It took me a while to figure out who was the intended audience for Metro President (and now candidate for U.S. Congress) Lynn Peterson’s recent book, Roadways for People: Rethinking Transportation Planning and Engineering (co-authored by Elizabeth Doerr).
The short answer is, “probably not you.” The book is the collected wisdom of an accomplished mid-career professional, and would make a wonderful text for a graduate-level course titled Engineering 240: Transportation and Community Engagement. And if you are already a transportation geek who is seeking a deeper understanding of why Portland’s transportation system is the way it is, it’s a good guide into the belly of the beast.
For me however, I found it a bit disappointing — not because of what I read, but because of what I didn’t.
Before being elected the Metro President, Peterson was the secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation for Governor Jay Inslee; the transportation policy advisor to Governor John Kitzhaber; TriMet’s strategic planning manager; and transportation advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon — as well as being elected to the Lake Oswego City Council, and chair of the Clackamas County Commission.
Drawing from that deep background, Peterson illustrates many of her points with examples from Portland. The book builds to a middle chapter titled, Addressing the Racist Legacy of Transportation and Housing Policy in which she uses the destruction of the historically Black Lower Albina neighborhood, and the controversial I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening and capping project, to illustrate ineffective community engagement, and she criticizes the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) for it.
Early in the chapter she recounts the destruction of Albina between the late 1950s into the 1970s as I-5 was routed through the heart of the neighborhood. In the name of urban renewal, Portland allowed houses and businesses in this neighborhood to be razed to make way for the Memorial Coliseum, the Rose Quarter, Emanuel Hospital, Lloyd Center, and the Portland Public Schools Administrative Building.
From that sad and disturbing history, which is well-trod ground, Peterson pivots to present-day racial equity initiatives, the Rose Quarter widening and capping project, and she recommends Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 book, How to be an Antiracist, as a starting point for one’s own antiracist journey. The chapter ends with instructions for how to bring a racial equity framework to the reader’s transportation work.
It is in the construction of a narrative that views all actions through a racial lens that I become aware of the accumulating errors of omission. For example, in Peterson’s discussion of “deep-listening” to the community, “community” always seems to mean Albina Vision Trust, the nonprofit that seeks to redevelop Albina and that Peterson hitched her position on the project to. But when invoking “community,” Peterson never mentions No More Freeways, the protesting students at Harriet Tubman Middle School, the Eliot Neighborhood, the Sunrise Movement. None of them make the book. She excises global warming from the discussion.
There might be pedagogical reasons for that, a clean simple narrative could be the easiest way to introduce the evolution of different programs for community engagement, but it strips the current Rose Quarter freeway expansion controversy of its flavor. It sanitizes a complicated story and makes it bland.
Similarly, in a section about overlooked and undervalued ethnic neighborhoods, Peterson turns to neighborhood greenways (PBOT’s bike-friendly residential streets) as an example of how “Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods were becoming safer as a result of these improvements…” But that overlooks the fact that the whitest area of town, southwest Portland, has the fewest number of greenways. That fact is not useful for her narrative.
My final example is the destruction of the Albina neighborhood itself. What Portland did is horrible, and the city is a less vibrant and humane place because of it. But Albina wasn’t the only neighborhood in Portland destroyed by urban renewal and freeway building. The Portland Development Commission also razed 54 “blighted” blocks in South Portland, home to a working class Jewish and Italian neighborhood. That ethnic neighborhood was so annihilated that there is no longer evidence that it ever existed. Between the South Auditorium Urban Renewal project, (the area around Keller Fountain), Interstate 405, the surface streets of Highway 26 and the Ross Island Bridge ramps, “block after block of south Portland homes, businesses, bars, churches and rooming houses [were cleared] … And by the mid-1970s, new construction had taken the place of most of the old structures.”
Again, leaving out the context of Albina’s destruction serves to support Peterson’s narrative.
My examples are not a three-part exercise in whataboutism. I’ve written all over this part of my book with marginalia — a lot of it question marks and exclamation points. To be transparent, I’ve given money to No More Freeways which opposes the Rose Quarter expansion of I-5. Peterson approves of the Rose Quarter Project, as she makes very clear.
However, I have a flexible mind, I can be convinced. But this section lost me, it skipped too many steps in the chain of logic, and left out the inconvenient facts that could make a too-clean narrative messy, and that just might make a story interesting.
By the end of the chapter, I found myself not completely trusting my narrator, and wondering if Peterson might be part of a cohort of traffic engineers who badly want their legacy to be having rectified the mistakes of a previous generation.
I do not think I would recommend this book to many people. You have to be pretty deep in the policy weeds to appreciate it. But for those who do jump in, it offers an illuminating peek into the ideas that appear to animate the higher levels of Portland’s transportation culture.