plans like Burnside and Hawthorne where bikes have been basically shut out could have looked really different if a shared bike/ped facility had been designed. But even in the case of the Burnside plan, which has 30′ wide sidewalks no one knows what to do with – the possibility of mode sharing was never mentioned. To do so would be to risk having every bike person and every ped person in the room start throwing chairs at you. Why?

Our new South Waterfront Greenway will have strictly separated bike and pedestrian pathways (at double the price for one). Peds will get all the waterfront views and ambience, bikes, banned from waterfront access, will be pushed back into the shrubbery – so they can “go fast”. This decision was made by city of Portland planners in secret with no opportunity for public input or comment. They said it was obvious this was the only right way. Why?

Why can’t bikes and pedestrians share facilities and why can’t new facilities be designed to encourage sharing? Examples from Europe – and Asia are staring us in the face. In Japan tens of thousands of bike commuters share the sidewalk with pedestrians every day. No one dies or even gets into fist fights. [ for amusing if not engineerocentric view of what it is like on an urban street in Japan.]

Every thoughtful transportation planner in the Metro area will tell you the problem with advancing Portland’s bike masterplan is that all the “low fruit” has been picked. All the easy streets with sufficient right of way for bike lanes have been converted. What is left is the dreaded parking removal option or just a bunch of discontinuous routes never to be completed. Why can’t anyone look at shared sidewalk facilities to fill missing links?

To study the hows and whys of successful sharing I will be spending 7 weeks in Japan starting this August on a fellowship grant from the Architectural Foundation of Oregon. I hope to file some communiques from the field and have more to tell you when I get back. Meanwhile, please get me your questions and comments for my upcoming research! I hope to use all of you reading this blog as a brain trust for my fellowship. If we can’t share the sidewalk, let’s at least share ideas.

Free the Bike!

I attended last year’s ceremony where the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) presented Portland the “Gold” award for best American bike City. Commissioner Adams (great that he landed the Portland Office of Transportation (PDOT) assignment!) has said he doesn’t think this is good enough. He wants us to be “Platinum”, a level the LAB has never presented to any city. What will it take to get us there?

A whole lot. The fact is, for the last few years Portland has been going backwards on bike and pedestrian projects and policies, or at best coasting forward at a slower and slower speed.

About 5 years ago Portland City Council abolished both the bike and pedestrian programs within PDOT. Each of these programs was nationally recognized, with fantastic, dedicated staff. The real reason for the axe was cost cutting, but the stated rationale was “mainstreaming”. All project management and engineering staff within PDOT and the City as a whole were said to have become so sensitized to bike/ped issues that no further special programs were necessary.

If so – why is current major redevelopment on Naito Pkway at the Pier One site not being required to to fully implement an obligation to install bikelanes on their portion of Naito – a Bike Masterplan throughway? Why do more block faces than ever in downtown Portland lack short term bike parking (thanks to meter removal and only slapdash replacement with racks)? Why is the BTA still fighting BDS tooth and nail to get enforcement of bike parking in new development? Why does the City have no enforcement mechanism for keeping barbed concertina wire on tops of fences from hanging out into public sidewalk space (this 6′-6″ pedestrian asks)?

And why for the last six years has the “bike pool” bike at the Portland building, supposedly there to encourage staff to cycle on short business trips, hung locked on a rack near the parking attendant’s booth because the key is lost and no one can be bothered to find it?

Commissioner Adams – I throw down the gauntlet. How about for starters trying to unleash the Portland Bldg bike and other city motor pool bikes in bondage?

You can work your way up from there.