Insight from Portland: lessons from our neighbors

I was in Portland on Friday, attending a workshop put on by the IBPI (Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation at PSU). The topic was: Making the Case for Bicycle and Pedestrian Investments: Collecting and Using Data to Tell Your Story. We had great speakers, including Roger Geller (Portland’s Bike Coordinator), Mia Birk from Alta Planning and Design (recently consulted on Tacoma’s current draft Mobility Master Plan), and Bob Schneider from UC Berkeley. The workshop was great; not only did I learn about Portland’s successes, but I also received advice on how to improve our bicycle and pedestrian counts and data collection in the future. Which, if you haven’t already, check out our 2009 Bicycle and Pedestrian Count Report.

Afterward, I was sitting in one of Portland’s notable coffee shops, planning a bike route around the city. I had seen Portland’s new cycle track near Portland State University, tons of bicycle boxes, bike corrals, and green bike lanes. What’s more, I experienced first hand a city that has successfully integrated and prioritized transit, bicycling and walking over cars.

While sometimes we shy away from comparing Seattle to Portland, the fact of the matter is that Seattle has a lot to learn, especially at a time like now. We’re in the midst of exploring alignments for an extended streetcar, expanding light rail, designing mega-infrastructure projects and developing a long-range regional transportation plan. All of these projects and plans have amazing potential to direct us toward an integrated and efficient multimodal transportation system like Portland's; one that could allow people around the region to travel from point A to point B, without having to step foot in a single occupant vehicle. Unfortunately, we haven’t realized this vision through the some of the options on the table (specifically, Transportation 2040 and the SR 520 alternatives).

The moral of Portland’s story is clear: if you build it they will come.

Take for instance the Hawthorne Bridge. Since 1991, the number of cars on the bridge has stayed about the same, despite the population increase and new employment activity on both sides of the bridge. The reason to this phenomenon is that 20% of the traffic is comprised of bikes, which, in turn, has improved everyone’s commute (including drivers) by not increasing congestion. You might be curious how this came to be. Well, the City of Portland improved and expanded the bicycle network accessing the bridge and widened the bridge path, which produced powerful and sustainable outcomes. Today, Portland has established a goal of 25% bike mode split, which will be achieved by a continued expansion of its bike network with cycle tracks and bicycle boulevards.

In conclusion, we have a lot underway in Seattle to be proud of and excited for. However, the reality is that we can do better in a lot of areas, and we’re faced with many opportunities to do so. If we think about the type of future we envision for our region, I think we’d all be on a similar page: a healthier environment, healthier people, and stronger communities. With this understanding, it's logical to assume that that our transportation investments and priorities would align with and reflect this vision. Unfortunately, that's not always the case, and we need all the support we can get to push the decision makers to lead the way in making this vision a reality.

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