Concern over ODOT freeway improvement plans in Rose Quarter

Posted in News, Thoughts on August 1st, 2011 by Winston – 2 Comments

Freeways or Neighborhoods? We can't have it both ways.

ODOT, in partnership with PBOT & BPS are proposing freeway widening and bridge demolition in the Rose Quarter under the auspices of the “Central N/NE Quadrant and I-5 Broadway/Weidler Plans” project.  The current proposals start on page 27 of this PDF from the open house boards:

Be prepared, they are all pretty awful.  Their  ‘choices’ are unacceptable.  All of them.

This was a “freeway improvement” project from the start.  The public process was a sham.  Their 13 freeway choices were determined before the process even began.  It doesn’t matter how much input the public provides if they are just going to filter it down to the choices they want most.

The overview says:

The Central N/NE Quadrant and I-5 Broadway/Weidler Plans are collaborative efforts.. to integrate land use and urban design planning with freeway planning

What will the products be?

The N/NE Quadrant and I-5 Broadway/Weidler Plans will result in:

  1. A long-range plan for the N/NE Quadrant of the Central City, including a land use/urban design concept, policies and implementation strategies that direct and inform development within the quadrant over the next 25 years.
  1. An I-5 facility plan that identifies a preferred concept for freeway and related local transportation improvements near the Broadway/Weidler interchange to occur within the next 5 – 10 years.

This project appears to be spearheaded by freeway engineers, not urban planners.  Consider the following question:

THE N/NE QUADRANT? (choose 2)
Freight / Freeway Congestion / Travel Time
Safety / Reliability / Access

First of all, can they stop claiming that converting cash to pavement really counts as an “improvement”?  Next, can they ask for input on what our values actually are, instead of the six canned responses that are really just six ways of saying, Yes, more freeway, please!  Robert Moses would be so proud.

Next, 12 out of their 13 concepts include adding more lanes to I-5.  Do we not live in a Portland, a city known for great urban planning, reduced auto-dependence, and our successful efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  And are we not living in the year 2011, and aren’t freeways, like, sooo last century?  And finally, can someone please tell me why on earth we built I-205 if we are just going to continue adding “auxiliary lanes” to I-5, indefinitely?

Lets ask some questions that get at what people really care about.  Like, Do you want to see “auxiliary lanes” added to a freeway in your neighborhood?  No?  OK, here’s another quick one that should be added to their survey: Do you still want a freeway in your neighborhood, dumping diesel dust down your kids’ throats?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  Or perhaps to save on ink they could simply ask: How do you like asthma?

Albert Einstein once had this keen insight: “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them”.  I’ve always thought that Portland was a town filled with insightful people, so isn’t it about time for creative plans and 21st century solutions?  Years ago, one could claim that our city was forward thinking and insightful.  We set the bar high when we removed Harbor Drive and built the Waterfront Park in its place.  We demonstrated the power of grassroots political power and innovative thinking when we killed the Mt. Hood Freeway and reallocated the money to construct the eastside MAX.  But since then we’ve fallen behind the times.  Cities near and far have not simply followed in our footsteps; they’ve surpassed us in the battleground of livability vs. motorism. Consider the following few cases.

Where a Freeway Once Stood. San Francisco Embarcadero. Photo: Dewet/Wikipedia

San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway is now the famous Embarcadero Boulevard, and they replaced a portion of their Central Freeway with what is now Octavia Boulevard (using some money from selling excess right of way to pay for the project).

In Seoul, South Korea, a man who advocated removing the Cheonggye Freeway (which, incidentally, carried nearly the same traffic as the I-5 bridge over the Columbia) was given a mandate to do so when the city elected him Mayor.  Within five years he had, in one swift stroke, removed the freeway, restored the river it previously marred, created a Bus Rapid Transit system to accommodate the shifting transportation needs, and opened a linear waterfront park which spurred the area’s economic revival.  The traffic snarls that some predicted never appeared.  Was it politically popular?  Well yeah: that man was Lee Myung-bak, who was elected President just two years after the freeway was felled.

Even the south is more forward thinking than we are.  For example: New Orleans, Louisiana.  There, just as in Portland, an interstate was built which displaced inner city residents and businesses.  Down in the Big Easy, construction of the Claiborne Expressway resulted in the removal of 500 Oak trees along what was once a beautiful boulevard, and lead to the decimation of a thriving black business district (where once were 120 businesses, now fewer than thirty remain).  In Portland the construction of I-5 leveled huge swathes of neighborhoods, as shown in the photo linked to above.  New Orleans is certainly different than Portland.  They have the heat, hurricanes, and wet t-shirt contests.  And when it comes to roads, their thinking is as different as the weather: when it was time to think about expensive maintenance on their interstate, they instead decided to consider removing it completely.

Eastbank Freeway's Marquam Bridge. Photo: Steve Vance

Any Portland planner worth their weight in beans should know a few things:

1) The Eastside freeway is an eyesore.  As is the Marquam bridge.  The comment from former Mayor Katz applies equally to both: “It’s like having the Berlin Wall dividing east and west, with all the subtle charm of the Daytona 500 smack dab in the middle of our city.”

2) Even if a freeway were a masterpiece of art, it’d still be the culprit responsible for evils such as asthma, obesity, global warming, and of course freeway congestion (and as everyone knows, the only way to get rid of freeway congestion is to get rid of the freeway itself).

3)  When it comes to planning, the planner who controls the options controls the outcomes.

But freeway expansions are not inevitable.  Not a given.  Not a certain conclusion to the transportation story of our city.  The people of Portland need to return to our forward-thinking roots and demand better from the State.  We need more options.  We need to ask the right questions and demand better answers.

Lets make this happen.  Lets not just support a ‘no build’ option.  Lets do congestion pricing on the I-5 and I-205 bridges.  Lets tear out the Eastbank I-5 and demolish the Marquam.  Redesignate I-205 as I-5.  And instead of building the CRC, we’ll use a small chunk of the cash to build the 30 year $600 million bike plan in only 10 years.

We can do anything.  Just as long as we don’t start by building more freeways.

How to Frustrate People Walking

Posted in Thoughts on July 14th, 2011 by Alexis – 5 Comments

[Another in the series of “How to” posts about barriers to active transportation.]

The idea for this piece came to me while I was visiting San Francisco a couple months ago. I didn’t realize how accustomed I’d become to downtown Portland, where the lights are approximately timed for people walking if you know how to use them (and where the grid is such that it’s almost easy to change your direction when the light isn’t green for you, if your destination requires both north-south and east-west travel), until I tried walking somewhere that doesn’t work like that.

Walking down California Street from my dad’s place to downtown, I was going crazy having to stop at practically every intersection. We’d reach each one just as the countdown got to about 4 seconds. I was with my parents, so we would wait at each light. Walk, wait, repeat. Argh! As I stood there, I realized that the prevalence of jaywalking may be related to this recurrent frustration.

When I started my job in Wilsonville a few weeks later, I ran into the suburban version of the same problem. I was (and am, when I’m not on the clock and trying to be a good example) constantly crossing against signals, because the signals aren’t always showing “walk” even if it’s safe to cross, and the signals are timed for cars entering the freeway, which means long waits if you just barely miss the chance to press the button.

So here is a manual for how to frustrate people walking. At first I thought of it as “How to Encourage Jaywalking” (which is a more fun and provocative title), but it turns out that “jaywalking is not a legally defined term in Oregon law” [PDF].

  1. Leave a long distance between signalized crossings or crosswalks. Crossing mid-block tends to be quite difficult on high-traffic roads (and in some local jurisdiction in Oregon, and in other states, may be illegal), frustrating people who want to get across when they don’t start near an intersection.
  2. Install signals that require a button press.
  3. Install signals that don’t turn to Walk unless pressed before the light turns green, even when turns are prohibited and the cycle is long enough to handle a mid-cycle crossing.
  4. Install signals that don’t respond in mid-cycle (a more general version of 2). Mid-cycle signals are harder if you have a short cycle, or need to allow for turns, but you can get them.
  5. Time your signals only for motor vehicles, so that people walking have to stop at every signal (or every few signals).
  6. Time your signals so that they’re on Don’t Walk when cross traffic is already stopped at an adjacent street, leaving the crossing clear. (This applies mostly in one-way grids, but also in any case where two-way streets have signals that coordinate this way.)
  7. Prohibit crossings on one leg of a four leg intersection, so that anyone who wants to move between those two corners has to cross three times.
  8. Install a signalized crossing where traffic is barely adequate to support one, or keep the signal active/timed at times when there’s very little traffic. (This is also a great way to encourage people riding bikes to run lights.)
  9. Don’t install countdown signals, so people have to guess how long might be left.

Some people reading might be laughing, because I use downtown Portland as an example of a non-frustrating case, and jaywalking is pretty much constant in downtown Portland (although I’ve heard it’s not as bad as the big East Coast cities). But though overall it’s not very frustrating, it does violate #5. The same timing that makes Portland excellent for walkers generally means that traffic cascades, so cross traffic will often be stopped while a signal is counting down and about to turn green, and people just go. This can be pretty annoying if you are turning in a car, or biking, and coming onto the street at an odd time. I’ve had a lot of near misses with people crossing who knew all the car traffic was stopped, but failed to account for me.

One thing I’ve seen in European and Asian toolboxes is a countdown signal that works the opposite way: it counts down the time until green. That would probably be a useful tool to reduce frustration help – if people know the signal is about to be green, maybe they’ll just wait the few seconds it’ll take. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of people who can obviously tell the light is about to be green take off because they know they’re probably safe. So you can’t totally predict people’s psychology, and some people will always jaywalk. But if you want to build a signal network that doesn’t frustrate people walking, do the opposite of what I suggest above, and your walkers will mostly be happy and content.

How to lose an active commuter

Posted in Thoughts on July 8th, 2011 by Alexis – 2 Comments

[Note: this is part of a series of thoughts I’ve been developing about barriers to active transportation. More to follow.]

Offer her a dream job — in a far-out suburb.

I’ve been a lucky active transportation commuter for five years. My first three years, it was a 10-mile train or bike ride (or bike and train ride — best ever!) using bike boulevards and bike lanes for the most part. The next year, it was a three quarter mile walk, followed by just under six months of a 40-minute one-bus ride or 5.5-mile bike ride using some of Portland’s nicest infrastructure: Ladd’s Addition, the Hawthorne Bridge, Waterfront Park.

Now, I take the #17 into downtown, then transfer to the long-shot #96 down to Wilsonville. At the other end, I have a 15-minute walk to the office over a freeway interchange that lacks marked crosswalks on the free-flowing ramps. All told, a trip that takes 30 minutes by car takes 75-90 minutes by transit, with limited start-time options. Biking doesn’t speed it up — I can’t beat the #17 into downtown, and though the bike ride to the office is faster, because of the free-flowing freeway ramps and necessity of a left turn in heavy traffic, I prefer my odds walking. A full-length bike commute would be over 20 miles and several large hills, and it’s just a bit too much for me. WES is nice to ride, but it means three transfers instead of one and adds a half hour to the process.

I don’t intend to buy a car, so I’m doing my best to appreciate the positive aspects of the commute: lots of time to read, an interesting variety of co-commuters, no stress when I-5 is jammed, some fun variations I can do if I want to bike more, or transfers don’t work out. It could be much worse — a one-transfer trip with short walks on each end is pretty much a dream setup for such a long-distance commute. But the sheer time commitment is testing even my devotion, and if I had a car in the driveway, there’s no way I’d leave it at home. As long as there are huge swaths of the Portland metro area it’s slow and annoying to travel to in any way except by car, we’ll keep losing active commuters — and that’s not something we can afford.

PSU seminar report: How do people choose a travel mode?

Posted in Advocate's Toolbox, Thoughts on May 9th, 2011 by Alexis – Comments Off on PSU seminar report: How do people choose a travel mode?

Last Friday I attended the PSU Transportation Seminar lecture by Robert Schneider, “How do people choose a travel mode?” Schneider presented results from his dissertation research studying the travel patterns of people shopping at different Walgreens stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He shared a five-category scheme for factors that might influence travel behavior, as well as a five-prong scheme for looking at decision-making for individual trips, both of which offered insight into where to look to influence people’s mode choices, but in my opinion the most useful tool he presented for advocacy was the use of a detailed survey of people’s paths throughout their trips. Most surveys ask only about primary trip mode, but Schneider’s surveyers traced the participants’ routes on the map and asked how each part of the trip was taken, so that if a person drove to the shopping center and then walked around to different stores, the walking path was recorded as part of the trip too.

Even though many of the study participants had driven to the Walgreens location, a large percentage of trips included some walking around the shopping area. Schneider found that walking was more likely in shopping areas with certain characteristics, such as higher density and greater tree cover.

These results are a reminder that looking at single-destination trips, or thinking of trips as consisting only of their primary mode, is an oversimplification at best, and a serious mistake at worst; that it’s possible to influence people’s behavior at intermediate points in their journeys. Not only that, but it may be easier than getting them to change their major mode of travel.

Far more people choose to walk at some point during their day than choose to walk as their primary mode of travel, and all of these walkers are potential supporters of a better walking environment. We need to make sure, as Schneider did, that they are counted, so that they can play a part in our work.

Being Active on the Statewide Level: Reflections from last week

Posted in News, Thoughts on April 9th, 2011 by Michael – Comments Off on Being Active on the Statewide Level: Reflections from last week

Ted asked How did last week go for transportation advocacy? He shared his impression of lobbying in Salem as part of the Oregon Active Transportation Summit:

AROW joined allies in Salem to talk with Rep Lew Frederick about legislative priorities, as part of the Oregon Active Transportation Summit's lobbying day.

AROW joined allies in Salem to talk with Rep Lew Frederick about legislative priorities, as part of the Oregon Active Transportation Summit's lobbying day.

There were over 200 attendees at the workshops on Tuesday, and probably 75 people visiting their elected officials on Wednesday.

I’ve never met my state reps and senators before, anywhere I’ve ever lived. They’re nice, down to earth folks, with about 2 staffers each. We wandered up to their offices with about 10 constituents, and had 15 minutes of their time to introduce ourselves and ask for their support with some minor legislation.

Rep. Lew Frederickson from inner NE Portland was a friendly sort, and spent a fair bit of time talking with the 3 CCC employees about his perceptions of bikes, getting people on bikes, and ethnic relations. Helpful and interesting for all of us. Senator Chip Shields looked to be about 35 years old, is a bicyclist, and seemed straight-up enough. I also visited Rep Tina Kotek, who is a staunch CRC supporter (represents N Portland and NE north of Lombard St), and tried not to tie up much of the groups time as I tried to correct some of her assertions about how good the CRC is.

Ted’s story inspired me to share my own reflections on getting involved in Oregon politics at the regional and statewide level.

Some legislators are better than others about providing opportunities for access. My OR House rep, Michael Dembrow, regularly schedules “Constituent Coffees” around his district, which is great for providing state-level advocacy opportunities without having to travel to Salem. I would urge anyone who lives in his NE Portland district to get on his mailing list. Actually, anyone interested in doing more advocacy on any level should probably make sure they are on their representatives’ mailing lists.

The City of Portland sponsored an excellent “Advocacy 101” workshop in January, hosted by Amanda Fritz and ONI and featuring Sen. Ginny Burdick. Materials from the workshop are online here.

Various advocacy organizations host trainings on effective advocacy techniques. One of the best I’ve attended was by the Partnership for Safety & Justice. Their specific messaging isn’t related to transportation issues, but the skills they teach are transferable to any sort of advocacy you might want to do. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of these kinds of trainings and workshops, and maybe people have other suggestions about other groups they’ve worked with who do this well.

This is all pretty new to me, I’ve mostly only been involved on the city level before this year, and minimally on the county level. But already I’ve been to Salem four times in two months and am going again in two weeks. Again, none of this has been related to transportation issues, but it would be cool to learn how to incorporate transportation advocacy into what I’m already trying to work on. Personally, I see the issues as being inter-connected, even if a lot of other people don’t necessarily see them that way.

In any event, it is always interesting to get a closer, more involved view of how the process works, even if it isn’t always pretty.