Businesses respond to sweeping Portland transportation plan

Steve Morgan / Wikimedia Commons
A TriMet bus

A plan passed Thursday calls for improvements to bike and bus lanes. 

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Portland city council passed on Thursday a $36 million transportation plan to improve bus lanes, bike lanes and street crossings in the central city, the densest concentration of jobs and economic activity in the state.

The business community is split on the plan, called Central City in Motion. Some business leaders who testified seek to alleviate travel times for their employees and customers through alternative transportation infrastructure. Others expressed concern about the erosion of parking spaces, efficient circulation of freight and the effect on ridesharing.

Planners from the Bureau of Transportation said Portland urgently needs the proposed improvements to compete as a global city. They described congestion growing at an “alarming rate,” buses stranded in downtown gridlock, and bike lanes that abruptly end when they reach the central city.

By 2035, project manager Gabe Graff said, the number of jobs in the central city will swell from 30,000 to 180,000. In Seattle, planners noted, 60,000 jobs were added over seven years, but the number of car trips declined by 4,500 due to investments in buses and bike lanes.

Central City in Motion calls for major redesigns of several arterials downtown and in the Central Eastside. A $5.3 million project would install bike and bus lanes on the Burnside Bridge and nearby blocks. Another project would add $6.6 million of bike infrastructure on Fourth Avenue and SW Broadway. A $4 million project would make the popular seasonal Better Natio bike lane permanent, reducing conflicts between people who walk and bike in Waterfront Park.

Around half of the intersections identified as most deadly to people walking and biking would benefit from the plan. There are 18 projects in total, with top priority initiatives slated for one- to five-year timelines, and others planned six to ten years out.

Even the smallest boost to bike and bus lanes, planners said, could dramatically alleviate congestion, because these modes are so much more efficient than cars. Central City in Motion would increase the share of Portland’s roads dedicated to biking and buses from 4% to 6%.

That seems small, but planners pointed to Copenhagen, where 7% of the roads are dedicated to active transport and carry 62% of overall trips.

scooter dudeA scooter rider with the Better Naito lane and waterfront park in the background. Photo: Jason Kaplan

Businesses and employees said the proposed improvements would encourage people who are too afraid to bike to work. Research has shown that more men than women bike commute, but the addition of fully-protected bike lanes evens out the gender distribution. In Calgary, the number of female bike commuters dramatically increased after construction of a downtown grid of bikeways.

Emily Barrett, community ambassador at AWS Elemental and a board member of the alternative transportation advocacy nonprofit The Street Trust, told councilors that she bikes with her child to daycare and work, but many women in her office are scared to do the same.

“I think more people of my gender and demographic will take this up if they feel safe,” she said.

“Doing nothing is not an option. We cannot afford to delay these improvements.”
—Chloe Eudaly, commissioner

Under one proposal, employees could give up their parking permit in exchange for a “transportation wallet” with free transit passes and other benefits. Graff said 600 employees in the Central Eastside have already taken up the offer. Planners are also working with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and other Central Eastside businesses to share parking lots and coordinate a shuttle for employees.

Business for a Better Portland, a trade association with nearly 300 members, urged adoption of the plan. One business owner testified that the plan will help Portland meet its carbon reduction goals, improve access to downtown businesses and expand options for commuters.

The city’s climate goals earned support from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who named Portland a winner in his American Cities Climate Challenge and cut the Rose City a $2.5 million check. The Central City in Motion plan would help meet Bloomberg’s goal of stopping growth in annual solo car trips in participating cities by 2020.

In a letter to commissioner Dan Saltzman, Business for a Better Portland’s chief collaboration officer Ashley Henry wrote that bike lanes, crossings and bus lanes are the most cost-effective way to help customers reach businesses and to manage the city’s rapid growth.

“The business case for transportation improvements in the Central City is too compelling to ignore,” she wrote. “In order for existing and future businesses to thrive in Portland, our employees, customers, goods, and neighbors must be able to move freely and safely through the streets.”

“The business case for transportation improvements in the Central City is too compelling to ignore.”
—Ashley Henry

Karen Lickteig, marketing and events manager at local coffee chain Nossa Familia, said customers complain frequently about finding parking near their two cafes in the central city. She sees additional bike parking and bike lanes as ways to get more customers to her business faster. “The project would really benefit small businesses and people getting to us,” she said. 

Portland State University and Oregon Health and Science University, downtown hubs for thousands of students and researchers, strongly endorsed the plan. Terra Mather, a campus planner at OHSU, said it falls in line with the hospital’s effort to incentivize alternative transportation through bus passes and rewards for carsharing.  Less than 25% of students at PSU commute to campus by car, university representatives said, urging council to move all of the projects to a one- to five-year timeframe.

Graff said he had received “constructive feedback” on the plan from the Portland Business Alliance and the Portland Freight Committee. Some businesses in the Central Eastside, represented by the Central Eastside Industrial Council, worry about losing parking near their storefronts. A representative from Elephants Delicatessen said losing a loading zone around the cafe’s main kitchen and distribution center would be “devastating.”

Pia Welch, the chair of the Portland Freight Committee, criticized the freight analysis in the plan as too general. She said freight companies have been persistently requesting to move a proposed bike lane on 7th avenue to 6th avenue. She said her proposed changes were for safety, but they would also ensure efficient movement of large trucks through the area. “If trucks are unable to make turns,” Welch said, “neither can buses or first responders.”

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly reminded her that the projects are not “carved in stone” and that she would continue to discuss the proposed improvements with members of the freight business community.

Rideshare companies might also be slow to get on board. A key goal of the plan is to maximize efficiency by reducing single-passenger car trips, and many of those trips are Uber and Lyft rides. Studies have shown that rideshare has drained transit ridership and worsened congestion in some cities. Commissioner Nick Fish asked if caps on rideshare trips might be part of the solution, and Graff said they might. He said planners might also look for ways to direct users toward sharing features like Uber Pool, instead of trips with a single rider.

No Uber or Lyft representatives testified at the hearing, but Eudaly said she met with a lobbyist from one of the companies over lunch. The company was resistant at first, she said, but is gradually coming around to accepting some of the potential changes in the plan. “I’m hopeful they’re becoming more receptive to that conversation moving forward,” she said.  

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Eudaly said. “We cannot afford to delay these improvements.”

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