Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

Fish warns of auto congestion as Council passes ‘Livable Streets Strategy’

Posted by on July 29th, 2016 at 10:44 am

City's rendering for the new Ankeny Plaza, a prototype of their new Livable Streets Strategy.

City’s rendering for the new Ankeny Plaza, a prototype of their new Livable Streets Strategy.

The City of Portland’s transportation bureau got past a key milestone on Wednesday when City Council voted to move forward with their Livable Streets Strategy.

Specifically, council supported the city’s $149,158 contract with consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard to come up with the framework of the strategy and set into motion what we’ve called “a new era of open streets.”

But during Wednesday’s otherwise uneventful council session we got a unexpected preview of the political debate that might lie ahead.

PBOT’s Livable Streets Strategy is an umbrella for several different new initiatives. It’s all about formalizing the inevitable (and long overdue) march toward Portland squeezing more potential out of its public right-of-way. Our streets are mostly dominated by cars — both in city policy and in daily reality. As Portland grows and non-car travel options become more popular and more necessary, we must transition away from the traditional, 1970s auto-centric planning paradigms. PBOT has already started this update process by reconfiguring roads to give more space to people to walk, bike and take transit and less space for private auto use.

But we have a very long way to go. And this work has taken on even more urgency with the launch of Biketown, our new bicycle transit system that already has over 7,000 riders.

Here’s a snip from the ordinance (PDF):

“Livable Streets Strategy will support innovation in the public right-of-way by opening Portland’s streets, parking spaces, plazas, and alleys to a range of events, programming, and physical infrastructure that reinforce the idea that public streets are public places to be enjoyed by all ages and abilities.”

A big part of the strategy will be to empower residents and business owners to propose and implement their own placemaking projects via community grants given out by the city.

After PBOT staff made a brief presentation about the program on Wednesday, Commissioner Nick Fish spoke up. He explained that he sees street management plans as fitting into two distinct camps: “streets and parking spaces,” and “plazas and alleys.” He’s worried about the “consequences” of the former and seems generally supportive of the latter.

Here are his comments in his own words (emphases mine), transcribed from the council meeting (you can also watch his comments in the video clip above):

“My sense is that the issues raised by livable streets as they apply to streets and parking spaces are different than the kind of issues that come up with plazas and alleys. In my own experience working with Commissioner Novick for example on the improvements along Division is that there’s a delicate balance between promoting the laudable goals of this program and also ensuring, for example, that business districts function.

We heard [in the Division conversation], for example, comments like ‘We’re really delighted to have these bioswales, but why did they have to be so big and take up two parking spaces? And why are they in a particular location and on and on.’

Advertisement

I just, as a commissioner, want to make sure that as we deal with the delicate issues of streets and parking spaces — which is a big flashpoint, and frankly, it’s increasingly difficult to get from point a to point b on our streets — that we use a broader lens than livable streets to make those decisions. And I have a different personal standard that I apply to alleys and plazas, because in some cases you’re activating orphan spaces.

The challenge with streets and parking places is we have competing demands. And I just want to put that on the record, a concern that we look at them differently. And frankly, while I now live in a rental apartment and walk to work and have ditched the car, when I am in a car and trying to get from point a to point b, there are huge consequences when we take a lane out of Naito or we close a street. And effectively what it means is that you just can’t get from here to there.

In my job there are times I have to travel by car. It’s just a necessity. So I want to just plant this flag that I’m going to have a different approach to this vis-a-vis streets and parking spaces, and want to know about the tradeoffs, then I would around plazas and alleys where I think there are some really big opportunities to create meaningful public places out of areas that are orphaned, or don’t serve a compelling transportation need. I want to put that on the record.”

By saying he wants to “put this on the record” and “plant this flag,” Fish is laying the rhetorical groundwork for future conversations and telegraphing to PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales that they’ll have to work hard for his vote.

“… I am committed to reducing congestion and unnecessary car idling.”
— Nick Fish, city commissioner

Fish’s comments also express clear concerns about Better Naito, PBOT’s partnership with Better Block to temporarily reconfigure the lanes on Naito Parkway. A successful three-month pilot project ends Sunday and Mayor Charlie Hales plans to ask Fish and the rest of council to use city money (an estimated $1.5 million) to make it permanent in the coming months.

Also notable in his comments: Fish appears fully supportive of new public plazas and innovative uses of our right-of-way, as long the spaces don’t impinge “compelling transportation needs.”

I followed up with the Commissioner after the meeting. When I asked what exactly he meant by “huge consequences” of Better Naito he said (via email), “What I have heard from my constituents is that it is important to balance the needs of all transportation modes. Improving circulation and safety, and expanding bike infrastructure, are not mutually exclusive goals.” And Fish, saying his opinion was informed by the city’s Climate Action Plan, wrote that, “I am committed to reducing congestion and unnecessary car idling.” 

It’s worth noting that Fish is the City Council liaison to Venture Portland, an organization that represents our 50 neighborhood business districts. As such, he wants to make sure business owners are at the table when PBOT considers making changes to the right-of-way (PBOT staff said they will be). Fish told PBOT staff that Portland’s neighborhood business owners are, “always struggling with that balance between getting customers in and out of the district and also wanting it to be a safe and welcoming place.”

When I asked what he meant by “ensuring that business districts function,” he said that he hears concerns from neighborhood business leaders about, “the cumulative impact of our decisions.”

“There is a cumulative impact of green street facilities, ROW temporary structures, parking removal and transportation mode additions,” he continued. “We want our business districts to be successful, and that means taking a holistic approach.”

Naito Parkway traffic observations -4.jpg

Better Naito in action on Thursday evening.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

As for whether or not he’d support Better Naito if/when it comes to council in October, Fish said he’s looking forward to a briefing on traffic analysis and results of the pilot project and that he’d, “Keep an open mind.”

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

Our work is supported by subscribers. Please become one today.

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

80
Leave a Reply

avatar
26 Comment threads
54 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
44 Comment authors
RichardKyle BanerjeeDan Asorennport Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
dwk
Guest
dwk

“when I am in a car and trying to get from point a to point b, there are huge consequences when we take a lane out of Naito or we close a street. And effectively what it means is that you just can’t get from here to there.”

What “huge” consequences? A couple of minutes?
Fish is as worthless as Hales.

J.E.
Guest
J.E.

Is Fish seriously suggesting that there are places in the city that you cannot directly access by personal vehicle? Compared to, say, all the places in the city you cannot directly access by walking (streets with no sidewalks), cycling (areas without bicycle infrastructure), or public transportation (during the late night/early morning hours, that would be literally everywhere). Just because your two motor vehicle lanes turned into one motor vehicle lane and just because you had to park a block away from your destination rather than right at its doorstep, that doesn’t mean you were unable to safely and conveniently access your destination in a car.

Commissioner Fish, we have a very, very long way to go before most people would consider it slower, less convenient, and LESS SAFE to drive from any given point A to any given point B in this city than walking, cycling, or taking public transit there.

CycleDadPDX
Guest
CycleDadPDX

Perhaps he is correct. The design and function of the layout of the City is not conducive to getting rid of auto traffic for the sake of a minority of cyclists. That being said a major shift in infrastructure could lead to a car-lite society. For instance the Fairview trail: connects to the Springwater, no car traffic, through the suburbs, easy on and off, flat-ish. Now we apply that type of infrastructure throughout the city then the vision of less cars on the road make sense because of the alternative. Then you can start to envision a more Copenhagen like feel to the city with businesses and communities evolving around car less trails (which sidewalks fail to accomplish).

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

“… I am committed to reducing congestion and unnecessary car idling.”
— Nick Fish, city commissioner

Maybe try to get some cars off the roads then?!? Those other cars are the reason for all this congestion in the first place!

Kyle Banerjee
Guest
Kyle Banerjee

Even if the goal is to have fewer people in cars — a necessity for a densely populated area to function properly — a wide variety of transportation needs must be met. All the things people need have to be brought in efficiently. Emergency vehicles need to be able to get around. Not all trips are trivial or short.

It often occurrs to me that it often takes less time to get to some places in Portland from Salem than from other places in Portland. Getting around this town is slow. Bikes work better than cars, but it still takes awhile if you have more than a few miles to go.

On an aside note, the photo of Better Naito represents exactly why I’m not a fan of the current iteration — people and bikes are everywhere with no one getting where they’re going fast when you can just cruise along with “Regular Naito.” I see no benefit to replicate the slow and miserable driving experience for cyclists.

Bob A
Guest
Bob A

One way to perhaps decrease congestion would be to extend hours on the max to Wilsonville. I live near Corvallis, and go to PDX fairly often. I hate driving downtown, and would much prefer to park in Wilsonville and take the train. But, the last train arrives in Wilsonville at 8pm, not really viable for going out to dinner or to a concert. I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way coming from the south.

Ted Timmons (Contributor)
Editor

So, TLDR: “hey marginalized bike weirdos, you can have space where we store dumpsters and such, but it’s a waste to give you any valuable land.”

I thought PBOT had a transit mode hierarchy?

rick
Guest
rick

I warn of wasted tax dollars on convoluted sewer projects and fancy sewer offices.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

To Paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, ( We could have saved the earth but we wanted to get in our car parked by the front door and drive to the convenience store, and park by the front door to get cheez doodles) ,

Real Quote, ” We could have saved the Earth but we were too cheap and lazy.”

Adam
Subscriber

when I am in a car and trying to get from point a to point b, there are huge consequences when we take a lane out of Naito or we close a street. And effectively what it means is that you just can’t get from here to there

This comment is so incredibly short-sighted. Where have I heard this before? “Well, I support these (bike lanes, public plazas, bioswales, whatever), but some of us need to drive and you’re making it harder for us!” For one, you can still get to point a to point b very easily on Better Naito if you ride a bike. That’s the whole point – to show that our streets are not merely conduits for moving cars. This windshield perspective is so damaging to our city planning: if the whole point is to ensure more people can get from point a to point b more effectively, then the car is the worst tool to accomplish that. Buses, trains, and bikes all squeeze more people into the same space. We need to be looking at how many people we are moving, not vehicles.

Anna G
Guest
Anna G

whatever happened to “share the road” ? drivers will just have to learn that it goes both ways, we already do it unofficially by taking the lane. I certainly have no problem doing that myself especially if there are already 2-3 traffic lanes (most streets downtown). As for reducing congestion, perhaps the longer wait times will be an incentive for the many able bodied to get out of their autos and use some alternative form of transport.

CaptainKarma
Guest

How can biketown take out parking preemptively, but bike lanes cannot?

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

Now to be known as Nick “Parking First” Fish

Brent
Guest
Brent

I honestly understand the frustration drivers feel when they see space they used to occupy “taken away” and given to other uses. I think they should be allowed to feel that frustration without being called names. It’s an honest feeling in reaction to their situation. However, people can be frustrated and understand why it was taken away at the same time if they are shown arguments and/or data that justify the change. I think this is what Nick Fish is asking for. I don’t have a problem with that, generally.

I’ve talked to several co-workers about Better Naito because I’m one of the only employees who bikes to work downtown. They tell me their frustrations at the longer lines. However, I ask them to notice how many people use space. I also tell them it takes pressure off the waterfront path to be more enjoyable for people just walking. I explain how the existing bike infrastructure on Naito is scary. It doesn’t take long. And after that they usually agree that “maybe something like what they did is a good idea”. That’s a win in my book.

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

Kyle,
many cyclists will be surprised to find out that separated and protected bike paths will not be bike freeways. They will not be high speed paths for commute cyclists.
They will be slow paths between high volume roads and commercial sidewalks, where everyone will be going about 5-10 mph, with frequent stop lights.
Greenways are much better suited for the long distance commute riders.

kittens
Guest
kittens

OK> I know I am not going to get a lot of up-votes for saying this: but he is RIGHT! Have you driven in Portland at all during the day? I am just as big of a bike enthusiast as everyone else here. But the conversation needs to be much larger than just bikes or peds or cars. For starters what about transit? Its absolutely insane to be “making it harder to drive” without simultaneously beefing up the transit system while also bikes.

Furthermore, it is foolish to imagine everyone going everywhere on bike or foot. While it is possible for some trips, the city is still far to diffuse to permit this action.

We have made some good progress on extending the reach of cycling, the fact of the matter is that we need a much more robust and attractive transit system than we presently have. Any discussion of fundamentally altering our street grid with plazas, one-ways, diverters, diets etc must be realistic in acknowledging this or we will end up with a backlash and it could set the movement back decades.

dwk
Guest
dwk

That is why better Naito is not needed. There is a mixed use path 100 feet away for those who want to do 5-10 mph. It can be kept open all summer for the festivals (about 4 weeks total) and the regular bike lane on Naito can be used.
The regular lane was for nice commuting speeds until better Naito screwed it up.
There is no need for two multi use paths 100 feet apart.

yashardonnay
Guest
yashardonnay

This just shows me that Nick Fish is hearing from the other crowd. Please email him at nick@portlandoregon.gov and express your concern with his statements.

Carrie
Guest
Carrie

So I’ve driven a car to and from work more in the past two weeks than I did all last year, due to circumstances of my own making (puppy!). Anyway, I’ve noticed that it takes about the same amount of time, on the clock, to get to work on my bike and in my car. But, in my car I am NOT MOVING for a significant portion of that commute time. And being in a vehicle that is not moving, especially one that is designed to go fast (and is marketed as such) is incredibly frustrating. It’s been interesting to observe.

So it still leads me to conclude that people need to get out of their cars for short-ish trips around town (and I define short as 5 miles or less) because it’s way more fun and emotionally satisfying to be MOVING while going somewhere than spending time just sitting there. I don’t think car congestion is going to get any less, so it certainly is good to find an alternate way. And it really is astonishing that it takes the same amount of time (if not faster when something happens to ‘take away a lane’) than driving a car.

Pat Franz
Guest
Pat Franz

The reason the streets are congested is that so many people are driving. Want to reduce congestion? Reduce the number of people that want to drive. How do you do that? Viable options.

As for all those bioswales, bike corrals, and bike lanes? They are an insignificant drop in the bucket compared to all the space available to cars. An utterly insignificant decrease in the facilities available to those choosing to drive. And the cars they take off the road- they would take up far more space! It’s a win-win, so suck up your privilege and hope we keep doing more to make other options viable.

Wade Peerman
Guest
Wade Peerman

He just lost my vote.

Chris Anderson
Guest
Chris Anderson

Now would be a good time to make it expensive for Fish to take a car centric position, so he gets a taste of the opening it gives his competitors next election.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

Don’t forget that Mr. Fish supported the CRC, which would have dumped tens of thousands of additional WA vehicles onto Portland streets.
Too much congestion? Make it safer to bike! Extend the Streetcar system!
Reduce TriMet fares to $2. Which Portland street can be widened?!?
Just do the math…for every person today in a SOV who opts to bike, walk, use transit or even carpool, there is more room for those, like Mr. Fish, who feel their trip can only be done by private motor vehicle.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

I hate to have to inform Commissioner Fish about this, but balancing our streets for all transportation modes in this day and age pretty much requires taking space away from motorists and motor vehicles – space that was given to them, rightly or wrongly, only within the last 100 years of human civilization.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

If drivers aren’t complaining about how the city manages traffic and infrastructure, you aren’t doing things right. People need to just let it go. Portland is growing, and traffic is going to get worse. We either get stuck in it, or we find alternatives. I want alternatives.

Evan Manvel
Guest
Evan Manvel

Cities eventually get to this point. And the smart folks recognize it’s a simple problem of geometry. This is what Seattle DOT has told the public when they get frustrated with downtown congestion.

Jarrett Walker summarized it pretty well in a piece in The Washington Post this March.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/03/02/buses-and-trains-thats-what-will-solve-congestion/

Cars don’t work well in cities, and the reason is simple: 1) A city is a place where people live close together, so there’s not much space per person. 2) Cars take up a lot of space per person. 3) Therefore, cities quickly run out of room for cars.

This problem is called congestion. When it happens, a city’s options are to:

(A) Stop growing — because congestion has become terrible and growth will make it worse.

(B) Widen streets. This requires huge amounts of land, and land in cities is very expensive. What’s more, if you tear down enough buildings to widen streets, you are effectively destroying your city in order to save it.

(C) Focus on helping people get around using less space than cars require — through walking, cycling and mass transit.

Given the options, it’s not surprising that urban leaders — regardless of political ideology — eventually decide that C is the only real answer.

Most commentary about urban transportation is a distraction from this simple math.