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Portland provides some urban inspiration for DC

Portland has achieved near-cult status in urbanist circles for its progressive development and transportation policies. All is not perfect in Portland, but there are lot of great things we can take away from the City of Roses.

Aerial tram over South Waterfront. Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

The city has a thriving downtown, and walkable inner-ring neighborhoods. It sports an extensive transit network and unbeatable bike infrastructure. But the central city gives way quickly to suburban development and highway interchanges. And there some examples where, even a town whose name is synonymous with alternate transportation, it's hard to overcome the primacy of the auto.

Last week I traveled to Oregon for work and had a few hours to kill in Portland before heading back east. Here are a few great things that Portland has accomplished, and also some pitfalls the DC region should try to avoid.

Transit and bike friendly airport

Landing in PDX, you are greeted by abundant wayfinding signage, all of which clearly points out transit and bike options.

Left: Wayfinding signage points out bike and transit options.
Right: MAX information is highly visible.

The MAX light rail line dead ends at one end of the terminal, much like the MTA light rail does at BWI. The covered walk from there into the main terminal is easily half the distance most drivers would walk from the nearest, most expensive parking garage. The MAX is brightly advertised on monitors in the airport, encouraging people to take transit into the city.

PDX is also extremely bike friendly, even featuring a bike assembly area. As one of the few airports in the country to be connected by trails and bike lanes to its downtown, this is an outstanding amenity. And while fliers probably don't use it heavily since checking a full-size bike on an airplane has become almost prohibitively expensive, even travelers with folding bikes will find the work stand, tool set, and bike pump useful.

It's also a low-cost amenity that is makes commuting by bike easier for thousands of airport employees and serves as a visible reminder that biking is a valued access mode.

Top left: Ample covered bike parking on the arrivals level. Top right: The bike assembly station. Bottom: detail of bike assembly sign.

Washington National Airport is ideal for an amenity like this. DCA connects to multiple trails, making a ride to the airport convenient from downtown, the close-in Virginia suburbs and even parts of Maryland. Washington National is even closer to downtown DC and Arlington than PDX is to Portland, making biking an even more viable option.

Bike amenities everywhere

Induced demand gets a bad rap on the highways side, but Portland is using it to its advantage with bike parking. You cannot walk 20 feet without finding a bike rack, both downtown and in neighborhoods. I was struck by Portland State University and Oregon Health and Science University efforts to provide ample bike parking. Demographically, students, and to some extent faculty members, are more likely to ride bikes, so it makes perfect sense.

Hundreds of bike spaces at Portland State University. Classes clearly aren't in session for another week. Photo by the author.

Comparatively, the major universities in DC have made meager attempts to provide ample, high quality bike racks. The biggest bike parking are on Georgetown's campus consists of 4 "comb" racks which are nearly impossible to safely lock bikes on. George Washington University's campus in Foggy Bottom, is practically devoid of on-street bike racks. GW's newest mixed-use building, Square 21, provided a total of 10 racks spread around an entire block with a Whole Foods and multiple restaurants.

The MAX trains also have hanging bike racks in them for cyclists. While racks like these won't work in the shorter Metro cars, they're worth keeping in mind as the DC streetcar system gets started.

In downtown, several streets feature buffered bike lanes. Although they were one-way, they were nice and wide, allowing easy passing for cyclists traveling different speeds. In other places where bike lanes were not separated from traffic, they were painted bright green and flowed into large green bike boxes at intersections.

In the redeveloped South Waterfront neighborhood, there are significant on- and off-street bike treatments that connect to a trail into downtown. Best of all, there is a massive bike parking area and a bike station with valet and repair services.

Left: A curb-separated bike lane splits as it enters the South Waterfront. Right: The northbound bike lane turns onto the sidewalk to send cyclists across the crosswalk to the sidepath into downtown.

This is right next to the lower Portland Aerial Tram station and a Streetcar stop. The Tram connects the burgeoning research, education, and residential neighborhood with the main campus of Oregon Health & Science University, situated on a massive hill and separated from the waterfront by I-5.

The South Waterfront Aerial Tram station with a Go By Bike station.

Good on-street transit information

Tri-Met and the city of Portland have made significant investments in good, visible transit information on the streets of downtown. The city's wayfinding system signs point to the nearest streetcar and MAX stations. Major downtown stops have very clear customer information, communicating which buses stop where, and where those buses travel. Also, many of the stops have real-time arrival screens, something DC has yet to achieve outside of the Metro.

Left: A bus stop is clearly marked with visible, high quality infrastructure.
Right: Real-time bus arrival information.

Strategic single-tracking

Acquiring right-of-way and laying track is expensive. So Tri-Met and Portland chose to single-track the MAX and Streetcar in some places where right-of-way would have been politically or financially unfeasible. In downtown, the streetcar runs on one track in both directions for 2 blocks just past PSU. For a low-speed system, where headways are unlikely ever to be shorter than a few minutes, this compromise makes sense if it allows for the most effective routing, in this case right through the center of PSU's campus.

Left: Streetcar singletracking south of PSU. Image from Google Maps. Right: Single track flyover on the Portland MAX Red Line. Image from Bing Maps.

On the MAX line to the airport, the system is single tracked in two places, for almost a mile after the Gateway/NE 99th Ave stop where the Red Line parts ways with the Blue and Green lines to head north along I-205, and again upon entering airport property until just before the terminal station. The first location incorporates a tight cloverleaf flyover and several over- and underpasses around I-84 and I-205. Again, frequencies on this line are unlikely to be high enough to make it worth the massive extra cost to build this infrastructure doubly wide.

Not quite level boarding

A small ramp makes the streetcar accessible. Photo by the author.
The streetcar and MAX both use low-floor vehicles and featured raised platforms at the all the stations I visited. Yet none of these stations had totally level boarding. Instead, the trains have small ramps at some of the doors that have to be manually deployed to bridge the gap for anyone in a mobility device.

The result is that people with disabilities can only board some doors, which would maddeningly frustrating when an extra few inches of precision would have made all the doors accessible. The operational ramifications of having to deploy a ramp are minor, but not insignificant, so I'm not sure why you wouldn't just make sure the platform is entirely level with the rolling stock.

In DC, the existing streetcar platforms on H Street only have portions that are raised, so people in mobility devices will not be able to board at any doors. Hopefully, though those raised sections will at least be totally level, eliminating the need to operate and maintain ramps.

Mixed-traffic transit and highway right-of-ways

For a medium-size city, Portland has built a significant rail transit system in a phenomenally short time. However, this system suffers from one major shortcoming: low-quality right-of-way. The majority of Portland's light rail and streetcar systems run in either mixed-traffic lanes, or in the highway medians or shoulder.

The areas dense enough to best utilize high-capacity rapid transit only get high-capacity transit. The sections of the system where trains can run relatively fast suffer peaked ridership and lower productivity resulting from low-density development and park-and-rides that surround the stations.

The streetcar waits behind stopped cars. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
The streetcar gets little or no priority along its route. As a result, it took me more than 30 minutes to go from Downtown to South Waterfront, a 2 mile trip.

The MAX gets more preferential treatment, running along a transit mall through much of downtown, but runs in highway right-of-ways in many directions on the outskirts of town, where comparatively little is within walking distance of stations.

Good or bad, Portland has led the way with many innovative urban investments. As we develop our bike and streetcar networks here in the Washington region, we should look to the west for lessons learned.

For more photos of Portland, check out photo sets by Greater Greater Washington editors and contributors Matt Johnson and Dan Malouff.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 


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DCA does have trail access and bike parkng already.

Not well designed; and you have to wonder how many CC residents walk to the airport.

by charlie on Sep 19, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

many of the stops have real-time arrival screens, something DC has yet to achieve outside of the Metro.

Are those signs in Metro really "real-time"? They don't seem to be.

by Vicente Fox on Sep 19, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

A few things are disappointing about PDX. The trip from the airport to downtown is quite slow and time consuming, given the distance covered. The downtown, itself is really a series of rather poorly connected areas--the old shopping area which is quite lively, some areas peripheral to it, like around Powell's and then another area by the river with the court house and hotels. Quite a hike in the rain from one end of "downtown" to another. Lloyds Center, once the largest mall in the country is not that far from downtown a reminder of how much the city's development had gone in in more conventional directions in the past.

by Rich on Sep 19, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

Another thing we could learn from Portland is to have Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein do a sketch comedy show about the quirkiness of our region. "Washingtonia" or some such thing.

by Mike on Sep 19, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

I was just out there over Labor Day, spectacular transit, but I was very surprised the fare medium was so outdated, even Anchorage, AK has contact-less payment methods that don't require a very old fashioned paper pass like PDX. Also, PDX is getting ready to open a brand new part of their streetcar that goes east of the river, I wish it had been operational when I was out there putting birds on everything.

by @SamuelMoore on Sep 19, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

What's wrong with old-fashioned paper passes? They require no technology to read or sell. If I want to have all the students in my high school or college system have transit passes, I can just put a sticker on the back of their ID and instruct the transit operators that it counts as a pass. If I want to sell passes at the grocery store, I can sell them like stamps. I can distribute them by mail.

If your fare system is simple, I don't see the need to go to complicated fare media if it's not necessary.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 19, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Portland and DC is totally two diffferent cities. I beg u to please stop comparing the two cities please

by DMV resident on Sep 19, 2012 10:25 pm • linkreport

Another thing we could learn from Portland is to have Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein do a sketch comedy show about the quirkiness of our region. "Washingtonia" or some such thing.

There already was a was a show aboit how strange and quirky DC is. It was called West Wing.

I was in Portland for an evening a few weeks ago. It's a cool town but I didn't find downtown to be thriving with streetlife...or at least not the downtown I found. I was in Seattle after that and was much more impressed with the street level activation in that city, although its much bigger than Portland.

That said, DC could learn a lot from Portland when it comes to enhancing bike infrastructure. There's seems to the best in the country. Much better than even NYC's cycletrack centric infrastructure.

by Falls Church on Sep 19, 2012 10:56 pm • linkreport

FYI, that "Streetcar singletracking south of PSU" is a temporary alignment. It's slated to be replaced with a double-track running diagonally across that block, when the block is eventually redeveloped.

by Douglas K on Sep 20, 2012 12:12 am • linkreport

Hate to prick your 'near-cult status' on progressive development and transport policies but we here in NYC think we can brag about having done the heavy-lifting over the last hundred years to offer real robust transit options to our people. I do believe the people of Portland choose bicycles due to existing deficiencies that would require real investments in infrastructure.
Let me see, biking or hiking from the airport, there's something I never tried. Would that be with one bag or two? Carry-on? How about Duty-Free?

by Tom on Sep 21, 2012 7:42 am • linkreport

100 years? Current NYC policy makers and citizens are taking credit for the building of the BMT? Really? For densities achieved during the 19th century? For a continued ability to densify associated with being a global financial center - a center with roots in 19th century shipping patterns?

I love NYC, I really do. And NYC in recent years has made some very good choices. But its not "inspiration" unless its possible for inspired cities to go back in time to the 19th century, and not only adopt progressive policies like building a massive subway system, but also give themselves a world class harbor to create the economy to create the population to use that system.

Whats special about Portland is that LOTS of american cities can do what it did. Today.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 21, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

Biking to/from the airport? Must be mostly airport workkers. I don't see many travelers doing that unless they're young people carrying everything in a back-pack.

by ceefer on Sep 21, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

I am a Crystal City resident and travel frequently for business. When the weather isn't oppressive I enjoy walking to and from the airport. I can go from the terminal to my living room in 20 minutes flat. It is a lonely walk though, I rarely see anyone else doing the same.

by Tyler on Sep 21, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

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