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Getting Back Our Mobility Mojo
Portland has lost its transportation and mobility mojo. Forget just thinking about our national rankings which confirm we are on the downswing. More important is the fact that we are failing to live up to our own goals and expectations.
I was the City transportation commissioner for seven and a half years, overseeing the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). I actually campaigned to be appointed to that position. Nobody else on the City Council wanted it. I sought it because it was a bright spot in City innovation, but also the source of the most public and employee complaints. I wanted to tackle the challenge of leading the most innovative municipal transportation department for non-auto users, while also improving basic services for all. Revenues to fund operations and improvements did not keep up with inflation, and we had to cut PBOT’s service-level budget to stay balanced.
That meant that I fundraised a lot for outside transportation funding. For new and improved sidewalks, bikeways, safer crossings, we got an unprecedented $6 million in general fund money that enabled us to fix the 25 most dangerous places in Portland. We found resources to build the new Green light rail MAX line to serve East Portland and the new Orange line to serve Southeast Portland; federal and tax increment funds to complete five streetcar expansions, including the Eastside loop and the aerial tram; and hundreds of millions more in outside funding for new and improved streets and bridges.
Transportation is not a goal in and of itself. It exists to help people realize their dreams as well as their day-to-day responsibilities and to help community groups, businesses and nonprofits to achieve their
goals. It can be done in a manner that keeps us, our city and our environment healthy — now and for future generations.
We once showed ourselves and the world what we could do. We can do it again.
Addressing Our Racist Transportation History
Our focus must be on bringing the most benefit to communities hurt by previous transportation planning decisions. The Albina Vision project would help stitch back together a once-thriving Black neighborhood ripped apart by construction of Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the I-5 freeway.
“If ever the City of Portland wanted a model for a 20-minute urban neighborhood, Albina in 1956 was it. Until city leaders opted to bulldoze it for “urban renewal.” Doctors’ offices, bike shops, groceries, churches and an ice cream store. Manufacturing, greenspace, boutiques, salons and plenty of affordable housing.” The Skanner, 2011
I believe we can and should go further: we must bring a critical equity lens to every infrastructure project. We must ensure we understand its impacts on our communities not just today but into the future. We can work with communities from the very start of project conceptualization, rather than asking for input once most details have been lodged in place. Too often, we work to convince communities that what we build is what they need. We all succeed when we learn from the community what it truly needs and use that to define what we build.
Save Lives, Reduce Injuries
“49 people died in Portland traffic deaths in 2019, the most since 1997” Oregonian, December 20, 2019
We must improve conditions for Portland's most vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, bikers, those using mobility devices, and public transit riders. Portland must prioritize safety.
Biking and walking rates are down: a likely key reason is that they are perceived as unsafe options.
As Portland’s transportation commissioner, I held annual Transportation Safety Summits. These gave PBOT staff the opportunity to get feedback on proposed safety interventions as well as hear directly from community members about their lived experiences in their neighborhoods.
Residents are on the front lines of safety issues, the first to know the most dangerous roads and intersections. We can do a better job engaging and listening to them, and making the effort to meet community members on their terms. The burden should not be on the community to bring their critical concerns to City Hall.
I look forward to working closely with advocacy organizations like Street Trust, whose endorsement I am very proud to have, and to supporting impressive volunteer efforts like Families For Safe Streets, and the Safety Summit held by the North Portland Transportation Partnership a few years ago. But the City must once again be a leader in these conversations and a good partner to community efforts.
We need to double down our investment on a long list of pedestrian safety measures: improve pedestrian-level lighting, increase the number of signalized crosswalks, address the numerous transit stops lacking safe access, enforce 20-foot setbacks at intersections to aid visibility for drivers and pedestrians waiting to cross, make leading pedestrian interval signals the standard, use gas tax revenue to build sidewalks in neighborhoods that lack them, and complete the Safe Routes to School network to ensure students have safe, healthy ways to get to school.
An overwhelming number of those killed while walking are children and seniors. By 2035, the number of retired Portlanders will grow by 40%. It’s critical we act right now to do better for them in the future. We can’t expect better results if we don’t invest in improvements like longer cross times at intersections and uniform audio signalization for the hearing impaired.
I agree with the City of Portland’s Vision Zero goals: “No person should die or be incapacitated in the everyday act of moving about. But each year dozens of Portlanders lose their lives doing just that. In 2015, Portland made a commitment to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets. The 2016 Vision Zero Action Plan mapped out actions to make that commitment a reality.”
But goals must be the starting point for action. I understand that currently, the Vision Zero oversight committee meets only once every six months. To be effective, that group must meet more frequently to ensure we are measuring outcomes, making adjustments as needed, and continuing to bring our collective efforts to solve this dire issue. Lives are at stake.
It’s not enough to write good policy; we must also stay invested enough to make changes if something isn’t working or bolster strategies that are showing success. We can only make those decisions if we are measuring outcomes. I believe the jurisdictional, advocacy and community partners that helped create PBOT’s Vision Zero plan should be re-engaged to help the CIty evaluate what is working and what isn’t. We should:
Make safety the #1 priority for Portland Bureau of Transportation. Keeping Portlanders safe on our streets and roads should be the City’s most sacred commitment.
Hold annual citywide public transportation and mobility safety summits.
Identify and address 25 most dangerous locations on the transportation system on a biennial basis.
Reduce auto traffic congestion. Create relief for people spending too much time stuck in traffic. Ensure reliable trip-times for freight and commerce.
I will reinvigorate the city’s efforts to ensure all residents live in “20-minute neighborhoods” — complete walkable neighborhoods that reduce the need to drive for a person's daily needs. We need to connect these neighborhoods with bike, pedestrian, and transit mobility options.
A large percentage of Portland auto trips are not for getting to or from work. Many of these trips are required because road users cannot find the goods and services they want in their own neighborhood or business district.
“The 20-minute neighborhood plan is a part of Portland's long-term strategy to manage the challenges that face many urban environments across the country, including rising energy costs, population growth, roadway congestion, and demand for expensive public transit to connect more and more distant suburbs. In this interview, Portland Mayor Sam Adams speaks with The Atlantic about the benefits of 20-minute neighborhood and how his city is making this vision a reality.” The Atlantic, 2012.
In partnership with business district and neighborhood associations and equity and sustainability focused organizations, we must assess unmet consumer needs in each neighborhood business district. Working together, we can address unmet consumer needs that produce the most auto trips outside the neighborhood and that can be offered at a competitive price by existing or new neighborhood businesses.
Offer Clark County commuters better options for faster and more reliable commuter trips for their peak-hour travel to Oregon. Reduce the gridlock in central Portland at the Rose Quarter that is caused by these single-passenger auto trips.
Two of the most congested areas in the Portland metro region are the I-5 and I-205 freeway corridors from Clark to Washington counties. Over 70,000 commuters drive mostly alone, back and forth, each day. For almost two decades, decision makers have looked at expanding bus and light rail transit and building a new I-5 bridge to address this congestion.
All efforts have failed. At various times, wanting a bigger new I-5 bridge, Clark County and the State of Washington have slow-walked or rejected light rail as part of the package of solutions to address this regional transportation chokepoint. Now, this daily tsunami of congestion swamps central Portland, especially at the Rose Quarter.
I suggest a more cost-effective and environmentally sound approach.
Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter is complicated. There’s no question I-5 bottlenecks waste time, emit carbon degrading air quality in surrounding neighborhoods, and frustrate drivers. There’s no question we can and must do better.
But any transportation project is also a land use decision, and that is particularly true with a project of this magnitude. Any proposal to address congestion and its unsavory impacts must also make the Rose Quarter a better place. To be a better place, this project has to account for climate concerns, historic injustice, and neighborhood vitality. In these three key areas the current proposal is not as strong as it needs to be.
I propose we apply congestion tolling to the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River now. Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), with input from regional municipal and county stakeholders, should use flexible pricing to achieve shared safety and travel goals. The toll’s price would rise with demand to access the bridge, and fall when demand abates., To ensure this system doesn’t add more burden to those for whom transportation costs are already a hardship, un- and underemployed and low-income drivers would be charged a lower toll based on their enrollment in food assistance and low-income utility programs. Tolling revenues could be used to pay for ODOT expenditures currently funded by more flexible transportation dollars. This more flexible revenue could then be used for North/Northeast transit, biking, pedestrian, and freight improvement projects. For example:
Determine the feasibility of modifying the MAX Yellow Line Light Rail to allow for express service between North Portland and downtown and the Green Line Light Rail to allow for express service between East Portland and downtown.
Bolster other revenue streams already in the works to convert all bi-state C-TRAN and TriMet buses to electric to meet our climate change goals. These buses can be 100% renewable energy-powered and will help TriMet achieve a non-diesel fleet by 2040.
Bolster funds to expand dedicated bus lanes, bus priority signals, and in-lane bus stops, with a focus specifically in the neighborhoods adjacent to I-5 and I-205. Enhance bike/bus intermobility by increasing the capacity of bus bike racks and e-bike options at transit stops. This will have the added benefit of addressing some last-mile challenges that can prevent transit ridership, getting transit users where they need to go faster, and making public transit and biking a more reliable and attractive option.
Congestion pricing of I-5 at the Columbia River to achieve specific and shared goals for safety and travel would reduce the tragedy-of-the-commons problem that is the current twice-daily bottleneck.
Congestion pricing would both reduce and spread demand more equitably. That, in turn, would reduce air pollution in North Portland neighborhoods, which historically have suffered from disproportionately high rates of asthma and related ailments resulting from vehicle-borne pollution.
By using congestion pricing to manage I-5 at the Columbia River in the post-pandemic period, we may find we don’t have a congestion problem in the Rose Quarter. Proceed with the Albina Vision project now. But we should not embark on a Rose Quarter freeway expansion until we see the results of tolling the Columbia River freeway bridges.
Renew Portland’s Gas Tax
I support the proposal because gas prices are low and the City’s transportation bureau needs the revenue to fulfill its mission. Because gas prices are low, thankfully, the impact on Portlanders’ pocketbooks is relatively limited. This is important because we will likely be in an economic recession as a result of COVID-19. Delaying safety, maintenance and operations work only makes the price of that work more expensive later.
While I support the gas tax proposal, I want to underscore again that PBOT is failing on two of its key responsibilities that I consider critical to its success:
As already noted, pedestrian fatalities in Portland have been unacceptably high despite the adoption of Vision Zero. Passing a renewal of the gas tax should serve as a reminder for real progress on safety.
I am deeply disappointed that bicycle mode share has been in decline since 2014. This is despite the injection of revenues into new bikeways and other pedestrian safety investments.
Win-Win-Win: Less congestion, Save lives, reduce pollution
More and more modern traffic lights are a win-win-win-won for all modes of travel in Portland.
“Detroit's Smart Intersections, Which Can Update Like Smartphones, Could Save Lives: New traffic signals in Detroit are designed to help pedestrians, cyclists and ambulances get through intersections, while helping traffic planners test safety improvements quickly.” Government Technology, 2018
Because of a citywide lack of traffic control signals enough street intersections, Portland has virtual speedways in too many neighborhoods. East Broadway, NE 82nd Ave, NE 122nd Ave, SW Capital Hill, N Lombard, SE Holgate… it is a very long list of streets in every part of Portland that have a lack of signals and dangerous speeding between them.
I said regularly during my previous eight years as transportation commissioner and I will say it forever: no matter how any individual chooses to travel, everybody benefits when people choose to travel by bicycle or walk.
Increasing bike mode share is an all-hands-on-deck issue for me. I would task every group within PBOT — and invite every bike advocacy organization, every modal advocacy organization, and every equity organization, among others — to collaborate on problem identification and shared solutions. The status quo is unacceptable.
Final thought: The gas tax disproportionately impacts Portlanders who have to drive. Until we are able to make 20-minute neighborhoods an affordable option for all, not everyone has the ability to make transit, walking or biking their mode of choice. Most of Portland’s auto-dependent neighborhoods tend to be lower income. What Portland needs is a revenue system overhaul that reduces and ultimately eliminates reliance on 20th century funding mechanisms. Portland needs to support the gas tax renewal. But just as important, we need to eliminate our reliance on it.
Support for Metro Transportation Bond Measure
Metro’s bond measure is an unprecedented opportunity to take a holistic view of our region’s transportation system. We must prioritize bringing the most benefit to communities who have been hurt most by previous transportation planning decisions.
I support the programmatic work that is a part of this measure. It’s critical to mitigate the negative effects transportation investments can bring to communities, with Albina being one example. This bond measure is a chance to do better than we have in the past, with programs to revitalize main streets, prevent displacement, and maintain affordable housing along the planned corridors.
I applaud Metro’s commitment to improving safety on these corridors, but the bond measure is only the beginning of this work. We know other such corridors in Portland’s neighborhoods didn’t make it into the measure, and I would like to see the City use the valuable input from the task force and public testimony to pick up where Metro left off.
I realize it will be tough to ask Portland Metro Region residents to raise taxes in the wake of COVID-19 and it’s devastating effect on our livelihoods and economy. But to keep delaying these crucial investments in our regional transportation system will only cost us more in the long term, in more lives lost, in more hours wasted in traffic, in further degradation of air quality and the continued inability to meet our climate change goals. This price is too high to pay. I would encourage Metro Council, and hope to have the opportunity to work with them, to present the most progresive funding mechanisms at our disposal to help ease the burden on those of our community who can least afford it.