Pragmatism Before Megaprojects

Ten transportation lessons from Portland

Urbanist Article November 1, 2005

Portland works hard to not be a big city, preferring instead to be a cozy, welcoming, drizzly small town. Unlike any other place in the world, in fact, all aspects of Portland, positive and negative, can be summed up in just a single word: nice. The people are nice. The streets are nice. The buildings are nice.

Portland’s unrelenting niceness, in fact, makes comparisons with San Francisco almost impossible. It also makes me glad to be back here, as Elizabeth Taylor came back to Richard Burton, to appreciate our fair City’s unruly, bombastic, self-contradictory charm. Still, there are lessons San Francisco could rightly learn from its more prudent and prim neighbor to the north. Here are ten of them, from a transportation-planning perspective:

1. Transportation is for economic development and quality of life
When the head of the city’s transportation-planning department was asked about her agency’s primary purpose, she replied that it was not about mobility or congestion; rather, the only goals of her department were economic development and neighborhood quality of life. Portland, unlike much larger cities, has recognized that moving people around in circles serves no end in itself. Moreover, facilitating longer, faster commutes to the outer suburbs is counterproductive. Transportation in Portland is about making sure that people have access to the services they need within a reasonable time period. It’s about facilitating economic development to ensure that services are where the people need them, and it’s about creating a high-quality urban environment.

Much has been written about the success of the Portland Streetcar in helping to attract over $2 billion in development investment along the line. What’s clear about the Portland experience compared to other cities, however, is that Portland saw its streetcar investment as just one component of a larger, detailed economic-development strategy. Too many other cities have made the mistake of laying streetcar tracks with the hope that development would simply follow without a real strategy in place. In many ways, the Streetcar followed from the development strategy, and continues to expand only in concert with a clear city commitment to density, and developer interest in it.

2. It all starts with pedestrians
Portland recognizes that all urban trips begin and end with a walking trip, whether they’re by car, transit, bicycle, or other means in the middle. Therefore, the success of the overall transportation network hinges on the success of the pedestrian environment. Downtown Portland and its near neighborhoods offer a relentlessly high Quality of Service for pedestrians, higher than any city in the West, even Vancouver. Sidewalks are generous and buffered from moving traffic. Trees and flowering plants are everywhere and well-maintained. Crossing the street is never scary, let alone prohibited. As a result, walking is a pleasure and pedestrians are everywhere, despite the comparatively low density of the city. In fact, in many close-in neighborhoods, Portland exceeds Vancouver’s Cardinal Rule of Transportation Success: everywhere you look, there must be at least ten times as many pedestrians as cars.

3. The car is accommodated but tamed
Like Oak, Fell, Franklin, Gough, and most of the streets of SOMA, almost all of the streets in downtown Portland are one-way for cars, and almost all of the traffic lights are synchronized. Radically unlike San Francisco, however, Portland times its one-way streets for a 10–20 mph progression, about half the speed of San Francisco’s streets, reducing the noise, pedestrian discomfort, and safety problems common to San Francisco’s one-way streets. Moreover, Portland hasn’t sacrificed sidewalk space and pedestrian comfort to add more lanes. Most streets in Portland carry only two lanes of auto traffic, three at the most. The result is that it is easy and enjoyable to drive in Portland—you never have to stop at a red light!—but motorist comfort is not provided at the sacrifice of pedestrian comfort. More importantly, at these speeds, pedestrian fatalities or severe injuries are rare. Due in part to signal timing and other pedestrian improvements, Portland reduced pedestrian deaths by more than one-third between 1998 and 2003.

Much has been written about Portland’s small blocks. At just 200’ square, an astounding 16 Portland blocks can fit into just one SOMA block. Besides making the city highly accessible and walkable, it also means that Portland can have four skinny, pedestrian friendly streets for every one SOMA traffic sewer. The result is a high degree of auto access and a high degree of pedestrian comfort. One wonders why San Francisco continues to allow its alleys to be closed for megadevelopments.

4. Buildings respect the sidewalk
Walking through Portland’s newest infill neighborhoods and looking at the new buildings, one is struck by an exquisite attention to detail at the sidewalk level. Artistic ironwork along a railing. A perfect bevel in a concrete foundation wall. Runs of stone in the sidewalk. A planter filled with blooming plants. Individually, none of these details would make Architectural Digest, but collectively they make San Francisco’s newest neighborhoods look cartoonish by comparison, as if we took nice drawings of buildings then blew them up 100 times larger. We kept asking planners and developers how Portland ended up with such great detailing—Is it your code language? How did you exact this from the builder? Did your Design Review Board require this? To our disappointment, Portland’s requirements are similar to our own, and it remains a mystery why they end up with better buildings.

5. Everything comes off the shelf
Another aspect of Portland pedestrian life is the proliferation of nice “street furniture,”—light poles, drinking fountains, benches, tree grates, bus shelters, etc. Aside from a handful of artsy pieces in the downtown, Portland’s street furniture is remarkable in its sheer repetitive unremarkableness. Portland seems to find one thing it really likes—something generally simple, elegant and functional—then builds or orders thousands of them. The result is that it can then afford to buy more than it could if they were custom made, and, more importantly, it can afford to keep everything well-maintained. If one gets dented, it just gets swapped out with the dozens sitting in storage, or another set is ordered from the same catalog. Whereas other cities are known for a few landmark buildings, the most widespread symbol of Portland is a repeated item: the historic four-post drinking fountain. It’s elegant, unique to Portland, beloved as a civic symbol, and found in abundance all over the urban core.

In contrast, San Francisco seems to insist on a different, custom-designed light fixture for every street—just look at Market, Howard, Second Street, and Third Street—entirely different custom fixtures for every street in a few blocks. Our transit vehicles all end up custom fitted and costly, while Portland takes what is available and is able to invest its resources in consistent quality throughout its system.

6. Transit is for everyone
Riding a bus in Portland is like riding the bus in Stepford. The drivers are oddly cheery and welcoming, offering to call out passengers’ desired stops: “Joe, this is the stop for the library, but you’ll need to walk just one more block up thattaway.” People offer to help lost tourists make change. The insides of the vehicles are simple, but immaculate. Most buses are low-floor, meaning there is no step from the curb to the main floor. As a result, the elderly, the disabled, and parents with strollers use it in droves with no delay to either the bus or the passengers. All transit is free in the downtown. You get the eerie impression that Portland transit actually wants more passengers.

And it continues to get them. Passenger boardings on the TriMet system, which provides bus and light rail service to much of the three-county region, have increased over 30 percent since 1998. TriMet surveys show that passengers in Portland choose transit rather than succumb to it—77 percent of TriMet passengers are “choice riders,” meaning they have a car available or chose not to own a car.

This accessibility carries through in their print materials and website as well. Not only is there abundant information available about how to take transit, but the language is clear and helpful. On the transit route maps, Portland actually lets riders know which lines are the most frequent, so that you can walk an extra two blocks to the route with the thicker line that runs every five minutes.

Buses have been central to the city’s life for almost 30 years, when the downtown transit mall was created. Two of the most centrally located streets in the downtown are a couplet for buses only, with auto access only on certain blocks. The bus facility is two lanes wide, so that buses can pass each other. The result is a consistent and reliable bus facility that moves more buses per hour than Market Street, at far higher reliability with much more pleasant waiting areas.

7. Parking is well-managed
Parking is easy everywhere in Portland, but it is expensive. Portland has capped its downtown parking supply based upon its available roadway capacity. There’s no point, after all, in providing more parking if it will only result in too many cars congesting the streets trying to get to that parking. In order to minimize “search” traffic caused by cars circling around to find a spot, the city tries to manage all its downtown parking through consistent pricing policies. Prices are set high enough that there is almost always parking wherever you want to park. Long-term parking is discouraged in favor of short-term, shopper, and visitor parking.

Portland also recognizes that it is counterproductive to its traffic management, quality of life, and affordable-housing goals to force developers to build more parking than is needed. In fact, Portland’s regional government has outlawed local jurisdictions from creating minimum parking requirements. This means that any development project can be built anywhere with no parking at all. San Francisco, meanwhile, requires developers to build twice as much residential parking as existing demand warrants in many neighborhoods, adding up to 25 percent more costs for each unit, and reducing the number of units that can be built on a typical parcel by up to 20 percent.

Portland recognized early that parking revenue is a valuable resource for improving the downtown. The city leveraged revenue from its parking garage system, SmartPark, to help fund the Central City Streetcar. Recently, a hike in on-street meter rates was enacted to help fund operations on the newest streetcar extension.

8. Housing choices are provided
Rather than focusing its efforts on making it easier to drive into the city from the suburbs, Portland has welcomed all types of people to live in the city. Booming new and revitalized residential neighborhoods now ring the downtown. To help address the potential problems of gentrification, Portland welcomes secondary (“in law”) units—where existing residents can build small apartments out of otherwise underused space in their buildings—in all residential areas, since this is the most effective way to create a permanent supply of affordable housing without government support. In fact, all municipalities in the Portland metro region are required to allow secondary units.

9. Maintenance comes before new projects
In three days in Portland, we did not see a single pothole. There are no tree grates that are strangling growing trees. Public facilities were free of trash and graffiti. It was a bit of a shock to come back and see Market Street. While San Francisco lives off its credit cards to create spectacular megaprojects it cannot afford to maintain, Portland dully invests its limited resources in good stewardship of its practical public realm.

10. Design for congestion
Like is true everywhere, Portland has recognized that it cannot build its way out of congestion. As a result, its traffic engineers have realized that the best they can do is decide where the congestion goes, and locate it places that cause the least impact on economic development and quality of life. As a result, there is still traffic congestion in Portland, but it’s put in out-of-the-way places, allowing the entire downtown and most residential neighborhoods to flourish in relatively traffic-free environments.

Comparing Portland and San Francisco

Portland is hardly perfect, and while it may continue to win awards for being the most livable city in America, San Francisco, with her scuffed stilettos, botox, and smeared lipstick, is still going to be the fun girl at the party, while Portland stays at home in her tennis shoes, knitting new socks for the kids. Portland is the kind of girl you can take home to Mom, but I’d never pass up a hot date with the City.Spur logo

About the Authors: 

Jeffrey Tumlin is a principal at Nelson/Nygaard and a member of the SPUR Board of Directors

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