Posted by Michael Andersen (Contributor) on November 7th, 2014 at 10:05 am
Way back in 1998, Renn launched one of the country’s first blogs so he could cover the Chicago Transit Authority. In recent years he’s been based in Indianapolis, running a data analysis startup and sharing thoughts about cities on his website Urbanophile.com and elsewhere.
After Renn returned to Indianapolis, we caught up with him by phone to get his perspectives on the truths and fictions of Portland’s reputation, the ups and downs of our bike infrastructure and his intriguing theory that Portlanders have an existential problem: we might be too similar to each other to have useful disagreements.
We’ve been reading your work for years. What brought you to Portland?
I had a few reasons. One was I’d never been to Portland. It was kind of embarrassing. And I wanted to interview the mayor. And then I had two friends who moved out there. My friend Curt, he got tired of smashing his face against the wall here. And I’m doing a project in southern Indiana — across from Louisville. So I wanted to see Vancouver, Washington. It’s sort of a similar relationship.
Division Street, Portland. pic.twitter.com/9IU6IzH0D8
— Aaron M. Renn (@urbanophile) October 28, 2014
So what did you think?
I was impressed. I really liked Portland.
You say that over the course of a few days you stayed near Portland State University, spent some time in Northwest, took a trip down Division and a daytrip exploring the Couv. What surprised you?
I thought the downtown was incredibly dense and bustling. There was a significant amount of major chain retail in downtown — urban Target and those things. That surprised me. I expected Portland to be fairly neighborhood-centric. And I think it’s actually downtown-centric.
I thought that the transit system was better than I thought it would be, to be honest. I knew the MAX was on 15-minute headways. But through the center city there are multiplex lines, so you have effectively 7.5-minute headways. Only once did I not have a bus or train come very quickly.
I was surprised that Uber was banned. Outside of the airport, I didn’t see any taxis, so I’m not sure what they’re protecting.
I was expecting to see a lot more people on bicycles. Maybe I was expecting it to look like Amsterdam. I didn’t see a whole lot of bicyclers, to be candid. I’m not necessarily the biggest bicycler. If I lived there I would probably walk and use transit the whole time.
Oh, and there’s a huge freeway right through downtown!
You mention that you didn’t see a ton of bikes. Some of it is where you were. There’s not much good bike infrastructure on the west side of the river. And on the east side, there’s a terrific neighborhood greenway network on the side streets. It’s definitely more comfortable than painted bike lanes on big streets. So over the last few years lots of people have started using them instead of the bike lanes. That’s part of why you wouldn’t have seen many bikes on Division. Any thoughts?
If the bikes aren’t on the streets where the businesses are, it’s kind of like the idea that pedestrianizing streets didn’t work. I’m sure it’s great if you’re going long-distances, if you’re commuting.
The other thing is that we all have a kind of built-in experience of navigating on streets. If there’s some kind of off-street network, I would be myself less likely to use it because I would be like, How do I find it? Where does it go?
But I’m not opposed. To be honest, when I was biking around Indianapolis, I preferred the side streets. Unless you have the truly protected, separated bike lanes, it can be not-super-pleasant to be on the street. I’d almost rather ride on it without the lane.
Let’s talk about your current city, Indianapolis. I was there this spring and the Cultural Trail seems like one of the most important bike facilities in the country.
Jarrett Walker is doing some work here. He said that Indianapolis reminds him of Portland 40 years ago. And it’s easy to see why: The residential fabric is very similar. Worker cottages, narrow side streets.
The Cultural Trail is an absolutely world-class project. What I like about it is it’s not a copy of something anybody else did. Indianapolis, oddly enough, one of the things it does well is occasionally go against the grain. I think the downside of Indianapolis is that a few things, they’re awesome. But everything else is, like, sub-par.
Another unusual thing about Portland: We’re the whitest major metro area in the country. Did you notice that? Do you think that has anything to do with all this?
It is extraordinarily white there, definitely palpably white in a profound way. The Northwest is a long way from the South, and there wasn’t as much industry as in the Midwest. It was well known as being one of the most racist cities on the West Coast. It wouldn’t have had many black people, and it did its best to keep people from coming.
Racial dynamics explain a lot about Cleveland. White people, if they didn’t physically abandon the city, they psychologically abandoned it. But in Portland, if you’re a white homeowner in 1965, you’re not worried that your neighborhood is going to become a black neighborhood. [If you’re black] you’re so clearly a tiny minority that you’re not going to have the same dynamics. Its urban core retained such affection in the [white] population because it wasn’t associated with black people.
Is Portland really diverse enough to be a truly cosmopolitan city? And not just diverse in terms of race. In terms of ideology. It’s kind of like you get the People’s Judean Front and the People’s Front of Judea, you know? If you don’t have some people with truly different points of view, are you really generating enough conflict to generate innovation? Do you have a diverse enough community, racially, economically and ideologically, to create actual collisions? If you think of the true creative capitals of the world, they are far more diverse. If you want to be a creative capital, I would say that you want to have more diversity.
Qs & As edited for brevity and clarity.