Monday, May 28, 2012


Portland: A city that didn’t build a single, short elevated train line—and prospered

In downtown Portland, and in fact, in Portland neighborhoods, the pedestrian is the first-class passenger. That’s the rule. You don’t have to press a button to cross an intersection. There are wide sidewalks. The intersection timing is such that there’s enough time to get across the street. We don’t build huge, wide streets that are impossible to cross. There are a hundred little things that implement the common-sense policy that in a city, the pedestrian comes first and everything is organized around that.Charles Hales, Senior Vice President, HDR Engineering, in e2 Transport, Portland A Sense of Place

by Larry Geller

Honolulu is stuck in the ‘60s. Urban sprawl. Loss of farmland. Out-of-control development. Endless traffic jams. More houses and cars planned for a future that looks to be even more congested. An expensive train line that will never be expanded if it ever is built.

It didn’t (and doesn’t) have to be this way. Some other cities changed from this destructive course: Portland, for example, which could be a model for us.

Here’s the snip corresponding to the pull-quote above. It’s from the video e2 Transport, Portland A Sense of Place that originally aired a couple of years ago on PBS (press the thingy at the lower right for full-screen):

Contrast Portland’s “common-sense” policy with Honolulu, where wide streets like King Street feature uncontrolled crosswalks that take their toll in death and injury year-in and year-out. It seems that pedestrians must die and make the news before a traffic light or pedestrian-crossing warning lights are installed on this island. (Just getting hit by a car isn’t enough—to do any good, your sacrifice has to make the front page.)

This is 1960’s thinking. It was a time when the automobile represented both the economic future of the country and spurred the growth of cities into their surrounding suburbs. People suddenly could live in a different place from where they worked. A network of interlocking highways and cloverleafs overlaid the map of city after city. Honolulu put in the H-1 and H-2 freeways, but never took the next step—ultimately seeing the folly of endless sprawl and switching to keep the city livable by limiting development and incorporating transit into urban planning.

The e2 Transport video was about more than pedestrians. It described how a visionary governor, working with advocates and advocacy groups, put together a plan for urban revitalization and preservation of farmland and suburban areas. The result is that Portlanders today have the benefit of an extensive, expandable transit system that enables people to do without commuting by car to work. The choice of transit modalities also created a new retail prosperity along the transit lines.

In place of urban blight, kids are playing, people are working and shopping, they’re going to church or to downtown events and hopping public transit to get home after enjoying dinner out and perhaps a couple of drinks.

Honolulu’s “urban planning” and its transit plan in particular do not derive from citizen participation, and we’ve been short of visionary leadership as well. Whatever developer wants to pave over farmland gets the green light to do so. The current dispute over whether rail should proceed is only possible because it is a fight among politicians and ideologues. Before this phase of the battle, the City Council wavered over the route (Salt Lake, Nimitz, Dillingham, etc.) based on the whim of city councilmen, not as a result of careful and inclusive urban planning. Pure politics. Little common sense.

If someone living out west in Waianae needs to get to a job in downtown Honolulu or in Waikiki, they’re stuck, the train will never go there. Nor will retail and small business spring up along a transit right-of-way, because no transit is planned for them. It’s the ‘60s thinking—get into a car. This has not worked for some time, and as noted by Honolulu’s designation as the worst traffic-congested city in the country, there’s no relief in sight. More development over previous farmland simply means more cars. You’d think we’d learn.

Here’s where citizen participation is needed. Although the commercial media have framed the transit issue as Rail/No Rail, that’s not the core problem. The problem is that we have no part in planning our own communities, including, but not limited to, how and where we live and work and how we get about.

The video explained that the advocacy effort in Portland started out to preserve farmland, and as time went on, they realized that farms are best served by well-organized cities. Honolulu could take a cue. In parallel with the current Rail/No Rail dispute is a struggle over the preservation of Oahu’s prime farmland. As Portland realized in its own way, the two are indeed interconnected.

Of course, Honolulu is not Portland. Bringing the interests of farm and city together is not difficult, however. Honolulu has its own peculiar problems. Decades of inferior leadership and citizen exclusion have left us not only with the country’s worst traffic congestion, but with the country’s highest energy costs—three times the national average. Yet another dispute raging at the moment is whether we will pay still more so that developers and large landowners can convert Neighbor Island land to wind farms to feed Oahu’s voracious appetite for energy. Current plans would enrich the landowners but increase, not decrease, costs to ratepayers. High energy costs are a blight upon our quality of life. We’re working to enrich HECO executives instead of providing for our children’s education.

The total effect of unbridled development, loss of farmland, ever-longer commutes, higher taxes to pay for inadequate transportation, and soaring energy costs promise one thing—to make Honolulu unlivable for its current residents. “Affordable housing” here is an ongoing joke, and there is no plan for a regime of rent control or rent stabilization that would at least hold the line at current outrageous prices.

We could use a visionary governor round about now, but more important, we need to find a way to involve ourselves at first, and later take over the urban planning process. We could use a measure of democracy in both our state legislature and city and county councils so that citizens truly control the decisions made by those whom we elect to office. We could use voter-financed elections to displace the disproportionate power of developers and break the “Land and Power” cycle that  threatens to destroy our tourist economy and the livability of the islands we live on.

Portland could indeed be a model, but it will have to be taken up by advocates. Neither our state or city government will gift us with better transit and pedestrian safety on their own.

I’ll end by re-running the short clip from the same video that I posted originally in 2009, showing how retail springs up along a grade-level transit route. Imagine Farrington Highway strung with stores, shops, movie theaters, groceries, churches, schools…. that would not only be great for the economy, but would reduce the need to drive to town to shop or to work. Yes, grade-level transit can be a “job creator.”

Again, click on the thingy at the lower right for full-screen.


The entire e2 Transport series was well done and still relevant. Unfortunately, PBS no long has the rights to re-run it for all to see.

Well, Honolulu, if we’re a bit short of visionary governors, at least we the people can follow Portland’s example and get together to save both our farming and urban environment and make this island a more livable place. “Sustainability” is more than a mere ideal, it’s something we need as it becomes harder to eke out an existence here in middle of the Pacific.

After posting I located a fact sheet on Portland’s current streetcar expansion. Note that the streetcar routes are only part of the city’s total transportation solution. Note also that the expansion cost only millions, not billions, of dollars.

Here is a snip of some comments by Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams in an Atlanta newspaper, related to the advantages of at-grade transit as it played out in Portland:

Portland broke ground on the initial line in 1999. We’ve documented that $3.5 billion of private and public development has occurred within blocks of the tracks. Two new neighborhoods, the Pearl District and South Waterfront, would not have grown and become jobs and housing centers without the streetcar and major investments in streets and transit.

Creating vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods around streetcars makes good business sense. Streetcars are attractive and tracks can’t be easily moved, so their presence makes business owners more likely to locate nearby. When I talk to Portland businesses — real estate brokerages, software incubators, wind energy corporations — relocating near the streetcar, I hear that the opportunity to get around their new neighborhood on rail, foot and bike is what these companies’ employees asked them to provide. It’s no longer necessary to drive to make a business meeting a mile away or lunch with a friend.

[Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Portland’s streetcar makes vital change, 3/5/2012]


Mahalo for this post, Larry. Portland is a great example of putting people first.
Walkable communities, trolley cars, at-grade rail. Isn't this what the AIA (architects)
have been advocating? Cities for people, not just big money developers. What a concept!

San Francisco not only built BART at ground level or below but tore down their elevated freeways. Getting around is a pleasure whether using public transportation or driving.

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