Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, October 12, 2020

One thing that Portland doesn't get accolades for: Getting S***/Stuff Done when it comes to sustainable mobility infrastructure

There is a to do time management program called "Get S*** Done" which I first saw at the independent, locally-production of goods focused Steadfast Supply retail store in DC's Navy Yard district.

In the comment thread on "Community planning, capitalism, and housing/real estate development," charlie coined the term "state capacity" as a way to describe the ability or inability within various US jurisdictions to create infrastructure.  

While the US was amazingly successful at building infrastructure up to the 1970s, creating railroad networks in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, canal systems before that, streetcar networks from about 1880 to 1920, subways and elevated railways starting just a little later, dams, electric power and distribution systems, and buildings of all types during the New Deal, and a national, state, and local system of roadways culminating in the Interstate Highway System--it's sputtered since then.

New rail transit systems--heavy rail, light rail and streetcar--have been built starting in the 1960s, but mostly it's been a slog.  Maintaining those systems has been problematic and growing them has been exceedingly difficult.

Purple Line failure.  A perfect example is the massive screw up by the State of Maryland vis a vis the Purple Line light rail program, where the construction team has opted out of the project because of a dispute with the State over cost overruns ("Maryland takes over contracts on Purple Line construction after contractor quits," Washington Post).  

Maryland now has to pick up the pieces to keep the project going, which is pretty precarious.  Ironically, the program had been touted as a great example of "public private partnerships" and included $1 billion of financing provided by the concessionaire, money that the State now must replace.

The more general DC area failure to expand high capacity transit.  In response to charlie, I made the point that transit expansion--separate from the initial decision to build the subway system, Metrorail, which was a difficult process as it linked two states and the District of Columbia, as well as the federal government--has been an example of failure or under reaching. 

(Zachary Schrag argues in The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro that it should be considered an element in the Great Society program of LBJ.)

First, the Silver Line wasn't constructed by WMATA, but by the State of Virginia, and there have been many problems with it, including how the addition of the line stressed the core system, contributing significantly to the past few years of subway system failure.

Second, there has been virulent opposition to the Purple Line.  Third, Arlington--considered a national best practice example of the promotion of sustainable mobility, scuttled its attempt at a streetcar line.  

Fourth, DC's creation of a streetcar line has been fraught with problems--the line is severely truncated, took 13 years to come to fruition, and is going to be very difficult to extend to become useful, because of planning and support failures on the part of the transportation department, planners, and elected officials.

(Note that streetcar was a satisficed decision--a mode chosen out of a belief that it would not be possible to expand Metrorail within DC or in the Columbia Pike corridor of Arlington, even though subway service would probably be a better choice.)

You'd think given the previous success of Metrorail + surface transit (bus) in the metropolitan area -- Metrorail had been the second most successful subway system in the US and the bus services, such as Metrobus and Montgomery County's RideOn service, were reasonably successful--MoCo's bus program is considered a national best practice for suburb, that DC proper has 50%+ of work trips performed by sustainable modes (transit, walking, and biking), which is one of the best rates in the US, people would understand the value of transit to community success, and would advocate and support transit expansion and the addition of new modes (streetcar, light rail, ferry, gondola?) as appropriate.

It's an incredible failure of vision--in part the fault of the jurisdictions and elected officials, also of the operator of Metrorail and Metrobus--WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and metropolitan governance and planning organizations, and other stakeholders like the business community and its lobbying organizations like the Federal City Council and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, although its abetted by the region being split up between Maryland, Virginia, and DC, and the different political interests among them.

(In the 2009 post, "St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region," I argued that it was necessary to rebuild the regional consensus in support of transit, but this did not occur.  Also see "WMATA 40th anniversary in 2016 as an opportunity for assessment.")

Portland: Simultaneously incremental and visionary.  That's why I think we need to be even more respectful of what Portland has accomplished.  
It's frustrating as a planner when people bring up Portland as an example -- "Why can't we be like Portland?!" followed by a deep sigh -- because  they don't understand Portland's "secret," which is that what they see today is built on 50 years of tough, visionary, bold yet incremental decision making. 

In short, they were bold and they continued to be bold, through decisions that built on and extended previous decisions. 

It's a perfect example of what I call "Transformational Projects Action Planning," although it was more incremental and somewhat unintentionally a process where the sum of the parts ended up being even stronger than the individual pathbreaking efforts.

In a 2005 post I discussed Portland's path of incremental but visionary improvement, starting with the Downtown Plant:

  • starting with the decision to remove the freeway along the Willamette River--the planning process started in 1968 
  • in 1970 the planning commission did not approve a proposal to build a 12 story building and parking structure on Pioneer Courthouse Square--the square became a key element in the public space/urban design network in the core of the city
  • the passage of the Downtown Plan (1972) prioritizing commerce in the core of the city, to be served by transit, not the automobile with severe restrictions on the provision of parking
  • State creation of an urban growth boundary program to restrict sprawl (1973)
  • Decisions to remove a freeway along the waterfront and to create a parkway and community district in its place, and then to not move forward with the Mount Hood Freeway (1974), and to use the money to add a bus-focused transit mall to Downtown
  • Creation of a downtown free transit zone, called Fareless Square, starting in 1975, lasting until 2012 when it was ended because of post-recession budgetary problems
  • light rail was added to the city's development program (1978 approval, construction started in 1982, first service in 1986)
  • creation of the Metro Government, to coordinate land use decisionmaking for the three county metropolitan area (1979)
  • light rail was first extended in 1998 and continues to be extended, with funding for further extensions on the November 2020 ballot

  • the addition of streetcar to the transit program (entering service in 2001, boosted in part by running heritage streetcars on the light rail line on weekends), as part of the program to facilitate the redevelopment of a deaccessioned railyard which became the "Pearl District." Portland is the first city in the US to deploy "modern" streetcars, rather than heritage or heritage replica vehicles
  • the addition of support for biking and walking--Portland now has one of the highest uses of the bicycle for transportation in the US
  • the strengthening of Portland State University as urban and sustainability focused ("Universities as elements of urban/downtown revitalization: the Portland State story and more")
  • the creation of the aerial tram to serve the difficult to reach campus of the Oregon Health Sciences University across the Willamette River (2006)
  • the addition of a (lightly used) commuter rail line, commencing service in 2009
  • the expansion of the streetcar to East Portland (2012)

  • the Tilikum Crossing Bridge, which opened in 2014, which is only for transit, walking, and biking, not cars (except for emergency vehicles)
  • a focus on sustainability including electric vehicles, including the creation of Electric Avenue in 2016
It hasn't been perfect.  They haven't been able to extend light rail to Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River, because of complicated politics involving both Washington and Oregon state politics.  

This was true both for attempts in the 1990s (the Yellow Line was originally intended to go to Vancouver), as well as in the aborted and more recent Columbia River Crossing project, which would have rebuilt I-5 bridges over the Columbia River--involving both states because the boundary is in the middle of the river, and added light rail service to Vancouver and Clark College as a transportation demand management measure.  (They still will have to replace the bridges.)

Portland also tried to build an industrial production business around streetcars, licensing the Czech design for manufacture in the US.  But because transit is so political in the US, it turned out that there wasn't enough demand to make a go of it ("Before shutdown, how many jobs did United Streetcar deliver," Portland Oregonian). 

But think of the Purple Line, an idea that has been around since before 1987--I first read about it in a cover story in the Washington City Paper in December 1987, if I recall correctly.

A single section of the full concept (the segment from Bethesda to New Carrollton) will open starting in 2024--a falling behind of the original date of 2022, while no more sections of the full circle concept are even being planned.

This demonstrates the impressiveness of what Portland has accomplished thus far and demonstrates the importance of continuing to strive for improvement:
transit mall + light rail + biking/walking + streetcar + aerial tram + commuter rail + sustainable mobility bridge.

Granted, Seattle is doing impressive work along the same lines ("Portland Oregonian says that Seattle is now far more innovative concerning sustainable mobility than Portland").  LA is expanding its rail transit system in impressive ways.  

Oklahoma City's Metropolitan Area Projects program and process is national best practice (and included a streetcar in its third phase).

But most places show as many failures as successes, like DC and the streetcar, Maryland and the Purple Line, NYC Transit's inability to expand subway service in a cost effective manner, the need for positive train control because of so many railroad passenger service crashes that resulted from operator error, California's seeming failure with HSR, the financial failure of the Las Vegas Monorail system, etc.

Sometimes, but not often enough, there can be consequences for failure ("Gov. Larry Hogan’s legacy is threatened by Purple Line ‘fiasco’ and concerns about toll lanes project," Washington Post).  From the article:

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan differs from President Trump about as much as possible for a Republican, but they share one characteristic: Both won their offices in part by selling themselves as experienced business executives who would run government efficiently and cheaply. 
Hogan has applied that approach to his two biggest transportation projects, the light-rail Purple Line and a plan to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the American Legion Bridge. He brought in private companies to share responsibility with the state for the enterprises, saying they would complete the work more efficiently than the government and save taxpayers money. 
It isn’t working out that way, and the difficulties threaten to tarnish Hogan’s legacy as he approaches the midpoint of his second and final term as governor. (Maryland governors are limited to two terms.) 
The construction contractor for the Purple Line quit mid-project in a dispute with the state over a reported $800 million in unpaid cost overruns. The Maryland Transit Administration has taken over hundreds of subcontracts to continue the work while the state negotiates with the consortium of companies managing the project over whether the larger $5.6 billion partnership can be salvaged. 
The Purple Line problems raise fresh questions about whether the much larger toll lanes project will fare any better.

Portland's ability to "get s*** done" when it comes to expanding its sustainable mobility platform needs to be studied in greater depth.  They are much more like Bilbao than they are like DC.

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At 2:59 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not my term -- stole it from Alon Levy who is using it is terms of public transport/transit planning.

And a very popular term with social science lefty types for the last five year.

If anything, your piece suggests it isn't lack of capacity but lack of will which is the problem.

Or more refined, anyone (see Levy) can point and say "hey planning in the US sucks" without any deeper understanding, and without figuring out the very small incremental steps (which you are excellent) to move.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Hmm, missed this comment. OK, state capacity is Alon Levy.

Yes, Portland and Oklahoma City, to some extent LA (Metro), Seattle (Sound Transit light rail and city transit initiatives) are outliers in that they really get it done.

There is a book, it wasn't at LC and it's expensive so I didn't read it yet, by Clara Irazabal, contrasting Curitiba and Portland, in terms of top-down vs. grassroots. Jaime Lerner is lionized. She argues he was able to do what he did because then Brazil was led by a military dictatorship, so it was easier.

Then you have a couple of one off cities -- KC and Cincinnati with streetcar (Tucson too). But KC takes it a step beyond by integrating smart city initiatives into the streetcar system, with kiosks that have wifi, etc.

Then there are cities where in recent times, it's more about failure than success.

Like DC (Metrorail crash and maintenance system failure, Silver Line construction), Purple Line, DC streetcar, Arlington streetcar, Silver Spring Transit Center, NYC and Toronto specifically, which are outliers in the other direction, lots of failure.

NYC it's unions, featherbedding, but also construction firms and pensions. Also the tension between the state and the city. MTA and its city transit vs. commuter rail agenda. The sheer amount of money required to set things right. The decline in federal funding for transit infrastructure (you argue that the federal government shouldn't be involved anyway).

In DC it's a mix. Politics in Maryland and Virginia prevent a unified approach, but also union and other failures within Metro. Also again, lack of a unified approach within Metro in terms of the Compact and jurisdictions and most preferring to underfund their contribution.

In Toronto there's a lot of politics. Within the city. Between the city and the province. City conservatives unwilling to tax. And with every new Mayor, the transit agenda gets remixed and further f*ed up. (From Miller to Ford to Tory.) Plus then failures on the part of the TTC to successfully construct. Also that the later extensions are of secondary importance. Expensive, don't add a lot of ridership, when a "Downtown Relief Line should be the priority because of the high usage of the two subway lines.

Montreal has a great subway system and a pretty good rail network, but they haven't been able to expand. Part of this is tension between the province and the cities, and Montreal and the other cities. It's somewhat comparable to Toronto.

But then you have stronger provinces than states, especially Quebec which like the Basque County, wants to promote a "nationalist" agenda. The Basque Country has CAF so they can build transit and support local manufacturing. Quebec has Bombardier (although I haven't kept up, I think they sold off the rail because of budget problems), but also that provincial pension fund which aims to fund a light rail program for Montreal.

To me light rail there is problematic because the whole reason that the subway is completely underground is that it can always run despite massive snowfall.


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