This article was sent in by Chris Anderson, a 33-year-old northeast Portland resident who lives in the Concordia neighborhood. When he’s not riding his e-assist cargo bike with his family he writes mobile phone software for Couchbase.
I’m a family biker and a tech entrepreneur who recently returned to Portland. I’ve written this to share my perspective on livable streets, and I’m hoping to meet other people who are interested in the future of Portland. (If this describes you please reach out to me on Twitter @jchris or Facebook.)
A little background: I’m a co-founder of a database technology startup (although at 100 people and healthy revenues, we are starting to outgrow that designation). Reed College brought me to Portland in the late 90’s but I was pulled away for a few years to start the company. Now I’m back, and just joined the Portland Business Alliance, and hope to get active with the City Club and other citizen forums.
“Direct actions of the type that created Waterfront Park and Pioneer Square, as well as smaller neighborhood victories like Two Plum Park, are an integral part of Portland’s history. This is a torch we should all be proud to carry.”
My family knew we couldn’t stay in Mountain View, California (the car culture there is too isolating), so when the company was established enough that I could work remotely, we started thinking about where we wanted to live. Every city is trying to attract successful tech entrepreneurs, and the jobs they bring, so we knew we could live anywhere in the world. With quality of life as the #1 goal, we explored everywhere from Marin County, Austin, and NYC, to Copenhagen, Denmark, before deciding to return to Portland.
The places that appeal to us have a common denominator: human-friendly streetscapes. After having been away from Portland for a few years, upon visiting we were excited to see bicycle boulevards, streetcars on the Eastside, food carts, and more signs that Portland “gets it.” Here is a place we could count on to put humans first in transportation decisions.
Of course as we were planning our return the real texture of Portland politics came into focus. We were dismayed to see the I-5 expansion project being taken seriously, and a silly debate about off-street parking. Cars are not the future, as the younger generation eschews them for more human scale transportation and virtual connectedness. If traffic volumes can only be expected to drop in the long run, why plow billions of dollars into a bigger bridge? A fraction of that money could create livable streets that would make a real difference to Portlanders everyday.
If Portland is going to succeed in the 21st century it needs to maintain it’s leadership in defining the future of American cities. The thoughtful educated talent pool that companies like mine are looking for won’t settle for anything less.
I shared an early draft of this post with a friend and he had this to say:
“Compared to many American cities, if Portland’s further ahead than most in terms of accessibility, bike lanes, etc., then how much is left to do? And how much of that is plausible given the political environment here?”
This increasingly common attitude is exactly what our community needs to challenge. We can’t let statements like this one by Mayor Charlie Hales stand: “transportation choices and bikes and all the other things that we’re doing might have to be deferred a bit while we catch up on maintenance.”
Direct actions of the type that created Waterfront Park and Pioneer Square, as well as smaller neighborhood victories like Two Plum Park, are an integral part of Portland’s history. This is a torch we should all be proud to carry. As the saying goes: ask forgiveness not permission.
A liveable city won’t create itself. What else can we do to remind ourselves that our work is just getting started? In my opinion the best answers are poetic, because poetry is the language of possibility. Fifteen years ago, Critical Mass was the poetry we needed to raise awareness of bikes among drivers. Today we need a new kind of poetry to celebrate the fact that human powered transportation and liveable streets are a common ground for the next generation of Portland’s leaders.
I’ll leave the policy suggestions to the wonks, except for a couple of inspirational what-ifs…
What if we could unlock funding that’s earmarked for traditional, car-centric infrastructure and use it to create first-class liveable streets? Every bike on the road decreases congestion for cars many times over, so funding bike routes is a great way to make driving more efficient.
What if we could subsidize family friendly cargo bikes and trailers the way we subsidize electric and hybrid vehicles? The up-front investment in a cargo bike can be a blocker for someone who isn’t convinced they can give up their car, so ways to soften that will make an outsized impact.
The return to human powered transportation is a marker of today’s generation gap. So radical changes are not only plausible, they are inevitable. It’s just a question of how patient we want to be.
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Huge fan of the idea of subsidizing cargo bikes much like hybrid/electric cars. It’s a smaller investment with a larger return.
I co-administer a growing group:
“Center of Portland Integrating Neighborhood Greenways” with Bikes
We are working towards a completed, integrated, half-mile grid network of livable 20 MPH neighborhood greenways throughout the region of the city bounded by the Willamette, the 205 and Spingwater Multi-use paths and Columbia Bl to the north. This plan is affordable, each route has been tested and completely buildable. We are sponsoring our first group ride tomorrow, Noon at Lents park near Liebe. It is a four-park residential greenway 15 mile ride focusing on intersection improvements and routes not included in the 2030 Portland Master plan.
This would be a perfect opportunity to meet others with our same interests!!
This group sounds right up my alley. I’m out of town until tomorrow evening, but I “liked” your Facebook group so hopefully I can make the next ride. Is your plan online somewhere?
The intersection improvement estimated costs on listed in the “bubbles”. Our recommended greenways are in light green, with some short light blue bike lane connections for conductivity. Gravel roads are a problem in some outer neighborhoods, but we have some questions we are waiting for from the city to get good cost estimates.
The routes in red are conceptual but taken from city documents or are critical gravel road connections.
Radical change requires radical direct action. I could not agree more. Thanks for writing this, Chris. See you in the streets.
Instead of all the time, money and political talk spent on “job creation,” we would have much better results by focusing on livable streets. The younger generation chooses where they want to live first, then looks for a job. Companies will follow the talent and locate where they have access to the best employees.
i have a small business as well and have been thinking about joining the portland business alliance to advocate for more “family friendly streets” what do you hope to do there? let me know if you need an ally, if it is an effective avenue i’d be up for joining you!
I haven’t had time to get to my first meeting yet. Plan to observe and learn how it works for a few months. Will probably try to do some less controversial advocacy for the tech startup world before I make waves. But who knows I could carried away if I see stupidity brewing.
“What if we could subsidize family friendly cargo bikes and trailers the way we subsidize electric and hybrid vehicles? The up-front investment in a cargo bike can be a blocker for someone who isn’t convinced they can give up their car, so ways to soften that will make an outsized impact.”
Not everyone living car free needs or wants a cargo bike. Moreover, the idea of subsidizing the purchase of a $3000 european cargo bike by a wealthy family sticks in my craw. IMO, any such subsidies should target lower income folk, many of whom either do not own cars or struggle to afford them.
Spare Wheel: I agree I don’t need any subsidies, but neither do the folks buying a Leaf. Some distortion in our already distorted system is a price I think it’d be ok to pay to get more families on bikes.
Getting a small fraction of urbanites (e.g. people like me) on cargo bikes does not deal with the bull at all. The real distortion is that fact that we subsidized low occupancy vehicles by not taxing users for their societal cost.
IMO, we don’t need incentives for the tiny fraction of wealthy people, we need incentives for those with the most marginal propensity to use active (and public transport). That is if your goal is to increase mode share of active transport.
It kills me to see people who are just scraping by, pouring what little money they have into their car. If we weren’t living in the bad side of a prisoner’s dilemma (if we had decent infrastructure), then it’d be a no brainer for these folks to sell the car and get a bike that can replace it, save money and be happier / healthier.
So I take issue with the notion that cargo bikes are for wealthy people. Since I’m not a policy wonk, I’m just trying to provide inspiration to get us out of the prisoner’s dilemma, I’ll bite: sure, let’s give FREE cargo bikes to anyone who lives under the poverty level. Or regular bikes. But from a poetic standpoint, getting families on bikes is the high-leverage activity, and cargo bikes / trailers seem like the best fit.
“I’ll bite: sure, let’s give FREE … bikes to anyone who lives under the poverty level.”
One can dream…
Will you be fighting Nike’s request to build a 40 million dollar parking structure in Portland?
Signs point to yes.
Thanks for a very thoughtful and provocative commentary, Chris.
You are absolutely spot-on: in the 21st Century knowledge economy, cities will prosper only to the extent that they provide a livable community that attracts and anchors talent in place. Young, well-educated folks are highly mobile, and global in their outlook. We need to recognize that embracing the future–especially in creatively re-thinking the way our city and our streets can work better for everyone–can be an essential economic advantage going forward.
“The return to human powered transportation is a marker of today’s generation gap. So radical changes are not only plausible, they are inevitable. It’s just a question of how patient we want to be.”
This is absolutely correct. When you look at the sustainability of public finances, and the sustainability of ‘big petro,’ and the age demographics of automobile ownership and miles driven, the question is not if, it is when. I’ve been saying for a few years now, “we’ve already won, the other side just doesn’t know it yet.” That’s not to say I think we can or should sit around and be complacent; indeed, throwing $4 billion at a freeway expansion project on the the eve of all this change is remarkable folly explicable only by following the money trail, but when our children are adults it will be a totally different mindset and a totally different landscape.
This is great stuff, Chris. Thank you for saying all this. Subsidies are such a minefield. And auto-bias lurks everywhere.
The future of transport is human powered.
“…Cars are not the future, as the younger generation eschews them for more human scale transportation and virtual connectedness. If traffic volumes can only be expected to drop in the long run, why plow billions of dollars into a bigger bridge? …” Chris Anderson
For a greater percentage of future, younger generations, cars may not be the future they have been for past, younger generations, but cars most likely will continue to be a very important transportation essential for many people in future generations.
Traffic volumes…if you’re speaking of that percentage of it represented by motor vehicles…probably won’t drop. Many roads that are now, will likely still in the future, be filled to capacity with motor vehicles. Population though, could grow beyond the capacity of roads to carry them all by motor vehicle, particularly single occupancy cars, which could be one of a number of big factors compelling people to seek out other means to manage travel obligations between home and work. That in turn could help put more incentive and commitment than there’s been, towards the creation of better, more efficient community options for transportation and land use planning.
The money, is the rationale for dumping billions and billions and billions (well…hopefully not quite that much… :), into a bigger bridge. Money is the big carrot visualized, that many people simply cannot resist trying to get their teeth onto. Turning a blind eye to the possibility that by the time they finally, somehow get a hold of it, the road has gotten rockier rather than better, they’re starving to death and the carrot has turned rotten.
I’m glad you’re riding and using a large capacity e-assist cargo bike though, helping make an effort to demonstrate for all to see, that there is some potential viability for a break from a self destructive society pattern.
Population growth isn’t as extreme as you suggest. In the next 30 years Multnomah County is expected to grow by about 28% – http://www.oregon.gov/DAS/OEA/docs/demographic/County_forecast_March_2013.xls
The Portland Plan is targeting a modal share shift from about 6% today (much higher in the central city) to 25% by 2030. So these numbers should roughly cancel each other out leading to a flatline in the number of cars on the road. Personally I think the 25% goal is low, as ideas like this tend to reach a tipping point and become viewed as desirable not an imposition. That is the generation gap I see. Do it may be ambitious but not unrealistic to view today (actually a few years ago already) as “peak car” – a term I picked up from Hart.
Chris…what do you think may be the current, central city estimate for bike mode share in Portland? In past, I think people were casually, myself included, citing a figure of about 10-12 percent, drawn from PBOT traffic counts or some such thing. Things change though, various factors affect accuracy of counts, so nobody may really know.
I can visualize Portland between its close in neighborhoods and Downtown possibly eventually achieving a 25 percent bike mode share. For residents of farther out neighborhoods, say S.E. 38th and beyond, I would guess the likelihood of their being willing or able to contribute to that mode share by riding, would be much less than closer in residents. Multnomah County gets kind of big when a slow and easy type rider is riding it.
Same with my county, Washington County. Big. Not particularly welcoming to modestly committed, not so aggressive riders. And Beaverton? It can be ridden, but it’s not so fun for people easily intimidated by fast moving traffic close at hand. Better have more than one life, like a cat. Don’t expect granny to jump on the bike to contribute to that 25 percent goal, by imagining Beaverton is actually some kind of west coast Copenhagen.
If we had Copenhagen style infrastructure we could get nearly their levels of ridership. It’s easy to forget that they were swimming in cars in the 60s when they made a conscious choice to turn things around.
Here’s an example of doing it right:
“Copenhageners like the ambition, they like being part of the idea of going green for the whole city,” Copenhagen Lord Mayor Frank Jensen said in an interview with Yale Environment 360. “Our focus as a city, as citizens, is all about livability.”
Something to think about: visualize yourself as a land planner and an infrastructure planner for Portland’s Dept of Transportation.
Your project is to design for Portland, with the functionality of Copenhagen’s active transportation infrastructure with adaptions as required for Portland’s hilly land character, a neighborhood to employment interconnecting system of cycle tracks to be built upon Portland’s street grid, that would enable and support residents’ opportunity to dispense with the use of a car for this typical day to day commute, accomplishing it with a bike instead.
The design must be a viable one, ideally, within the budget allowed for construction of new infrastructure based on the design. Is this something Portland land and infrastructure planners could do? What’s the timeline, and the cost for construction of the system?
Just to get a beginning sense of what such a project may entail for Portland, I browsed the web, trying to find some easily accessible info about square miles of Portland and Copenhagen. What I found wouldn’t readily allow for a comparison of the two cities’ transportation service areas. As for terrain though, Copenhagen and beyond seems very flat. For a Copenhagen style active transportation infrastructure system I described above, Portland definitely has some hills the city, one way or another, would probably have to deal with to have a system that would work for people west of Downtown.
We should be putting our resources toward seismic upgrades (especially telecommunications infrastructure) and disaster preparedness for the big earthquake, so for bikes I like lower-cost alternatives like closing streets to cars.
As far as size comparisons, here’s an article about sprawl on Copenhagenize: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2013/03/busting-urban-sprawl-myths.html
Seismic upgrades? Not sure how your mention of that relates to encouraging and supporting use of bikes. To support whatever inclination milder mannered, easy going people receptive to riding a bike may have, to substitute cars for bikes for commutes and short trips, it seems to me that low-threat cycling specific infrastructure is essential.
Portland’s relatively flat, close-in neighborhoods are a good example of areas located a modest riding distance from downtown, that could perhaps generate a greater bike mode share, if those areas had such infrastructure. My area, Central Beaverton is another example that could perhaps generate a greater bike mode share, if its’ very dominant thoroughfares had their bike infrastructure vastly improved from what it is now. Terrain is flat, routes are direct, travel time has the potential to be fairly quick.
Unfortunately, I think the quality of the bike specific infrastructure, which is bike lanes along those thoroughfares, would leave many people very uneasy about considering the possibility of using them with a bike for a commute or a short trip, rather than a car. That, I think, may be the big, big difference between our bike infrastructure, and that of AMS or CPH. In those European countries, because of their bike specific infrastructure that significantly reduces the threat from motor vehicles on the road, they feel fine about riding a couple miles or more to work, or a half mile to the grocery store. In many towns like Beaverton, and in much of Portland, people generally don’t feel good about taking the bike out for a ride, because, here, they more than not, have to ride cheek to jowl alongside cars.
I agree with everything you wrote. I just think the cheapest way to do it would be to close some streets to cars. Way more subjective safety than even Copenhagen style separated lanes, and cheaper too.
Seismic comes up because frankly I’m not sure it’s worth investing in anything on the west side until we get our seismic house in order, but that’s another story.
This is a myth. In point of fact, cycling in AMS and CPH was far higher than PDX in the 60s. I believe both were firmly in the 20s. Even more interestingly, in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s mode share was quite high with little separated infrastructure. This tells me that the issue is not infrastructure, but the taming of motor vehicles (education, strict liability, taxation traffic calming, and build-down of motoring infrastructure.)
Moreover, if you examine the increase in cycling in AMS and CPH it was not correlated with infrastructure build-out but a change in the way citizens perceived the cost-benefit of motoring as transport.
Traffic calming, lower speed limits, decisions to not expand freeways, woonerfs, the re-emergence of car-free/light commercial districts, and strict liability laws all preceded the massive build out of cycle paths.
In fact, one can make the argument that in Denmark cycling began to stagnate during a period of infrastructure build out:
Thanks for the links. They led me to an interesting post about the lack of an 8-80 strategy in Copenhagen. By focussing on commuters, they’ve changed the perception so much that kids are not biking to school anymore. And kids are the next generation of cyclists…
“but cars most likely will continue to be a very important transportation essential for many people in future generations.”
you and I have had versions of this conversation before. Except for the tempting assumption that the future will be a continuation of the past, I remain curious why you believe that cars–automobility–couldn’t shrivel and blow away in the winds of tomorrow? I can imagine this pretty easily. While I acknowledge the cultural and emotional resistance to that idea, I think we encounter more evidence of, more reason to expect, a future with dramatically fewer cars every day. The fact that younger generations are less enamored of owning and driving cars, and VMT is declining, are salutary but they represent a still rather minor divergence from past trends. The sunsetting of automobility due to constraints (rather than shifting preferences) will be another thing entirely. The combined fallout from Peak Oil and Climate Change will, I believe, gut what we (still) take to be our inviolable and unending love affair with the automobile.
My biggest complaint about how ODOT and PBOT and other agencies plan for the future of transportation is that they seem wholly incapable of allowing for even the possibility that the future might not be powered by fossil fuels, or filled with cars of any variety. As near as I can tell the wholesale disappearance of the currently dominant form is nowhere included as a possible scenario. The utter lack of imagination when it comes to future transport infrastructure is troubling. Maybe Mark Gorton will knock some sense into them.
I don’t think cars are likely to shrivel and blow away in the winds of tomorrow. The type of driving and number of miles people travel, may very well change though. Younger generations aren’t the only generations that determine the type of transportation mode needed; older generations also figure into type of transportation needed.
I’ve read that numbers of people in older generation are growing. Due to age and infirmity, more of them than younger people, don’t do so well on bikes, waiting at mass transit stops, and jostling with people on crowded buses and trains. For many of them, cars are very important, even though they may not be doing long, daily commutes, as many younger people starting out jobs and families may be.
In decades to come, the roads will likely still be crowded with cars.
That’s all you got, wsbob – cars are very important to people?
I’m not talking about how attached we are as a society to our cars. I take that pretty much as a given. What I’m talking about is a series of constraints that will one day make cars & automobility unviable. What I’m talking about has exactly nothing to do with preferences or even infrastructure.
The people of Joplin, Missouri also liked their cars and their houses and their schools and hospitals, would never have agreed to give them up. Then one day they all blew away.
Sea level rise, crop failures, freak weather, the inability to afford asphalt… none of those scenarios have anything to do with whether we like things just as they are. We still think we’re in charge of all this, can make it go away, but soon we won’t be.
It seems that what you really want to talk about, are the prospects of an apocalypse of some sort, that you suspect will eliminate use of cars. Something like that could happen, but for the interim, I think that subject makes for a very narrow focus that isn’t constructive towards meeting the transportation needs of people in the present, or quite a ways into the future.
Even without yet having had a true apocalypse, many people already are driving less, but they still drive, and many still have need of driving, or riding in cars…making that need still one that needs to be met today with good infrastructure supporting it. At the same time, I think people as members of the public and today’s society, could be doing a much better job of designing and building active transportation infrastructure that on some key routes in some towns and cities, would support people’s interest in and willingness to walk or bike to places they regularly drive to that are relatively close to their homes.
In some situations, quite a bit of give and take would be required to get something like that going, such as property owners making an extra effort to help create wider bike-walk infrastructure where needed. My little town…just joking…of Beaverton…at least its Central Beaverton neighborhood, is one whose active transportation infrastructure I reflect on frequently. Central Beaverton could be so good for active transportation, and while it has gradually, deliberately made some effort in that direction over the years, in terms of a system, what’s been accomplished to date, is, from a functional perspective, rather feeble.
Would bikeportland’s editor-publisher feel good about taking his mom on her cruiser bike, for a ride on Beaverton’s Hall-Watson couplet between Cedar Hills Crossing and the Beaverton Library…about a 10-12 minute ride? I doubt it. To this weblog, he’s posted a picture or two of her on a bike. Maybe my impression is mistaken, but she didn’t appear to be a seasoned, traffic savvy rider. She looked, possibly more like one of those Copenhagen cycle track types. No way, did that picture suggest to me, that she would be game to ride a bike on the bike lanes along any of Beaverton’s thoroughfares. And that is exactly part of the problem, the reason why, with the quality of active transportation infrastructure we have today, that many people will…must continue to find some way to answer their travel needs with cars rather than bikes.
“It seems that what you really want to talk about, are the prospects of an apocalypse of some sort, that you suspect will eliminate use of cars.”
You can dismiss this with words like apocalypse, but what I’m suggesting is that the fact that our transportation authorities have not seen fit to include the possibility that everything could be very different seems much less than prudent. Even you are now willing to admit that “Something like that could happen,” so why not include this possibility in our scenarios, our planning?
“with the quality of active transportation infrastructure we have today, that many people will…must continue to find some way to answer their travel needs with cars rather than bikes.”
I’m much less interested in a static analysis such as this. Planning isn’t about looking only to the tips of our noses; it is about anticipating possible changes—including dramatic ones if there is reason to suspect such changes. You seem to be expecting individuals to shift their mode of travel right here, right now. That isn’t what I’m talking about at all. I’m arguing that by refusing to even have the conversation we’re all collectively denying ourselves the possibility of making a slightly less disruptive and painful transition away from a transportation system utterly dependent on fossil fuels.
“many still have need of driving, or riding in cars…making that need still one that needs to be met today with good infrastructure supporting it.”
Again your focus on incremental fixes, present needs is unnecessarily abridged. Why limit ourselves to a static perspective such as Charlie Hales seems enamored of? We have potholes! Must fix! Why not allow/engage in a parallel conversation about the need to shift our expectations, our thinking, our priorities away from this auto-dominated framework? Given that you even agree that this could be looming, what could be the harm? Or, turned around, what could possibly be a reason *not* to entertain this possibility?
Welcome to Portland. Great thoughts.
I trust your child wears a helmet when in the cargo bike.
In Portland, she wears a helmet but I do not — the combination which I think makes her the most safe.
In Copenhagen, helmets are not even considered — that’s where the photo was taken.
Let’s quit subsidizing oil & the auto and then we wouldn’t have to subsidize the alternatives either. Saving money all around for more important things like education.
Chris, glad to have you here but a bit of modesty about what Portland has been, is, and might be would be nice. After all, you’re not a native, you went to college here, and you just moved back but you seem to know an awful lot about the 2 million or people who live and work here.
Not meant to be hostile, but we get well intentioned in migrants all the time telling us what model Portland is supposed to live up to when they haven’t been living here.
I was here for 11 years before moving away… but even if I was parachuting in advice from somewhere else, I’m not sure how to read your comment aside from “it’s OK to have low standards, we’re used to them.” Actually Portland has pretty high standards — best in America in my experience. I just want to make them better.
A thought: crowdsource information that improves the cycling experience while driving livability planning.
Via a mobile app:
-Enable cyclists to upload route hazards, both designed-in and temporary, including location, photo, description and severity (the latter two in a way that creates the needed consistency)
-Enable (and encourage) cyclists to upload incident descriptions, including location and description (category and freeform)
-Allow cyclists to view (via an in-app map) the route hazards and reported incidents (ideally also showing police-reported bicycle accidents)
-Enable (and again encourage) any other cyclist to provide their severity/frequency input on any hazard shown on the map
-Encourage cyclists to input their common routes, with type (e.g., commute or family ride) and frequency, enabling the app to alert these cyclists individually when a newly-posted hazard or incident has occurred along any of their routes
The resulting database of hazards, incidents and travel patterns (in aggregate) could then be organized, prioritized, and submitted to the city for planning use. Tracking and publically posting the city’s status for each submitted hazard/incident would encourage action.