Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

Report reveals attitudes about transportation from inside and outside PBOT

Posted by on January 16th, 2020 at 10:33 am

A poll commissioned by the Portland Bureau of Transportation found that a large majority of Portlanders don’t think widening roads is the answer to congestion and that the agency needs simpler messaging and a clearer vision.

Those are just a few of the findings from a wide-ranging report (PDF) by Bloom Communications that was completed in fall 2018. The report has been used internally by PBOT since then but was not made public until a records request by a BikePortland contributor was filled last week.

Bloom, a public relations firm with offices in Austin and Portland, conducted a 22 question poll with 1,000 respondents, hosted two focus groups and held a series of interviews with high-profile internal stakeholders. Among those interviewed were: former PBOT Director Leah Treat; Division Manager of Construction, Inspection and Pavement Todd Liles; Traffic Safety Section Manager Dana Dickman; and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Office of Urban Mobility and Mega Project Delivery Director (and former transportation policy advisor to Governor Kate Brown) Brendan Finn.

The results shared in the 65-page report give PBOT a baseline for how the public feels about the agency and its work. According to PBOT Director of Communications John Brady, the agency had never before gone through a comprehensive polling and perception exercise. The report says PBOT has instead been, “Relying on anecdotal evidence to inform communications strategies.”

In addition to gauging perceptions and behaviors of a scientifically significant number of Portlanders, the report gives PBOT a deeper understanding of how to frame their messages and be more effective as an agency.

Advertisement

Stakeholder interviews reveal an agency with room to improve when it comes to internal and external communications. “We have a little bit of an identity crisis,” one interviewee stated. “One minute Vision Zero is the leading thing; one minute potholes is the leading thing. There are too many things going on at once, and it gets confusing,” stated another. One stakeholder said messaging about projects is inconsistent because it’s the responsibility of each individual project manager. Bloom summarized the issue by writing, “The amount of various transportation projects PBOT is responsible for leads to muddled messages and brand confusion. Many Portlanders are unsure of what PBOT actually does and why they do it. Portlanders are overwhelmed by the volume of the bureau’s projects and messages.”

On-street infrastructure was found to be confusing to people as well. Under the heading, “Operational Actions”, Bloom advised PBOT to improve traffic signage. “PBOT should prioritize making traffic lanes and signage consistent throughout the city. Lack of/inconsistent signage causes confusion for both bikers and drivers and increases safety risks. There should be no question about the division of car/bike lanes.”

On this topic, one focus group participant said, “I fully endorse putting bike lanes in… but it feels like they’re changing their minds continuously on how they want to do that. Some areas there are green stripes, some areas it’s on the edge, some areas it’s in the middle, some areas they’re taking the entire lane out.

Advertisement

Hardly a “war on cars” out there.

Bloom also noted the tension between PBOT and ODOT. “At the state level, the priority is primarily congestion relief in the form of getting more cars through the roads… Because PBOT’s goal is to get more people through Portland with multi-modal transportation, inconsistent messages are being presented to the public. An internal stakeholder said of the PBOT/ODOT relationship, “We don’t always get good information from the state on their priorities vs. our priorities. We could better collaborate to send out the same message.”

Another finding that stood out was how often focus group attendees mentioned a fear of strangers as the reason they choose to drive.

“I can control who’s in my space when I’m in my car, and I don’t have to worry about someone random bashing me in the back of my head while I’m driving… When you don’t know people, they could look completely normal, and next thing you know…” said one person. “I was one of the people that was on the MAX when [the stabbing happened]. Right after that is when I got my car,” said another. Bloom called this a, “Collective fear of other people and the uncertainty that comes with being around those you don’t know,” and determined that, “Portlanders generally feel safer in a car because they have some control over what happens to them and their families.”

“In addition to a fear of the homeless population and overcrowding,” the report continues, “Portlanders are driven to take their cars because of dirty streets and unmodernized public transportation assets.”

Bloom urged PBOT to make addressing homelessness a priority and to partner with nonprofits that serve them. Asked about the issue, PBOT’s John Brady said, “We didn’t act on that recommendation.”

In other recommendations, Bloom tells PBOT they should be more direct in telling people they’ll have to start driving less if they want to decrease congestion. “PBOT should explicitly communicate to Portlanders that building more infrastructure is impossible,” the report states. “While this message must be direct, it also must be understanding of the major lifestyle change solving traffic congestion requires.”

Advertisement

Brady said in a phone call yesterday that Portlanders’ rejection of road widening, “Was a really nice validation.” He said the bureau put that information to use when crafting messages for their Central City in Motion plan.

In order to encourage people to drive their cars less, Bloom advised PBOT (based on polling results) to focus on environmental benefits, affordability, and the convenience of not having to find parking.

The report also urged PBOT to create a new mobile app to garner feedback on all projects and programs, saying the existing PDXReporter tool has a “huge barrier to entry”.

Brady says the report was, “Really valuable” and that, “it has helped us define our audience a lot better.” He noted that people who bike, walk, and take transit have a better perception of the bureau’s work than people who mostly drive. Another thing he took away from it is that PBOT needs to keep thing simple. “We’re making more of an emphasis on that internally, trying to get folks to talk to the layperson, to de-wonkify the language.”

***

Here are some interesting numbers from the poll:
– 68% don’t think widening roads is the answer to congestion.
– 65% would be willing to pay more in taxes if they knew the money would be going directly to traffic congestion.
– 55% would be willing to pay more to drive during peak times if it meant a quicker commute.
– 90% say more needs to be done to improve the safety of Portland’s roads. Only 76% feel safe walking the streets of Portland.
– 47% do not know about Vision Zero.
– 90% want to see more enforcement of traffic laws.
– 60% get their information from from local TV news versus 40% from online news sites and 38% from social media.
– 51% use a private car every day.
– 17% use a bicycle every day and 43% ride at least once per week.
– 64% said they’d stop using their car if other options were reliably faster or the same amount of travel time.
– 77% said driving a car is an easy way to get around Portland, compared to just 50% for biking.

Download the report here.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.

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

67
Leave a Reply

avatar
17 Comment threads
50 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
35 Comment authors
Paul ConetnashRyanMatt S.Ricky Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
David Hampsten
Guest

When I worked at PBOT 2000-2006 as a low-level peon, I found the bureau was highly fragmented into 3 major bureaus (engineering, maintenance, and parking enforcement) and numerous small agencies. Later as a community advocate 2009-2015, the bureau hadn’t changed one iota, but I did find myself (as did other volunteers) having to be the go-between of different agencies and staff within PBOT who weren’t willing to talk with one another, let alone work together. It was then, and I suspect still, a highly dysfunctional agency. Its worst enemy is itself.

The Last Voyageur
Guest
The Last Voyageur

Vision Zero should have been called Zero Vision.

There is one thing (nearly) everyone agrees on: “more needs to be done to improve the safety of Portland’s roads.” Now there’s a simple organizational mission that serves the wishes of the people. No more BS slogans. If PBOT cannot complete that mission without additional delegated powers from Salem, it should say so.

J_R
Guest
J_R

Well, there’s nothing here that can’t be solved by another task force, more management meetings, and a few more media communications personnel added to the already bloated bureaucracy. Throw in a management-media consultant and some trips to see how they do it in Europe.

idlebytes
Guest
idlebytes

“17% use a bicycle every day and 43% ride at least once per week.” This is an interesting contrast to the census results of work commutes by bike. More evidence that maybe how they phrase the questions and limit you to picking just one type of transportation isn’t giving an accurate picture of what modes of transportation people are using.

Alicia J
Guest
Alicia J

I think the most interesting thing here is the 25 percentage-point gap between “I would ride more if I knew I could get where I’m going faster and more reliably than in my car” and all of the other reasons in that last graph. As important as safety and the perception of safety are, people will use transit if it works! I think the bus only lanes are a great way for buses to visibly be better than cars. If I’m stuck on the Burnside Bridge at 5pm and I see 8 buses blow by me in the bus only lane, I might start to wonder about using the bus for at least part of my commute.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I believe you are being snide when you say, “scientifically significant” number of Portlanders responded to this survey. 1000/657,100 is minuscule. According to PSU, 657,100 is the estimate for PDX population in 2019. https://www.pdx.edu/news/psu%E2%80%99s-population-research-center-releases-preliminary-oregon-population-estimates

chris
Guest
chris

“I fully endorse putting bike lanes in… but it feels like they’re changing their minds continuously on how they want to do that. Some areas there are green stripes, some areas it’s on the edge, some areas it’s in the middle, some areas they’re taking the entire lane out.

This is my criticism as well. Our bike lanes follow no best practice or uniformity of design. It’s as if PBOT is conducting an experiment every time they build a new one. It’s produced a lot of visual clutter that’s difficult sometimes for even me to parse, to say nothing of motorists from out of town that aren’t used to driving around bicyclists. Most of the designs aren’t very good, and the addition of new bike lanes has been effectively cancelled out by increasingly chaotic traffic patterns. It has not lead to an increase in bike ridership. As this blog has pointed out in the past, ridership has fallen by a percentage point, so new infrastructure clearly isn’t producing the desired result.

“I can control who’s in my space when I’m in my car, and I don’t have to worry about someone random bashing me in the back of my head while I’m driving… When you don’t know people, they could look completely normal, and next thing you know…” said one person. “I was one of the people that was on the MAX when [the stabbing happened]. Right after that is when I got my car,” said another. Bloom called this a, “Collective fear of other people and the uncertainty that comes with being around those you don’t know,” and determined that, “Portlanders generally feel safer in a car because they have some control over what happens to them and their families.”

This is a sentiment that should be taken seriously, as it’s widespread. Most people in Portland will vocally express support for more bike lanes and public transit, but in terms of their actual behavior, they’ll respond to incentives. Even if they recognize that it’s inefficient and wasteful for the majority of people in a city to drive, they’ll do what they perceive as being in their immediate self-interest. If the public space is dysfunctional and chaotic, people will armor up. Even if they’re miserable sitting in traffic, at least they get to be miserable in their own private bubble. If the city attempts to disincentivize driving by making it less convenient and more expensive while not improving the cycling and transit experience at all, people will react against a strategy that they see as all stick and no carrot. They will perceive the city transportation policies as malicious and actively reducing their standard of living.

Roberta Robles
Guest
Roberta Robles

Leave it up to the advocates at nomorefreewayspdx to do the messaging and hard work of educating people about congestion, road widening and induced demand. That’s the problem of having the transport bureau run by a councilor that changes everytime the mayor gets changed. Zero accountability to an elected official. Honestly the entire region transport service delivery should be a regionally elected accountable entity. This would lead to more consistent messages across all transport departments and project delivery. Why do we need mega projects if we can’t get crosswalk enforcement? Zero trust #visionzero

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

And this;

“To eliminate serious injuries and deaths on the streets of Portland by 2025, at least nine in tenresidents would be willing to drive sober (96%), drive without distractions (96%), drive at safespeeds (95%), drive more carefully on wide, fast streets (95%) and see more enforcement of trafficlaws (90%).”

Is how we get nonsense like cheering for traffic and useless billboards. This nonsense is what allows PBOT to still pretend you can just message your way out of vehicular violence.

What rot

Jon
Guest
Jon

Almost 40% of people do not feel safe on transit.
“I can control who’s in my space when I’m in my car, and I don’t have to worry about someone random bashing me in the back of my head while I’m driving… When you don’t know people, they could look completely normal, and next thing you know…” said one person.
My wife used to commute by bike 5 days a week using the Springwater. Now even as a larger than average man I avoid the Springwater. The few car free transit paths are now considered unsafe due to lack of enforcement of the right of way. I used to feel completely safe riding anywhere in Portland and was more worried about the angry pick-up drivers in the rural areas. Now there are places I just don’t ride due to the homelessness/drug/mental issues I see. Nobody is going to beat me up and take my bike in Banks but they might on the Springwater. We need more enforcement on the bike paths AND the traffic lanes.

Brent
Guest
Brent

There is a lot in here that is really good.

I found the comments regarding perceived safety of the transportation system telling. There is widespread belief among those that haven’t really tried it that the buses and max are dominated by crazy, smelly homeless people that will harass you or at the very least inconvenience you, and that to bike means risking your life every time you commute. This belief makes it easy to justify continuing to use the car despite the growing disincentives of cost and congestion.

As a bike commuter and a previous Max commuter I am seen as extreme by many coworkers. This from people who commute sometimes an hour or more one way every day! I don’t know how to change it, but until the perception of the safety and utility of alternative modes of transportation changes, we will not see widespread shifts. Incentives and infrastructure are important, but people feel safe in their cars and think any other option will put them in danger.

joan
Subscriber

So in fall 2018, 64% of the people surveyed agreed that they would take transportation other than a car more often “If I was sure I could reliably get to my destination faster or in the same amount of time as driving my personal car.”

This is fantastic, really. It’s a path forward. And I suspect is not unrelated to the Rose Lane Project. Make it easier and faster for folks to take public transportation or another non-car method, and they will.

Carrie
Guest
Carrie

This morning, at morning commute time, I rode 11 miles from SE near Reed to N Portland near UP. I purposefully used PBOT-designed infrastructure the whole way. There were three spots that were ridiculously awful. SE 29th between Belmont and Stark was closed due to utility work. There was no prior warning that the road would be closed until you were ‘right there’ and there was no signed detour. The scary and non-intuitive way you are supposed to cut across NE 28th N-bound after crossing over I-84 to get into the two-way cycle track? Let’s just say I completely missed that and then still had to cross over left to get onto the Greenway at Wasco. There’s NO WAY I’d send a grade school kid to ride on this section of road by themselves (& this is part of the world class 20s bikeway). Then N Rodney was also closed for utility work north of Shaver. Again no prior notice and no signed detour.

It was confusing, frustrating, inconsistent, and downright dangerous at times. And it should have been a simple trip from one part of town to another, using purpose-built infrastructure, to get to work.

Suburban
Guest
Suburban

“When you don’t know people, they could look completely normal, and next thing you know……you’re riding tubeless and pregnant with twins.

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

Surprise! People don’t want to travel to work/leisure in uncomfortable, slow transit with tweakers and unmedicated mental cases! We have invested billions of dollars into a system which mostly caters to those with no options.

My other key takeaway is that if PBoT thinks the biggest problem is communication, they have another thing coming. But you know… just throw a couple more billboards up and host a listening session and call it a day!

Ricky
Guest
Ricky

This would not affect transit ridership much (except if people’s driving privileges are revoked and they’re forced to use TriMet) but – 90% want to see more enforcement of traffic laws. Considering that vision zero initiatives do not seem to be working as well as hoped and traffic related deaths are rising rather than falling- this seems like a great opportunity to shift resources and actually start enforcement.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

I work downtown, and there are about 1,200 employees in my building. Almost all of us- seriously, the vast majority- take public transit or bike to work. Why? There are several reasons: we get free Trimet passes; parking is prohibitively expensive; we have a secure, monitored, indoor bike parking area, and a shower facility. If Trimet were fareless, and the city went all Shoupista and charged market price for parking, I suspect we’d see a lot more people using public transit. And if people knew there were a safe, secure place to lock up their bike at their destination, they might ride more often.