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Portland’s 1971 visionary of low-car life says our city needs its next vision

Posted by on September 12th, 2013 at 1:10 am

Alan Webber at BIF-6

Former Portland city hall staffer
and journalist Alan Webber.
(2010 photo by Jeremy Withers)

The man who, as a city hall aide 40 years ago, proposed that Portland consider an anti-congestion fee, car-free streets, a citywide bikeway network, a station-based public bike sharing system and bike-specific traffic signals stopped through town last weekend and said something else interesting.

Alan Webber, who went on to co-found Fast Company magazine, still believes in the ideas he held back then: “The good guys win,” as he put it. But in a speech last Saturday he made the case that the convictions of the early 1970s aren’t enough any more, and that Portland needs to set a new, higher target and stick with it.

In some ways, Webber’s Sept. 7 keynote at TechFestNW was a retelling of the familiar but memorable local story of how one generation of mostly white male Portlanders ousted the more auto-centric ideas of an older generation in the early 1970s.

But Webber’s speech also offers a fresh, frank take on how his generation built consensus around those big changes, why they worked and what they mean to Portland today.

The best and brightest of America’s prestigious urban planners, transportation experts, economic development gurus, and social engineers had already laid waste to most of the country’s big cities. Urban renewal had been used as a tool to bulldoze slums, displace minorities, and erect sterile single-use zones that in many cases reflected an architectural style best described as “Mussolini modern.”

Everyone who counted knew that freeways were the wave of the future—that massive concrete channels needed to be carved through old and uninteresting city neighborhoods to make it faster, easier, and more convenient for former city dwellers—the ones with money and choice—to make the morning commute from the sprawling suburbs to the rapidly rotting urban core—and back again at night. All that old housing stock, all those old neighborhoods, what difference did they make? They were the past. … The good news for Portland in 1970 was that the city leaders were so conservative, so slow, so sclerotic, they’d managed to miss almost all of these carefully planned catastrophes.

Make no mistake. Portland in 2013 is at a “what’s next?” moment, much as it was in 1970. Except in 1970 we were trying to save Portland from urban ruin. in 2013 you have the opportunity to propel Portland to urban greatness. …

If you go to war, and you don’t have a clear definition of victory, how do you know how many resources to commit, how to make the case for the conflict with your own people, how long to stay, or when to leave—or even whether you’re winning or losing? The same is true for a business—or, for that matter for a city seeking a strategy. You need to be able to answer the question, “What’s your definition of victory?” “What’s the point of the exercise?” so you can begin to know why you are doing what you are doing, and how well you are doing it. .

Which is why having a definition of victory—why asking the last question first—is fundamental to any military engagement, any business strategy or entrepreneurial startup, or any urban disruption. … Here’s the deal—for business entrepreneurs or urban strategists: Once you know your definition of victory, then you can begin to connect the elements of your strategy into a coherent, internally consistent whole.

But until you have answered that fundamental question, until you know the definition of victory, you really have no strategy. You have an assortment of programs, a loose collection of policy initiatives—but no clear strategy.

Webber is a little vague on suggestions for what that strategy should be, but with good reason: he’s not a Portlander any more. It’s up to those of us who are to ask and answer “the last question” he refers to.

Here at BikePortland, we’re looking for ways to tell the story of how bikes fit into a better city, not for their own sake but for the sake of the city and the region we share and love. How can we make it clear that bike advocacy isn’t about asking the city to make way for bikes, but about making it possible for bikes to serve the city?

While you chew on that (I certainly will be), Willamette Week has the whole text of Webber’s speech, and it’s definitely worth reading.

Hat tip to the Twitter feed of OPB’s Toni Tabora-Roberts.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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9watts
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9watts

Yes to a vision!

“How can we make it clear that bike advocacy isn’t about asking the city to make way for bikes, but about making it possible for bikes to serve the city?”

Well said. Asphalt and autodom are on their way out. The vision I’m interested in explores how to go about shifting everything over to a post carbon transportation system. Daunting? Sure. But not as daunting as the alternatives.

“Portland needs to set a new, higher target and stick with it.”

Three cheers for Alan Webber!

Chris Sanderson
Guest

Read this article the other day, and though it was well worth the read. So, the question remains: Is there an idea of what “victory” looks like? Can we sit down and figure out what we want Portland to look like 20-years from now? Can we build consensus on the game plan and “victory”? I’ve only lived here a few years, and perhaps there’s a master strategic plan that I don’t know about. If so, how does that change or evolve with mayoral and Metro administrations? How democratic is the game plan? Anyway, just pondering and asking questions…

Brian Libby
Guest

Not saying Alan Webber isn’t a brilliant, insightful guy. But it’s A LOT easier to say there should be a vision than to articulate what that vision is.

Scott
Guest

Wow… Wish I could have seen him speak… Very thought provoking. …and your statement is true. Bike advocacy isn’t about asking the city (or boss, or neighbor down the street, or local business) to make way for bikes. It’s about making it possible for bikes to serve all of the above. Bicycles are a positive tool for social, physical, and healthy change. –not to mention the fact that using the is just plain fun!

9watts
Guest
9watts

meant to include a link to a review of Engwicht’s book:
http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SA/en/display/286

Ciaran
Guest
Ciaran

Not to downplay bike advocacy, but I think some of you–and to a certain extent, this article–miss the point of Mr. Webber’s speech. Bikes are not an end in an of themselves. They are a a means. Until we define some sort of “end” we can’t make compelling arguments about how bikes get us there.

So Webber’s question remains – what do we want Portland to look like in 30 years?

Here are a few ideas:

-Flourishing economy
-Better equity
-Increased density close-in
-Emphasis on livable streets
-Lower carbon footprint

Some of these look more like means than ends, and I’m certainly missing plenty of others.

Bikes can help with all of these goals, but until we transform this list of aspirations into a compelling and complete narrative that garners broad consensus, our arguments about why bikes and bike infrastructure are important will lack the force necessary to empower real change.

AndyC of Linnton
Guest
AndyC of Linnton

Portland’s vision 2013: Give ourselves blue ribbons, gold stars, platinum status, best biking city murals, one bike counter on the busiest biking bridge, etc., talk about it a lot & sit back and watch other cities build bolder infrastructure.
And please don’t say “neighborhood greenways”(I feel dirty typing those words-ack). I think anyone with a modicum of intuition can realize that riding a bicycle through neighborhood streets is a less stressful trip. A painting of a bike on the street should not be considered infrastructure. It is easy, though, and I think maybe that’s more our vision now: What is easy to do that doesn’t ruffle too many(automobile/freight/ODOT) feathers?

was carless
Guest
was carless

I suppose noone has heard of this?

http://www.portlandonline.com/portlandplan/

TonyT
Guest
tonyt

I’ve got a goal. How about ZERO fatalities on Portland streets in 20 years?

Volvo has set that audacious goal for their cars. http://www.motorauthority.com/news/1024328_volvo-wants-to-eliminate-injuries-and-deaths-in-its-vehicles-by-2020

At first glance, when I first heard of Volvo’s goal, I thought, “that’s not achievable.” But immediately after that first reaction, it occurred to me that unless you set a high goal like that, you don’t make nearly the progress that’s possible.

Like Volvo’s goal, zero fatalities on Portland streets initially sounds ridiculous, but let’s see what happens if we push through the instinct to balk at this goal as unreasonable. Let’s look at what it is that stands in our way.

Looking through the zero fatalities lens, one would immediately need to cast the widest data net possible to understand what is truly at work in the deaths. We would need to stop looking it this, as I think Portland has done, as merely an enforcement issue. Although it seems obvious that enforcement would be prioritized based on damage done by particular modes of transportation, I think the real focus would come down to infrastructure. One would also have to look at infrastructure improvements as HAVING to be done. Substandard becomes unacceptable.

Blah, blah, blah. Gotta get to work.

paikikala
Guest
paikikala

Start with a vision:
The Safest City in North America.

Plan how to get there, with fact/evidence-based data:
Speed kills – a key to making Portland’s streets safer is to reduce speeding and speeds in general. But there also needs to be higher speed roads. Portland has a mish-mash of street sizes and uses with no coherant speed posting policy.

More small roads, more frequently spaced, makes safer cities. Work by Marshall and Garrick on california cities have measured this. Portland has a good grid west of 82nd, but not much to the east. (my system won’t let me paste links)

Jobs, Goods and services near where people live helps to reduce auto use. Portland does an ok job with mixed use, but there is always room for improvement.

Signals are a necessary evil, but even in Portland they are way over used. Check out an aerial view of Carmel, IN, 47 square miles and 60 modern roundabouts. Portland, at 133 sq. mi. has two (Mt Hood Ave; Palater/Terwilliger). At least half the signals could be replaced, resulting in safer operation, less delay, lower emissions, and better resiliency.

It’s an involved project, but it’s the future. It will arrive no matter what we do. What it looks like is up to us.

joe kurmaskie
Guest

Agree we need a collective new vision. In the meantime, some easy steps to building a pleasant, livable, vibrant community:

1) Every time you go for the car keys, think, could I make this trip by foot or bike?
The answer, about 95 percent of the time is yes. Will I make this trip by foot or bike?… now that is how we evolve, change, reach beyond a carcentric community

2) If you say you live too far from work, school, activities to bike or walk most of the time… move. If you tell me , “you first!” Well, I did. If you tell me that’s because I’m male, white and wear spandex, I’ll tell you I don’t wear spandex. I moved four kids out of 3000 sq feet to 1500 so we could walk and bike and bus to schools, work and activities.

3) Do I think you are a weak, selfish person with some tunnel vision for driving too much, sending your kids to schools outside your neighborhood, driving them across town to play on sports teams, eating too high on the food chain, living in two or three times the house you need… kind of, yeah, definitely, but more often than not, I keep that to myself and let my actions be the example, because I’m weak and selfish by default just by living within society, but when faced with a choice, I’m committed to taking the softer, lower impact route much of the time.

We need to talk about the community we want in 5, 10, 20 years but we have to act individually now for it to mean anything more than words.

q`Tzal
Guest
q`Tzal

Alan Webber
Everyone who counted knew that freeways were the wave of the future—that massive concrete channels needed to be carved through old and uninteresting city neighborhoods….
The good news for Portland in 1970 was that the city leaders were so conservative, so slow, so sclerotic, they’d managed to miss almost all of these carefully planned catastrophes.

For me this sums up ODOT: it’s like there is some sort of institutional shame that ODOT wasn’t able to “civilize” our 3rd world state. From the way they push for highways as the only needed solution you’d think that all the other states were laughing at us because we’re a bunch of backwards hicks that prefer NOT to live in a concrete car paradise.

ODOT: if being laughed at by car centric states is what it takes to be prepared for an energy scarce future without cars then it’s OK. Let them laugh… for now.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

Walkable, bike-able, essentially self sustaining communities, have been a vision for a long while. Over quite a number of years now, Portland and surrounding suburban cities have dipped into that vision with bike lane and MUP additions, but full commitment is slow to come by.

That’s why, I expect, to date, there’s not yet a single Amsterdam style essentially car-free district in any Metro area city. For other examples, why it is, Foster Rd will likely not get an actual main lane separated cycle-track, why Beaverton won’t get a bike-pedestrian esplanade linking its bisected downtown centers, and why cul-de-sacs out in Washington County won’t be busted through to create a Johnson-Alexander straight through route from 170th west all the way to Hillsboro.

Where from conventional perspective, transportation schemes pose as possibly being negative to real estate profit and tax revenue generation, progressive active transportation infrastructure takes a hit.

Motor vehicles continue to hold their position of being one of the fundamental building blocks of today’s economy. Some of Oregon Mamacita’s thoughts expressed here: http://bikeportland.org/2013/09/12/portlands-visionary-of-low-car-life-says-our-city-needs-its-next-vision-93839#comment-4428890 …about the significance of cars to people that work are good to consider. “…A working car is a better indicator of gainful employment for many minority men than education. …” oregon mamacita

Not just minorities either, but many different types of people in many types of situations. If you want to work, you’d better be able to get to work. Communities of today continue to be built such that for many people motor vehicles remain an essential and very likely for them, most reliable way to get to work.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Imagine if Mr. Webber (or other visionary) started his talk by saying that Oregon should shift its institutional and societal focus to what it successfully does well and double or triple down…to support the vehicle that it makes the most of, most citizens of Oregon would think …ok …that must be cars.

But in reality it is likely that our Oregon makes more units of bicycles than automobiles…and number two might be freight rail cars …

Will
Guest
Will

The idea expressed by some that to aspire to a less is auto-dependent future is ignoring the needs of the working class and poor is misguided. There is nothing inherently more equitable about auto-dependent societies. In fact, having little choice but to drive to meet your needs puts a great burdon on those who can least affort it. Believe it or not, there are places in the rest of the world where working class people, families, elders, are able to live fulfilling lives without dependence on cars. In Portland, we are not there yet. But we can work toward a different kind of future. And, if there is any truth to the idea that our auto-dependent lifestyle is contributing to climate change, we must.

Terry D
Guest
Terry D

We need low-no car housing to come is many different forms. The city should implement permit-parking, congestion priced, on all residential streets with curb to curb pavement..or others if congested. Then, create a sustainable “greenway eco-housing overlay” to our residential zoning. If the property is within a certain distace from a connected greenway this would allow for leed rated, bike focussed housing infill of “tiny homes.” These would require eliminating parking minimums and have less than a 500 sq ft footprint. These should be able to be placed over or in replacement of garages, butt up to the property line or in alleys. This way a home owner could sell 1000 sq feet off in the back for money to repair their home and a another household would then have bike focussed affordable housing.

Brian H
Guest
Brian H

I’m a frequent bike commuter who also commutes by car depending on a variety of circumstances.

The U.S. ended up with auto-centric cities because the vast majority of people embraced the vision of rapid and convenient transportation, and the American people love their cars. The vision of rapid and convenient transportation has fallen short in most places, and I think it’s important to help people see this. Automobile infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain, and highways that can move large volumes of cars are generally not enjoyable for ANY mode of transportation. For example, I live in Southest Portland and I don’t enjoy using Barbur Blvd for any mode of transportation, and TV Highway is pretty much miserable for all road users too. Conversely, I believe roads that are designed with all users in mind come closer to delivering the original a vision of rapid and convenient transportation. We need to promote a vision of rapid, convenient and modern transportation that’s accomodating to all users…. Unfortunatley, I don’t think we have any good working examples to help people see this vision. While there are many roads that are more pleasant for all users than Barbur Blvd and TV Highway, I can’t think of any major arterial in Portland that has been comprehensively and thoughtfully designed for all users with the exception of a few well publicized projects that span relatively short distances.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

Looking back at the 70’s here in Portland, its good to keep in mind that many young people were moving back into the older, and then cheaper, parts of cities all over the country and challenging the status quo. Many of us had cut our teeth in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War struggles and brought those organizing skills to older, poorer, more diverse communities to fight for better transit, schools, etc. and against the Robert Moses inspired freeways and urban renewal projects that had and were still gutting these communities.
We were the first wave of gentrification in spite of ourselves.

Oregon Mamacita
Guest
Oregon Mamacita

Michael, thanks for this opportunity to discuss the class issue in more depth. Living near the neglected areas of Portland, it is obvious that many lower income people ride bikes, but I am not sure that the data has been collected to show if this voluntary or involuntary. Some of the guys on bikes in outer SE are sketchy junky-types- you see them on the Springwater Corridor. Of course, most Portlanders are great, and I assume that some people in outer SE are like me- they just like bikes.

When it comes to what some call “bike evangelism,” there is a big class difference.

What we need to think about are the people who are working class. They have been shut out of the transportation discussion, and I partly blame the jargon-laden swill that spills from agencies like BPS. I have two advanced degrees (not in planning) , and I can barely untangle the jargon (rarely worth it).

If you went to the Asian community and talked about deliberate congestion and no parking for Hondas- you would get amazing push back, IMHO.

Again, the cargo bike lifestyle does not work for the majority of Portlanders.

People say “Mamacita, we’re not trying to take away your car.” Well, there is a crazy anti-car strain in Portland that has resulted in hundreds of cars and motorcycles being vandalized in Buckman and Richmond. No, I don’t think the BTA members sneak out at night to vandalize. But a small minority of livable streets types has created an a situation where people feel justified in vandalizing cars. (This will go on until someone vandalizes a Gypsy Joker’s bike.)

So, the class problems persist. The BTA is an upper income white person’s gig. Get a Subaru Forester, a 400k homes and an expensive cargo bike and live the life. That’s okay- as long as we are honest about it.

oregon111
Guest
oregon111

take a quick reality check:

most people move here to go to the coast, mountains, rivers, etc – and they like and use cars all the time

the biky people NEVER go outside the city — so why not take ALL the biky people and go live somewhere else – totally take over a city that nobody cares about?

Like Detroit, or St Louis, or Baltimore?

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

You’re right, lots of people in the PNW like to do outdoor things (whether they moved here or were born here). If you do, too, then come out and try a bike camping trip with some really nice, fun people: http://www.cyclewild.org/where-to-camp-by-bike/