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Posts about Portland


Politics, not good sense, drive Portland parking minimums

Opponents of DC's zoning update are touting news that Portland, Oregon is re-instituting parking minimums. They claim the Portland case proves eliminating minimums doesn't work. But it actually shows how sometimes leaders bow to political pressure and resident fears, even for a bad (popular) solution instead of a better (less understood) one.

SE Divison Street in Portland. Photo by Matt Kowal on Flickr.

Portland removed parking minimums in many neighborhoods with high-frequency bus lines in the 1980s. Recently, residents in the Richmond neighborhood pushed to reinstate some parking minimums after plans came to light for a new 81-unit building without off-street parking.

Many neighbors were frightened that the new building could make parking on street more difficult. It's an election year, and candidates wanted to cultivate votes from active residents in the area. They gave those residents what they wanted. Unfortunately for Portland, those residents skipped over a much better policy tool: on-street parking permits.

As Dick VanderHart explains in the Portland Mercury, the neighborhood has a vibrant nightlife which attracted new visitors to the area. Those visitors compete with residents for parking. Curbside parking is free at all times.

Residents can request residential permits to limit visitor parking and overnight parking. Last year, the city created a "mini" parking district program so individual neighborhoods can create new small parking districts, but so far, none have requested one.

Perhaps that's because it's not really hard to park there. In a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) survey, most residents said that they usually park on the street 1-2 blocks from their homes and most spend little time looking for parking.

It isn't clear that a parking problem exists in Portland today. Plus, building more off-street parking will not do anything about visitors patronizing the new bars and cafes in the area. That's especially true as long as parking is free on every street in the area. No matter how much garage parking new buildings have, many people will find it more convenient and cheaper to park on the street until the city limits on-street parking or charges for it.

This closely parallels issues in DC. In many neighborhoods, it's becoming more difficult to park. We have parking minimums, but they clearly aren't preventing this. The solution is not to cling tenaciously to parking minimums, but to set up a better system that actually manages on-street spaces.

The Portland zoning code didn't fail. Instead, the residents didn't or couldn't use other parking management tools. We don't know yet if switching the code back will improve matters for unhappy residents—the vote just happened last week—but it's unlikely.

The new Portland policy require one space per 5 units for buildings with 30-40 units, one per 4 for buildings of 41-50 units, and one per 3 for buildings over 51 units. If the developer puts in bike parking and car sharing, they can relieve some of the requirement.

Perhaps because of the impending election, Portland's council may have acted hastily. The city was also working on other policies to deal with parking through basic transportation demand management measures, but that proposal was not finished in time for the council vote.

Opponents have been complaining most strongly about the DC proposal to exempt residential buildings of up to 10 units from parking requirements citywide. Portland still exempts buildings up to 3 times that size.

Plus, while many tout Portland as a transit mecca for its pioneering streetcars and other policies, the percentage of trips by transit here is triple that of Portland, which has no subway at all. TriMet has cut service in recent years, while WMATA has not. DC neighborhoods whose residents consider their transit fairly meager still have a lot of transit by the standards of many parts of Portland.

Portland's parking experience is not proof that parking minimums are necessary. Instead, it shows that politics can get in the way of good parking policy. Just because politicians in one city had a knee-jerk but nonsensical reaction to a certain neighborhood's complaints does not mean DC should do the same.


DMU trains are the DC region's missing transit mode

In the DC region we have Metro and commuter rail trains, with light rail, streetcars, and BRT all in the works. And of course, regular buses. But one common mode we don't have is DMU trains, which bridge the gap between light rail and commuter rail.

DMU train in San Diego. Photo by mrpeachum on flickr.

DMU stands for Diesel Multiple Unit. DMU trains are intended to operate on routes that look like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency. They go over long distances, with infrequent stations, usually on or adjacent to freight tracks. But instead of coming only at rush hour, trains come all day long, as often as every 15-20 minutes.

That's a great service model for suburban corridors that need something better than rush-hour MARC or VRE service, but are too far away for light rail and don't have the density to justify the costs of Metrorail.

DMUs, and their electric cousin EMUs, are used in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Austin. They're proposed in even more cities.

One big advantage of DMUs over traditional commuter trains is that DMUs can operate on-street, like light rail. That makes integrating them with downtown areas much easier, because it frees DMUs to go anywhere, rather than only to a city's main rail hub.

Austin DMU on-street. Photo by paulkimo90 on flickr.

All MARC and VRE trains to DC must go to Union Station, because all the long distance tracks through DC go to Union Station. Not only does that constrain route planning, it's also a limit on capacity, because there are only so many platforms at Union Station. But a DMU could go anywhere.

There are not currently any plans for DMU lines in the DC region, but there could be. DMU would be a great solution for Maryland's proposed Charles County corridor or Fairfax's Route 28. Officials are looking at light rail for those corridors, but they're far out in the suburbs and wouldn't have very frequent stops, so DMU might be more appropriate.

In the long term it might also make sense to convert some of MARC and VRE's existing lines to DMU, or to supplement them with more DMU trains. That would give them more operational flexibility, and could increase service. But MARC and VRE are established as traditional commuter rail, and may be uncomfortable with anything else.

MARC and VRE also have to use tracks owned by freight companies. DMUs can be used in mixed company with freight, although that requires federal approval. But if the freight lines are already using their tracks to capacity, which is common in the DC area, then there's no room for more trains no matter what they look like.

DMU isn't Metro, and it isn't light rail. DMU trains can't do all the things those modes can do. It's not an appropriate mode where frequent stops are necessary. But for long corridors with infrequent stops and moderate capacity needs, it's ideal. We should keep in mind as we continue to advocate for new transit lines.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


"Real doors" give human scale to large apartment buildings

Houses have their perks: a yard, a private entrance, and a sense of individuality. Apartments have theirs as well: they're affordable, low-maintenance, and have lots of shared amenities. What if you could get best of both worlds? Apartment communities being built in the area are doing just that with something called "real doors."

"Real doors" in Portland. All photos by the author unless noted.

What are "real doors"? Basically, it's when a multi-family building contains ground-floor apartments or rowhouses with private entrances opening directly to the street. Instead of walking by blank walls or loading docks, you'd pass doors, stoops, porches and more importantly, people.

This is by no means a new idea, but "real doors" have become especially relevant as a way to give large buildings human scale. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl notes that our field of view doesn't go far above eye level, so most pedestrians only pay attention to details at the street level. You might think you're walking by a block of rowhouses, but they could just be the base of a high-rise.

"Real doors" also make streets safer by providing more "eyes on the street." They give residents the privacy and individuality of a house with the communal amenities and low maintenance of an apartment. And they allow architects and developers to provide so-called "missing middle" house types that could accommodate families, like rowhouses, in areas where land values are so high that they're not economically feasible.

I got to see the benefits of "real doors" firsthand in Philadelphia, where for two years I lived on the ground floor of a 100-year-old house that had been turned into apartments decades ago. My roommate and I had affordable rent, just enough space and a doting landlord. We could also walk out from our living room to the front porch, out to the street, and around to the back yard, which made it feel like a house.

"Real doors" have become part of the design culture in places like Vancouver, where former planning director Brent Toderian jokes that they're great for trick-or-treating. Residential projects across Greater Washington have started including them as well, especially in White Flint, where it supports the urban design goals of its Sector Plan. Two projects being built there, Pike + Rose and Archstone Old Georgetown Road, will include them.

However, not all "real doors" are created equal. Done poorly, they can look like an afterthought, feel anonymous and compromise privacy. Let's look at some examples from around the area and the country:


Ground-floor apartment at Halstead Square in Merrifield.

These are "real doors" at Halstead Square, an apartment and retail complex being built in Merrifield. (Check out some more pictures.) These doors belong to single-story, one-bedroom apartments, and each one has a little stoop and an address number. The floor-to-ceiling windows are nice, but they're so close to the ground that people walking by can easily look in.

Tall stoops at Citron in Silver Spring.

At Citron, an apartment building under construction in downtown Silver Spring, "real doors" help it relate to the single-family homes across the street. The ground-floor units are high enough to be private, which would've been a nice opportunity to expand those stoops into porches.


Ground-floor duplexes at the Market Common in Clarendon.

These ground-floor rowhouses at the Market Common in Clarendon each have different-colored doors, giving them their own identity. The building as a whole has similar materials and detailing as the actual rowhouses at the end of the block, helping it blend in.

"Real doors" with private yards at the Silverton. Image from Google Street View.

These "real doors" at the Silverton in South Silver Spring are set back from the street, which provides room for a semi-private, gated patio with enough room for a table and chairs. Though they have big, low windows like Halstead Square, the trees help give shade and privacy. I might have made the doors themselves more distinctive, perhaps with a different paint color or frosted glass panels.


These rowhouses at Eliot Tower in Portland have raised decks.

The best "real doors" I've found are on the West Coast. This is the Eliot Tower in downtown Portland, a tower with two-story rowhouses at its base. Each house has a front deck raised several steps above the street, and you can see how each deck has a tree or some leafy plants for privacy and visual impact.

Rowhouses with yards at the Meriwether in Portland.

At the Meriwether, a tower in Portland's Southwest Waterfront, there are ground-floor rowhouses set behind little yards. Not only do they provide a buffer from the street, but they appear to be part of a bioswale that collects and filters runoff water before it heads to the Willamette River, a few hundred yards away. You can see each house has decks on multiple floors, giving it plenty of outdoor space. And residents have them their own, judging from these hot pink Adirondack chairs.


Less-than-great "real doors" at Lofts 24 in Silver Spring. Image from Google Street View.

Believe it or not, this is the entrance to two ground-floor condominiums at Lofts 24, also in downtown Silver Spring. Other than the welcome mat outside the door on the right, there's no indication that people actually live here.

Rather than a house, this feels like the entrance to a storage unit. There are no street numbers, no individual open space, and no buffer from the street. The only landscaping are bushes that cover the windows.

Check out these examples of "real doors" from around the region and country.

While these examples aren't perfect, they show the opportunities and challenges of providing "real doors." The scale of development in many urban neighborhoods has gotten bigger, but humans generally remain the same size, so we still have to design to that scale.

Not only can "real doors" make otherwise big buildings feel more comfortable, but they can make safer and more visually attractive streets and offer people a desirable mix of house and apartment living. That is, if we do them right.

This content was originally developed for the Friends of White Flint blog.


There are many strategies for mixing bikes & streetcars

Earlier this month, Dan introduced us to one of the street design tools that planners use to ensure safe mixing of bikes and streetcars, the bike sneak. That's one of a whole toolbox full of strategies.

Photo by Dan Malouff.

Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar line runs along Westlake Avenue, which cuts diagonally across the grid. Because the street is a diagonal, almost every intersection is at an odd angle, meaning cyclists crossing Westlake could easily get their wheels caught in the tracks.

One solution that Seattle has applied is to use sharrows painted to encourage cyclists to cross at the safest angle. I'm not sure if this technique has an official name, but I like to call it the "sharrow serpentine."

Westlake "sharrow serpentine". Photo by Matt Johnson.

Portland employs a similar technique where one of its bike lanes crosses streetcar tracks:

Portland curved bike lane. Photo by Ritch Viola.

Portland also does some interesting things with streetcar stops. Lovejoy Street has a bike lane parallel to streetcar tracks, immediately to the tracks' right. With the bike lane between the tracks and the curb, something had to be done at stations. So they routed the bike lane onto the sidewalk, behind the streetcar stop.

Lovejoy sidepath. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Portland's solution for Lovejoy Street isn't perfect, because despite pavement markings the passengers waiting for the streetcar occasionally stand in the bikeway. But it certainly beats the alternative of forcing cyclists to merge into the streetcar lane to go through stations.

Seattle will take this idea one step further on its soon-to-be-built First Hill streetcar, which will share Broadway with a cycle track located behind the streetcar stops.

Broadway cycle track. Photo by the City of Seattle.

Closer to home, Arlington is designing its Columbia Pike streetcar with new bikeways on adjacent parallel streets. Instead of finding ways to mix bikes and streetcars safely, they'll put the bikeways one block over.

Arlington's parallel bikeways will be "bike boulevards," which are common on the west coast but will be the first local example in the Washington region. Bike boulevards are streets that cars and bikes share, but on which car traffic is calmed in order to optimize the street for bikes.

Portland's MLK bike boulevard, which allows bikes to go straight but forces cars to turn. Photo by on Flickr.

Do you know of other solutions for mixing bikes and streetcars? Surely there must be some interesting examples from Europe. Please share your photos and ideas in the comments.


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.


Portland gets a "bike barometer"

Portland is the latest US city to get a "bike counter," which keeps track of cycle traffic at busy spots. Arlington has actually had bike counters for some time, though the Portland one adds something else: a visible display of how many people have ridden past.

At the start, Portland transportation director Tom Miller calls this "North America's first bike counter." Actually, Arlington, Virginia and some other places have had automated counters for some time. Arlington's track traffic on several trails, which let us better understand usage patterns, such as what happens in the winter or summer.

Those counters are small and nondescript boxes, so riders don't see anything. The data also is not available in real-time, just somewhat later; Arlington has expressed an interest in getting it out more quickly. All of this means it's great for policy analysis, but has less of an immediate psychological impact.

"I think it's going to guve us all a little jolt, as we go across, of excitement to see that we're one of thousands who go across the bridge," says commuter Leslie Carlson in the video.

Toronto bike advocate Yvonne Bambrick said, "I went by the counter last night, and I was cyclist 10,361. That is amazing! It just feels really empowering to know what's possible."

It would be interesting to know more about the relative costs of the "bike barometers" compared to the simpler boxes. Is it worth more to have a counter that brings a smile to people's faces? It may well be, if such counters give riders, walkers and, on bridges, drivers a greater awareness of how heavily used a particular trail or path really is.


Amsterdam proves bikes and streetcars are allies

Cyclists and streetcar tracks don't always get along, but the two should not be enemies. On the contrary, cities with large streetcar networks also tend to be the most bicycle friendly.

Photo by Gerard Stolk PCproblems on Flickr.

This is because streetcars contribute strongly to the development of more dense, urban, less car-dependent cities—the same characteristics that produce the most friendly urban bicycling environment.

Amsterdam is widely considered to be one of the bicycling capitals of the western world, and rightly so. Its mode share is a whopping 38%. That blows away America's top biking city, Portland, which has a mode share of around 4%. Simply put, Amsterdam is a better city to bike in than any large city in America, by far.

And guess what: Amsterdam also has a huge streetcar network. There are currently 16 operating streetcar lines there, reaching all over the city.

Amsterdam streetcar network map, via Wikipedia

It's also no coincidence that Portland is both America's top cycling city and home to our country's streetcar renaissance. The same city that most agree is the best urban cycling experience in the country is also home to the largest modern streetcar network.

To be sure, integrating bikes and streetcars takes a bit of extra planning. Amsterdam and Portland both have extensive bikeway networks so that mixing is less necessary. That extra planning is important, and is needed to build the sort of sustainable city that Portland, Amsterdam, and Washington aspire to be.

Nevertheless, the point is clear: Streetcars and bikes are not enemies. They work together all over the world, and they can work together here.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Portland gets excited about transit with a Mobile Music Fest

DC residents can get fairly energized about improving transit, but Portland did us one better. They held a Streetcar Mobile Music Fest, featuring 8 bands on 6 streetcars. Here's a video of the sights and sounds:

Portland is actively trying to "bring greater enthusiasm that we have transit in our city," says Art Pearce of the Portland New Rail~Volutionaries, which bills itself as "a group of folks who are very excited about Streetcar."

The video was featured in Rail~Volution Filmfest 2011, co-hosted by the DC New Rail~Volutionaries and Coalition for Smarter Growth in conjunction with the Rail~Volution conference held here October 16-19.

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