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Joe Cortright: Death of CRC Signals the End of “Highway Dinosaur Era”

Last month the Portland mega-highway bridge project known as the Columbia River Crossing died unceremoniously on the floor of the Washington statehouse. But there was some question among project opponents about whether to consider it a victory for smart transportation policy. After all, suburban Republicans opposed to the inclusion of light rail were ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back.

RIP CRC. Image: Bike Portland

Joe Cortright, a visiting scholar with the Brookings Institution and president at Impresa, a Portland-based consulting firm, thinks there is plenty of reason to celebrate. In fact, he sees the rejection of the CRC as the end of the old highway era.

We caught Cortright on the phone for a CRC postmortem. Here’s what he had to say.

Angie Schmitt: So you still consider the CRC’s death a victory for reformers. Why is that?

Joe Cortright: The CRC was a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway widening project that just happened to cross a river and have a short stub of a light rail essentially on the end of it. So yeah, there was a little bit of light rail associated with this project, but it was wrapped up in a humongous freeway widening project. And also the fact that they’re building this huge freeway project really undercut the viability of the light rail investment, because it made it so easy for people to use private automobiles.

I think it’s true that the final fatal blow was struck by conservatives, by Republicans, in Washington, and folks from Clark County, a lot of them disliked the light rail component of the project. But they also disliked it for other reasons like the tolling. The project was probably mortally wounded some time ago and this just happened to be the one thing that finally killed it. And a lot of those wounds were self-inflicted. They built it too short to allow navigation [on the river] underneath. There’s pending litigation on the environmental impact statement. There’s still very serious questions about the financial viability of the project. So there were a bunch of things that could have been the fatal blow, it just happened that this was the one.

Joe Cortright, a Portland-based consultant, thinks the death of the CRC will be a turning point for transportation policy in Portland and elsewhere. Image:

AS: One of the things that was sort of striking about this project was just the scale and the dollar figure attached to it (at least $3.2 billion). Do you think it’s getting to the point where some of these projects are just so grandiose they’re not realistic?

JC: Absolutely. I think the big problem is that the incentives in the transportation planning system are producing these bloated projects that are really out of touch with trends in transportation, with the amount of resources we have. People are driving less and that undercuts gas taxes, which are the largest single source of funding for this. The way federal funding was made available, or potentially made available, for this project created incentives to scale it up. I don’t think anyone would have designed a project like this if it was going to be built solely with local resources. They designed it this way because they thought there was a promise, if they got approval from the state, the federal government would pay for it. We sold this project as, “Hey, we can get free federal money for light rail.”

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Portland Adds Nation’s First Bike Counter to Hawthorne Bridge

Good news for mathematicians who love watching throngs of cyclists stream by: Portland, Oregon just became the first U.S. city to install a bicycle counter!

You’ll find the digital “bicycling barometer” on the AM inbound side of the Hawthorne Bridge. It was made possible by the non-profit group Cycle Oregon, which purchased the machine with a $20,000 grant. Lots of extra details are over at Bike Portland, including an in-depth look at how the system works.

Seattle is reportedly just about to install one as well. Which city or location in the U.S. should be next? Where would you put one?


How Bikes Make Portland Cool

A mini-documentary out of Portland, Oregon showcases the vibrant bicycle culture the city enjoys, from “bike trains” of kids riding to school on traffic-calmed bike boulevards to a range of everyday people getting around by bike simply because it’s “accessible.”

As San Francisco strives to be the most bike-friendly city on the west coast, we can only hope it won’t be long before we see as many two-wheeling families on our streets.

H/T Ron Richings for the video, filmed by Kona Productions.

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Google Shows That When Transit Agencies Free Their Data, Riders Win

Earlier this week, in a forum about intelligent cities and the ways data can improve urban planning, Carolyn Young of Portland’s TriMet let it slip that Portland was one of the first cities to share its real-time transit tracking data on Google Maps. (Google announced the news two days later.)

Google's MBTA trip planner now includes real-time data, not just schedules.

For transit agencies, letting Google provide useful transit data to their customers (and the bazillions of other people who log on to Google every day) seems to be a win-win situation, but Young observed that not all agencies feel that way. “There are a lot of barriers,” she said. “Some think, ‘It’s our data, we don’t want to give it to anybody, maybe we can make money with it.’”

Boston’s MBTA has a different perspective on data-sharing. The agency doesn’t even show real-time tracking on its website – instead it links to an App Showcase of third-party software developers that have created tracking tools on their own.

“We believe very strongly that not only can working with third party developers get information to our riders more quickly, it helps us do it more innovatively, and at a lower cost,” MBTA’s Joshua Robin told Streetsblog. “We started releasing real-time bus information as a pilot back in November of 2009 as part of this big developer conference we had. The first application was developed within an hour. No application developed by a transit agency is going to come out that quickly. You wouldn’t even be in the first stage of any kind of procurement by then.”

There are now more than 30 third-party apps that connect T riders with real-time tracking data – all at no cost to the MBTA. Robin says people almost always get traffic and weather information from a third party like news radio. He sees transit data the same way.

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Bicycling Up 8.5 Percent in SF Last Year, 53 Percent Increase from 2006

San_Francisco_Citywide_Bicycle_Counts__2006_09_.jpgSan Francisco Citywide Bicycle Counts (2006-09). Image courtesy SFMTA.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has released its 2009 Bicycle Count Report (PDF), which shows an 8.5 percent increase in the number of cyclists on the streets last year compared to 2008, and a 53 percent increase since 2006. That marks the third consecutive year of growth for bicycling in the city - every year since the MTA began conducting the annual counts in 2006. Though not as explosive as the 25 percent increase recorded between 2007 and 2008, it's a solid figure for a year in which many of the nation's top cycling cities saw growth in bike trips slowed down by a weak economy and depressed gas prices.

In light of the Bike Plan injunction in San Francisco that's been in place since 2006, the MTA is especially pleased with the continued growth. "Given the inability to make physical improvements to bicycling in San Francisco over the time period, we can only imagine how great an increase we'll have when we're able to implement the Bike Plan fully," said MTA spokesperson Judson True. "I think we're reaching a point in San Francisco where more and more people see bicycling as a primary means of getting around. That's a great sign for the future of San Francisco."

The SFBC's Andy Thornley felt the report deserved more public touting from the MTA, since it shows a 53 percent increase in bicycling since 2006. "We urge MTA to really come forward and make this a prominent report because it tells a really strong story of the city's success in achieving, or moving towards achieving, some of its mode shift and environmental goals," said Thornley. "During the three years and more that the city has been handcuffed from making any physical improvements for bikes, we've seen a 53 percent increase in bike traffic."


Eyes on the Street: San Francisco’s First Green Bike Box Remains Unfinished

bike_box_1.jpgA truck driver encroaches on a bicyclist in the green bike box. Photos by Bryan Goebel.
San Francisco's first green bike box, painted by a smiling group of electeds and bike activists earlier this month, was heralded as an important first step toward finally advancing some "innovative design treatments" in the city's long-stalled Bicycle Plan. But nearly three weeks later, the MTA has yet to paint any kind of bike symbol in the box, and many San Francisco drivers, and even some bicyclists unfamiliar with the concept of bike boxes, are still not getting the message that it's for bikes only.

"I think it's a very good idea to display this bike box here, but most of the public is not familiar with what the purpose of it is," said Wakeem Shehadeh, the owner of Oak Fair Market, which is just several feet away from the new bike box on Scott Street at Oak. Shehedah said he's spent a great deal of time observing driver and bicyclist behavior since the bike box was installed December 3rd, and has witnessed a few confrontations.

"I still see some cars stop on the green spot, and some pull back, and go into the bike lane," he said. "I would suggest we paint a bike picture on top of the green box so it can tell the driver and the bicyclist, this is for you, and this is for you."

Indeed, some bicyclists are still not familiar with it. As I interviewed people on bikes along The Wiggle today I encountered a few riders who had no idea. "Oh, that's what that's for," said one guy, who told me he lived around the corner. "I haven't been using it."


Portland’s Greenstreets Program a Sterling Best Practice Model

42nd_Belmont_small.jpgA typical greenstreet facility in Portland, Oregon. This one compines a stormwater treatment facility with a bulbout to reduce pedestrian crossing distances. Photos: Portland BES.
When Streetsblog San Francisco took part in the Congress for the New Urbanism's Project for Transportation Reform in Portland last week, city planners and transportation engineers treated participants to numerous tours of innovative network solutions that city has embraced, including its greenstreets program for stormwater treatment on street rights-of-way. With nearly five hundred greenstreet facilities already in the ground, Portland has plans to add another five hundred in the next five years, greatly reducing the burden stormwater can place on its sanitation system.

Portland's greenstreet facilities often take up multiple on-street parking stalls and replace the asphalt with beds planted in native species that help absorb significant volumes of streetlevel wastewater, near 100 percent in some locations. Facilities include swales, curb extensions, planters, and infiltration basins, and are typically linear and pool 6 to 9 inches deep [PDF].

David Elkin, a Landscape Architect working for Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), explained on the tour that the first experiments with greenstreet facilities in Portland were necessitated because the city had to meet mandates in a Clean Water Act lawsuit for polluting the Willamette River, which flows through Portland. The city faced the challenge of increasing the number drainage pipes in east Portland, at a cost of $150 million, or develop another solution for reducing "upstream" water volumes, those that came from surface streets. By adding the greenstreet facility network, which initially cost $11 million, the city met its target stormwater capture and estimated that it saved $60 million in pipe replacement costs.

"We can talk about all the multiple benefits that greenstreet facilities provide, but the bottom line is it saves taxpayers dollars," said Elkin, noting that the first on-street facility was installed in 2002. "Instead of just a patch or trench in somebody's street, we're going to leave behind a green, vegetated facility."



Planning Chiefs: Urban Planning Still Hindered by Politics, Past Mistakes

IMG_0566.jpgOver 200 people showed up to hear planning directors speak. Photo: Michael Rhodes

City planners have been on the hook for some of the last century's greatest metropolitan mishaps: urban freeways and "slum clearance," arbitrary minimum parking requirements, and land use laws that have left little room for the mingling of uses. Understandably, today's planners are a bit humbled. But when planning directors from some of North America's most progressive cities spoke at City Hall this week about the political challenges that face urban planners, several of them said the field needs to move beyond worrying about past mistakes.

"Because of the failure of the planning profession in the past, we've gotten quiet, we've gotten a little too meek," said Brent Toderian, Vancouver's planning director. "We serve at the will of politicians, and are often unwilling to speak truth to power loudly and persuasively and in public. I think that's really been an absolving of our leadership responsibilities in the profession."

SPUR and the San Francisco Planning Department hosted the discussion with planning heads from SF, New York, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis and San Diego, who were all in town for the Urban Land Institute's annual expo.

While the directors didn't lack for bold visions, some lamented the planning field's fixation on avoiding undesirable consequences. "I'd have to say, especially in California, unfortunately, the field has evolved into focusing on preventing bad things from happening instead of making good things happen," said Bill Anderson, San Diego's planning head.

Minneapolis planning chief Barbara Sporlein echoed that concern. "So much of planning is making up for past mistakes," she said. "It just feels like every time something happens, [we say,] 'That can't happen again.'"

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Students in Brooklyn, NY, Paint The Pavement

New York City has been following the lead of some of the most livable cities in the world with new best practice trials, though arguably none is more enjoyable than the example in this Streetfilm, where the Department of Transportation has worked with the community to transform a city street by painting it beautiful, bright colors.  Based on Intersection Repair in Portland, OR, this is a thoughtful, engaging way to calm traffic and demarcate a school zone with patterns and colors that reflect the whims of children.

As Streetfilms' Clarence Eckerson explains:

In what is being called the first ever of its kind in New York City, Livable Streets Education teamed up with Community Roots Charter School and Public School 67 and got a helping hand from New York Cares to paint a magnificent street mural on St. Edwards Street in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The project, which was designed by art students, was done with the blessing of NYC Department of Transportation under their new Urban Art Program initiative. These short term, art projects on city assets under their purview are now referred to as "Arterventions" by the DOT.

I wonder if DPW's Ed Reiskin is feeling sufficiently emboldened by the success of the trial 17th Street Plaza to facilitate a couple of these amazing street treatments? I'm sure DPW could enlist Mona Caron and her able team.  Here's to hoping...

If you haven't seen the original Streetfilm on Intersection Repair from Portland, be sure to watch after the jump.



Streetfilms: Bike Rush Hour on Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge

The first time you visit Portland, Oregon, the gaggles of cyclists streaming over the Hawthorne Bridge during rush hour is a sight you will never forget. It's something other cities need to see and be inspired by.

On a recent vacation there, I couldn't resist cranking out a Streetfilms shortie, so I hooked up with Crank My Chain's Dan Kaufman to capture the essence of the p.m. rush and find out what it feels like to be a part of the mass of cyclist humanity in Southeast Portland's Hawthorne corridor.

As Greg Raisman from Portland's Bureau of Transportation pointed out: 20 percent of all traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge is bikes, while the number of cyclists in Portland has risen 600 percent in the last 15 years and shows no sign of letting up.