Posted by Michael Andersen (Contributor) on December 18th, 2018 at 8:57 am
An earlier version of this post was published by the Sightline Institute. It’s by former BikePortland news editor Michael Andersen.
The fight to strike down apartment bans has arrived in Oregon’s legislature.
Would re-legalizing fourplexes everywhere be good for bicycle transportation? It very much would be.
On Friday, Willamette Week broke some news: Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek has been working on a bill that’d require all but the smallest Oregon cities in urban areas to re-legalize up to four homes per lot—a lower-cost housing option that was quite common in the early 20th century but was gradually banned from most parts of most cities.
BikePortland has had a lot to say about proposals like this one before (including the similar local reform that keeps getting better, thanks to public pressure as it works its way through Portland’s endless local process).
But now that this issue has hit the statewide radar, let’s gather the evidence around this question: Would re-legalizing fourplexes everywhere be good for bicycle transportation?
It very much would be.
As Elly Blue put it on BikePortland 11 years ago, proximity is key to our future. More than bike classes, more than courteous driving, more even than comfortable infrastructure, the number-one way to make bike transportation work for the life of an ordinary Oregonian is to make the trips we have to take shorter.
Making it legal — not mandatory, just legal — to build homes closer to each other is the way to do this.
Legalizing more housing creates more proximity twice.
First and most obviously, it creates proximity because it lets more people (and also more varieties of people) choose to live closer to current destinations like jobs, parks, schools, grocery stores, shops, parks, quality transit stops and (oh, yeah) their family and friends. Two weeks ago, an economic report on Portland’s fourplex re-legalization proposal estimated that 87 percent of the new, smaller and relatively cheaper homes built would go into the lower-density neighborhoods up to roughly 3.5 miles from the city center.
Those are the exact same neighborhoods we called out in a 2014: “maybe this is why you can’t afford to rent in the central city.”
These are also, of course, the Portland neighborhoods with the best bike infrastructure. We should be improving biking everywhere, but we can also make our existing investments go further by letting more people live near them.
The second reason re-legalizing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes creates proximity is that simply by existing, homes help create more new things near them. TriMet can’t justify upgrading a bus line to frequent service until a lot of people live fairly close to it. New Seasons can’t justify opening a new grocery store — and Fred Meyer may not be able to justify keeping an existing grocery store open — unless there are a certain number of people living near it.
Every neighborhood coffee shop and dive bar in the city relies hugely on the people who live close enough to walk or bike there and back without hardly thinking about it.
More homes => more people => more coffee shops and dive bars within biking distance => more biking.
You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s right there in the National Household Travel Survey:
This is the flip side of the phenomenon my colleague Margaret Morales recently observed about backyard cottages. She calculated that adding 7 more homes to each standard city block of 21 lots would reduce average driving per household on that block by about 1,000 miles per year.
One thing to notice about the chart above is that the difference in biking between 17,500 people per square mile (Portland’s Northwest 23rd Avenue, with lots of the old mid-scale housing that has since been mostly banned) and 27,500 (the south side of Portland’s downtown, with skyscrapers) is much less than the difference between 7,500 people per square mile (a lawn-and-driveway area like Beaumont-Wilshire) and 17,500 people per square mile.
In other words, if we want lots more biking, we don’t have to put towers everywhere (though that wouldn’t hurt, either). We just have to transition into cities with many buildings that are a few stories tall and attached to each other.
Hmm, sounds somehow familiar.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t also be building awesome protected bike lanes and off-street paths and traffic-calmed side streets. Cities in northern Europe, South America and southern China prove that the magic formula for lots of biking is to combine proximity with great streets.
After years of stagnation, Portland is finally doing more to improve its streets. The logical next step is to make it possible for more Portlanders to use them a little bit less.
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Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.