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Q&A: Rick Browning on the protected bike lanes in downtown Portland’s future

Posted by on May 28th, 2015 at 11:32 am

browning

Rick Browning, the new project manager for the
Central City Multimodal Safety Project, stopped by the
BikePortland office for a chat Tuesday.
(Photos: M.Andersen and J.Maus/BikePortland)

Rick Browning is already a big part of Portland as we know it. His fingerprints are on everything from the streetscape reconstruction that helped make inner Alberta Street a regional destination to the transformational 1999 widening of the Hawthorne Bridge sidewalk to the bike path that leads straight into our airport’s terminal.

This morning, he started a job working on one of the most significant bike projects of his career: one or more protected bike lanes across downtown Portland.

As we reported earlier this month, downtown is probably the most bike-intensive part of the city that has almost no all-ages bike infrastructure. But what else will the project include, and how will he help the city navigate the many obstacles to change? We sat down with Browning Wednesday night for an advance look at his idea of his mission, the decisions he’ll need to help make and whether downtown bike infrastructure should be a priority at all.

BikePortland: The description of this project has been a little vague. What do you know so far about its scope?

Rick Browning: You may know more about the scope of the process than I do. That was not a big part of the selection process. I think the big concepts still need to be ideated.

My understanding of the project is that Portland has sort of plateaued on mode split. You guys have run some articles over the last few years on that. We’ve come so far — it’s incredible. But it’s exactly where all the national polls predicted we would be. We’ve been doing these polls for 20 years; the results are very consistent among a majority of Americans. They would like to ride — for work, for errands — but they don’t feel safe. My goal is to help that larger percentage of people feel that they can ride.

elk squeeze

The Hawthorne Bridge carries heavy bike traffic, but there’s no infrastructure on the streets four blocks to the west.

What do you see as the main challenges before you?

Obviously the challenge in the downtown is just the constrained nature of the downtown. Everybody’s aware of that. What tradeoffs will need to be made to find more space for bike and, to some degree, pedestrian modes?

“We all want to make our city a more enjoyable, more livable, safer place and better for biking and walking. I think it would be wrong to not do those things because we’re afraid of gentrification.”

I’m very impressed with the work Janette Sadik-Khan and company did in New York. I saw her speak a few weeks ago in Seattle. The work she did there in New York, I think everybody agrees is transformative. She didn’t just focus I think on what it did for bikes and pedestrians, she focused on what it did for businesses as well. She was also able to present percentage of increased retail sales for businesses adjacent to those projects. If we can do that here, I think that’d be fantastic. Not that that’s the primary goal, but I think we need all the friends we can. Sales have increased dramatically — she was talking about increases in sales of up to and over 100 percent on some of these installations. That seems like a win-win.

I’ve heard some people say Portland needs a new business association to represent the interests of businesses that benefit when streets are places to be rather than just places to move things quickly. Obviously you’re not going to engineer that, but if someone else were able to, how would that relate to your work here?

If this project is successful in the way we’re discussing, it becomes a demonstration project that shows what New York found, among other cities: that these kind of projects are actually good for business. Maybe that’ll create new momentum for businesses that are on the fence.

Again, that should not be the litmus test for this project. I don’t mean in any way to make it that. But if we can get the most bang for our buck, then we would all win.

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Not that many people live in downtown, but —

I am one! I moved into the Ladd Tower. It’s a great place to live, but it was a deliberate choice. I’ve always found that the more you personally experience a place you’re trying to upgrade or design, the better. So I’ll be walking around and breathing it every day.

One thing about Sadik-Khan’s work is that it was happening in the teeth of a recession, and everybody was interested in jobs, jobs, jobs. These days I think the single biggest issue in Portland is rising real estate prices and displacement. On the way here today, I was riding down Third Avenue — it’s a surprisingly run-down street, with two-story buildings, a vacant lot in the middle of downtown. If we slow the speed and volume of traffic there, it’ll become a better place to sit on the sidewalk, which means it’ll be a better place for someone to spend $80 million. But on the other hand, the Silverado can afford to pay the rent in its old building, and that has cultural benefits. Do you see problems along those lines with improving these streets?

You’re talking about gentrification?

Yeah, or displacement.

That gets into a lot of other issues that the city confronts that are beyond cycling. We all want to make our city a more enjoyable, more livable, safer place and better for biking and walking. I think it would be wrong to not do those things because we’re afraid of gentrification. But I think we need a whole basket of policies.

Another thing is that lower-income people are more reliant, I think, on cycling and walking. Those are not the people that typically show up at city council hearings to encourage that sort of development and planning. But lower-income people that ride because they need to ride to get to work, that’s part of Portland too.

downtown pbl map annotated

Four possible routes for north-south protected bike lanes through downtown.
(Graphic: BikePortland)

Do you have any thoughts on the big unanswered question of which north-south streets should be improved?

None at all. And I think that makes me kind of a good candidate for the job, because I’m not coming in with any preconceptions. And looking for maybe something that’s a little bit counterintuitive and outside the box.

I’m a designer and an architect. If you go in with fixed models and preconceived solutions, almost always you wind up with a weaker final product than being open to exploration.

Although, since I live on the Park Blocks … (laughs)

“The $6 million grant that I hear PBOT has is more per capita than, according to my calculations, Sadik-Khan had to work with in New York to do everything she did.”

How do you feel about the size of the budget?

When I saw Janette Sadik-Khan speak in Seattle, she had a pie chart that showed the overall transportation project New York had, I think it was over a three-year period. I did the math proportional to Portland’s population and New York’s population, and per capita the $6 million grant that I hear PBOT has is more per capita than, according to my calculations, Sadik-Khan had to work with in New York to do everything she did.

Of course, New York is now going back and trying to formalize some of those projects like Times Square, and they’re going to do stuff with concrete and permanent installations that are going to cost a lot more money. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t think we can remake the entire central city for $6 million.

Another thing we grapple with here is that downtown Portland is already a really nice place. And most of east Portland isn’t even safe. So how can we justify further investment in downtown?

I understand the concern, and have spent some time trying to ride a bike in far east Portland, so I know firsthand what motivates the comments. And I don’t have an easy answer to that. I might fall back on an aphorism I learned while living in Seattle for five years or so. In Seattle, every neighborhood has its own downtown, and in Portland, downtown is everybody’s neighborhood. I think that’s true. It’s not that there’s even that many people living downtown, but Portlanders in general will converge on downtown and use it. So to that degree is our most heavily used, most popular built environment resource. But that doesn’t mean other areas of the city shouldn’t also see investment.

I was reading in the Willamette Week bike issue that there’s a road diet planned on … is it Powell?

SE Foster Road-2

Foster.

Foster. I think it’s an example of a way that the city is dedicating a substantial resource to a sort of far-flung area, and indeed the budget for that is fairly close to what they have for the central city. Still, it shows there’s investment happening elsewhere and that’s the way it should be.

You don’t own a car now. Have you ever?

It’s been about eight years. And it really isn’t about car ownership, right? It’s about how much you drive the car. And I was not a big user ever. I get around on bike, foot, bus, car2go. It’s great to be back in a city with all these great transit options. For the last couple years I was living in Olympia.

Now that you’re back here, would you like to stay in Portland when this project wraps up?

I would. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labors. I hope my Seattle girlfriend will forgive me for saying that.

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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jeg
Guest
jeg

Putting figures on anything at this point is bound to restrict future development. We need to be talking city-wide transformation, but we’re handed this milquetoast focus on two lanes downtown. Our city bike politics have gone flaccid.

Todd Hudson
Guest
Todd Hudson

“In Seattle, every neighborhood has its own downtown, and in Portland, downtown is everybody’s neighborhood.”

ಠ_ಠ

Andy K
Guest
Andy K

This meat of this project will be devoted to the political willpower to reallocate car parking space to bikes exclusively.

maccoinnich
Guest

Great interview, although I disagree with this sentence “Not that many people live in downtown”. 12,801 people live Downtown as of the 2010 census. In terms of residential population density it’s one of the densest neighborhoods in the entire city.

…but I love this sentence “Silverado… has cultural benefits”.

Dwaine Dibbly
Guest
Dwaine Dibbly

The 2nd & 3rd couplet is a bad choice because it is so far off towards one edge and it is down the hill from much of downtown. People are unlike to head down hilll to ride on one of those streets then backtrack up the hill to get to a destination on, say, 11th or 12th.

I’d love to see the park blocks used, with motor vehicles banned, but that might have to be a ban only at certain times of the day or days of the week to accommodate things like the PSU farmers market.

We live downtown. With all of the recent tragedies, Mrs Dibbly has been pleading with me to stop riding until there are infrastructure improvements. Is she being unreasonable? Probably, but not everything in life is rational.

PeeJay
Guest
PeeJay

This is an exemplar of how well illustrated the articles at BikePortland are. The perfect photos for every part of the story; it’s so good that I’m not sure everyone notices it. Thanks, guys!

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Guest
kiel johnson

Seattle girlfriend? How many girlfriends does he have?!?!! A Portland one? San Francisco? LA? 🙂

Best of luck! For 6 million you could do Better Block demo projects on every street in downtown and then pick the ones that work the best/have most support.

Adam H.
Guest
Adam H.

Looking forward to see how this project pans out. Can’t wait for a safe place to ride a bike downtown! Hoping that the plans also include cycle infrastructure at the base of the Hawthorne Bridge.

davemess
Guest
davemess

“Foster. I think it’s an example of a way that the city is dedicating a substantial resource to a sort of far-flung area,”

This kind of mentality has me worried that we won’t see much change even further east. If Foster (52nd-88th) is considered “far-flung” what do many in the central city consider deep sections of East Portland, well out in the hundreds?

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

As long as bikes don’t have to ride on sidewalks and IF THERE IS A BIKE PATH it is on the left side of a 1 way street, and wide enough that a cyclist would not be doored.

Jacob
Guest
Jacob

The most telling part of this interview is how much Portland is looking to NYC and other cities as examples of what to do next. This confirms that Portland is no longer the lead city in developing bicycle infrastructure. This is perhaps a good sign from the national perspective. Portland was far ahead of all other US cities for a long time, but now those cities are catching up and will almost certainly soon surpass Portland. In order to prevent them from doing so, Portland needs to step up its efforts quickly, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. A multi-year process for a single crosstown protected lane in downtown is pretty paltry compared to the large-scale low-stress networks planned for Seattle, DC, Minneapolis, and Atlanta(!).

Gil Johnson
Guest
Gil Johnson

As much as I want to see more protected bike lanes, downtown is the last place I would start. With the traffic signals timed for 12 mph on almost all downtown streets, it’s one of the safest places in the city to ride. Let’s get some decent, long cycle tracks on the east side where we’ve been having some serious accidents lately.

Sam Thompson
Guest
Sam Thompson

I don’t really feel like downtown is all that unsafe, but let’s get back to basic principles. Why does downtown even exist?

Companies (particularly tech) move into the city and buy up office space downtown because they assume that’s the best place to be. Meanwhile, the east side of the river is comparatively underdeveloped, resulting in far too much traffic concentrated in a few dozen small blocks west of the Willamette.

Maybe we need some incentives to spread this density out a bit, to provide jobs around the city instead of directing all commutes to a tiny, tiny fraction of the metro area.