Portland Day 2 - We Are Rip City

Have you ever been in a bicycle rush hour? Probably not. But go by bike in Portland and it may well happen. 

I’m exaggerating a little, of course. I’ve actually read how bike congestion in the Netherlands gets very noticeable in nice weather, and you can watch videos of far worse than I experienced—which was only missing a light I otherwise have made without a queue of cyclists in front of me. 

But it drove home, yet again, that in Portland biking is serious business. 

Which is a nice segue into the meeting I was braving rush hour bike traffic for. We met up with Tara Sulzen from Rep. Bluemenauer’s office—a longtime leader in the Congressional Bike Caucus—and Chris Rall from Transportation for America. Both have been instrumental in helping me organize this trip, nationally, so it was a pleasure to be able to meet them face-to-face. From the overlook above the Willamette River’s Eastbank Esplanade, Tara and Chris prepped me for our tour of North Williams and Mississippi Avenues, which have been sites of massive Transit Oriented Development (and, apparently, Bike Oriented Development!). Riding past the new multistory residential units, the cute shops and restaurants, it was hard to believe that 15 years ago this neighborhood was home to only a few struggling businesses and exclusively dominated by detached, single-residence houses. As we stopped to drink Stumptown Coffee and Blue Star Donuts (which is where Sean, NARP’s Vice President and native Portlandian, insisted we go after I [naively?] asked to go to the nationally famous Voodoo Donuts), it was imminently clear about the powerful amplifying effect transportation and housing can have when paired together. 

On the other hand, as Sean pointed out erased and transformed fixtures of the neighborhood he grew up in—a neighborhood which he said was much more working class and racially diverse in the 1980s and 1990s—it was also clear that policy makers have a role in helping communities gracefully absorb change. 

Which, appropriately enough, is exactly what our next two meetings were about. First, we talked with Metro’s Patrick McLaughlin about his work in encouraging TOD and density. Portland is in a relatively unique position of having an urban growth boundary, put in place by a Republican governor in the 1970s with an eye towards conserving farmland and forests. It has become an important sustainability tool, and Metro uses its economic analytical tools, combined with modest funding, to encourage additional density near transit nodes. Basically, if a developer is building a three story apartment building near a light rail station and the area meets certain economic benchmarks, Metro comes in and invests a little additional money to turn it into a five-story building. How little? A little over $11 million in Metro funds has supported more than $582 million in development activity.  

Metro says its program has created 3,300 additional residential units—a portion of which have been set aside for low income households—resulting in 800,000 more travel trips being made by transit rather than a car every year. 

And as a GIS student, I can’t speak highly enough about the maps they’re creating to illustrate their work to the public. 

Image courtesy Metro

Image courtesy Metro

It’s beautiful…

Next, we spoke with Michael Andersen, a writer for BikePortland.org who’s an expert on biking, housing, and parking policy. I feel confident about calling him “expert” because I kept hearing stories he’d written quoted by other Portlandians, including my boss. He helped break the story about Portland finally adding as many houses as incoming residents, the (temporary) spike in development of parking-free buildings in Portland, and the effect this had on housing pricing. 

Michael was upfront that not everyone is a fan of his transportation analysis, but as we walked around North Portland, it became increasingly evident that Michael is well versed in what he’s talking about, and has put an awful lot of thought into this issue. As a student in urban planning, it was humbling to see the dedication that is being put into questioning and improving every facet of the ways policy makers have pieced our cities together. 

Now that you've read about my Portland trip, see it in action!