We are all now well schooled in the notion that Portland, Oregon is the model of current 21st century urbanism in America.
Portland, at sunrise.
It is a city known for its excellent transportation infrastructure, its many walkable neighborhoods, its tree lined streets, great parks, lovely historic resources, and the liberal and open culture that attracts young and older alike. And of course, Powell’s books.
Portland is a benchmark by which to measure the state and progress of your city, or certainly mine. But a recent visit left us with some disquieting observations about Portland, and questions about that city that naturally lead to broader musings about contemporary city-making in general. Let me explain.
Portland, like almost all cities on every continent, is powerfully dominated by automobiles. Traffic, and not just on the busy freeways, is everywhere, and is pervasive.
Sure, peds and bikers are everywhere too, but automobile mobility dominates, and is threatening on all the city’s streets, major or minor. The city is not home to prototypical complete streets. As we transit types say, mode bias heavily favors fast-moving cars.
And as we see and experience wherever we walk or ride, the velocity of automobility is on the rise (pedestrian deaths are at their highest point in thirty years in the US). Admittedly recent incidents in which your author(s) have been struck by cars and trucks may be coloring our perceptions, but statistics show that speeds are up and most drivers have not improved in their abilities to allow for walkers as they turn left or right on city streets.
So while Portland may be the paradigm for city making in America, that city suffers from all of the same afflictions that plague all of our cities.
And to be very clear, epidemiologically speaking, this plague is rooted in the virus called CAR. Auto dominated streets, with speeding cars and cringing everybody else, can be found throughout the city. While there are certainly many walkable and wonderful locations in Portland, and while it truly does stand as an urban model for the rest of us, it too suffers from car-itis.
And of course, what is compounding Portland’s traffic problem is its popularity. The city’s population became a rocket starting in 1990, and is only now, in 2019, starting to slow. Since then, the city has gone from about 450,000 to what is now about 650,000. Not so surprisingly, when we asked our Portland family members what they thought might be their city’s biggest challenge, the reply from all (after some acknowledged a significant homeless problem) was TRAFFIC.
We have since discovered that Portlanders are reflecting on at least two options: spending about $450,000,000 on highway expansion, or instituting congestion pricing. The wiser among the city’s citizens suggest that they should try the congestion pricing, with the confidence that they can always move on to a mammoth expansion in their highway system. Some American cities – like Louisville for instance – did the really, really expensive highway expansion first, then increased their highway tolls only to see highway traffic decline by over 50%. A billion dollars perhaps not so well spent.
An interesting time for our cities. As automated vehicles continue their slow march into our futures, with all of the very unclear implications that ride along with them, we all struggle to find some way to reclaim our streets. We definitely are not there yet.