PSU and Metro study shows active transportation investment helps the economy

“Projects are more likely to reach their full potential when they reduce the effects of an auto-oriented environment.”

The PSU and Metro study looked at 12 projects spanning the Portland metro area. (Graphic: Metro)

Have projects funded with Oregon Metro’s Regional Flexible Funds provided an economic return on investment? In partnership with Metro, Portland State University researchers embarked on a study to find out, and analyzed 12 of these projects funded between 2001 and 2016 to evaluate if they had “significant effects on the local economy.” The results, released last month, confirmed what transportation and safe streets advocates have long been saying: when an area is safe for people to walk and bike in, they’ll feel more comfortable spending time – and money – there.

Researchers evaluated projects in Portland as well as smaller cities in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties including Milwaukie, Oregon City, Gresham, Beaverton, Cornelius, Forest Grove and Tigard. Most of these projects focused primarily on improving conditions for people walking by widening sidewalks, making crossings safer and adding landscaping, lighting and public art, but some included bike infrastructure upgrades as well.

The active transportation improvements on Division St have made it safer and more appealing for people to walk and shop at local businesses.

These projects are part of Metro’s 2040 Growth Concept, the long-range plan for the region’s infrastructure. Analyzing the benefits of these projects to “clarify the relationship between these investments and economic activity” is important for determining which investments Metro should make going forward.

“One of the most important outcomes of the study is informing the region’s decision makers, business owners, and the general public in the recent public comment period for Metro’s Regional Flexible Funding Allocations (RFFA) for transportation projects. With 29 project proposals on the table, it’s important to have the context and data on what has been effective in the Portland region,” the report states.

PSU researchers used quantitative and qualitative methods to measure these 12 projects, which were chosen based on similarities making it possible to compare them. According to the PSU and Metro report, 75% of the project locations “saw measurable economic gains in the food or retail industries after implementation,” with the greatest benefits occurring in places with multiple complementary transportation investments, like layering a new light rail stop with nearby crosswalk enhancements. But in order to see the most improvement, projects need to explicitly tamp down on local car traffic speeds and volumes.

“Projects are more likely to reach their full potential when they reduce the effects of an auto-oriented environment and create places for walking that are also less stressful and more comfortable,” the report states.

The majority of the projects studied had positive impacts on local retail and food businesses.

One Portland project researchers analyzed is the SE Division Streetscape Project, which was completed in 2014 and included landscaping, transportation and general street improvements on inner Division St to “create a more pedestrian- friendly, economically vibrant, and environmentally sustainable corridor.” Though people surveyed would still like further improvements on inner Division, especially to make it safer to bike, researchers found this project was overall successful and “created favorable conditions for developers creating a high-density residential area and developmental sector and turning Division into a destination street and restaurant district.”

Division is almost unrecognizable from its pre-streetscape upgrade days. The report quotes Chris Eykamp, the Chair of the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood which encompasses inner Division Street, who said it’s “unimaginable” that you can now go on Division and get world-class food. Wider sidewalks and adequate crosswalk placement has made Division Street a street to casually stroll down with a Salt & Straw ice cream cone and with plenty of places to window-shop, which was not the case 10 years ago.

But the report makes it clear returns on active transportation investments are not limited to the Portland urban core. In fact, smaller communities may even benefit more from these projects. One of the places where investments were “layered” was at the Milwaukie Town Center with a project to connect the Milwaukie MAX station with Main Street and South Downtown Plaza in order to “help restore the Milwaukie historic downtown as a vital town center, strengthen the retail character of Main Street, and create a flow of pedestrian activity.”

People the researchers surveyed responded positively to these upgrades, with one respondent saying “downtown Milwaukie used to be a dump and not an interesting place to walk at all” but now it “seems livelier, more like a neighborhood.” This has created opportunities for businesses to move into the area.

Active transportation investments to improve safety for people walking, biking and taking transit are important even if they don’t provide measurable economic benefits. However, money can perk people’s ears faster. Local policymakers hesitant to support active transportation projects may be lured by the prospect they could bring economic benefits to an area, which will be especially appealing in the wake of the pandemic that devastated small businesses across the region.

“While this report only explores the effects of active transportation infrastructure on business trends, we are currently developing methods to help us measure other ways that active transportation infrastructure impacts the region by quantifying things such as travel cost savings and health benefits,” the report says.

You can check out the full report, which details the methodology and describes more case studies, here.

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