Gratitude inaccessibility

I’m having a problem with the inaccessibility of gratitude, currently. It’s a bit ironic and also funny, because gratitude is one of the few happiness/mindfulness practices you could say I’m “good at”, meaning that I practice it a lot and don’t normally find it difficult (see last year’s entry on this topic). I have so much to be grateful for, on any given day, and I’m as capable of listing those things this weekend as I am any day (just for a short list: loving family, fantastic friends, great job, sweet kitty, warm and comfy house, sunshine in California for Thanksgiving — a blessing for me if not for the state drought situation), but they don’t give me the warm feeling that I’m looking for, the little rush of comfort and joy, the sense of stability and hope.

Both the national situation and my own personal discomforts militate against the sensation of gratitude and joy right now. So many of our systems are broken, and I know so little about what to do about it. In an earlier time in my life maybe I would have imagined that I had some solution to the difficult problems of our national politics and social ills (foremost at the moment, racism). I think when I was younger, I in fact didn’t understand that some of these problems (racism, sexism) were still problems; like a lot of privileged people, I didn’t come face to face with them early, and thus didn’t come to understand that until after I was out in the working world and able to perceive them in their subtler, systemtic forms, and to listen to those for whom they were daily realities. Now I see the problems, but am not sure what to do about them. Admitting ignorance is the first step, perhaps, but admitting despair doesn’t feel like a step forward.

And in spite of my personal blessings I’ve been feeling lost lately. Maybe “identity crisis” is the right word to use; I don’t know for sure. It seems to fit; I had an idea in mind of myself, and I’ve noticed that I don’t match that idea anymore. The last two years have been physically rough on me; I’m not a fit and active person anymore. I don’t ride my bike much, I don’t do yoga, I don’t run, I can’t walk very far without pain. I’m not sure whether or how I’ll be able to go back to that. I hope that I will, but on days I can barely stagger around the house, that hope seems vain. And I don’t have a good sense of what my next step is in life, either. Someone told me, after hearing how I was feeling, “You need a project. You don’t have kids, or aging parents. So you need a project.” It’s good advice (except for the part where she subsequently suggested starting a business; I’m at least clear that that’s not my thing, though she couldn’t have known), but what project can I do when I barely have the resources to function on a day to day basis?

I’ve been reading a lot lately, which helps in that it keeps my mind off myself and on more interesting things, and comforts me that I’m not entirely changed, since I’ve always loved to read. Bless the Multnomah County Library for its huge selection and generous hold system, which not only reserves currently unavailable books, but brings available books to my local library for easy pickup. If I can’t access gratitude for very much right now, I can at least (at last) feel lucky for that.

Identity crisis

Part of my not doing advocacy anymore was a desire to understand why I didn’t want to do it anymore, to understand how my relationship to riding had changed from a time when advocacy felt like an essential part of my choice to ride.

I had a sudden flash of insight this week while I was thinking about how I’m both not interested in becoming a regular automobile driver and not especially interested in riding my bike more right now, even for fun. I ride my bike a fair amount, not as much as I used to, or as much as a lot of people I know (and sometimes it is fun, and sometimes I do it because it’s fun), but I’ve always been pretty multimodal and recently I’ve been injured and then lazy, so I didn’t think of that as exactly being relevant.

As I thought about how I conduct my life, though, it occurred to me that what actually happened is that I’ve become an ordinary Portlander where bikes are concerned. Lots of my friends who don’t do any transportation advocacy ride their bikes around town; some commute on them and some don’t, but they use them to go to the store, the park, friends’ houses, etc. They enjoy Sunday Parkways and Pedalpalooza. Most of them differ from me in that they own cars and drive them occasionally, but our day to day choices aren’t so different. And my friends aren’t unique in that, of course. They’re also ordinary Portlanders that way.

It works because Portland’s a pretty good place to ride a bike. Not great, not awful. And it’s a pretty frustrating city to ride transit in if you’re not going on a single direct train/bus, so when people think about traveling “not by car”, they don’t think transit unless they think “one line”. It takes 40+ minutes to get ~3 miles from SE 39th and Hawthorne to NE 15th and Broadway on Trimet at 6pm. It takes ~25 on a bike and you can go on your own schedule. So, transit’s not always convenient, you think riding a bike is fine and maybe fun and definitely cheap, but you’re no road warrior — still, oftentimes you can feel comfortable riding where you need to go.

That’s where I am, right now.

Whither advocacy? Whither Portland’s bike progress?

There’s no guaranteed path from where I am to particularly caring about whether it ever gets better to ride a bike here. It’s okay right now for me, because I’m already riding. And if you’re like me, it’s okay for you, too. Maybe you’d like to ride a bit more, wish there was a better connection somewhere, or the commute was less hairy, but is it important enough for you to devote your very precious spare time to? For most people, the answer is just straight up no, or rarely — they care maybe at the level of the old Portland Afoot: 10 minutes a month, at most. Their choice to ride is mainly about what they’re doing right now because it makes sense or is enjoyable.

For maybe a few people, you could potentially interest them in advocacy. How? Bike fun can be a path to advocacy (per anomalily) because you want to have more fun on a bike, and it shows you possibilities. So can wanting to do simple utilitarian bicycling more safely, and so can many other things, like thinking about global warming or wishing your child could ride a bike to school. So we’ve answered whence the interest.

But whence the motivation? I’d argue that in order to interest someone in action, you have to provide them with actions they can take that will be effective in returning them the benefits that they want.

Currently, if someone asked me what they should do to begin being an effective advocate for improved bicycling conditions in Portland, the best I could possibly do is a few generic pieces of advice:

  1. Join the BTA and get on their mailing list and read the stuff they send you.
  2. Read BikePortland.org and get familiar with city transportation resources like 823-SAFE .
  3. Stick with things that catch your personal interest.
  4. Start small and local, go big as you get more familiar with what’s going on already.

If someone asked “Will this make Portland a much better place to ride? Will I get convenient, direct routes to my destinations where I can ride comfortably away from auto traffic? Will I make it possible for my kids to feel comfortable riding alone outside the neighborhood? Will I get new trails for recreational riding or fast off-street commuting? Will I be able to ride in the bike lane or not, as I choose?” I wouldn’t be able to tell them yes because I honestly have no idea. That stuff doesn’t seem to be happening right now. If all they need is a small fix, I know we can do that. I’ve gotten potholes patched, lanes repainted, and signals retimed (thank you Peter!). I’ve taught people more about their bikes and helped them learn to navigate their neighborhood by bike. If all they want is some symbolic progress to point to, I think we can supply that, too: I might have helped get an unfunded plan we aren’t implementing passed (uh, great?), as well as a few maybe-useful laws in Salem (via the BTA’s efforts). The streetcar tracks suck a little less (not a lot less) thanks to AROW. And I know other people who helped me achieve some of these things and have similar achievements to count as their own.

These are all good things, but have I, have we, made a substantive difference? Can we actually move forward meaningfully by these inches? I don’t know. There are many people of good faith involved in the effort to do so, but what I see right now is not effective change: it’s progress at the speed of caterpillar, thanks to political deadlock, bureaucratic cowardice, and a complete failure of messaging. (Say what you will about PR and marketing people, they know how to stay on message about an issue, something neither PBOT nor the BTA seems to know.) If someone asked me whether they could accomplish something big by getting involved, I couldn’t really say yes, I know things you could do that would help to transform bicycling in Portland from Just OK to Actually, Great. Because I tried all the things you’re supposed to try, and it didn’t do much.

If you think I’m wrong, and there are things people who just want to invest some time and see results can do, that is awesome, please call the BTA, because I hear they want people who aren’t angry to apply some citizen pressure.

Myself, I’m just going to stay in the normal Portland zone for a while. Call me when we get serious about improving things again. I’ll be there.

 

What comes out of the spaces

Sit quietly for now and cease your relentless participation. Watch what happens. The birds do not crash dead out of the sky in mid-flight, after all. The trees do not wither and die, the rivers do not run red with blood.

—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Space. Quiet?

Yesterday I wrote the first sentence from this quote on a yellow sticky note and put it on my mirror, to express the relationship I’ve been trying to have with advocacy for a few months now. Since it’s been a few months, I can see the results that are promised. The trees have not withered and died; people are doing much the same thing that they’ve been doing, and doing it well, without me. I’m happy about that. (Mostly. I’m a little disappointed, as control freaks are wont to be when they discover that surprise, they were never in charge.)

But my internal dialogue has failed to quiet itself, and sometimes has failed to not burst out into external dialogue, mainly in the form of being angry about the 20s Bikeway project (about which more in the second half) and in occasionally retweeting insightful things other people say, or posting one of the oh only six different things I’ve written in the past few months in a Facebook comment. Yeah, I’ve written six blog posts about advocacy topics in the last two and a half months. I always said I was going to continue writing in my blog, and mostly I’ve stuck by my resolution not to call attention to that content. If that counts as being quiet, though, it’s a very loud kind of quiet.

Still, it’s a quiet without the noise of meetings, blog posts, weekly emails, and even social events where I would normally vent my steam and debate my ideas and take inputs from other advocates. The amount of space that’s afforded should perhaps not be underrated. I’ve managed to slow down enough to learn the valuable lesson that my participation is optional for the community, and to start to shape some idea of what I can actually contribute, at this point in my life. One thing I know is that I am no longer a cheerleader and an understander and an obliger for the current system. Those people do a great service of celebrating routine institutional accomplishments, encouraging the tentative, and taking the moderate position. I did that happily for six years, and increasingly resentfully for the last year or so, but I can’t even with it anymore.

The System.

If I am nothing else I am a tireless student of systems and asker of questions. And when a system is sufficiently stacked against you, one rational response (not the only one) is to attempt change on the system itself, instead of attempting change within it. Portland’s spent many years with a huge core of its transportation advocates within the system — applying pressure to it to get the outcomes they wanted, but fundamentally working within the existing power structures to make that happen. And it’s done a ton of good. When the power structure is heading the right way, leveraging it makes sense. Some people are still outside the system being radical, but they look pretty extreme when power seems to be headed the right way anyway.

When the system stops heading the right way, as Portland’s has, the first response is questions and confusions and rumblings of frustration. I’m good at questions. “Why isn’t this happening?” “Why does this keep going sideways at the last minute?” I’ve been asking myself these questions, and though I wasn’t the first, I think maybe I have some answers now too.

You hear a lot about the city resting on its laurels. I think there’s some truth in that, but it’s not very interesting as a reason. If it were the reason, the problem would be easy to solve: demonstrate that the laurels acquired are insufficient to meet the ostensible goal (let’s pretend here that the city government accepts its goal of 25% bike modeshare by 2030) and move on. Clearly that isn’t happening, so let’s stop wasting time pretending this is the reason. This is a smokescreen for the real reason, which is political.

At present Portland city government in the transportation and planning areas (I’m not an expert on other areas), at both the political and policy levels, seems to me to be captured (in the sense of regulatory capture) by business associations, businesses, and neighborhood associations. Also, to a lesser extent, by the ire (real or projected) of residents with enough time to spend to vent their ire at politicians and show up at midday meetings to voice their opinions. Process is structured to privilege these stakeholders’ opinions above others (let’s say, people trying to get somewhere via their mode of choice), and process is also structured to be conveniently amorphous enough that if these stakeholders’ needs are threatened, the city can easily ignore whatever else might have been planned and do whatever those people want. If anyone in Portland’s city government wants to deny this, please feel free to try. I think it will be hilarious to listen to, at a minimum, and might reveal some interesting contours of the problem.

Add to that another oft-cited problem that I think is a real contributor: the current lack of low-hanging fruit. Portland is an okay place to ride a bike. It’s not a great one. I think that’s clear to anyone who’s actually spent any time riding a bike here. There’s some really nice stuff, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some downright crappy stuff (or absence of stuff). Getting from bad to okay wasn’t all that easy, and in the past there were actual people in city government who made hard decisions and did a lot of policy evangelism and political maneuvering to make some of that happen. But a lot of what was done was the easier stuff. And a lot of the harder stuff never got done. Talk to anyone about parking removal and eventually you scratch the story of Knott. One of the most lightly-traveled, lightly-parked collectors in the system, home to almost no businesses, yet parking removal was still a complete failure because of resident ire. I don’t even know what year this happened in, but it was pre-1996, since it’s mentioned in the ’96 master plan. So, the stuff to which there wasn’t much opposition got done, the stuff to which there was some opposition either had its advocates in city government, or never got done at all.

That hasn’t changed so much, but the balance of what’s available to do has shifted decisively to things that are hard, while the balance of what people in city government are willing to do has curled up into a ball of frightened roly-poly and gone to sleep. That includes intra-government negotiations (for example, negotiating with PF&R) as well as in citizen/government negotiations. Yet there are more people riding bikes, more bike parking, more bike tourism, and more competition for the title of “Least Sucky American Bicycle City” from other cities than ever. There’s been a material shift in the popular discourse about what constitutes acceptable bicycling conditions. Riders want more, advocates want more, and the city is giving less. This is a recipe for stalemate/stagnation (where we have been and are) followed by serious clashes of interests (where we’re rapidly getting to), not for the previous semi-agreeable coexistence of working in similar directions at different magnitudes.

The final factor in this situation is us (advocates): we seem to think that more of the same strategy will lead to different results (the definition of insanity). We seem to have forgotten that many of the people who’ve been working within the system recently once were cranks and radicals. The BTA, criticized these days for being too moderate, got its start suing the city for failing to live up to its commitments. When you’re willing to be a crank and a radical when you don’t get what you want, sometimes you get what you want. If you’re not willing to do that, it’s not a huge surprise that privileged stakeholders with lots of free time and lots of $$$ are outranking you on the priority list.

What has worked in the recent past will continue to limp along. Things continue to happen — the 50s Bikeway and the Williams plans were both passed, and both are decent, if not ideal. (Not passed without a lot of pain in the latter case, providing a great example of the way the stakeholder process normally privileges some over others.) And the non-controversial processes continue to hum along, which is great, and which I don’t want to dis in any way. I love me some SmartTrips and I love greenways; they’re good things and more of them is good.

But if we don’t make some serious changes, things we want to happen will keep not happening even though we keep participating in processes that are disguised as ways to make them happen. I quit the 20s Bikeway Committee because I could see this coming, and I couldn’t stand the frustration of sitting there watching it. That felt like a personal failure, but maybe it was only a failure inasmuch as it was insufficient: I should have encouraged the BTA to quit the process as well, the way that they once quit the CRC process (which was a similar procedural sham biased to produce only one outcome, and which was only eventually killed by repeated, persistent, loud, direct opposition, plus its own incompetence).

Revolution?

We may not need to have a literal revolution (except of our wheels), but we definitely need a substantive change in one or more of City Council, PBOT leadership, or city process — ideally all three, including multiple changes in city process — to change what’s happening. Unfortunately I don’t think the recent change in bureau heading (Novick/Treat) has actually made any difference, though I had initially hoped it would. The 20s Bikeway project convinced me that there’s no hope from that quarter. A city that thinks it’s a bike city and can’t get a direct bikeway placed on a route that’s explicitly designated as a through route (emergency response) and is the connection to the only freeway crossing nearby because of a tiny number of businesses that are somewhere between totally confused about the issues and totally irate about the notion of losing a tiny number of parking spaces in a plan specially designed to appease them in the first place is a city that is frankly schizophrenic on this point, because what it’s actually doing has an inverse relationship to what it claims to be doing and to what its goals say it’s supposed to be doing.

To do that, we first have to change our own approach, because we aren’t going to get those kinds of changes made with magic fairy dust. Those are changes to disempower the powerful, and you don’t get those easily. So personally, I’m done being nice, because being nice doesn’t get you anywhere in an adversarial political system when the people in power don’t want to do what you want them to do. And I’m done pretending that I think that the current process isn’t total bullshit, because it is total bullshit, and I want it to change and I’m going to be loud about how it’s crap and needs changing. If we can’t get the political muscle to get it to change, well, then, we’ll keep losing fights, but I’d like to go down fighting on the battlefield where the battle is actually taking place, not laying down my arms at a safe surrender point 10 miles off. Note to PBOT: I’d like to see you adopt the same philosophy, plzkthx.

I’ll be back when I’m ready. It might be soon.

Road $$ is not cycling $$

There’s a problem with transportation funding framing. The problem is exemplified by the notion that we have enough money to build and maintain roads, but not enough money to build out bike facilities.

Frankly this doesn’t make any sense, and no one should be allowed to say it ever again without being strictly challenged on their assumptions. Building and maintaining any kind of bicycle facility is so much cheaper than building an auto-oriented facility for equivalent capacity. Furthermore, bicycle facilities require less maintenance because they suffer less wear and tear from heavy vehicles. So building a bicycle facility that will be consistently used is a great investment in the present and a great one for the future, because it is cheap and long-lasting.

If this doesn’t make any sense, why are people allowed to say it? Some of it is due to funding obligation. Transportation agencies can’t remove previously committed money from certain pots without repercussions. But I think this isn’t the real reason. The real reason is that money for bike facilities is seen as an add-on to money for roads, with the occasional exception being standalone trails, which are often funded differently. Makes sense, right? I mean, most bike facilities are currently just special parts of roads, so they pretty much are add-ons to roads. They’re not a separate system. There’s rarely much that’s separate about them!

It’s interesting to think about how this may have been affected by cycling advocacy history. In the 1970s when the Dutch were building real bike facilities, we were building pretty bad bike paths kind of off to the sides of roads, which caused all kinds of problems. The advocates of the time decided that this was terrible, and that furthermore bike paths could never be convenient or safe because these paths weren’t, and the real solution was to ride on the road. That’s the basic landscape we’ve been working with ever since. Even as bike lanes and now “separated” cycletracks have come into vogue, the basic model we have is that bikes ride on the road and act like every other vehicle, and that space where bikes ride is taken from the rest of the road and funded from the same pot as any other road money, for the most part. There are some special small pots that can be used as well, but mostly it’s just the same money as everything else. Oregon’s famous Bike Bill (which is pretty widely seen as awesome, and is, for what it was) is actually just a requirement that’s very explicitly on top of this model that says that a certain amount of this pot has to be used for bike things and that bike things are supposed to be a routine part of making and remaking roads.

If you look at it this way, it’s not a surprise that there’s a problem with framing around bike facilities, and not just for funding. Anything that “bikes” get is something that other vehicles that are not allowed in bike lanes don’t get, whether it’s money or space. So of course there’s no money for bikes, right? Because there’s hardly any money these days, and it’s supposed to be road money, vehicle money. And the majority of the population still drives, because we haven’t built very many good bike facilities, so they think that the money should be used for them, and not for bikes.

I’m not dissing “road funding” here. Roads carry the freight that brings me goods and the buses I ride and the neighborhood streets that I ride on. The point I want to make is that there’s a mistake in the framing. Proper bike facilities following major travel routes, the kind that are truly 8 to 80, are not just add-ons to roads, and the funding they require is not just an add-on, an extra, to road funding. Cycling is a different way to travel around, and outside of neighborhood streets and other extremely low-traffic or extremely low-speed areas, it requires separate facilities in order to be a safe way to travel. And there will never, ever be a majority of people riding until it’s a safe, consistent, easy way to travel. You can’t get there from where you are, framing-wise. Those facilities need their own funding stream and their own space and their own engineering system. They can’t be contingent on “road funding” because they aren’t roads. They’re places to ride bikes to get around. They need to go everywhere that roads do (so, like sidewalks, it makes a lot of sense for them to coexist in the same corridor as roads), and maybe places that roads don’t, or don’t in the same way (so they need to be separately considered as well).

Tell the truth: there is enough money for bike facilities. You just don’t want to use it for them, because you think that roads are more important.

Why I never want to hear “Sorry, I didn’t see you” again

Here’s what people usually say when they almost kill you in traffic:

“Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

Here’s why I never want to hear it  again:

1) I assume you didn’t see me, because I assume it wasn’t your goal to run into, hurt, or kill me. Most people don’t set out into traffic with the goal of running into someone else and hurting or killing them. But it happens all the time anyway. 35,000 people a year die on American roads, or about 100 a day. So your intention is both assumed to be good and also not really adequate as far as not killing me goes.

2) It’s your responsibility to see me. If you didn’t see me, you either didn’t look where you needed to look, weren’t paying attention to the right things when you did look there (attention blindness, which everyone has to some extent and most drivers are especially afflicted with where bikes are concerned), couldn’t see because of conditions and therefore shouldn’t have been driving at all, or should have been going more slowly, or you made a maneuver when you couldn’t look where you needed to look.

3) Frequently, what you did was illegal even if you had looked and the way was clear. In some cases where you just almost ran over me, failure to yield or a similar failure is the only violation. But far more often, you changed lanes or turned illegally or failed to stop at all or did some other completely illegal thing. In that case, I don’t really think NOT SEEING ME is your problem. Your problem is that you were driving illegally and unsafely and I just happened to be in your way at the time.

Here’s what I want to hear instead:

“I’m sorry, I was being careless and I came close to causing a crash that could have hurt or killed you. I will be more careful in the future.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking / I wasn’t paying attention. I know I should pay careful attention when driving, and I apologize for scaring you like that.”

“I’m sorry, I was focused on getting where I needed to be and did something foolish and risky. I’ll try to avoid that in the future.”

Granted, I’d rather hear “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” than any number of other things, like “You were in my way”, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “Get off the road”. You might say this is a first-world problem, or a Platinum Bike City problem, or even a Portland Problem. But it’s not just that. Understanding that good intentions are not enough is a critical step in the progress toward Vision Zero and designing for safe traffic flow. The fact that you could kill someone without meaning to, just because you forgot to look, or couldn’t see well, or suffered from over-focused attention, means that the street lets you create unsafe conditions just because you’re a fallible human being. As the Onion says, it’s pretty incredible that Americans are entrusted with driving cars.

I’d really like everyone using the streets to travel in a vehicle get past the notion that “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” is an adequate answer to scaring and almost hurting or killing someone. That goes for people biking and walking too. Because if you had actually hurt or killed them, that wouldn’t really be a good reason, would it? Let’s design our streets to be safe even when they’re being used by tired, stressed, inattentive, fallible humans. And let’s try to be the best falliable humans we can be, and admit our fault when we aren’t.

Mees 3: Have your cake and eat it too?

The quote that first caught my eye from this chapter was:

However, the same citizens who are most concerned about sustainable transport are often the fiercest defenders of leafy, low-rise neighborhoods.

This is a particularly pertinent note for Portland, especially right now in light of the discussion around the code allowing developers to build apartment buildings without on-site auto parking (one of which I’ll soon be living in!). These buildings, which allow greater density and improved urban form, including a better pedestrian environment without ugly parking lot gaps and ‘blank faces’ on buildings, are fiercely opposed by inner SE homeowners who believe it destroys the character of their neighborhood and clogs their streets. (Let’s leave aside for now that the former is completely subjective and the latter is false based on research by the city.)

These same neighbors, to stereotype just a little, also recycle, compost, shop at New Seasons, have chickens in their backyards, collect water in rainbarrels, buy Priuses, and have a school in their midst called the Sunnyside Environmental School…in short, they care about the earth on a personal level. But heaven forfend someone should try to change the development pattern so that it’s better for long-term sustainability. That, to them, is “like a rape.” (Yes, someone really said that, and yes, it makes me want to throw up.)

So, are these neighbors super lucky? Yes they are. Because Mr. Mees is here to tell us that you can have your leafy low-rise neighborhoods and your public transit too, if you design your transit cleverly!

The bulk of the chapter is devoted to dissing other possible solutions, like road pricing and electric cars. He’s unsurprisingly down on electric cars, saying:

The global effect of a large shift to electric cars would be to increase greenhouse emissions, since coal is still the main source of power.

He’s also surprisingly down on road pricing, saying that while it’s been a modest success in reducing car travel into city centers, it motivates people who can afford it to continue to drive, because they can just buy their way out of congestion. If you can’t buy your way out of congestion, you just have to live with it, and you’re more likely to actually seek out alternatives.

Vancouver reduced journey times by promoting congestion, while the other Canadian cities increased them by planning for higher speeds.

This is also pertinent for Portland, since our land-use rules and urban growth boundary tend to create greater congestion within the boundary, but they also shorten journeys, leading to an overall reduction in travel times. Vancouver saw the same effect, simply by failing to build more roads further out — when congestion is a factor in the central city, people choose to live closer in and select transportation alternatives. So even though my life would be easier if we could clear out some of the cars from downtown at 5pm, maybe I shouldn’t really be wishing for that — unless it’s because they’re riding bikes instead.

Finally, Mees tars public transit with some of the same brush as cars, particularly low-occupancy buses:

A bus with half a dozen passengers will be no more efficient, in greenhouse terms, than if the passengers travelled in cars at average occupanies…Walking and cycling produce no greenhouse emissions and are the only truly sustainable travel modes.

I’m with him there, but only up to a point. Jarrett has made a case that the purpose of public transit is to extend the reach of the walk, and if walking and cycling are the primary local modes, public transit is the necessary long distance complement unless you want to have tiny towns and cities, and also keep everyone’s car in a giant lot on the edge of the city, which sounds pretty expensive and dumb to me.

So, we can have our leafy low-rise neighborhood and our public transit too, but we can’t have our auto incentives and our transit incentives too:

The only way to produce mode shift is to combine transit incentives with auto disincentives.

Mees 1: “Density as destiny” is a convenient story

One of the most interesting points that Mees makes  early on is that the story of “density as destiny” where transit is concerned is convenient for a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum. Road-builders who’d like to keep building roads can say that they have to, because density is insufficient for effective transit. Transit agencies that are providing poor service can use low density as an excuse for doing so.

He touches a little bit on the issues that changing density raises: “large increases in the density of big cities take many decades, and may be politically impossible in a democratic society.” This is one of Portland’s current controversies: people who aren’t interested in transit and would rather have money spent on roads, and who definitely don’t want density, can stop both density and transit investment by having a fit only about density.

Mees’ hypothesis is the opposite:

Transport policy itself has a bigger impact on transport patterns than urban planners have realized, and suburbs don’t have to be totally reliant on the car. Planners who insist that car dominance can only be addressed by impossibly large increases in density may actually be entrenching the problem they are trying to solve.

He shows a counterexample to the idea that density is destiny in his story of Sternenberg and Bauma, a small village and its nearby town in Canton Zurich, Switzerland. Bauma has around 1,000 residents and has half-hourly trains from 6am to midnight and all-night buses on Friday and Saturday. Sternenberg, with a population of 300, has seven buses a day, which coordinate with the arrival and departure of the train at Bauma, going to onward services at regional centers and into Zurich City. The transit modeshare in Sternenberg is higher than Portland’s (the city of Portland): 19% (plus 10% walking and cycling). This is mindblowing when you think of entire towns and cities in the US that have no public transit whatsoever, or have quite useless transit, despite being many times the size (and as Mees the Australian reminds us, Americans are not alone in this).

One interesting bit from this story that Mees doesn’t spend much time on is that the population of Sternenberg is beginning to increase after many years of decline, and that much of this increase comes from people commuting into Zurich and suburbs (and that this is a general pattern). This is a case of high mobility by transit — something I like to think of as good — causing a kind of population sprawl. Mees isn’t so worried about this because his point is that relatively sprawling populations don’t have to impede good transit, and transit sprawl is usually a bit ‘better’ than auto-driven sprawl, but in general terms enabling urban depopulation and long-distance commuting decreases accessibility. It makes it more difficult to meet daily needs other than commuting by non-auto modes, which is reflected in the relatively high (for Zurich) car use in Sternenberg.

From my personal angle, interested in community building as I am and having lived in a sprawling metro area, it also impedes community formation and seriously burdens workers. When your friends live 2 hours away by train, you can’t run over for a quick cup of tea, and when you’re spending 2 hours a day commuting, you aren’t spending those hours with friends and family, being active, cooking, pursuing hobbies, or anything else you might like to do. In this view, the success of Sternenberg potentially comes at a price, something that is frequently, but not always, overlooked.

Car2Go: less horrible, possibly useful

Car2Go seems to have fixed most of the problems that I mentioned in my previous post about their website and I was actually able to successfully use it recently. I was going to pick up my bike from the shop, and I had a time crunch because I had to be home by six. At 5pm, I checked for 17s and discovered that the usual 5:15-5:20pm 17 was nowhere to be found and the 5:00-5:05 had either already gone or was also nonexistent.

Fortunately, there was a Car2Go a few blocks away (one of them seems to have a ‘home’ near my work) and I was able to confirm it was there, update my account information (I had forgotten my PIN, never having used it) and start the drive at the car. I found the car maneuverable but not very powerful or responsive, and the GPS didn’t work at all to enter an address because it was too slow (I puzzled through the route-choice-for-driving myself, and did okay). Parking it on a side street by Metropolis was easy because it’s quite tiny. It was a perfect use for that trip, since I could ride my bike home from the shop. It was nice to finally get to use it when it was convenient and see what the fuss is about.I found it was fairly expensive — even with 15 free minutes, my trip (29 minutes because of traffic) cost over $5. So it’s not great in times of heavier traffic because you spend too much expensive time idling (time for congestion charging in downtown Portland, revenue to go to transit, plzkthx). I would rather have taken TriMet from a cost perspective, although the convenience of Car2Go was better.

As far as the website, some of their landing pages are still a bit useless, like http://portland.car2go.com/, but if you go to Car2Go.com you can easily select your city, see the map, and log in, which is a major improvement. The map is less painful to use, too — it groups cars when zoomed out and runs more smoothly when zooming in.

It looks like they’ve sorted out reservations by making them too simple to be really useful for advance needs — all they can do is ensure that a car will still be there in 30 minutes. It fits with the usage model, but it makes them useless if you need to get to an appointment that you know about a long time in advance and don’t have much flexibility with, because they could all be gone by then.

Overall, a great improvement. And they have an Android app now which looks like it would simplify the process even more, although I’ve basically maxed out my apps so I may not be able to install it until I get a new phone.

PBOT needs to be solution-oriented

In Saturday morning’s Oregonian neighborhoods section, there’s an article about the safety and traffic conditions on NW Cornell. It contains the line:

The society would like to see a stop sign or a crosswalk signal, but Costello isn’t optimistic. “I had a PBOT engineer tell me that realistically, it’s not going to happen until someone dies.”

On Twitter Friday, in a conversation about the latest right-hook accident at NE Broadway and Wheeler, BikePortland said:

The vast majority of major bike safety-related initiative in this town in the last 7 yrs have happened only after ppl were hurt/killed.

While PBOT has made many ongoing improvements to the transportation system over the years, it seems plausible that this is true for specific changes to intersections considered dangerous by their users and the surrounding community. Bike boxes and the N Greeley/Interstate closure followed on serious right-hook crashes; the closure of Wheeler is only on the table after many serious crashes and tons and tons of advocacy work. It also seems clear that this trend or fact is recognized even within PBOT, based on the report in the Oregonian article.

This is simply unacceptable as an attitude, especially when at the same time Mayor Adams, who is responsible for PBOT, is claiming that “safety is the #1 priority”. Safety should be the #1 priority, but it isn’t. This needs to change. The cost of transportation safety improvements does not decrease with time, and the cost to the community increases hugely, both financially and emotionally, as a result of injuries and deaths that occur within the transportation system. Once a documented safety problem exists, it is wrong morally and misguided both financially and for the health of the community to take the attitude that a fix can be delayed until major injuries or death occur.

The fundamental orientation that underlies this attitude, and that I believe needs to change, is the “problem orientation”. This is an attitude that focuses on the problem. The problem in PBOT’s case, as it is in many cases, is a combination of inertia and lack of money. There is no money for new signals, so we just won’t install them right now. We think that painting crosswalks without adding other features doesn’t make people safer, so we just won’t paint them, since we don’t have the money for the other features. “We can’t do the obvious thing/the thing people are asking for, so we won’t do anything.”

Problem orientation is difficult to challenge because the problems are genuine. PBOT has serious budget challenges that they need to address. Research does show that the simplest solutions, the ones that people often want, are not always effective, or they have negative side effects. But having a real problem doesn’t preclude moving past it to consider solutions. It means you have to be more creative, and let go of your attachment to the problem as insurmountable.

I’ve been involved in other projects where the problem orientation was a significant barrier to reaching solutions. In 2001-2002, I was involved with a group in college that was suffering under a bad-fit leader. The problematic incidents slowly mounted, but because of the difficulty involved with making a change, there was a lot of gossiping, taking sides, quiet non-compliance. I unfortunately became one of the gossipers, someone who talked a lot about how bad the situation was but did little to figure out a real solution. Eventually, enough happened that the header left. Later I came to feel terrible about how I behaved in that situation. I got so focused on the problem that I didn’t contribute constructively to a solution. So I know how easy it can be to get stuck there.

In 2008, I had a chance to do better. Caltrain was doing everything they could to avoid talking about bikes on board, even though there was a huge interest from the community in more capacity to bring bikes on the train. When confronted, they had a long list of reasons why this wasn’t possible, none of which seemed insurmountable to the community. Instead of giving up, several groups (each in their own way) took the listed barriers to change and worked on creating innovative solution possibilities (some of which which worked around them entirely by relying on the community) and asked them to truly research whether certain things were really impossible, rather than just insisting. In the end, they increased capacity by 25% overall and significantly improved information and capacity consistency.

So I know how easy it is to get stuck in a problem orientation, but I also know that it feels terrible, and that the result of looking for a solution will be far better, probably better than you could ever imagine when you were stuck inside the problem.

Decisionmakers at PBOT: please believe that safety is worth the effort of getting past the problems and barriers. I know there are already staff at PBOT who believe this, but for something to be the #1 priority, everyone needs to believe it, especially the people in charge. It is worth it to me, it is worth it to the community, and it is worth it to you. Do the creative thinking, make the hard changes, and make Portland a truly safe and enjoyable place to travel for everyone, for every mode, everywhere.

Stale bureaucracy

I occasionally say smart things on Twitter, and even more occasionally, one of them is worth saying in more than 140 characters. Yesterday I had the following conversation with @bjamin:

The project Ben was alluding to is the I-5/Broadway/Weidler interchange plan, which is part of the N/NE Quadrant project. Public attention to the project has increased recently because the Stakeholder Advisory Committee was charged this week with making a recommendation on the interchange plans, and there was an opportunity for public comment at the meeting.

The process has been going on for almost two years. I got involved just over a year ago, right after the first public charrette (which I wasn’t able to attend for personal reasons), when I and some other advocates met with some SAC members who were feeling less sure about the transportation details than they would have liked. I ended up sitting in on a special meeting with ODOT and PBOT project staff at one point, I’ve kept in touch with the SAC members about the progress, I went to several open houses and commented on the plans, and I had a lot of (frustrating) conversations with project staff. So I know a bit about how the whole process went down.

The way that I described it for Ben I think is apt (and Steve thought so too). The ideas that were presented to the SAC and the community were pre-filtered by the agencies involved, including ODOT, and by the way the scope of the project was written. They’re stale because all the interesting ideas were thrown out by the “process”.

At the transportation design charettes, any options that included removal of I-5 (something many community members think is possible within the next 30 years) were thrown out as out of scope. Options that involved removing the ramps were put down as infeasible because the majority of the traffic on the freeway is local, even though local traffic doesn’t need a freeway to get around, and eliminating close-together ramps is a very traditional way to improve weaving problems like those cited for this segment (the freeway interchange in the city I grew up in was redone this way while I was in high school and college). And the TDM/TSM option (managing congestion using technological and mode-shift techniques) was never seriously developed — whenever I saw it, it was just a line item, and when I asked ODOT staff what this would entail, they did the verbal equivalent of shrugging.

All this points to a process that was set up with so many constraints to meet that it could only get one result: that the freeway needs the additional lanes ODOT says it needs. Pressure from the community is the only thing that brought the process to a point where the worst (most expensive and people-hostile) options  were eliminated and it included any reasonable improvements for people walking and biking through the area at all. That’s still not much, just a tiny update over today’s conditions, with some loss of connectivity (plus the construction impacts). This for an area that is the meeting of three major bike routes, that’s within blocks of the city’s biggest transit center and major event centers, and which will soon have a streetcar! I’ve also heard, but haven’t confirmed, that PBOT as much as said that the bike/ped improvements were contingent on the freeway improvements, and they couldn’t be done separately. If they’re really improvements that we think are good and worthwhile, why can’t they be done separately? Does PBOT want 25% of Portlanders riding their bikes to work in 2030, or not? Do they want people leaving the Rose Garden at night to be safe walking to TriMet or not?

This N/NE Quadrant process, to me, has become a symbol of everything I’ve seen that’s wrong with “public process” — I would say “in Portland” but I don’t think it’s just Portland.

  • The public doesn’t get any input on deciding what projects “need” to be done, or what their scope will be (Portland Transport discussed this recently as well).
  • Only the project’s “stakeholders” (however that is defined for a given project, and it generally isn’t defined very inclusively) get ongoing input. The public has to delve into websites and publications to find out when design sessions or open houses are or how to contact staff.
  • Open houses are rarely held at convenient places and times; they’re usually held from 4:30 to 6:30 (letting out a lot of working people) and often in odd places (Lloyd Center Mall, the Rose Garden Arena).
  • There’s often a distinct lack of data and discussion of the project’s (temporary or permanent) impacts on non-motor vehicle traffic. I can’t tell you how many times I heard how many cars drive on the freeway, but I never heard project staff even discuss bikeway traffic counts, despite such counts being available for several intersections in the area, and despite requests for such data from citizens.
  • One stakeholder can sometimes hold up an entire project, but how that can come about is never clearly defined.
  • The options that are presented, if they include citizen ideas at all, are always pre-filtered by agency staff, who are the same people who chose the project scope in the first place, so they can put their preferred options front and center and get rid of any they don’t like.
  • Staff can even insist after the fact that SAC recommendations won’t work and have to be changed. So nothing is currently stopping PBOT and ODOT from taking the SAC recommendation for the I-5/Broadway-Weidler project and deleting even the small bike/ped improvements the community did succeed in adding, just like nothing seems to stop PBOT from continually insisting that Williams can’t handle traffic with only one travel lane (and refusing to hear any points made that a change in road configuration is likely to change traffic counts).

Agencies have an existing culture and worldview and a vested interest in things going their way, so even when there are a lot of people with good intent (and I don’t doubt there are, here as much as anywhere, as I’ve met and spoken to many of them), that isn’t enough to get the agency to look beyond its own standard methods, its own little house in government, and the immediate future. Memorably, one of the open houses I attended for this project included a note that the median MUP that they wanted to install (which did make it into the final plans, but without any marked width) should be 12′ wide for two-way traffic. This on one of the major city bikeways? 20′ would barely be wide enough (that’s the total width of the Hawthorne Bridge paths). When I look at designs produced by staff and consultants, they almost always show that the person who designed them doesn’t regularly travel the street (at all, or by specific modes) because they are missing important details like that. At the last N Williams open house, I heard another citizen ask why they had added parking to a particular block of Williams, because it’s currently no-parking at PPB’s request. “Really?” said the consultant behind the table. “I’ll look into that.” In general, details that are critical to determining whether a design is any good are often missing until too late in the process to make meaningful changes.

More than a change to any individual project, or any one part of the process, we need a change from a culture of regimented process, stale bureaucracy, and imposed expertise to evolution, creativity, and collaboration. This requires change from both our government and us as citizens. Governmental agencies need to stop fearing and constraining citizen input and start talking with us openly what we want and need, while at the same time getting out of their silos and looking at the long view. We have to be more interested in the continued development of our neighborhood and our city over time, and more willing to see beyond our own self-interest. Right now, 74% of Americans want to see no new development in their neighborhoods. But without development, neighborhoods stagnate and decline. No future development means “I’ve got mine and I’m not worried about anyone else getting theirs.” That’s not the attitude of a community I want to live in. Let’s make Portland, and Oregon, better than that.