Business cycles: Part II

bikes thumb betterblockpdx orgBY LINDA BAKER |  OB EDITOR

Will the private sector reshape urban transportation?

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Will the private sector reshape urban transportation?

Last weekend, business owners in Old Town created a  temporary public space replacing parking and auto lanes with a segregated bike lane and a pedestrian plaza.

By all accounts, the project was a smashing success, with hundreds of people milling about in areas normally reserved for cars.

The project, in a microcosm sort of way, also highlighted the growing influence of the private sector in driving a new wave of urban planning and transportation innovation.

In Portland, the public sector deserves much of the credit for existing mass transit, bike and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. And government agencies continue to innovate on that score, with the Tilikum Crossing bike/pedestrian/transit bridge as the latest example.

But in recent years, the pace of change has slowed. Thanks to Portland’s much vaunted public process, it can take years to make even incremental improvements, such as removing a two- three block stretch of parking to create a bike lane.  Or making a temporary plaza permanent.

That kind of timeline seems quaint in today’s fast-paced world.

If government is slow, business — often accused of steamrolling or overriding the public process — is not.  

Witness the explosion of mobile app companies like Uber and Lyft, who in the space of just a couple of years have succeeded in making ridesharing one of the hottest if most controversial transportation business models in the country.

Or Portland real estate developers, who in less than two years have radically reshaped local neighborhoods around high-density pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, leaving plenty of good and bad will in their wake.

Or, as we reported in our article “Business Cycles,” a growing number of businesses are now using bikes and mass transit access as retention and recruitment tools,  among them a growing number of software firms and health care organizations offering free bikes and other cycling amenities for employees.

It’s a paradox.  On the one hand, sharing economy and tech-driven business models built around bikes, pedestrians and transit are moving forward at a mind boggling pace. On the other hand, even in Portland, the  transportation infrastructure in many neighborhoods is still largely stuck in the past — designed for the car, with proposals for seemingly minor changes mired in endless debate. 

But perhaps that contradiction contains within it the seeds of change.

Because it’s one thing for a company or real estate developer to offer employees and customers bike friendly amenities, transit passes, etc. It’s another thing altogether for those businesses to band together and lobby for or fund safe, pleasant bike and pedestrian spaces, more frequent bus service, and new regulations that pave the way for innovative business models to grow and thrive.

To be sure, cars will likely always play an important role in the transportation network and the new generation of autonomous and semi autonomous vehicles will usher in changes few of can comprehend or even imagine. But as cities like Portland continue to densify, attracting thousands of new residents to core neighborhoods, single occupancy vehicles are no longer the fastest most efficient way of getting around, no matter how many parking spaces or roads you build. Ask anyone stuck in traffic almost anywhere in the city during rush hour.

The Old Town project is a far cry from the app based transportation services taking the world by storm. But maybe it’s all part of the same dynamic, in which the private sector takes the lead on creating efficient, flexible — and fun — ways of getting around in the city.

Linda Baker is editor of Oregon Business.