Feds say Metro should think more about cars, parking

Posted by on January 30th, 2007 at 12:02 pm

Chris Smith mentioned this yesterday, but I just noticed an interesting story buried in the Metro Section of today’s Oregonian.

Here’s the gist.

Metro is in the midst of their Regional Transportation Plan update. According to Metro, this plan is,

“a blueprint to guide transportation investments in the Portland metropolitan region for the next 20 years.”

The plan must meet state and federal guidelines and so far the feds aren’t too impressed with what they see. From the Oregonian:

“The highway agency scolded Metro for not focusing more on highways, cars and parking…”The plan should acknowledge that automobiles are the preferred mode of transport by the citizens of Portland,” the agency said. “They vote with their cars every day.””

[Metro’s Rex Burkholder at the
Three Bridges Dedication, 10/19/06]

Cars will always be the “preferred mode of transport,” as long as we continue to plan for them and encourage their use over everything else.

Metro’s Rex Burkholder is quoted as saying the feds reaction should be, “taken with a grain of salt.”

Metro getting scolded? Pay attention to cars and parking? Wow. This is surreal.

When is the U.S. going to take a serious look at how misguided our blind allegiance to the automobile has been for the last hundred years?

We don’t need to be anti-car, but we do need to be much more car-conscious.

You’d think with our current issues of obesity, global warming, wars over oil, skyrocketing highway costs, etc… that the feds might just be a bit more open to new ideas.

Metro may not be perfect, but seriously folks, the time for business as usual has passed.

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Ethan
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Ethan

This would be pretty funny if it wasn’t so very very sad. Can we unleash our congressional delegation on them?

Adam
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Adam

This is frustrating. Just about every other major city in the US already caters too much to automobiles, often with disastrous results. It would be nice if they would let one city try something a little different, just on the off chance it might work.

Vladislav Davidzon
Guest

This is the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in a long time. Considering how boring and vanilla the current political bike proposals in Portland tend to be, it is beyond amusing to see the feds get annoyed.

When will the city actually take real action? Like you know, maybe banning 1/4th of downtown city streets to car traffic and making them public transit/bike/ped only?

Or actually making it prohibitively expensive to drive in this city by putting tolls on every road?

Oh wait. That takes politicians with actual guts to do the right thing… and we severely lack those, even on the local level. Sigh.

Maybe it is time for new voices to run for public office in this city…

Chris Smith
Guest

Check this out for a path for how this story is spreading around…

PFin
Guest

Who are these Feds anyway? Agency name? Buncha catcholies…

Andrew
Guest
Andrew

I wonder if some folks sitting in the Federal Transportation department are either going to work and have worked for ________ (enter major car, or energy corporation)

Matt P.
Guest

The problem in Portland is growth. This is a desirable place to live, and the population is expanding, in part naturally, but mostly due to immigration from California and other states. There are 2 basic ways to manage growth – increased density or increased land use (sprawl). Metro’s prefered method is increased density, and the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) was developed to help enforce that policy. The UGB is supposed to contain sprawl by making it difficult to develop outside it. The UGB is required to be drawn on the map so that a 20-year supply of land is available inside it. Metro controls the UGB for the greater Portland area. Increased density means increased traffic. Metro’s ideal solution to increased traffic is public transportation, cycling, and walking. The Feds’ ideal solution is more and wider roads, i.e. increased lane mileage. We all know that cars are a very inefficient use of space. The problem is, even in the best systems in the US, public transit is used by only 10-15% of the traveling public. Bicycles are at best another 10%, bringing the total to 1/4 of all trips. If we very generously assume 25% of all trips can be done by foot, then as much as 50% of our transportation requirements can be handled without cars.

The problem is, Portland now has over 550,000 people, and the population has increased about 30% since MAX entered service in 1986 and the metro area population has nearly doubled. There has been little or no expansion of the primary road network during that time, meaning that there are significantly more cars on the same road mileage – i.e. more traffic.

I think we’re at the point now where increased density is going to hurt, rather than help us. I believe that our best bet is neither increased density nor increased land use. I believe our best bet is to get the state to roll back the 20-year land requirement (set in 1995, the UGB itself was formed in 1979) and fix the UGB. We need to control growth. That’s probably never going to happen, though. If the UGB is fixed, then so is the land supply, which drives up property values and makes us less attractive to business. That tends to kill political will.

What’s this got to do with the original story? Well, if we want increased density and no sprawl, then the Feds are right – we need to build more roads, because unless we can somehow steer 100% of the growth into transit, bikes, and pedestrianism, we’re eventually going to saturate our road capacity and bring all road traffic to a complete standstill.

Then again, I think some of the regular readers of this site would think that would be a good thing.

Joe Planner
Guest
Joe Planner

Having worked in a similar government bureaucracy before, the response is not surprising. Some engineering-minded dufus in the FHWA who’s been sitting in his cubical for 30+ years has been generating the same comments for every regional transportation plan across the country.

The comments are advisory and have little to no teeth. I’d be surprised if they respected the approach Portland Metro is taking. This response, however, is no surprise. Also, we must remember that this is the Fed Highway Administration, not the Fed Transit Administration.. which would probably provide more positive comments on Metro’s approach.

Joe Planner
Guest
Joe Planner

In response to the density issue raised by Matt, Portland is NOT dense. It’s not even dense by American standards, let alone European, Asian, or South American standards! Infill development will increase density slightly, but it’s not going to be anywhere close to Chicago, New York, DC, or Los Angeles even with a UGB.. Yes, I said Los Angeles.. which currently is home to the densest metro area in the country. Los Angeles is doing nothing BUT increasing road development and that’s not getting them anywhere.. what makes anyone think building more roads in Portland will make its traffic that much better?

Burr
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Burr

The City has already lifted the downtown parking ‘lid’or cap, which has resulted in the addition of large numbers of new parking spaces in the downtown Portland core; thus guaranteeing more, rather than less, traffic congestion downtown for years into the foreseable future.

And Portland already told the feds what we think of their transportation agenda, when we voted down the Mt. Hood Freeway and decided on light rail instead.

Burr
Guest
Burr

And you really can’t build any new roads or widen existing roads within the existing city core, anyway, it’s already built out and there’s no room for ’em, we’re going to have to live with what we’ve got.

VR
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VR

I ask all the naysayers: How does Manhattan work then?

Burr
Guest
Burr

Like most places, Manhattan and Portland both work fine transportation-wise for about 18 hours each day; it’s the other six hours that are hell if you insist on driving, and those six peak hours are what the motor-heads would like us to plan and design for. Like Portland, Manhattan doesn’t have any room to expand its street system, and it doesn’t work very well during peak hours.

gabrielamadeus
Guest
gabrielamadeus

Oh wait, speaking of NYC, this just appeared on streetsblog:

“New York City needs a new DOT commissioner with a new mandate. The old mandate was to move as many cars as quickly as possible. The new DOT commissioner must figure out how to move the most people around the city, using all of the available tools including mass transit, walking and bicycling.”

Read the whole post here:
http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/01/30/weinshall-upheld-cars-first-status-quo-ta-says/

Carl
Guest
Carl

Speaking of speaking of NYC (and prioritizing cars), here is a New York Times op-ed piece recently posted on the Shift list:

http://lists.riseup.net/www/arc/shift/2007-01/msg00182.html

The chilling conclusion:

“Roads no longer merely lead to places; they are places,” wrote John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape historian. We’ve already lost a lot of New York to traffic. If New Yorkers don’t get out of their cars soon, the city’s future residents won’t have a reason to.

Adam-8
Guest
Adam-8

I’d say this type of thinking shouldn’t be surprising from a behemoth Federal agency that probably hasn’t changed it’s policies on Highways and Automobiles as top priority since the fifties. The issue is that no one is looking at new ways of dealing with old problems, or the new problems that we’re facing.

The fact is that in an urban environment in this day and age car’s are practically obsolete. Look at places like NY, Europe and Asia where huge portions of the population use alternative transit and you’ll see that autos just aren’t efficient enough to move that many people. Additionally, environmental and health impacts, as well as obstacles like peak oil aren’t even being factored into the equation.

What amazes me is that our local politicians who have shown an awareness of these issues (Potters peak oil committee) and who are handed new ideas on a silver platter by websites like this, as well as examples from places like Winnipeg which has NO freeways in cities, are refusing to act.

“That takes politicians with actual guts to do the right thing” –Vladislav

I’ve been hearing for decades about the ingeniousness of a car-free downtown area, or more MAX lines, etc. Yet there hasn’t been much of a change.

I just hope METRO doesn’t heed these warnings.

Hubster
Guest
Hubster

I loved the “They vote with their cars every day.” quote in the article. As if it’s voting when you simply don’t have a reasonable transportation choice. You could vote in the USSR, too…swell.

Matt Picio
Guest

Joe –

It doesn’t have to be as dense as those other cities for us to have problems. If you look at all of the cities you mentioned, I’d wager that they have a LOT more 4 and 5-lane roads than Portland does.

Portland is definitely NOT dense. In my opinion, we need to keep it that way. We have an excellent mix of housing here, and it would be fantastic if we could keep the mix as we rotate out aged housing stock.

Adam-8
Guest
Adam-8

Historic housing stock is an immense asset. Not something to be “rotated out.” Trust me, the aluminum and stucco McMansion’s out in Beaverton won’t last 30 years, much less more than a century like the house I’m sitting in right now.

bArbaroo
Guest
bArbaroo

Yes, people vote with their cars everyday. People also smoke and do other things that are pleasant in the short-term and harmful inthe long-term. As a race are not so good at thinking about the long-term consequences of our actions and people will continue to drive their cars. But, someday we’ll run out of oil and then what? The planning and priorities of Metro are spot on – balanced for today’s reality but when the eventuality of reduced car use(oil or other fuel) occurs, this region will be one step ahead.

peejay
Guest
peejay

I read recently that while we are using less gas than we used last year, the reduction was such a small amount that you cannot correlate it to the drastic increase in fuel prices. I used to think that the solution to encouraging less driving and more efficient vehicles was entirely centered on the price of gasoline, but it has not proven out. People are so invested into their car lifestyles that they just cannot make a radical change away from it as a result of an incremental – no matter how steep – change in the price of gas.

bArbaroo makes a great point about us acting in our short term interests, and the way out of it is through government regulations. Yes, that’s right: regulations, which have provided for safe working conditions, consumer products and food, and even a predictable infrastructure in which to operate one’s car, can actually make life better for us!

Take traffic lights, for example. We wouldn’t want them removed, even when we wait for the red to change. We understand that self interest would get in the way of efficient traffic flow, and safety, if they weren’t there (witness what happens during power outages!). Traffic lights are a form of regulation, imposed on all drivers fairly by an agency controlled by our elected officials.

So what kind of regulations might lead us out of our car-centric life and towards a more people-centric one? That’s for another post. But I believe we are always smarter collectively than we are as individuals, especially about the long term.

Adams Carroll (News Intern)
Guest

One story I’ll never forget about Portland’s transportation history is when Rick Gustafson told me the story of how they defeated the Mt. Hood Fwy.

He told me if the freeway project would have gone to a public vote, it would have likely been voted for.

This surprised me but gave me a new appreciation for the role of innovative and progressive transportation and urban planners.

The majority of citizens don’t always know what’s best in such complex issues.

bArbaroo
Guest
bArbaroo

peejay,
I’m not opposed to regulations that are carefully crafted but don’t believe that they’ll work on their own. Incentives to change along with regulations are much more effective. Incentives can include $, peer pressure, or just feeling good for doing something. Also, getting to the point were new regulations are passed requires that some will be there first. That means that we need to build public acceptance for a shift away from auto-domination in order to lay the foundation for regs. that will see adherance.

What kind of regs? Most people drive to work, with errands (grocery, cleaners, doctors) a close second. So, regulations would have to focus on reducing those trips. How about a reg. that requires some kind of grocery-residential building proximity requirement in urban/suburban development? This is the kind of stuff that Metro is working on all of the time. In fact they are currently gathering input for their update of the Regional Transportation Plan (). The RTP is mentioned above but it’s important to note that there is a forum for public input that’s available to all of us, see http://www.metro-region.org/article.cfm?articleid=19899 for more info or to get involved.

peejay
Guest
peejay

bArb:

I agree that regulations are not good enough on their own. I think that the more input citizens have with the laws that govern their behavior, the better they understand and thus follow those laws. If regulations are imposed upon an unprepared and uninformed public, they’ll push back. I believe that’s part of what explains the passage of measure 37.

However, the idea that a well-intentioned minority of people can lead by example to change the habits of the many is wrong. No matter how many people I tell about the benefits of biking to work and the pernicious evils of automobiles, whether they say they agree with me or not, they won’t change their habits themselves, unless there’s a disruptive change to their economic calculus. People who resist car culture are a minority, and will always be until the incentive is there for change. That incentive will have to be a combination of market forces, laws, and a change in the infrastructure. These are blanket changes, changes that neither you nor I can enact ourselves. The best we can do is start the dialog, so that we might create an environment would understand, be willing to vote for, and adapt to these changes.

peejay
Guest
peejay

The above post is in no way intended to denigrate the efforts of those who are at the vanguard on this issue: I admire, encourage, and hope to be considered in the ranks of the anti-car leaders. I just don’t think we can change the attitudes of the many, nor should we be relied upon to do so.

I do it for my own satisfaction and good health. In a way, I am being selfish by not driving. Until the costs of driving become orders of magnitude greater than they are now, my arguments will remain unpersuasive to most of my neighbors.

Matt Picio
Guest

Adam, you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that we should rotate it out – it *is* an immense asset, and one that should be cherished. I’m saying that the reality is that it *is* rotated out, due to neglect, age, storms, etc. A house can only last so long, and the quality of the housing stock varied greatly pre-1940 because all homes were hand-crafted and individually built. The mass-produced home is an artifact of post-WWII.

I’m saying that I hope that old stock isn’t torn down to make a McMansion, and that the newer homes and apartments have a mix of styles, sizes, and appearances. What makes our current stock great (IMO) is that it doesn’t look the same – much of it was built over a 40-50 year period starting at the beginning of *last* century. Gradual replacement over time keeps a neighborhood viable, as opposed to a developer coming in, razing 6 blocks and replacing them with rows of identical condos, all in the name of “density”, “progress”, and “it’s what people want – market research proves it”.

Matt Picio
Guest

Johnathon – that’s *exactly* what happened with Measure 37, which has effectively paralyzed land use planning in Oregon. (Granted, it also paralyzes most new road projects as well) I agree that most citizens frequently don’t understand (or more to the point, take the time to understand) the issues.

Adam, one more comment on housing stock – I agree about the quality of new construction, and that’s the real problem in housing replacement, much more so than what the house looks like as opposed to its neighbors.

Jo Routens
Guest
Jo Routens

I have two comments: Portland metro area is constrained geographically–how the hec, are you going to, for instance, add lanes to Sunset Highway through Sylvan, just to mention one particularly hair-brained scheme that was once mentioned for increasing capacity. The other is that the particular Feds must really hate their country–encouraging more oil use just gives money to a bunch of people who we don’t particularly get along with. Disparaging and/or discouraging alternative transportation should be considered a form of treason. Yeah, go ahead, build roads everywhere so we can all drive more–Al Qaeda needs the money!

bArbaroo
Guest
bArbaroo

more on regulations –

Don’t underestimate influence of the uninformed . Measure 37 is one expample, another is the Healthy Streams iniative that Portland worked on a few years ago. It was basically killed by a small handful of property-rights extremists who spread propaganda filled with fear-generating lies to the public. The public, as with M-37 believed the lies and fought back. Oh, and need I mention the “uninformed” who voted in Congress to send our troops to a certain region. Whew-guess I have some issues trusting folks to be informed before they take action.

Anyway, we do have to work on educating friends, family, neighbors about alternatives and their benefits and then craft regulations that can support auto-alternative living.

I don’t think Portland’s physical geography is the limiting factor where more road construction is involved. You should see what they do in the Norway -tunnels under fiords, whole road systems and parking lots under mountains -the technology (did I bring up technology again>) is there to get through the hills. Other factors are constraining such construction. Perhaps it’s funding, or our discomfort with holes in the hills, or maybe it’s a very diverse population that keeps progress on all sides (car and alt. transport) a bit slow.

enginerd
Guest
enginerd

I find the FHWA’s comments amusing. At the Headquarters level, mandated by Transportation Secretary Peters, USDOT (including Fed. Highways, Fed. Aviation, and Fed. Transit) is crafting a major change in how projects are funded. The Highway Trust Fund and other road sources are almost gone…and FHWA is going to have to do more with less $$$. States and regions (Metro) are going to have to find ways to pay for transportation projects w/o relying on federal $$$. Line item “pork” projects like the famed Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” will be given more scrutiny and likely minimal funding.

In the not too distant future, only projects of true multi-state or federal significance would get funding…things like the I-5/Columbia River Crossing. Federal participation in projects like Sellwood Bridge or local arterial rehabs could be reduced significantly, if not gone.

Given that, you’d think that FHWA at the regional level would support land use, system management, demand management,transit, bike/ped projects as a way for the region to make progress with constrained funding.

Matt P.
Guest

Jo, don’t underestimate them – someone will come up with some hairbrained scheme like double-decking the freeway through Sylvan.

enginerd’s comments are sobering, especially in regards to the executive order Bush signed the other day that mandates each department to form a policy office headed by a political appointee (i.e. a presidential watchdog), and requires the agencies to give the White House adequate notice before implementing any policies and directives.