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Monday, 9 January 2006
River City West
Topic: urban issues
For East Coasters, there’s nothing quite like Portland, Oregon - the myth and the reality.

The city has become justly famous for its land-use policies, above all the imposition of an “Urban Growth Boundary” to stem sprawl and maintain a lively downtown core. The UGB, which neatly divides rural from urban-suburban space, is not static, as sometimes assumed. It’s periodically adjusted to meet targets for overall population and economic growth. Most of the adjustments, though, are minor.

A quick look at a Portland regional map tells the story: The city’s obvious natural boundaries (the Willamette and Columbia rivers, plus some precipitous forested hills) are supplemented by wide greenspaces that have kept a growing population from gobbling up too much land.

A quick walk or bike around a Portland neighborhood tells the same story from another angle. Homes and lots seem a little smaller than those in other cities. Parts of town, particularly the Northwest and the central business district, have a more “urban” feel than you find in most cities this size (population 530,000 in 2000).

Many Portland neighborhoods foster a wonderfully retro pedestrian culture that’s vanished from most American cities of any size. But - in perfect harmony with its many converted light-industrial spaces - Downtown Portland shows mature capitalism's dark side: at night, long queues form outside a cluster of shelters and soup kitchens not far from the glitz, and the homeless put down their bedrolls under a bridge where, during more civilized hours, shoppers swarm a crafts market.

These walker-friendly parts of town are expensive, though – and increasingly subject to yuppification. So Portland’s alternative cultures seem to be doing better on the east side of the Willamette River. The Southeast area is home to a couple of consumer co-ops (another is in the NW, a holdout among the boutiques), an anarchist collective bookstore, a worker-owned bike shop, and so forth. The housing is more modest here, too. But it’s all relative: According the National Association of Realtors, the median price of an existing home in the greater Portland area in 2004 was $206,500. In the Rochester area, the figure is exactly $100,000 less, and city homes in Rochester are much cheaper yet.

These facts and figures can be found in report after report. But how does Portland measure up to a real-world test?

When Liz Henderson and I visited Portland recently, we got out on our bikes (loaners, actually) and saw the city from best possible driver’s seat. Portland is very bike-friendly, with plenty of bike lanes, dedicated multi-use trails, locking facilities, and more. The city has a real bike culture. Two-wheeled transportation commands respect there.

Portland is truly intermodal, as well. You can hop on the streetcar, ease your bike up onto a designated hook near the door, and cruise in pleasure. Every municipal bus has a two-bike carrying rack affixed to the front bumper (same as in Rochester). I saw some interesting amenities, too, like some “bike shells” at a train station that allow you to lock your steed under a plastic or fiberglass cover, out of the elements and a bit more beyond the reach of thieves.

I think Portland’s policies on bicycling, walkways, and intermodality are equally as important as the UGB in preserving a high livability score. And policy-wise, things in Portland seem well-coordinated and open to public input. But all is not perfect. UGB or no UGB, bike lanes or no bike lanes, Portland carries a terrible burden of motor traffic. The freeways are clogged at rush-hour, just as in any North American city. Some urban arterials, even in the heart of downtown, are four-lane, one-way, relatively high-speed affairs with little or no marginal space for alternative vehicles.

The Portland weather can deter cyclists. The rainy season runs for eight months of the year, October through May. There are around 150 days with some rainfall, few of them in the warmer, drier months. So you find most Portland bikes, at least those used for transportation rather than occasional fun rides, have fenders mounted. Still, I was surprised at the low number of cyclists on the streets during our visit – hardly more than I see on Rochester streets in all but the heaviest winter conditions. Daytime temperatures in Portland last month were in the 40s and 50s, and the rain was medium to light. And when you consider the wealth of biking amenities, you’ve got to wonder why so many Portlanders are keeping their bikes in the basement.

Yet you can’t avoid this conclusion: Portland is far ahead of Rochester on all aspects of transportation. How come we never hear Rochester pols talking about decent locking facilities, lanes, intermodality, and so forth? And how come a major race for control of City Hall just happened here without any candidate uttering the word “bicycle”? It didn’t reach my ears, at least. If you heard the B word, let me know. In a related matter, pass along your thoughts on the double F word: that’s Rochesterese for fast ferry.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 09:15 EST
Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006 09:55 EST
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