Archive | Land Use

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.

The Rise and Fall of the Suburbs

9780199360147I’m in the middle of reading Benjamin Ross’, “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism”

Did you know that the evolutionary path of suburbs went from the Streetcar suburb (which became inner-ring neighborhoods in many cities, including Portland) to the Railroad suburb, very separate from its city, which in turn became the template for the auto suburb? Here’s a great quote describing the Country Club District in Kansas City that teaches us why so many suburbs lack sidewalks…

… subdivisions intentionally discouraged walking so that buyers would feel insulated from the city. Blocks were enlarged and sidewalks shrunk; by 1921 pedestrians were rare enough in the more affluent sections that sidewalks could be eliminated there entirely.

I’m looking forward to getting to the part where we turn that around!

I’m delighted that Portland Transport is able to join with 1000 Friends of Oregon and Oregon Walks to sponsor a presentation by the author at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne Monday night (May 5th) at 7:30.

When: Monday, May 5, 7:30-9:00 PM
Where: Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland

RSVP to the Portland event by clicking here. (free)

I hope that you can join me there!

Oregonian still tone-deaf on Port of Portland

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The Oregonian continues to advocate paving over scarce urban greenspace for new port facilities rather than re-using Portland’s brownfields, such as the former site of the Atofina Chemicals plant near Linnton. Photo: Alexander B. Craghead, 2012.

The Oregonian continues to demonstrate its tone-deafness regarding the Port of Portland. Last week, the newspaper revealed its “editorial agenda” for 2014, one plank of which is titled “Portland’s industrial lands scavenger hunt.” The title is misleading. The editorial’s real thrust is to complain bitterly about the city’s policy towards economic development, relying on the cancellation of the Port of Portland’s West Hayden Island development as exhibit number one.

Maritime transportation facilities are of vital importance to the city and the region. Yet the paper seems to believe that the only way that the region’s maritime trade can grow is to pave over natural resources:

City planners hope to lean heavily on brownfield restoration to replenish the supply of industrial lands. In concept, it’s a good plan. Take land that currently is an environmental nuisance and has little value. With a mix of public and private money, clean it up and put businesses on the sites. But making those projects pencil out, particularly for industrial uses, might well prove as difficult as finding a way to balance the Port’s needs and environmentalists’ concerns on West Hayden Island.

Allow me to translate: The Oregonian thinks cleaning up brownfields is too costly and difficult, and therefore would have us pave over greenspaces like West Hayden Island instead.

Leaving aside whether or not the Port of Portland’s development of West Hayden Island would really have been the job creator that the paper claims, this is simply bad land use and transportation policy.

Worse, a bigger question remains: is the Port of Portland’s wish for more marine terminals being driven by regional needs, or by unnecessary and destructive inter-port competition? Does the Lower Columbia really need to be served by six different commercial portsEven Seattle and Tacoma, once hated rivals, are beginning to cooperate. Even if the region does need more marine terminals, the only reason to build on West Hayden Island, versus some other location, was because West Hayden Island belonged to the Port of Portland, versus some other port authority. Put another way, if Hayden Island were on the Washington side of the state line, nobody would have been talking about turning it into a port facility, given the ease on constructing westward along the river’s north shore, as the Port of Vancouver, USA is in fact doing. West Hayden Island, simply put, was needless inter-governmental competition at its worst.

Marine transportation has as vast and direct land use impact, perhaps as much as automobile transportation, perhaps more so. It’s time that the port authorities along the Lower Columbia began to cooperate, act together more efficiently, and make fewer wasteful land use decisions. Maybe the cancellation of the West Hayden Island port plans will open the door to a broader public debate on the matter. If so, then its cancellation will have proven to be not only a good thing for the environment, but also a good thing for the future of rational maritime transportation in the region. But somehow, I doubt it. It seems far more likely that we will continue to get “chicken little” op-eds out of the Big O, rather than meaningful debates.

Report: Portland City Council to vote on parking minimums

According to Elliot Njus of The Oregonian, the Portland City Council is expected to vote next week to impose minimum parking requirements on new apartment construction, but will not move to block a controversial 80-unit project already under construction at SE 37th and Division.

According to the report, the following minimums will be voted on:

  • No parking minimums for complexes with fewer than 30 units.
  • One space for every five units, for buildings with 31-40 units
  • One space for every four units for buildings with 41-50 units
  • One space for every three units for buildings with 51 or more units
  • Developers may “buy down” the minimum somewhat in exchange for bike parking or carshare parking.

Additional changes to city code, including parking districts, may come at a later date.