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Nikos

Is the Oregonian going to replace Randy with someone else, or is the post going to remain vacant, given the financial trouble all newspapers are in? I think it is important for architeture criticism to have a space in the city's main paper.
If Portland is to absorb another 2 million people it needs something it cannot get because it is too expensive: a subway (or fast and extensive rail service, not the slowpoke it has now)
A note of optimism: problems aside, more people in the city will also mean more urban activity, concerts, restaurants, shops, services, what we call "civilization".

john

Not trying to promote the competition but this is an interesting take from another blog on the same topic that might spark some lively debate. http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=145

Portland Needs a Dose of Reality, Not Another Vision Randy Gragg, the architecture critic for the Portland Oregonian, thinks that Portland “lacks a coordinated transportation plan” and needs a “grand vision” to deal with transportation in the future. In fact, what Portland needs is to deal with the reality of how people really live, not a vision for how some people think everyone else ought to live.

In 1992, Portland-area voters decided to create Metro, a regional planning agency that would create a vision for Portland’s future and implement that vision through land-use and transportation planning. Now, after fifteen years of expensive planning and increasing congestion, Gragg is effectively saying that Metro has failed.


Portland light rail and mid-rise development.

On that point, I fully agree. But while Gragg seems to think that the solution is a multi-billion-dollar investment in more light-rail and high-rise developments, in fact we have enough experience by now to say for certain that this is entirely the wrong course for the region.

Unfortunately, Gragg’s May 20 Sunday Oregonian article is not (yet?) available on line. But, as examples of “vision,” Gragg points to Denver, which approved a $4.7-billion plan for “119 miles of commuter and light-rail lines”; Houston, which approved “73 miles of light rail and regional commuter trains”; and Phoenix, which approved a transportation plan with “27.7-miles of light-rail line expansion.” Yet a close look at these three examples shows exactly why Portland’s (and Gragg’s) vision has been wrong.

Swayed by a $3 million political campaign funded by rail contractors, developers, and engineering companies, Denver voters agreed in 2004 to build a rail system that they were told would reduce congestion. Yet agency documents revealed that the proposed rail lines would take no more than one-half percent of cars off the roads. Though not a single rail has been laid since the plan was approved, the transit agency is already projecting 32-percent cost overruns and a $1 billion revenue shortfall.
Houston voters narrowly approved a plan that promised to build five light-rail lines with no new taxes. Since then, the transit agency says it can afford to build only one light-rail line and it will use buses in the other four corridors. Since opening its first light-rail line, Houston’s transit ridership has actually declined, and if it were put back on the ballot, Houston voters would probably reject any more rail construction.
Phoenix voters agreed to fund a huge program of new freeways and roads that happened to include one light-rail line that had previously been rejected by voters three times. The line never would have been approved were it not tacked onto the roads program.
Gragg has some of his facts wrong, claiming voters approved tax increases “by wide margins” in all three cities. In fact, the Houston plan involved no new taxes and it was approved by less than 52 percent of the voters.

More generally, the rail transit component that Gragg emphasizes in each of these plans is hardly a good example for Portland. Spend billions of dollars to take one-half percent of cars off the road? Been there, done that.

Gragg himself seems to admit that light rail is not the right choice for Portland. First, there is “the finite capacity of MAX trains limited to the length of 200-foot blocks,” a point I previously made in this blog.

Second, says Gragg, “the whole system’s s-l-o-w.” When stops are included, trains on the Blue Line (Portland’s trunk line) take about 1.5 hours to go 33 miles, thus averaging only about 22 miles per hour.

Where else does Gragg recommend we look for inspiration? Vancouver, BC, whose Skytrains “go fast.” Well, actually, they, too, average only 22 miles per hour. And, instead of building more Skytrains, Vancouver is now planning a light-rail line. So much for that inspiration.

The other thing Gragg likes about Vancouver is that they are building high-rises near rail stations, while Portland’s TriMet is content with building “five-story apartment complex projects.” “We think small when we need to think bigger,” says Gragg.

Wait a minute, Randy, remember that part about light-rail’s limited capacity? Portland’s low-capacity light-rail trains are so full at rush hour now that TriMet was able to increase transit ridership by only 0.1 percent in 2006, a year when high gas prices boosted ridership in other transit by 15 to 25 percent. Just how are high-rises instead of mid-rises supposed to solve that problem?

Gragg has been an apologist for Portland’s Goldschmidt-inspired planning for so long that blogger Jack Bogdanski will hardly deign to comment on his articles anymore. But instead of just criticizing Gragg for the details of his proposals, it is worth recognizing that Gragg sees there is a fundamental flaw in Metro’s planning system. He just can’t figure out what it is.

“The area lacks a coordinated transportation plan,” thinks Gragg. Actually, it has one that Metro endlessly updates every five years. It is just that Metro has not been able to sell this plan, or the vision behind it, to the voters.

The real problem is more fundamental: It is simply not realistic to ask an agency like Metro, which is supposed to manage everything from trash collection to the Portland Zoo, to write comprehensive, long-range plans. Any such process will be highly politicized and is likely to get hijacked by special interests such as the Goldschmidt-Bechtel-Walsh-Williams cabal that has been diverting billions of dollars of the region’s funds into their own pockets.

Portland doesn’t need a new vision. It needs a new dose of reality. No matter how much light rail you build, almost all travelers will continue to get around by car. To accommodate those cars, we don’t need a new highway to Damascus. We need an entirely new institutional set up.

Forget about long-term visions. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, much less twenty years from now.
Forget about stopping global warming by getting people to drive less. The solution to greenhouse gases is the same as the solution to toxic pollution: technological improvements that reduce auto emissions.
Forget about comprehensive planning; government can’t think comprehensively. Instead, scrap Metro and replace it with mission-specific agencies. Make one of those agencies a tollroads authority and give it the mission of building new roads or lanes wherever there is enough congestion that new capacity will pay for itself in tolls.
Forget about multi-billion-dollar tax-subsidized transit projects. Instead, let TriMet and other transit providers run their buses on the uncongested toll lanes, thus providing low-cost but superior transit to those who can’t (or prefer not to) drive.

Nikos

Fairly sophisticated analysis with many good points, but the assertion that building more lanes where needed as indicated by congestion is a solution to congestion sounds at least as naive as building a dense expensive subway system. I for one am tired of hearing the argument that mass transit, specifically rail, is ineffective because it does not measutably reduce traffic. For what we perceive as quality of life, availability of public transit is important. New York, Paris, London, they are and will be congested with or without their subways, but can anyone imagine these cities without their rail transport networks?

As for visions for the future, the point that we do not know what the needs will be in 20 years is a good one. What makes a city a unique place however, is the imagination of its people. All this technical analysis is useful perhaps to a city bureaucrat or engineer, but for us lowly, naive inhabitants of PDX interested in architeture and the urban environment from the standpoint of the art of living and design, vision and dreaming beyond statistics (remember there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics) is important.

billB

I find much to agree with here , and would nominate
the many good commenters here for a rotating design / vision column
to replace Randy.
As for the Train/Car/Bus issues , if people insist
on living at unreasonable distances from their jobs
they ought to bear ALL the cost of this choice.
5$ gas/toll bridges and roads/congestion pricing.

Agustin Enriquez V

quote: "As for visions for the future, the point that we do not know what the needs will be in 20 years is a good one."

That line of reasoning is seriously flawed. If we followed that mantra, none of us would plunk our money into retirement accounts (how could I possibily know what I'll be doing in 40 years--maybe I'll be dead and won't need any money), save for our children's college education (maybe my son will be a mechanic and need the money for college), or anything else.

Just because we're not gifted with psychic powers doesn't mean we shouldn't try and understand the future. Its a strange point of view to prefer the future that accidentally happened to us rather than the future we had a hand in creating. Just on the face of it, we have a pretty good idea about the future by looking at the past few decades: we'll need more power, more water, more housing, more of most everything. Its not a complicated formula--the more of us that exist, the more stuff we're going to demand.

Its a whole lot easier to change a plan once it exists than it is to dream one up once its needed. In fact, by that point its quite difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to meet the needs. Is this a common perspective (the why plan for the future, its the future argument)?

Brian

I'm with Augustin. This post was not intended to prompt a referendum on whethere there should be long-range planning. Of course there should! I welcome that other blog post being included here in the previous comment by John, and I agree that the person who wrote it does a good job of articulating his points. They're just a little bit crazy, I think.

Saying only 1% of those on the road will ever use light rail or other mass transit is unfair and oversimplified. Big, big growth is coming here. We're going to double the population from 2 to 4 million. We don't just need to keep building MAX and streetcar trains, but to build a metropolitan area where most people live near where they work and don't have to drive, or at least not very far, to get there. Rail is part of a comprehensive strategy, and an expensive component, but a totally necessary one. Of course.

Agustin Enriquez V

quote: "I find much to agree with here , and would nominate
the many good commenters here for a rotating design / vision column to replace Randy."

If we already have this place, why should we duplicate it?

Nikos

So that other people than you, me and Brian read it, Agustin.

My point was that even with uncertainty about the details of the future, we need to keep imagining and reimagining the city, which of course implies what you call planning.

David

True high speed rail to Salem, McMinnville, Hood River and Longview would allow the density to be dispersed in the region. Agustin's mention of water is also a critical piece of the puzzle, one that will affect both urban and rural, as well as the industrial sectors of both.

Agustin Enriquez V

Its a valid point (the other people getting exposed to the view points expressed here).

Personally, I like getting other perspectives--particularly when they are different from my own. I would think the challenge with having the commenters here going Oregonian is that many of them are financially tied to the very things they would be commenting on (I myself work for a local architecture firm). I don't know that it can't be done at a newspaper, but I could see the appearance of self-serving ends; Randy could avoid that.

Perch

Personally, I just can't wait until the entire Willamette Valley is filled up with 24-lane freeways, 7-11s, and Pizza Huts - just think of it! Bulldoze all those stupid trees and farms and replace them with parking lots, Chinese takeout, and cheap burrito joints!

Wouldn't it be great if we had our very own Los Angeles up here?! We wouldn't have to drive 16 hours south to have it!

Lyle

Perch, John,
You are so right ... I can not stand the fact that my family is able to get by on only one tank of gas a month!
Oh yeah, we don't need plans ... let's just fund more roads, and knock out our livable city! And, Phoenix, Houston, etc. planning for miles of light and commuter rail can only mean that high-rise (only high-rise??) development will rule!!
Muaahahahahaha.

Rob

First, a transit rant. This comment from above said it best:

"if people insist on living at unreasonable distances from their jobs they ought to bear ALL the cost of this choice. 5$ gas/toll bridges and roads/congestion pricing."

Absolutely.

People are stupid. They really are. No matter how high the price of gas, and no matter how unstable the middle east gets, people absolutely refuse to see a cause-effect relationship in their actions.

As for Portland needing a new vision, I couldn't agree more. Our city has potential to be a model for urban greatness. A city that brings people together rather than pushing them apart. We're already half-way there, in my opinion.

Charles Kingsley

I want to not lose one of the key pieces in Brian's post, that I will greatly miss Randy and his column. I've just returned from three months in UK/Europe and while I love the eloquence of the media over there, I found myselff missing a voice like Randy's as an architecture critic in one of the papers. Not that they didn't have critiques of design, just no ongoing presence/voice that I could find. I appreciated Randy's voice calling for better design and wondering what that may look like, even while not always agreeing with him.
In a similar vein, I appreciate the qualiity of the Oregonian while rarley agreeing with their editorial/political positions. I find a number of the cultural critics they have very good, including Brian. I find most newspapers in the US weak and I can only hope that the Oregonian will try and replace Randy with another strong voice for 'good' design in our city.
There was a thread here a while back about great second tier cities and I think Portland is one and that a strong local paper with insightful cultural critiques and perspectives is one of the allies that make for a great city. I love this site Brian, thank you for putting it together. I also think it imperative that the sort of perspectives that simmer here are available in mainstream media to raise awareness and to push back on urban design led by engineers over designers and architects.

jim

Forget about light rail, roads, and trams. We need to think big and get back to the aquatic transportation roots of our city by building an extensive system of toll-canals.

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