Tag Archives | urbanism

On the Impending Transformation of Transportation

Brian Davis is Portland Transport’s newest contributor. Brian is a Transportation Analyst at Lancaster Engineering, a MS Candidate at PSU where his research involves strategies for increasing sustainability in urban freight, and a carfree resident of downtown Portland. Welcome, Brian! – Chris

I’m excited to be joining the discussion at Portland Transport at the onset of a defining era for transportation in Portland.

Our city–and to varying extents, our region and our country–was largely designed to be experienced and accessed primarily via the automobile. By some metrics, this has served us magnificently–the economic growth realized during the American automotive century is unprecedented, and the car has connected distant cities and communities in a way no other mode can claim. By others, it has failed us miserably–our automotive dependence has dirtied the planet, car travel remains ridiculously unsafe, and ironically, the car has isolated the very communities it helped to connect to one another from the people speeding through them.

That we’re moving from car-centrism to a more multi-modal model of mobility is now manifest, and it is happening partly by choice and partly by necessity. The choice predates the necessity, and in Portland it was made in earnest in the 1970’s, when we decided the funds for one freeway would be better spent on a rail line, and the space devoted to another would be better used as a park. Over the years this sentiment has grown, and the first sustained declines in miles driven have recently come about as the smartphone continues to challenge the car’s prowess as a means of socialization and a symbol of status and freedom. The necessity of our paradigm shift owes to the fact that the population of our “magnet city” continues to grow, but we have little remaining roadway capacity, little money for new roads, and little space left in which to build them.

I live, work, eat, play, and otherwise spend most of my time in downtown Portland, and one of the exciting things about life here is that this neighborhood will be the epicenter of much of the transportation-related change that’s coming. While I certainly wasn’t thrilled at the decision to eliminate the free rail zone (or the fareless square that preceded it, for that matter), I think transit is still a good value and I continue to rely on it. I’m curious to see whether I’m in the majority here, or whether travel behavior changes drastically in the central city as a result of the new fare structure. And though many pooh-pooh the streetcar’s use as a transit alternative, I’ve long argued that it’s plenty useful to those of us that spend a lot of our time along its route. By extending it across the river, you’ve increased the number of people who fit that description, and therefore the streetcar’s utility. This is an experiment in urbanism that hasn’t really been tried yet, and whether it can duplicate the developmental magic it worked in the Pearl, with increased ridership as both a cause and an effect, will be fascinating to see.

Most exciting to me is the fact that Portland soon (and at long last!) will be joining the list of cities with a robust bike sharing program. Bicycling in Portland has become part of the city’s culture and identity. Its precocious infancy made weekend warriors into weekday riders, and slowly but steadily more and more people took to the blue lanes and yellow bikes. These days, there’s more denim than spandex cladding those on two wheels, and “bike infrastructure” has gone from meaning a white stripe and a stencil, to traffic-calmed greenways and bike-specific signals. It’s clear, however, that we have a long way to go to fully mature as a bike city; those “grown-ups” are cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where people of all ages, genders, and income levels ride on separated infrastructure comparable in quality to what’s provided for cars. Indeed, Portland is a city firmly mired in its “bike puberty.” We have our awkward moments, we have not yet become fully comfortable in our own skin, and–to take the analogy way too far–we have plenty of zits crying out for peroxide (or perhaps thermoplastic), but the elegance of Alice’s Future City is beginning to become apparent beneath the spotty complexion.

Having lived and biked in Washington DC before its CaBi bike share program was launched, and having visited frequently since, I can say unequivocally that bike share revolutionized cycling in that city. Bike sharing will give Portland a needed push forward as well. One of our metaphorical pimples is the lack of bike infrastructure downtown, and the fact that the heart of our city has some of the most limited bike access is certainly suppressing ridership among the “interested but concerned.” As or bike share program grows, so too will ridership of all sorts, and the financial case for good downtown infrastructure will in short order become too clear to ignore. When we cut the ribbon on the two-way cycletrack on Broadway, complete with its green asphalt, dedicated signal phases, and the ample bike parking demanded by the street’s business owners, that’s when you’ll know Portland has grown up.

So it’s a transformative time, to be sure. I look forward to joining all of you in overthinking it, overanalyzing it, and geeking out about it in ways that make mere mortals question our sanity. I hope I can add a useful and interesting perspective to the discussion, and look forward to continuing to learn from all of you as I have for the last several years as a reader.