Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Active Transportation in Portland

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Portland, Oregon Mayor Sam Adams 

SFU City Program at UBC Robson Square April 24, 2009


“We share a lot of aspirations with Vancouver” and  “we try to steal your best ideas”. He was sworn in on January 1 this year and has a 100 day agenda. There is also a Portland Plan for the next 25 years which is based on “20 minute neighborhoods” connected by green multimodal corridors. He is working hard to ensure that you won’t need a car if you visit. They have been given many awards not least for their urban growth boundary (UGB). The city has 6 watersheds and while it is one of most livable cities in the US, all 6 watersheds get a failing grade

Portland has long had a robust definition of the common good – you cannot do as you like on your own land – and they have worked hard to protect farm and forest land. In the 1970s concern for those areas established UGB. The have the nations strongest land use laws and they have used them to  protect single family home neighborhoods.


It begins with the premise that they do not try to make Americans feel guilty for driving a car. By creating a  livable neighborhood the idea is that you should be be able to get what you need and want within a 20 minute walk or bike ride from your home. Much of the city was built around the streetcar with plenty of corner grocery stores without parking. He feels that the  key to the 20 minute neighborhood is to make sure that the corner is rentable at reasonable rate so that prices are fair and commensurate with big box store across town. he feels that subsidizing such stores would be the best transportation investment that we might make. “Most of our trips are about procuring stuff.” Commuting is only about 30% of the trips made. Neighborhoods will be connected by light rail and streetcar. the City spent $125m for 8 miles of streetcar with no federal funding. It was paid fro from a combination of  on street parking and garage fees as well as “tax increment” money. “Best investment we have ever made.” Within 3 blocks of the streetcar tracks we had a big invetsment in property. Ridership increased 100% sinc 1989. “Development oriented transit.” The Tram (an aerial cableway) was very expensive  but necessary to promote development of an unused area.


Portland Tram

Portland Tram


Portland has the highest percentage of trips by bike in US – about 5% city wide – 12% in core – exponential growth of use of bikeways – will spend $24m on 110 miles of bike boulevards (i.e. a quiet street parallel to the arterial). “We are Liberal and we are progressive” but  on a survey of street users  bikes were lowest as was freight on the public’s priority list. For most people the highest priority was to fix two bridges. A subsequent survey showed that people who drive cars are scared they might hit a cyclist and people who ride bikes want to avoid mixing with cars. Bikes are a high priority for the Mayor. 20,000 people come out every year for the annual “bridge pedal” a program which closes the major bridges to all but cyclists for one Sunday. It is a “shameless promo”. They also have a TravelSmart trip options program based on Australian experience [Perth WA] program, which he described as a “Concierge” service.

“High Praise on a Low Standard”. They have not had a federal government that prioritized these programs. But they need to be humble as i word terms they ae not so far adavanced. They were the first US city to establish a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have not only reduced  – per capita emissions but also and reduced total emissions to below 1% below 1990 levels. By building complete neighborhoods and working hard to provide affordable housing they aim to to go for an 80% reduction by 2050.

He put up a slide with 8 action areas – but it was not on the screen for long enough for me to copy it  

In 2003 household expenditure on transportation took up 19.1% of the average  US family budget. In Portland it was just 15.1%.

“I can save you money and make you more competitive ” is a more persuasive sales pitch to those who have yet to buy in to doing the right thing for ideological reasons. This regionwide reduction in what we spend – $800m less than avge city on cars – makes Portland’s economy more resilient since it is mostly spent locally. Car based cities see most of their expenditures go to other places which make cars or produce oil.

The message to voters is that Portlanders can have a better life than they have right now. That’s what we work on – satisfaction – quality of life.


Q & A

US Federal “Green stimulus” funds – how does the city tap in to the new federal program?

We will get about $2m on energy efficiency projects. We are not spending on City buildings. This is one time money. We using it as seed capital with the local utility companies. Consumers can pay off a loan as part of their utility bill – for homes over 20 years – and this loan is “inheritable” (i.e. it passes to the new owner on sale). the idea is to prove the concept with 500 homes. Residents can increase the energy efficiency of the home with credit up front. [Investment in  new windows or insulation] will produce savings for most homeowners. The program does not apply to high rise towers yet. They teed to show that they have a business model that works.


Bike box

Bike box

Bike boxes

So far they are not quite a year in but injuries and deaths from “right hook” collisions at stop lines have been greatly reduced. This was the  No 1 issue for bike safety and was based on designs developed in London. Basically a bright green box is painted at the intersection and cars have to stop behind it. The bike lane through the intersection is also green. So far they have seen very impressive resulkts – no deaths and much reduction in injuries. But he warned that you can’t put them everywhere and you need to pick high volume intersections.

Volunteer projects

“Portland is better together” is a web site and a call centre. It means there is just one number to make it easy for people to volunteer. The staff match up volunteers with projects: for example, when they close off streets they use volunteers to do the  monitoring> he added parenthetically that in future they will also give universities “real projects” to do. Apparently academics do not always chose research projects which have practical application.

“What do you put in the water to power these initiatives?”

“Larry Frank is a wonk. He likes data. We have a high percentage of wonks: they are self selecting. We get 85% voter turnout snce in Portland you can vote by mail over 3 weeks. Make numbers understandable to folks. People who don’t like bikes will spend more to get bikes out of the way. Meet people where they are at.” It is not enough to appeal to the enthusiasts you have got to get the other 40%. “Be responsive,  stick with it.” Portland has a progressive business community who not just concerned about the bottom line but the key needs of the community.

Do you get push back from less forward thinking officials?

We get lots of push back. In fact we seek it out, research it and test it. For instance the traffic enineers complained we spent too much on bikes but in fact it was only 1.5% of the budget. But bikes had a 5% mode share . It thus produces the best rate of return. “Nothing comes close. Get the facts. The cheapest fastest and best trip is by bike.” The big question now is  the trip not taken and how to count that? It is much harder to document trip reduction strategies.

What do you need from regional plan and how does the City contribute to the region?

Some people wanted to expand the RGB. We have been working with other communities to convince them that we have only a finite amount to spend and it gets spread thinner if the boundary is expanded. We want to get them to embrace density and complete communities. We provide technical assistance based in or own experience.

[I was unable to hear the question]

The success of downtown has been that it is possible to drive to one place, leave the car there and then get around the entire area. This has been a competitive advantage. The  “fareless square” now needs to be expanded as they want to build downtown on both sides of he river but there is a  harsh budget reality to set off the inequity of the present system.

Bogota has street closures every Sunday. You close eight bridges 1 day a year. Have you thought of doing that?

I will let you deal with the church goers. It’s a big cost once a year. We are now closing big swaths of streets in neighborhoods. We are also closing commercial streets one day a month. there is initial resistance but when sales go up resistance stalls. We are  now expanding but not to bridges – we will do it in the centers.

You mention that the Tram was 4 times over budget. Were there any other initiatives that were worth re-examining?

A streetcar line needs to consider cycles as well. We failed there in some locations and need to do future corridor plans up front. We need to get them [tram, bike, pedestrians, trucks] all in the room together.

Programs for homeless

We have a 10 year plan to end homelessness and we are now 3 years in. Around 500 formerly “chronically homeless” people  are now in permanent housing. Basically we told the community “you will pay one way or another”.  We dropped the “clean up your act” requirement: it is not necessary for the homeless to be clean and sober before they are housed. We are now building a resource access centre which an includes outreach component – go where people are sleeping – do not wait for them to come to you.

In Vancouver we talk about a 5 minute walk from bus stop – not a 20 minute walk

We do not see the real interest from private sector investors when we talk about buses. We do see development with LRT but only at the stations. You need streetcars to get investment between the stations. A  streetcar stops every 2 blocks.  20 minutes assumes every single family home will be within 20 mins of everything and the aim is to drive down the 2/3 of trips that are not for work. The  20 min walk and bike ride areas are different sizes which allows for variation depending on the local physical  geography – for examples hilly areas.

Freight – elephant in the room

Portland developed a freight master plan that delineates freight routes. Homeowners on those routes were none too pleased, but it had to be done. In is view the US needs “to get railways back up and running”.  It was uncomfortable on arterials but freight is an additional compliction but has to be considered in planning

Freight needs

Portland has now got High Speed Rail designation from the federal government but it is a source of frustration that they cannot get the railroads [to do more to take trucks off the roads] We have to spend [public funds] on private land to get access to rail for freight traffic. 

Loss of parking 

We get a very positive response when we take out parking spots for bike racks. Share the road attitude perceived as safer. We can’t build enough bike corrals

Trip to school

We have a “Safe routes to school” program and we hire people to work in schools. They work with the kids to get them excited about walking or cycling to school. They’re willing. At  elementary schools they fund bike riding programs and they are only limited by lack of resources.

Closure of lane on bridge 1991-5 for cycles

There was an assertive effort for bike lanes on the street. There was a lot of push back and the world did not end. The impact on neighborhood businesses on taking out parking has had mixed results.

Our Mayor has promise to make vancouver the  “greenest city”.  Can you suggest priorities?

You are the poster city for so much of N America

(High opraise for low standrad)

Guard against the specialist expertise. We need to look at what Portlanders want – consumer analysis. If you look at what each person in a household wants you can identify  options they will act on.

We had a real success with the  rail streetcar.

Your regional governance decision making model could be improved.  We have an independent, regionally elected government which holds us accountable. This is something you cannot achieve with mayors sitting around a table.

How do you attract jobs?

Streetcar works for us – we now build streetcars and sell them all over the place. You have the opportunity to market your green services – professional services – but too often forget to market within North America.


Portland Streetcar

Portland Street at the University stop

Written by Stephen Rees

April 24, 2009 at 10:23 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Very interesting post Stephen.. some names are a bit confusing for those of us raised in Europe, where a tram is a tramway (called streetcar in North America)..The Portland tram (gondola) is called the Aerial tram. see It goes from the South Waterfont neighbourhood and ends up at the top of the hill by the upper campus of a health centre. The lower station is next to a stop for the Portland streetcar, the one shown in the photo at the end of the article.
    see . The backbone of Portland public transit system is the MAX, a heavy duty LRT, longer and bigger than the streetcar. see
    I have used all 3 types of transit last year, after visiting Seattle to use their new streetcar and check how far advanced were the works on the LRT to the airport. I found driving in downtown Portland very easy (as the designated navigator). Parking in a indoor parkade is cheap as there are special rates of $1.25 per hr for up to 4 hrs. In the streets there are no individual meters for each spot but 1 parking “box” per block (these meters are commonly found in many countries and allow for more cars to park in a given block). A great features of the indoor parking garages is their big, very visible, sign outside with the number of open spots (in Salem Oregon we were driving slowly looking for a parking..a big burly cop stopped us, asked us if we were planning to stay in town for a while and drove us to a free parking for visitors). Quite different from Vancouver where both parking and transit are looked upon as cash cows. One good thing about Mayor Sam Adams and the good people of Portland is that they aren’t as prudish as we are here in BC were any hint of “sex” send the NDP in a tailspin. He may be a flawed/ easily conned individual in his private life but he does work very hard for his city and–along with the city council–has great ideas to make it very livable.

    Red frog

    April 25, 2009 at 12:33 am

  2. Very good post Stephen..may I add a quick review of the Portland transit for readers not familiar with it?. The small streetcar (shown at the end of the post) is only one part of Portland transit system. There is only one line-so far-that connect, in the South Waterfront neighbourhood, with the lower station of the Portland Aerial Tram. It also connects in the city centre with the 2 main lines of the MAX LRT. The MAX cars are longer, wider and heavier than those of the streetcar (in Europe we call both the small and big streetcars “trams” short for tramways..confusing). The MAX system is being expanded with both new lines and extensions to current lines. The streetcar will also run on the other side of the river, making a giant loop. The I5 is getting a new wider crossing over the river that will include LRT lines.
    Portland is a perfect example of what modern streetcars can do and it does prove also that at grade transit isn’t a problem for car drivers. Talking about cars–I was in Portland last fall to check the aerial tram and ride the MAX again and will have to go this fall to check the 4th MAX line (running in parts in the centre of a freeway) plus the Seattle LRT–I didn’t mention that the MAX service the airport (this goes back to a few years back already)and a couple of malls plus a major convention centre etc.. Unlike in Vancouver it looks like the routes of the MAX “heavy” transit systems were designed to service the most populated areas of the town including far away suburbs. There is also a cute historical tram.
    I find every time I am in Portland that driving downtown is quite easy (I am the navigator planning the route). Parking is also easy as parkades have big signs outside showing the number of available spots and the rates are low ($1.25 per hour for up to 4 hrs). As in many towns around the world parking spots in the streets don’t have their own meter. There is only one machine per block. This allow for much tighter parking than here. Downtown atreets have also more mature trees than here.

    Red frog

    April 25, 2009 at 12:16 pm

  3. […] read more about Sam Adams’ presentation, check out the detailed account written by Richmond transportation planner and Green Party candidate Stephen […]

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    re:place Magazine

    April 26, 2009 at 6:18 pm

  5. There are a number of bike boxes in Vancouver. The most noticeable one (i.e. not on a side street bike route) is on Dunsmuir Street (or is it Pender?)at Hornby Street.

    Ron C.

    April 27, 2009 at 11:25 am

  6. There’s a bike box on Blanca at west 10th Avenue to aid cyclists coming from the dedicated bike lane on University Boulevard to turn left.


    April 27, 2009 at 11:43 am

  7. […] a comment » This story in the Railway Age updates a recent posting about Portland. The Mayor told us that they had not received federal funding (under the Bush administration) for […]

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