The Congress for the New Urbanism’s Project for Transportation Reform
summit in Portland, Oregon, has brought together transportation
engineers, city planners, and transportation reform advocates to share
best practice policies for reforming transportation metrics, funding
mechanisms, and regional practices that isolate transportation planning
from land-use and growth targets. The highlight of the first day of
the program was Portland itself, as councilors from Portland Metro,
one of the only elected municipal planning organizations (MPOs) in the
country, elaborated on their multi-disciplinary mission, which seeks to
limit development within an urban growth boundary and coordinate
transportation, parks and recreation, and solid waste management to
achieve a more sustainable city.
It’s quite a mandate, one
that Metro’s own councilors and representatives reminded the audience
was a work in progress. Despite Portland’s reputation among new
urbanists and livable cities advocates as a national leader in
promoting pedestrian safety and multi-modal accessibility, the region’s
municipal stewards said they have a long way to go.
Councilor Robert Liberty said, "I know this is the image many of you
have of our region," while displaying a slide of Dorothy and her
cohorts skipping along the yellow-brick road to Oz (Portland’s green
bike lanes do beg at least a chromatic comparison to the Emerald City).
In reality, said Liberty, moving onto a photo of one of Portland’s many
crisscrossing freeways, the city is still fighting off the influence of
Robert Moses (who visited in the 1940s and convinced city leaders they
should build bigger and faster roads).
Since 1973, with the passage of Oregon’s Senate Bill 100,
which led to the original urban growth boundary around Portland, the
region has incrementally chipped away at the Moses paradigm of freeway
expansion, instead funding light rail, robust bus service, extensive
neighborhood traffic calming, and ever more impressive bicycle
infrastructure. So thoroughly have Portlanders embraced the bicycle, in
fact, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church recently unveiled a new bicycle shrine in its efforts to reach out to cyclists.
abandoned spur from the planned Mt. Hood Freeway, plans for which were
scrapped after the freeway revolts of the 1960s and 70s. Photo: Matthew
Despite this effort to moderate the
expectations of conference attendees, it was clear twenty minutes into
the first presentation that Metro has so thoroughly incorporated new
urbanist principles into their lexicon that they are essentially
speaking a different language than any other MPO in the country. What’s
more, they are not merely drafting good plans that collect dust on a
shelf, but funding the innovative policies and setting performance
targets so the public, which has a remarkable opportunity to give
direct feedback via the ballot box, can gauge their successes and
When I asked the city engineer from Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, how receptive his peers, their MPO and the state DOT were to
principles of network connectivity and human-scale transportation
objectives, he gave me a bemused smirk. He explained that his city was
moving closer to installing a 2-mile streetcar route,
but that most efforts to convince Wisconsin DOT that it should consider
transit projects are met with responses like, "we’re in the highway
Two other conference presentations from the day were particularly interesting, the first from CNU President John Norquist,
who explained the efforts his organization has been involved in to
build support among fire and emergency service personnel for
human-scale streets, traffic calming, and dense development. Norquist
said the process has been slow but positive: they are hoping more
states will adopt policies similar to Oregon’s, where final
authorization of traffic calming depends on traffic engineers, not the
The other presentation, by University of Connecticut Engineering Professor Norman Garrick,
bolstered Norquist’s assertion that dense cities are safer cities, per
capita. Garrick presented data from a yet-to-be-released study of
cities all over California that measured the impact of street design on
a range of safety factors, from emergency response times to bicycle
injury collisions and pedestrian fatalities.
Garrick found that
cities built on a grid network and cities built before 1950, which
tended to have smaller streets not designed primarily for automobility,
realized significantly better safety indicators. In grid cities,
according to Garrick, one’s chance of dying in a car was 50 percent
lower than in suburban-style cities (branch street networks) and injury
collisions were 30 percent lower in grid cities. People living in grid
cities were four times more likely than their suburban counterparts to
walk and bike and two-to-three times more likely to take transit.
the afternoon, attendees broke out into groups to take tours of
Portland’s various networks, from streetcars, to bicycles, to green
streets (my post on the green streets tour will be forthcoming).
Today’s highlights will be panels on MPO reform and analysis of the
VMT reduction benefits of dense development along transit corridors.
Tomorrow, attendees will hear from Representative Earl Blumenauer on
his national transportation agenda.