Reviewing Transport for Suburbia by Paul Mees

Those who follow me on Twitter have been subjected to a lot of little quotation gems from Paul Mees’ 2010 book Transport for Suburbia recently. There’s so much to say about his book that I hope to do a series of posts on it, but since it’s apparently not a widely-read or -known book, I want to do a high-level overview first.

I was expecting the book, given its title, to be about public transit in suburbia. It really isn’t, sort of like Tim Ferris’ The Four-Hour Workweek isn’t exactly about a four-hour workweek (but the title sounds good). The central thesis of the book is that the importance of very high residential density is overstated as a requirement for effective transit, and that overemphasizing its importance is a good way to make sure that effective transit never arrives since massive increases in density are slow, if they happen at all. Mees puts much greater emphasis on transit working with the existing environment to create its own effectiveness, with particular focus on designing effective transit networks within metropolitan regions, as well as the governance structures that help make designing such networks possible. This is a great topic for anyone who cares at all about transit, but if you live in Portland it’s especially interesting since we have a regional transit agency that’s much-under-the-gun, yet far better than most US or “Anglosphere” (as Mees likes to call it, being an Australian) transit agencies at providing effective service.

His overall point is excellent and not heard very much — it’s clear that the book is written with the slightly contrarian air of exploding a popular myth. And he has the writing chops to back that up, bringing some seriously awesome snark that I didn’t expect from such a staid-looking book, marshaling excellent anecdotes, and touching on a number of other minor contrarian opinions (like the proper place of Park and Rides in a good transit system). Where else will you see transportation outcomes blamed on the koala and transport planners with PhDs reduced to ‘gibbering wrecks’ by a bus station? It’s also nice to read a book that’s not written by an American for once; he draws his examples from around the world but particularly focuses on Canada and Australia where an American would probably use American cities.

If you’ve read Human Transit, some of Mees’ points will sound quite familiar, and Jarrett has also written some posts that use Mees’ book as starting points, such as his Las Vegas post and The perils of average density. These are good reading, and cover the substance of my major objection to Mees — he takes some basic density numbers, shows that they don’t correlate with transit modeshare, and declares that therefore density is not important for transit. He fails to discuss urban form and connectivity almost entirely, thus failing to capture the difficulty of walking and the loss of transit effectiveness in cul-de-sac land compared to well-connected but not especially dense neighborhoods (like much of Portland’s east side). He also fails to do any fine-grained density analysis and any careful apples-to-apples comparisons where different city densities have the same transit service, to see whether density would affect the outcome in that case, because that’s not of interest to the point he’s trying to make. That selectivity puts some significant limits on the quality of his analysis.

But he does show many compelling cases of effective transit in relatively low-density environments that serve to make his point: straightforward measures of average density being low are not in themselves an excuse for poor or failed transit, as much as some policymakers would like to pretend they are. Governance matters — he has a nicely-laid-out chapter addressing the major types of transport governance that have been tried, and which ones are the most effective, as well as a number of stories of failed systems with various kinds of governance. And network design  and policy matters. I appreciated his mode-agnostic approach (like Jarrett, he’s certainly not an idol at the altar of any particular transit technology) but was somewhat surprised by the amount of attention he devotes to pulse systems. Jarrett spends more time discussing high-frequency networks that allow timetable-less transfers, and I had developed the impression that pulse systems were mostly a sort of stop-gap, the last option before your transit network really sucks. But Switzerland uses them with great success, and apparently they’re more common in cities than I thought, during off-peak times, for bus-rail feeder lines, or on low-ridership lines.

Where Mees really fell down for me was in his chapter on cycling. It’s blatantly obvious that he only takes cycling marginally seriously as a regular transport mode or complement to transit. He either has never relied on it, or never combined it with transit (either bike-and-ride or transit one day, bike the next) the way I do. While he’s quite happy to make walking and transit into natural partners, the bike doesn’t get the same respect. That was disappointing for me. I don’t expect transit planners to think that bikes on board is a good idea, but I do expect them to understand how living without a car can mean being multi-modal rather than transit-dependent, and that’s one test Mees fails.

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.

Drawing the wrong lessons

I was reading an interesting Atlantic Cities article someone linked to on Facebook: Survival Lessons from an Ancient City. It made me think of Strong Towns (which isn’t mentioned in the piece, sadly) but it also made me think about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of efforts to extend light-rail systems to far-flung suburbs, as in the Bay Area and other regions. (The wisdom of such extensions in Portland has less to do with the question of far-flung suburbs — as ours are not especially far-flung — and more to do with the transit authority funding issues.) One of the presentations I heard at Towards Carfree Cities in Guadalajara was from an activist who didn’t think that these types of extensions were a good idea, because even though they are, in some sense, better than building freeways, they still tend to shift development to the edge of the city or metro area, making the city/metro area spread out and reducing density, and requiring more infrastructure and travel time (and thus making it less resilient to crises). Interestingly, the author seems to consider these systems a positive effort:

Finally, Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas are trying to re-knit the suburbs with the cities using light rail to generate development along corridors rather than continuous outward development.

It’s true that if you are going to develop outward, it’s better to do so in corridors, because at least the development is concentrated, but I think the author’s positive opinion about this may ultimately result from it being hard to get out of the mindset of thinking that developing outward is basiclly required (an attitude unfortunately shared by Oregon’s sprawl control measures as well). I really appreciated the activist in Guadalajara who was willing to take the radical position that it isn’t a good idea to do it at all, no matter what mode you are using, because it made me question that mindset, and ultimately come to understand his perspective and become skeptical of suburban rail extensions as good uses of resources. I’m not anti-extension in general, but with the limited resources that we currently have in terms of funding, doing one thing means not doing other things, and I’m not sure that many suburban rail extensions stack up with regard to their long-term ROI, due to these resilience issues.

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.

Why I can’t be arsed to support a cycletrack on SW 12th

True to my blogging history, let’s start with a linguistics digression: “can’t be arsed” is my favorite British phrase. It means “can’t be bothered”, but is somewhat less polite.

I can’t be arsed to support a cycletrack on SW 12th. I can’t really be arsed to oppose it, either, because who wants to oppose bike infrastructure? So I’ve been keeping quiet. But it looks like this debate is heating up and may be worth weighing in on.

Here’s the thing:

Cycletracks are a good facility type for improving cycling safety and comfort when used to protect cycle traffic from heavy or fast-moving motor vehicle traffic and create more space for cycling. But downtown traffic doesn’t move quickly, thanks to signal timing that has a progression speed of 12-16mph.  A person riding downhill can easily keep up with traffic downtown (I’ve ridden from Jefferson to Alder on 6th without even turning a pedal when I hit the lights right), and relatively fit cyclists can keep up on the flats as well. And SW 12th apparently doesn’t have heavy motor vehicle traffic (note the line in the document mentioning “underutilized capacity”), which is one reason this cycletrack is considered a good “demonstration” candidate. Put another way, it’s a good cycletrack candidate because it’s not really necessary.

But if it’s not necessary, why spend money, time, and effort on it? And why is it that one of our criteria for a good cycletrack opportunity — that it not necessitate removal of currently “needed” motor vehicle capacity — almost entails that the facility not be necessary? That implies that we’ll never install cycletracks where they’re most needed, like Broadway between NE 21st and SW Clay. That’s a cycletrack I’d be all over supporting, because the current bike lane is a complete death trap of dooring hazards, right-hooks, regular parking, valet parking, deliveries, taxis, school buses, potholes, and jaywalking pedestrians. Anything for actual dedicated space on Broadway, I would do. You want me to demonstrate outside City Hall at 3pm on a rainy Tuesday for that? I’m there. You want me to wear a clown hat and do a headstand in the mayor’s office? Ask and ye shall receive.* But ask me to support a cycletrack on SW 12th, and I’m all, eh, whatever.

I can think of a few reasons why it’s less silly than it seems:

  • In the future, traffic (both car and bicycle) is expected to increase. At some point, there may be heavier traffic on SW 12th (the PBA apparently thinks that’ll be soon), and people will then appreciate the separated space.
  • Despite the fact that it’s easy to keep up with cars when cycling downtown and so it’s a good place for a shared space model, there is still a population of people who find cycling downtown uncomfortable or scary. These people might be attracted to 12th by a new cycletrack, and feel more comfortable riding downtown. Peter Furth and Roger Geller discussed this at PSU last Friday when Roger asked what level of traffic stress Furth would consider downtown streets to be. The answer (based on the muttering around the room) was unclear, but I would say most of them are LTS 3 (appropriate for the enthused and confident) due to width, occasionally heavy volume (including lots of trucks), and complexity of driving behavior, even though they should be only LTS 2 (appropriate for most adults) based on speeds. Adding a cycletrack would make a downtown street LTS 1 or 2.
  • PBOT needs practice installing cycletracks where turns are allowed before they do a badly-needed project such as a cycletrack on Broadway that’s important to get right. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a reasonable idea.

I can also think of a few reasons why it’s more silly than it seems:

  • On the other hand of the first argument, if bike traffic increases more than expected, then confining it to a cycletrack could be negative (this is a known issue in places like Copenhagen). Shared space allows bikes to be wherever they need to be.
  • SW 12th isn’t a great through-routing choice, in my opinion (although Ian and the BTA disagree). SW 14th is only two blocks over and has a bike lane that goes all the way through NW. 12th rather peters out around Davis where it becomes a two-way street with lots of stop signs. It also has exposed old trolley tracks in that area, which are hazardous.
  • SW 12th is downhill, which means it’s one of the easier streets for people to keep up with cars on. Installing a cycletrack on an uphill street would provide greater value.
  • It’s time to move past demonstration projects and get serious about installing cycletracks where we need them — on streets like Burnside, Sandy, and Broadway. Or how about MLK and Grand, or 11th and 12th? Amsterdam and Copenhagen have done it, NYC has done it, DC has done it, and Chicago has done it. Are we really going to screw it up so badly we need to practice first, even with all those lovely examples?

There are also genuine issues worth considering with regard to process and implementation. For example, cycletracks limit mid-block turning movements in ways that neither shared space nor (buffered) bike lane separation would. Mid-block turns are important for business accessibility, especially in areas where riding on the sidewalk is not permitted. This is an area where I think PBA’s concerns could be legitimate, although in my opinion they are probably concerned for the wrong reasons. We know a lot about whether bikes are good for business (yes) but not a lot about how cycletracks affect that, as there aren’t as many businesses along Broadway in the PSU cycletrack segment. N Williams will be using a buffered bike lane treatment, so that won’t help us learn about cycletracks and business accessibility issues either. Or general accessibility issues; at least one advocate I respect has raised questions about this in the past.

PBA also raises questions about evaluation that I think are legitimate if we consider this a demonstration project. The cycletrack and buffered bike lanes were evaluated by researchers at PSU, who came up with some suggested changes to the implementation. But I’m not aware of any changes made as a result of the evaluation, or whether there was a specific set of criteria that, if not met, would trigger changes (either improvement or removal). The buffered lanes have some issues, as Jonathan has documented, and if I were inclined to be opposed to this project (as the PBA apparently is) then I would definitely want to know how to avoid that happening here. As I’m not inclined to oppose it, it still leaves me where I started out: shrugging and saying “Eh, whatever.”

* But all I ever hear is that all that capacity on Broadway is needed, so it’s impossible to do anything. What ever happened to induced demand and disappearing traffic?

Why I’m an Options Ambassador

PBOT’s Transportation Options division is recruiting for new outreach volunteers — Options Ambassadors — for 2012. A few weeks ago Andrew at PBOT asked me if I would be willing to share why I volunteer with Options as part of their recruitment. I think my response is slated for a brochure or email because I couldn’t find it online, but I thought it would be nice to have it available for the future, and for my own purposes in promoting Options’ recruitment!

Here are Andrew’s questions and my responses.

Q. Why did you decide to become an ambassador?

A. I was lucky enough to live in the SmartTrips area when I first moved to Portland in summer 2009. I thought the rides would be a great way to get to know the city and meet some people. I was also looking for ways to use my bicycle advocacy skills in Portland. I enjoyed the rides tremendously, and I really liked how prepared, thoughtful, friendly, and fun the Options team was. I decided if there was any way I could get involved, I wanted to do it. I’ve always really enjoyed sharing my knowledge and encouraging others to ride, so it seemed like a perfect fit. At the last summer ride, I was excited when Timo announced that they would be recruiting for new Ambassadors in April and encouraged me to apply. And the rest is history!

Q. What is your favorite part about being an Ambassador?

A. I really like to help with the bike rides. I am best at encouraging people when I’m riding because my enthusiasm for the ride is contagious — I enjoy exploring new routes and appreciating the wonderful things about Portland (including the summer weather). I also really like helping people learn and get more comfortable with riding in a context where I can talk with them one-on-one for extended periods of time. Finally, I love hearing people’s stories about why they are interested in riding more, and what got them out to the event, and I like to see how they appreciate each other’s company and support. Seeing people enjoy riding and grow in their skills and abilities is what inspires me as an advocate.


I didn’t want to go on too long in my response about how wonderful the Options group is, but it really is a huge part of the reason that I volunteer. Timo and Janis are fantastically cool, funny, enthusiastic, fun, and prepared. On the Autumn Adventure ride in 2009, I was badly under-gloved for the severity of the rain (and probably underdressed in general — it was my first fall in Portland), and Janis lent me some extra gloves with no questions asked. That’s the kind of leader I always appreciate and aspire to be. Every time I assist them I enjoy their company and I learn a lot about how to make riding fun and accessible for everyone. Every year as people rotate out, we need awesome ambassadors to replace them, so if you love to share your knowledge and enthusiasm for riding or walking, please volunteer!

Besides a few hours for training, it’s as much of a time commitment as you want or don’t want it to be. In 2010 I volunteered most weeks, but in 2011 I could only make a few rides in the summer because of my work schedule at SMART Transit. Luckily Timo extended the season with some weekend rides in the fall, and I’m hoping to volunteer more again this summer. I can’t wait for the season to start.

Why I opted-out of Opt In

As a citizen advocate, I spend a lot of time telling my local governments and government agencies what I think. I’m familiar with the various stages and forms of public involvement processes — sitting on committees, going to project meetings, asking questions, raising concerns, writing comments, addressing decisionmakers. So originally I was a big fan of Metro’s Opt In concept — hey, Metro is asking for our opinion! They’re sending us emails with quick surveys, making it easier than hunting down comment forms on each project webpage (if the project even has one), or searching for the right physical address or phone number to contact. I joined Opt-In with such rosy thoughts at first, but I lost them relatively quickly as I saw that the demographics of the survey were clearly out of whack with the region (involving the most involved, like me, further, rather than engaging new populations) and the surveys were often poorly designed. The final straw for me was the recent poll on regional transportation priorities, which BikePortland covered, especially the fact that the survey writers defended the survey setup:

Jim Middaugh, communications director for Metro, defends the survey. “We’re attempting to provoke a bit and help decision makers get a sense of where different segments of the population are on these things.” On Twitter, he responded directly to criticisms by saying that the “Forced choice” the survey presents is a “technique to get at underlying values.” And he added that, “Metro gets that things aren’t black and white.”

“We’re trying to see how people are leaning… If you put a grey zone in there, it’s not as informative.”

I’ve been through enough public involvement processes to have seen that some of them are shams, sometimes even when the people involved are well-intentioned. And forced-choice, or its cousin “limiting project scope”, is the most common type of sham. It disallows certain types of input from the start, and the result can be used to suggest things that are not reflective of people’s real opinions. That’s exactly what Metro seems to be up to with Opt-In. They choose the topics, they design the surveys with the possible questions, and in many cases, they are, apparently deliberately, pushing people away from common ground and reasonable middle views. They’re push-polling, not gathering public input.

I opted not to complete the recent TriMet budget survey for the same reason. Same deal: at first, I was excited. Online budget survey — new and shiny! Engages people who wouldn’t otherwise! Maybe, but it’s clearly designed to get the answers they want. They start out by claiming poverty and the best of intentions, and follow that with union-bashing (and I say this as someone who is frustrated with the union negotiation situation right now; I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the union’s position, but it’s not exactly classy of TriMet to present it the way they do). Only then do they proceed to the survey options. Raising parking revenue is given one option of a “nominal” fee at crowded lots, for $100,000. No market-rate parking, not even a non-nominal parking charge. But they have no hesitation suggesting that we raise fares by $0.25 or more and/or force anyone transferring to buy a $4.20 day pass, discouraging trip-chaining and multimodal travel. Let’s definitely impact low-income and multi-modal inner-city users, not the suburban users who drive in to the big MAX lots! Let’s definitely not talk about increasing the taxes that bring in the majority of Trimet’s budget! Sorry, I’m not going to buy into that at any level, not even to legitimize the idea by participating.

For anyone who’s willing to stick around, hit “no/neither/disagree”, and write your comments in, I salute you. But I’m opting out of these particular shams.

Back to blogging, with better transpo nerdiness

Last month I finally completed a long-planned project: switching webhosts and updating my website to use a modern version of WordPress, to resolve the issues I was having with my old webhost not providing the features I need or any useful support to help me get those features. (For those who are curious, I switched to Dreamhost, which is also hosting my new business site. They are great. Do not use eBoundHost. They are not great.)

But apparently I didn’t then start blogging again, until today when I got a fascinating email from one of my nerdy transportation mailing lists and thought “This topic is transportation-related, but really doesn’t fit my business site. Oh! I have this other blog available again…”

The person emailing wanted to know whether there were any programs to reduce parking fees for people who usually bike or take transit, but occasionally need to drive, and if so, how they’re set up and administered. Such a system had never occurred to me as something that might be part of a program for transportation demand management (the official term for programs that encourage people not to drive alone for their trips). I think it’s an interesting idea. On the one hand, it makes sense — these people normally don’t pose much of a burden on parking supply, and should be rewarded for that. On the other hand, the whole point of parking fees is to manage parking demand, and if people who normally bike or take transit get reduced fees, they might actually drive more — because doing so doesn’t incur as high a penalty, so they don’t have to reserve it for times when they absolutely have to. On the first hand again, people who currently always drive, and think that they would probably need to sometimes even if they didn’t always, might be encouraged to do so by having reduced fees on the days they didn’t drive — they get a benefit that extends across all days, even if they can only bike on some days.

Altogether, it’s not exactly clear to me that this is a good idea, or what the effect would be. Mostly I was fascinated (as I have often been since joining this mailing list) by the variety of things people working professionally in TDM consider as possible programs and incentives. I’m learning a lot about how the whole thing works — which is super, since I am working to get employed in the field and this learning will benefit not just my own brain and curiosity, but my professional advancement and my future employers. :-)

PSU/PBOT Traffic and Transportation Class: Reflection

What I come back to most whenever the subject of my class last fall comes up is how amazing it is that I was able to learn so much information and meet so many significant figures in the Portland transportation scene in just ten short weeks (Oct 1 – Dec 3).

Getting into the class was a bit of a rollercoaster — I learned about the class from BikePortland while I was in the Bay Area over Labor Day weekend, but by the time I got back and organized to apply for the scholarship from the city, the scholarship spaces were exhausted and I was put on the waiting list. Disappointed, I consoled myself by thinking, “No need to rush into things. I’m new here; I’m sure others need the learning more than I do.” But Gavin encouraged me not to give up, and later I learned that it’s not uncommon for a few people to drop out before the class starts. Sure enough, the week before the class started, Scott Cohen, the class liaison, contacted me and asked if I wanted a space that had opened up. Yes, of course!

The class lecture series included Portland’s senior planner, Steve Dotterer; the director of PBOT, Sue Kiehl; officials from Metro and Trimet; Roger Geller, city Bicycle Coordinator; April Bertelson, Pedestrian Coordinator; Marni Glick of Transportation Options (who I also knew from my Sunday Parkways volunteering); Rob Burchfield, city Traffic Engineer; Patrick Sweeney, who headed up the Streetcar System Plan effort; and lectures from our coordinator, Rick Gustafson, a former ED of Trimet and longtime transportation official and consultant in Portland; as well as a special presentation by Gordon Price, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. (The presentations, except for Gordon Price’s, are all available on the class website.)

My favorite presentations were Gordon Price, Steve Dotterer, Patrick Sweeney, Roger Geller, and Marni Glick — possibly in that order — for, respectively, a deep and broad look at urban design and transportation, the historical perspective on Portland, a beautiful presentation with impressive evidence of project management and community outreach, bikey awesomeness, and sheer enthusiasm for the job.

Doing a project also turned out to be a really important part of the class. Hearing that it would involve giving a presentation and was optional, I almost backed out. I hate public speaking, and I wasn’t sure I had time for a project. But Rick encouraged us to participate because it would give us a practical grounding in what most of us really wanted to do with our class knowledge — getting transportation projects done in Portland.

I decided to do my project on the interaction between bikes and rails. It’s an issue of personal interest to me, because I live near the streetcar tracks (and the NW Industrial area which has a lot of disused/rarely used tracks) and riding near them makes me nervous. It’s also a well-known issue in Portland and is in the theme of my main area of interest in bike advocacy, bike/transit interactions.

My project ended up being selected for the second session, which would include an outside panel and any members of the public who wanted to attend. I was excited, but also nervous. It was fortunate timing in that the week of the first presentations was very busy for me, and the respite that I got allowed me to put together a much better presentation.

The process of doing the project was somewhat guided by our homework assignments. I started out by doing a lot of web research, and later moved on to documenting particular issues and investigating each proposed solution further, as well as taking pictures of nasty intersections. The part that took me personally the longest to do was to contact someone in the city or other government agency about the issue. There’s no shortage of people to talk to about the streetcar, but I was nervous about calling people. It’s a personal thing, and one that I badly need to get over before I can be serious about being an advocate. I was very impressed when I saw how many people some of my classmates had spoken with, when I didn’t even take advantage of all the leads I got until after class was over. Lesson learned!

The presentations were supposed to only take three minutes, because that’s how long you get to speak at public hearings. It turns out to be a lot harder to give a three-minute presentation than a ten-minute one. Not too many people made the time limit — I’m not sure whether I did, although I practiced hard and trimmed down my presentation until I could give it in that amount of time. My presentation got a very good reception, with particularly kind words from Rick, and is now available, with the rest, on Chris Smith’s Portland Transport blog.

I feel very lucky to have had the class so soon after my arrival in Portland. As I start to get more involved in the Portland transportation scene, having the background has already proven useful. And as Patrick and April, both themselves graduates of the class, reminded us, it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know, presenters and fellow students alike, that may help you get things done in the future.

My project on Portland Transport

I didn’t notice this at the time, but Chris Smith posted our presentations from the December 3rd Traffic and Transportation class session on his blog at Portland Transport.

If you’ve been waiting for me to get my act together, wait no longer — the PDF is available there. A few entries later is David Sweet’s NE Fremont project, which truly was the most impressive in how much he had already accomplished. It was inspiring to me to see how much time and effort he had put in, how many people he had spoken to, and the creativity he used in securing funding.

I’ve been working on a post about my experience in the class, but it needs some cleaning up. I’ll try to get there soon, as a complement to this post.