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Seattle’s new traffic garden is the perfect place to learn the rules of the road

Seattle’s new traffic garden is the perfect place to learn the rules of the road

Aerial view of the new traffic garden in south Seattle.(Photos: King County Parks)

Aerial view of the new traffic garden in south Seattle.
(Photos: King County Parks)

If we ever want bicycling to become mainstream, we must find a way to educate more people on the right way to ride in traffic. It can be tough though, because our streets make most people so stressed out that they adopt bad habits just to stay alive.

That’s where a traffic garden can come in: A place that mimics real-life street conditions and that’s out of harms way. These facilities have been used in northern Europe for many years (we reported on one in Utrecht in 2009); but the United States hasn’t fully adopted the concept.

Until now.

On Saturday in Seattle the Cascade Bicycle Club and their partners celebrated the opening of the White Center Bike Playground at a park about eight miles south of downtown. The project replaced two unused tennis courts and turned them into a smartly designed streetscape complete with crosswalks, multi-lane roads, a roundabout, and more. The idea was to create a place where kids and adults can practice safe riding skills in a realistic environment away from the dangers posed by other road users.

whitecenterbikeplaygroundopening1

(Photo: Cascade Bicycle Club)
whitecenterbikeplaygroundopening2

(Photo: Cascade Bicycle Club)
Grand Opening of Bicycle Playground at Dick Thurnau Park

(Photo: King County Parks)
Grand Opening of Bicycle Playground at Dick Thurnau Park

(Photo: King County Parks)







The design and the idea came from former Portland resident and currently Seattle-based urban planner Steve Durrant. Durrant is a senior landscape architect with Alta Planning + Design who approached Cascade with the idea of a traffic garden nearly two years ago after seeing one in Copenhagen. They built their first one last spring in an alley outside Cascade’s headquarters in Magnuson Park. The new “Bike Playground” in White Center is much larger and has more features.

Durrant said he created the design with the inspiration from Copenhagen along with the needs of the League of American Bicyclists’ League Cycling Instructor program. He says the facility isn’t intended solely for kids and he expects it to be used by adults who are new to biking as well. “Instead of using chalk and cones and saying, ‘Hey kids, imagine this is a bike lane,’ we ended up painting actual lanes.”

In a telephone interview today Durrant said he tried to include many different traffic scenarios in the space: stop lines, crosswalks, lane merging, a roundabout, a one-way loop, and so on. In addition to the streetscape elements, the space has a shipping container for storing bikes and a cement pad for bike racks and tables for people to relax and watch the action.

The Bicycle Playground is open to the public and will be used in Cascade’s educational programs — especially their Major Taylor program which teaches young people from underserved neighborhoods how to become confident bicycle riders.

The project was funded in part with a $50,000 grant from King County Parks and private donations. Total project cost was just under $95,000.

Now the question is: Where should we put one in Portland?

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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The post Seattle’s new traffic garden is the perfect place to learn the rules of the road appeared first on BikePortland.org.

Seattle just passed a citywide 20 mph speed limit, and Portland could be next

Seattle just passed a citywide 20 mph speed limit, and Portland could be next

Seattle-area activists were key in pushing for this change.(Photo: Seattle Neighborhood Greenways)

Seattle-area activists were key in pushing for this change.
(Photo: Seattle Neighborhood Greenways)

Seattle transportation reform advocates are celebrating a major milestone this morning: last night Seattle City Council unanimously approved a measure that sets a default speed limit on some central city arterials of 25 miles per hour (instead of 30) and 20 miles per hour on all residential streets (instead of 25).

This is a big deal. Joshua Cohen reports on Next City that the new policy will effect a whopping 2,400 miles of neighborhood streets.

Portland’s biggest speed limit victory came in 2011 (and the 20 mph signs went up two years later) when the City and advocates successfully lobbied Salem legislators to pass a bill that gave the transportation bureau the authority to lower the speed limit five miles per hour (from 25 to 20) — but it only applies to streets designated as “neighborhood greenways”.







Sources in Seatte say their new policy came about for two key reasons: A change in state law in 2013 that made it easier for the city to set speed limits and advocacy groups who pushed city council to live up to their Vision Zero rhetoric.

The crew from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Seattle Neighborhood Greenway advocates Phyllis Porter (left), Cathy Tuttle (middle), and Sally Bagshaw during a visit to Portland in 2014.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Seattle Bike Blog editor Tom Fucoloro told us via email last night that, “Originally, the city wanted to go street-by-street in implementing it, but they changed their tune in recent months after urging by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.”

The nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Greenways (with the help of other groups and Cascade Bicycle Club) worked for years on a “20 is plenty” campaign. SNG Executive Directory Cathy Tuttle told Next City that the law is a “giant step forward.”

Fucoloro was also quick to point out that lower speed limits “aren’t worth much” without street designs that force people to drive more slowly.

Interestingly, he also said last night’s unanimous council vote was long overdue given that a state law passed in 2013 all but paved the way. That law, dubbed the Neighborhood Safe Streets Bill, relieved municipalities of the burden of costly and time-consuming traffic studies previously required to earn a speed limit reduction from the state.

If that sounds familiar, you’ve been paying attention.

Cities and towns in Oregon must also go through an onerous process to request a speed limit reduction (on a case-by-base basis) from the State of Oregon. Similar to what Washington did in 2013, the City of Portland is trying to do now. As we reported last month our bureau of transportation has asked ODOT to sign off on an alternate methodology for setting speed limits.

PBOT spokesman John Brady told us this morning that PBOT traffic engineers recently met with ODOT and cleared up all the remaining issues and that, “We expect to receive the formal go-ahead soon.” Once the new methodology is in place, PBOT will be able to use it for a four-year period.

While far from a silver bullet given the state of enforcement limitations and auto-centric road designs; the power of passing lower speed limit policies is in what they do to traffic culture: They send a signal to road users about what type of behavior is acceptable and expected.

In a society where deviant and extreme driving behaviors are mainstream, safe driving messages — and policies to back them up — are essential ingredients for change.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

BikePortland is supported by the community (that means you!). Please become a subscriber or make a donation today.

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Woman dies after crashing near streetcar tracks in Seattle

Woman dies after crashing near streetcar tracks in Seattle

Screenshot from Capitol Hill Seattle.

Screenshot from Capitol Hill Seattle.

27-year old Seattle resident Desiree McCloud died yesterday from injuries she sustained from a crash on May 13th. According to reports she was biking with friends near streetcar tracks on E Yesler and 13th when she lost control and went down.

The incident highlights a major problem that has plagued both Seattle and Portland for years: Both cities have busy urban neighborhoods where streetcar tracks and unprotected bikeways mix and both cities have countless crash victims because of it. Track crashes are so rampant here in Portland that there’s an assumption among daily riders that it’s a matter of when not if you’ll go down on them.

Not only do these exposed tracks cause many broken bones and bodies every year, they are also just one more thing that scares some people away from cycling.

Streetview of E Yesler Way near 13th.

Streetview of E Yesler Way near 13th.

Here’s more on the Seattle case from CapitolHillSeattle.com:

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Could it work here? How Seattle’s big new housing compromise came together

Could it work here? How Seattle’s big new housing compromise came together

separate signal phases bidirectional 2nd seattle

Seattle’s recent housing breakthrough may have lessons for keeping bikeable parts of Portland affordable.
(Photo: Adam Coppola)

Here’s one way to think about the political battle over housing in growing cities, spelled out Monday at an Oregon Active Transportation Summit panel: it’s got three main interest groups.

One group is social-justice advocates and tenants. These people are generally interested in keeping prices lower one way or another, especially for the lowest-income people.

One group is environmentalists, businesses and the development industry. These people are (for various reasons) generally interested in increasing the number of people living in the city.

The third group is a highly active subset of single-family homeowners. These people are generally interested in maintaining or increasing the value of their property, especially while keeping things the way they were when they bought it.

At an OATS panel Monday, environmentalist Alan Durning of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute proposed this way of thinking about housing politics. Then he used it to describe Seattle’s situation, and the unusual way the city has been responding to it.

“The previous status quo in Seattle around housing issues is a coalition that I sometimes refer to as the NIMBY-Trotsky coalition,” Durning said with tongue somewhat in cheek. “The social justice community essentially aligned with the homeowner community because of concerns about displacement. And the affordable housing community — that is, the providers of affordable housing — didn’t want to upset their donors and voters.”

“You think things are expensive in Portland, right? Multiply everything by 50 percent.”
— Alan Durning, Sightline Institute

In the short term, Durning said, that political “equilibrium” made everyone happy. But over years and decades, it pointed in one direction: a huge housing shortage.

“The long-term effect of this is to make housing in Seattle astronomically expensive,” Durning said. “You think things are expensive in Portland, right? Multiply everything by 50 percent. … We have to do something, or we’ll end up with a truly San Francisco situation.”

So, Durning said, Seattle’s social-justice advocates and housing-supply advocates teamed up to propose a so-called “grand compromise” that aimed to build a new coalition of their own that would, over time, drive prices down rather than up.

As Portland contemplates a similar fate — and gets close to a similar conversation of its own over the next year or so — the panel asked the question: what role will these interest groups play here?

HALA’s key breakthrough: Upzones plus inclusionary zoning

12th Street in First Hill

Seattle’s proposal is to let developers add one additional story of housing in exchange for offering some units at lower rates.
(Photo: Paul Sableman)

In Durning’s account, Seattle’s sheaf of housing recommendations — known as the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA — required 10 months of closed-door negotiation and almost collapsed completely.

“We need to handcuff the two to each other: density and affordability.”
— Alan Durning

“Eight months into this process, everyone was convinced it was going to lead to nothing, and in the last two months a very surprising set of recommendations emerged,” Durning said. “The first is that we need more housing: not a little but a lot more housing. … The second is that we need to do that in a way that steers the growth toward density and affordability. In fact, we need to handcuff the two to each other: density and affordability.”

The issue was certainly pressing. Last year, Durning wrote that during his 10 months on HALA’s 28-member advisory committee, the assessed value of his own house had inflated $100,000.

By the end of it, Durning said, the committee hit on a key bargain: allow more density everywhere in Seattle, but use conditional mandatory inclusionary zoning to guarantee that all the upzones in multifamily areas include units that would be affordable to people making less than 60 percent of median income.

“The kernel at the center of the HALA plan is a recommendation to basically upzone the whole city — not literally upzone the single-family zones, but create more flexibility in them — but [as] part of that, in every one of those upzones there would be a mandate that developers provide a certain percentage of units in each building,” Durning said. “This would produce way way way more affordable-rate units and way more market rate units than anything on the table before.”

If the plan simply put inclusionary zoning on every property without upzoning it, fewer developments would have been profitable and infill might have stopped — which would have also stopped production of low-cost units, because inclusionary zoning only applies to new buildings. Instead, the citywide upzone allowed developers to build one more floor on many buildings, but — once that “upzone” has been completed — it essentially requires them to use the profits from that top story to subsidize the lower-rent units.

Despite media backlash, Seattle voters back affordability-coalition candidates

Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez Oath of Office

Civil rights lawyer Lorena González won big in Seattle’s council election after backing HALA’s affordability recommendations.
(Photo: Seattle City Council)

When the HALA committee’s recommendations went public, Durning said they caused a “huge fight in the press.”

The lightning rod was the committee’s finding that single-family zoning in Seattle (like in all U.S. cities) was rooted in the desire of early 20th century homeowners to keep non-white and poor people out of their areas.

“It led to a huge, huge outpouring of opposition and so on just before there was a primary election,” Durning said. “If you looked at the media or attended community meetings, your assumption was going to be all our recommendations were going to die.”

In the firestorm, Durning said, Seattle’s mayor and council backed off from some of the recommended changes to single-family neighborhoods.

“But what happened next was very interesting,” he went on. “The organizations that had their interests reflected in HALA began to find each other and form their own coalitions.”





Durning said HALA has given groups including unions, urbanist environmental groups and affordability advocates a banner to unite around. And he said they have united, notably in a new group called Seattle for Everyone.

“Now, many of the key community meetings and much of the media coverage in the city, there are two voices in much of the debates that have been dominated by neighborhood preservationists,” Durning said. “We’ll also have someone who stands up and says, ‘I work in the city of Seattle and I’d like to be able to live there.”

After last fall’s elections, Durning said, “the politics have shifted.”

“The candidates who latched their futures to the neighborhood preservation impulse mostly got clobbered,” Durning said. “The lesson that people in the political establishment in Seattle took from that is, Oh, you have to be careful when you’re talking about changing neighborhoods, but it’s not a third rail, and it’s not going to kill you.

Durning warned that the battle for more and cheaper housing in Seattle won’t be won until the city has finished the mass upzone, which it’s trying to complete one neighborhood at a time.

“It’s going to require an unbelievable organizing effort,” Durning said. “The only reason we can believe that can work is if we can hold that political coalition together for everyone from the chamber of commerce to the social justice advocates.”

Portland panelists see local parallels and differences

High Crash Corridors campaign launch-3

Southeast Foster Road could see rapid displacement if prices keep rising.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Sharing the panel with Durning Monday were two Portland housing experts: Justin Buri of the Community Alliance of Tenants and Housing Land Advocates, and Katherine Schultz of GBD Architects and the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission.

Both agreed that some measures similar to Seattle’s might be useful in Portland.

Buri criticized zoning restrictions such as “floor area ratio and minimum lot size that are only there to preserve the value or increase the value of that home and create enclaves of wealth.”

Schultz said her architecture firm has found that the main way to build homes more cheaply is to build them smaller.

“Really, the only thing that we’ve been able to spur is making units smaller and more efficiently designed,” Schultz said. “You have a market out there that’s based on cost per square foot.”

Schultz said she completely agreed with the need to hold down housing prices, both by building more market-rate housing and by finding ways to make it profitable for developers to offer below-market housing.

Buri — who raised his hand, grinning, when Durning mentioned the “far left who don’t believe anyone should be making money on real estate” — questioned whether Durning’s “NIMBY-Trotsky coalition” is as strong in Portland as it has been in Seattle.

“It is supply and demand, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re a low-income tenant that’s being displaced from your home, taking an economics 101 class could help you avoid that.”
— Justin Buri, Community Alliance of Tenants

“It’s dangerous to paint opposition with broad strokes,” Buri said. “We see first-time homeowner opportunities being demolished for $800,000 McMansions, which doesn’t do anything for density or affordability.” Objecting to one-for-one demolitions, Buri said, is very different than objecting to construction because it changes “neighborhood character.”

Buri also called for Portland to work harder to include groups like OPAL Bus Riders Unite in its planning processes and to make affordable housing the first priority in a publicly backed development plan rather than the last.

And he noted that for all the talk of economics, understanding the causes of Portland’s housing shortage and price spikes isn’t enough to fix them.

“I am getting more and more frustrated with the simple refrain it’s just supply and demand,” Buri said. “It is supply and demand, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re a low-income tenant that’s being displaced from your home, taking an economics 101 class could help you avoid that.”

The Real Estate Beat is a regular column. You can sign up to get an email of Real Estate Beat posts (and nothing else) here, or read past installments here.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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Could Pronto’s problems come to Portland? Here’s what experts say

Could Pronto’s problems come to Portland? Here’s what experts say

Pronto bikeshare @king st station

Not ridden enough, but why?
(Photo: Diane Yee)

As we mentioned in this week’s news roundup, Seattle’s 16-month-old bike sharing system is in a very tight spot.

With the Pronto system taking in only 68 percent of the money required to meet its operating costs last year and the city considering taking it over in order to bail it out, many Portlanders are rightly wondering whether the upcoming Biketown system (which will be operated by the same company, Motivate) could face similar problems.

We talked to some of the country’s leading independent bike-share experts today to get their take. Here’s what we heard.

Seattle’s #1 problem is low ridership per bike

This is maybe the single most important number for all vehicle-sharing systems.

“You get your really high-performing systems like New York or Chicago that have like five trips per day,” said Phil Goff, a Boston-based senior associate for Alta Planning + Design who specializes in bike sharing feasibility studies. “And then there are some pretty high performing systems in the 2 to 3 range like Salt Lake City or Boston.”

Seattle averaged only 0.8 rides per bike in its first year.

“It sounds like the ridership projections were off, which happens,” said Paul DeMaio, a bike sharing consultant with Virginia-based Metrobike LLC. “If revenues are off, as it sounds like they were, then obviously it impacts the sustainability of the business.”

If Seattle had anticipated ridership that low, it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem.

“It’s not microscopically low,” said Goff. “There are other cities that are roughly within the one trip per day per bike range.” He mentioned Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Columbus, Ohio.

But Seattle, where biking in general is certainly more popular than in Chattanooga or Columbus (as well as Salt Lake City, Boston, New York and Chicago, for that matter), did anticipate higher ridership. Which is why…

Pronto launched with a bunch of loans

This is the first major difference between Seattle’s system and Portland’s. Alaska Airlines put up a lead sponsorship worth $1,000 per bike per year for 2014 through 2019 — $2.5 million total — but that and the city’s public start-up funds didn’t turn out to be enough to launch the system.

So the nonprofit that manages Pronto, Puget Sound Bike Share, took out loans to cover the difference. Last year, debt payments added up to almost $300,000, 15 percent of the system’s operating costs. Next year they’re on track to hit $500,000, according to a presentation being prepared for Seattle’s city council meeting Tuesday.

Biketown is starting from a much healthier place. Portland’s $10 million title sponsorship from Nike is four times the value of Seattle’s sponsorship — $2,000 per bike per year after accounting for the fact that Portland will launch with 1,000 bikes rather than Seattle’s 500.

Moreover, Biketown’s up-front costs per bike will be lower than Seattle’s because its “smart bike” system (which puts the computer on the bike rather than in the kiosk) saves a lot of money on station purchasing and installation.

Seattle has three major ridership challenges compared to other U.S. systems
yesler bike lake

My personal worst urban bike lane experience ever: Yesler Way in Seattle, August 2014.
(Image: Google Street View)

Here they are, probably in descending order of importance:

1) Huge hills in the middle of the service area
2) A system with two hubs instead of one
3) A mandatory helmet law

Portland faces none of these challenges.

Our inclines (for example, the climbs to Portland State University or the Mississippi District) aren’t nothing, but they’re not much compared to First Hill or Capitol Hill. Knowing this, Pronto launched with seven gears on its bikes instead of the usual three. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely not enough to get me pedaling up Yesler on a 50-pound bike.

Another Seattle issue: the decision to put 11 of its 54 stations in the University of Washington area. A study last year concluded that station density per square mile is essential to maximizing bike share ridership. Seattle’s system spread itself thinly over five square miles rather than concentrating on a single area.


Spreading itself thinly is certainly a risk for Portland; it first planned an eight-square-mile service area for 600 bikes (thinner than Seattle, that is) and now plans a somewhat larger service area for 1,000 bikes. But unlike Seattle, Portland isn’t likely to have two distant hubs; instead, it’ll probably concentrate stations in the downtown and gradually get less dense further out.

The last item is the most interesting, so let’s devote a whole subhed to it.

Helmet laws probably hurt bike sharing

Seattle, which was home to an influential 1989 study of bike helmets that has never been replicated and was repudiated by the federal government in 2013, is one of the few cities in the world where helmets are required for all adult bike users.

Though Seattle’s helmet law isn’t heavily enforced, it’s had several effects. First, it’s obligated cash-strapped Pronto to spend about $80,000 a year offering helmets to its users. Second, it makes people who choose to rent a helmet (for $2 a pop) go through the time-consuming step of finding a properly sized one and adjusting its straps properly. Third, it propagates the idea that bike sharing (which has yet to be associated with a single fatality anywhere in the United States and actually tends to reduce biking injuries in cities where it operates) is dangerous.

Aside from Seattle (and Vancouver BC, which doesn’t yet have a bike share system but is expecting to launch one) the main home of adult bike-helmet laws is Australia. And, lo and behold, that country’s two bike-sharing systems also perform woefully, with half the per-bike ridership of Pronto.

Because of all these differences between Portland and Seattle, Goff (who certainly has a financial interest in bike sharing’s success, but not in Pronto in particular) said it doesn’t make sense to assume Biketown will have problems just because Pronto is.

“I hope there aren’t people in Portland saying, well, it’s not working so well in Seattle, it might not work down here,” he said.

There might be a silver lining in Seattle’s cloud
First Downtown Protected Bike Lane Opens on Second Avenue

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Transportation Director Scott Kubly.
(Photo: Seattle DOT)

We’ve been rough in this post on Seattle, which is also a city doing a lot of things right. So let’s close on a contrarian note: despite the costs, this might actually turn out to be terrific for Seattle.

Here’s the basic problem with North American bike sharing: Almost all cities have been holding it to some of the standards of public transit — pushing for it to be used by people of all incomes and races, for example — but not giving it the public subsidies that virtually every U.S. public transit system would collapse without.

It’s entirely appropriate to hold a public system to a high standard. But equity goals cost money. And if Seattle’s city council votes tomorrow to subsidize Pronto by buying it out and then follows up with the massive expansion it’s already proposed, that could put Seattle on track to become the first U.S. city that actually uses public money to create a truly great bike share system.

That’s DeMaio’s interesting take.

“Some folks look at it as a takeover, as I think I’ve heard,” the Virginia-based consultant said. “However, this is very similar to what happened in many cities around the country, including in New York, with the private sector starting up subway lines and the lines not being profitable. So in the end the public sector stepped in, combined the lines, made them easier to use, expanded the service and brought back the customers.”

Could that happen? Should it? As always, we’ll be watching.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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Seattle’s antidote to aggressive driving on neighborhood greenways

Seattle’s antidote to aggressive driving on neighborhood greenways

Screenshot 2015-05-22 at 2.42.03 PM

It works.
(M.Andersen/BikePortland)

I’m in Seattle today joining the second leg of a study tour for a group from Indianapolis that’s visiting Portland and Seattle to study neighborhood greenways, the relatively low-cost, low-controversy bike infrastructure Portland imported from Vancouver BC and has built into a pretty solid network on its eastside grid.

As we’ve reported, our neighbors to the north are following suit even as funding for further expansion of Portland’s system remains frozen.

Indianapolis, short on cash but ambitious about bike infrastructure, is one of several cities around the country who are also following Portland’s lead.

Portland’s active transportation planners are trying to put the pieces in place for further greenway investment in the coming years, funding (but not yet releasing) an in-house, data-rich study of how the system is working. Meanwhile, neighborhood advocates have been using many tactics to raise awareness of a problem on some of the streets: heavy car traffic, in some cases from people who are cutting through the neighborhood on their way to somewhere else and seem distressed by the idea of getting stuck behind a 10 mph bicycle.

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Here in Seattle, the Indianapolis squad noticed something interesting: Seattle’s residential streets tend to be much narrower than Portland’s, especially huge expanses like those of Northeast Going, Northeast Alameda or (to a lesser extent) Southeast Clinton.

Add parking on each side and on some Seattle streets, like 58th Street in the Ballard neighborhood pictured above, you’ve got a single lane to carry traffic in both directions.

Say what you will for this setup — it definitely calms traffic. Bike traffic included.

After I took the photo above (and after she negotiated a face-to-face standoff with a car coming the opposite direction in which both driver and rider stopped and waved the other one to proceed), I jogged beside the woman biking for a moment and asked if conflicts like that were annoying, or whether it was worth it because of the slow speeds.

She seemed noncommittal.

“Part of living in a city, I guess,” she said.


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5 lessons for Portland in Seattle’s big bike-friendly ballot issue

5 lessons for Portland in Seattle’s big bike-friendly ballot issue

LevyMapFINAL

A few miles up the road, Portland’s big-sister city is doing something Portland hasn’t yet: charting a viable path to paying for its transportation goals.

The nine-year, $900 million “Move Seattle” property tax levy proposed Wednesday by Mayor Ed Murray would include (among many other things) 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 60 miles of neighborhood greenways over nine years. That’s about half of the projects that Seattle’s 20-year bike plan refers to as parts of the “citywide network.”

For comparison’s sake, Portland’s “paused” street fund proposal included, at one point, an estimated 14-20 miles of protected bike lanes and 40-50 miles of greenways over 10 years. But the possible lessons here for Portland aren’t just about scale (Seattle is bigger by most measures, after all) and the story here isn’t just that Seattle is succeeding where we aren’t (Seattle has a long way to go, after all).

As we all wait, somewhat confused, to see when Portland City Council will again decide to take up this problem (Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick says he plans to take it back up after the Legislature adjourns), here are some notes about Seattle’s proposal that Portlanders might find useful.

It’s going straight to voters. Despite calisthenic attempts to keep their street fund proposal off the ballot, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick couldn’t find a city council majority that could do so. By framing the issue from the get-go as a choice for voters, Murray is greatly simplifying his messaging around a public vote that probably would have been inevitable anyway.

It’s a big risk. This isn’t likely to be an easy sell. Murray is asking voters to more than double their expiring transportation property tax levy, from $130 a year to $275 a year for the median home.

The virtue of this is that it gives voters a chance to make a big decision with big payoff. Seattle Transportation Director Scott Kubly has been noting, correctly, that both of those cost figures are dwarfed by the thousands of dollars each year that the median Seattle resident has to spend on car transportation. Small investments in transit and biking benefit mostly the people who already use those modes. Big investments benefit everyone, because they actually reduce car use.

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Seattle is framing biking and transit as benefits to everyone. Politically speaking, there are two ways to see bicycle transportation improvements: as a tool for appeasing a tiny interest group of bike advocates, or as a tool for preventing a city from drowning in its own congestion. Murray’s administration is being very clear that it sees bikes as the second thing. From Wednesday’s coverage in The Stranger:

The future of this city is not in cars. As SDOT director Scott Kubly pointed out multiple times today, if all the people moving to our city—60,000 new people by 2025, according to the mayor—have to drive their cars everywhere, we’ll descend into an awful hellscape of traffic jams even worse than what we have now.

Portland politicians seem to have lost track of this narrative. Which is odd, since Portland is maybe the best evidence in the country that this works.

Scenes from the streets in Seattle-1.jpg

Portland active transportation staffer Linda Ginenthal on the streets of Seattle in 2008.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

It’s a boring old property tax. Why has 87.4 percent of Portland’s public conversation been about the street fund about how the money would be collected rather than all the neat stuff it would buy? Because Portland was trying to create a new sort of tax. By using an existing tax, Murray is starting the conversation with the benefits rather than the costs.

The main problem here is that Oregon’s property tax system, unlike Washington’s, is both conversation-killingly unfair and designed to pit ballot issues against each other before they even get in front of voters. Property taxes aren’t perfect, but they’re simple, broad-based and (under Washington’s constitution) relatively progressive. Novick has yet to float a Street Fund proposal that hits all three of those marks.

It’s a compromise. When it comes to transportation ballot issues, the conventional wisdom seems to be that unless local business advocacy groups are on board (and therefore, usually, the local newspaper’s editorial board), no one will be shouting “yes” loud enough to persuade voters to raise their taxes.

It’s not yet clear whether Murray got a sign-off from the Downtown Seattle Association or Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, though Cascade Policy Club Policy Manager Brock Howell said Wednesday that he didn’t expect either group to oppose it — adding that the plan falls well short of advocates’ stated goals for 250 miles of new bikeways by 2024. With Seattle City Council yet to act on Murray’s proposal, the compromises up north are sure to keep coming.

But if Seattle business and biking advocates end up teaming up to support this issue, it won’t be mostly because they’ve each secured an appropriate share of goodies. It’ll be mostly because business advocates in Seattle see bikes and transit as ways to increase the capacity of the road system. Until Portland can once again see transportation investments that way, compromises are likely to remain something biking advocates can only dream of.

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Amtrak’s trains keep getting bike-friendlier, but its buses aren’t keeping up

Amtrak’s trains keep getting bike-friendlier, but its buses aren’t keeping up

bikes on Amtrak bus

It’s sometimes possible to talk bikes onto an Amtrak
bus, but the variety of contractors is an obstacle.
(Photo: Mark Hogan)

As Amtrak invests in improving its trains to carry bikes, some customers are warning that Amtrak’s buses are falling behind.

The Amtrak Cascades line, between Eugene and Vancouver BC, is both one of the most-ridden regional rail lines in the country and maybe the bike-friendliest. For $5 on top of your fare, you can easily check an unboxed bike to most stops on the line and reclaim it like any other bit of luggage.

The service has been so popular that the hooks in Amtrak’s baggage cars started filling up. So two years ago, the Cascades added more hooks, boosting its bike capacity by 67 percent.

But as Northwesterners have begun to plan their travel around that useful service, it’s led to problems when Amtrak taps its far-flung network of buses to fill in for trains, or to run routes that trains don’t. Here’s a story from reader Richard Browning, who lives in Seattle, about bus problems that scuttled his attempted bike tourism to Portland earlier this month:

I don’t own a car. I use my bike for transportation. I had a reservation on the Amtrak Cascades to go from Olympia to Portland on Saturday. On the agenda were meetings with friends, and ironically – a prepaid entry to Worst Day of the Year Ride. In other words…like anyone traveling, I had plans that were contingent on reliable transportation.

Arriving at the Olympia station (staffed only by volunteers) after an 8 mile ride in the rain I was told that mudslides had closed the tracks and Amtrak would be sending a bus instead. Would the bus be able to take my bike? Volunteer staff shrugged. They didn’t know. They didn’t care. From the station I called Amtrak’s national ticketing line and – after a long delay – talked with an agent. Would the bus be able to take my bike? Virtual shrug. She didn’t know. She didn’t care. She could put me on hold and try and ask her “team” if they knew, but – she told me – they probably wouldn’t know – or care – either. Of course, I could wait for hours for the tardy bus to actually show and find out for myself – but she was “95% sure” it wouldn’t take bikes. I cancelled the reservation, and all my plans for the weekend. Then rode back 8 miles in the rain to Olympia.

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This is the third time I have had more or less the same scenario play itself outlike thiswith Amtrak, each time stranding me somewhere and upending my plans. I have never had the slightest indication Amtrak even understands there is a problem. I would say that at a bare minimum – since Amtrak is charging cyclists to bring their bikes on board the Cascade line and assuring them they will be accommodated – Amtrak should at least be able to tell us with certainty if the substitute bus they are sending can accommodate bikes.

Beyond that – how much more difficult would it be to have a rack to carry a bike or two? That Amtrak can’t even do the extreme minimum of informing cyclists if they will be accommodated or not in times of disrupted service shows just how trivial and inconsequential this national mass transit company considers use of bikes as transportation to be. Would they in the same cavalier manner blow off passengers with – say – two pieces of luggage instead of one? “Sorry – we can’t tell you if the bus will accommodate your second piece of luggage or not. If not you may permanently abandon the luggage or we will simply leave you standing at the curb. Sorry for any inconvenience this may be causing you”?

A mudslide is a mudslide, and obviously is going to disrupt travel plans in many ways. Still – especially since Amtrak competitor BoltBus typically hauls bikes in its undercarriage luggage area for free – it’s clear that allowing bikes to be carried on its buses would be within Amtrak’s power to achieve.

I asked Vernae Graham, Amtrak’s regional spokeswoman, what the biggest obstacles are to offering the service on its buses.

“Many operators,” she replied in an email Friday. “We contract out with various bus companies.”

Graham didn’t respond to a question of whether Amtrak has any plans to address this situation. For the moment, the only reliable way to carry bikes on Amtrak is to scrape together the cash for a folding bike. (Well, mostly reliable, anyway.)

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Youth Bike Summit will bring Portlanders to Seattle next week

Youth Bike Summit will bring Portlanders to Seattle next week

pasqualina-youth

Youth Bike Director Pasqualina Azzarello
speaking at the 2012 National Bike Summit.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

If you think about it, there’s little question about which disenfranchised minority has the most to gain from good bicycling: kids.

A national conference for people interested in the education, advocacy and organizing of young people who are interested in bicycling is about to kick off just up the road from Portland.

The annual Youth Bike Summit has taken place in New York City for the last four years, but this year Seattle will host its first year “on the road.” Portlanders will be presenting on three of this year’s panels: one by publishers/creators Elly Blue and Joe Biel called “Making Change,” and one from the Multnomah Youth Commission called “Youth Advocacy Initiatives: Transit Justice through Youth Organizing” and one by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and MYC called “Getting What You Want: Advocate.”

The City of Portland is sending Janis McDonald as a representative of their Safe Routes to Schools program.

Other Portlanders will be attending the conference, which costs $35 for people under 24 and $65 for older people. Most events are on Saturday, Feb. 14. Registration is still open if you’re interested.

The MYC was a driving force behind the creation of the Portland Public Schools YouthPass program that use money that would otherwise be spent on yellow-bus service to give free public transit passes to high schoolers in school districts that opt in. Since state funding was eliminated in 2011, the commission has been pushing for the program to be locally funded.

YOUTH BIKE SUMMIT SEATTLE 2015

This year, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon and other groups successfully argued for a new statewide YouthPass program to be recommended to Oregon’s legislature by a broad-based coalition of transportation interests. It remains to be seen whether legislators will agree.

Youth Bike Summit organizer Pasqualina Azzarello says while the summit focuses on getting young people to ride, the real value is for the grown-ups. “One thing I’ve learned through this work, is just how important it is for the adults who attend – and how learning, engaging, and including youth perspectives can be incredibly effective when it comes to growing, strengthening, and bettering advocacy efforts on the local and national scale and within the industry itself.”

Azzarello was one of three leaders in the youth cycling movement to be invited to speak at the annual Bicycle Leadership Conference to a room full of bike industry executives. Why? Because sales statistics show a decline in children’s bicycle sales over the past several years.

This event has grown by leaps and bounds since the idea for it was hatched by Azzarello and two teenagers with Recycle-A-Bicycle, a Brooklyn-based non-profit. They were traveling home on a bus from the National Bike Summit in Washington D.C. The 2014 event had 484 attendees from 27 states and four countries, making the Youth Bike Summit one of the largest such gatherings in the country.

“We’ve seen this movement build momentum and grow,” Azzarello shared with us via email last week, “And we’re excited by the resources and new outreach potential of having the YBS take place in the Northwest.”

Learn more, browse the full agenda, and register at YouthBikeSummit.org.

Correction 2:50 pm: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the number of Portlander-led panels.

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Seattle’s friendliest insurgent group visits Portland, eager for wisdom and dispensing their own

Seattle’s friendliest insurgent group visits Portland, eager for wisdom and dispensing their own

The crew from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Phyllis Porter of Rainier Valley Greenways, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Executive Director Cathy Tuttle and Seattle City Councilor Sally Bagshaw on a visit to Portland Sunday.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Over beers at the Hopworks Bike Bar happy hour Saturday, Seattle City Councilor Sally Bagshaw didn’t bother dithering over whether Portland’s Sunday Parkways street festivals are an idea worth spending city money on.

“We are determined to,” she said, waving dismissively at the question.

“Middle-aged, not super physically fit people are the ones who need to say, ‘It’s not so hard.’ … People don’t want to get into shape. They just want get about their lives.”
— Cathy Tuttle, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Bagshaw, who oversees Seattle’s parks department, spent last weekend in Portland as part of a 19-person delegation led by a three-year-old advocacy group whose success remaking Seattle transportation could be a model for bike advocates across the country.

Since its founding in 2011, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways has almost singlehandedly convinced the city to install 35 miles of bike routes modeled on Portland’s internationally famous 60-mile network of low-stress side streets. Now, by leading a weekend trip to Portland, the organization is paving the way for another import: a series of one-day summer open-streets festivals.

Yes, these are the events, modeled on Latin America’s ciclovias, that draw up to 30,000 participants five times a year and that The Oregonian once described in a momentous front-page story as “a handful of neighborhood bike rides.”

But for Bagshaw, along with Seattle DOT’s Kristen Simpson, interim SDOT Deputy Director Barbara Gray and Seattle Parks recreation director Kelly Guy, joining the SNG study tour to Portland was an opportunity to learn more about one of the key ways Portland communicates the benefits of its infrastructure to its residents.

“I just think what you guys have got with Sunday Parkways are the coolest thing ever,” Bagshaw said.

Sunday Parkways North Portland 2014-27

Portland’s 25th Sunday Parkways event was held last month.

A couple hours later, sitting outside Ruby Jewel ice cream shop on North Mississippi Avenue, SNG’s founding director Cathy Tuttle talked about her philosophy for getting Seattlites to ride bicycles.

“How do we say, ‘It’s the coolest thing you can do. It’s the sexiest thing you can do. It’s the thing that will make you happy, healthy and wealthy’?” she asked. “People need to hear that message from their neighbors. They need to long to be the person who can easily zip up, put their bike there and come to this bar and then easily come over to get ice cream.”

Whatever Seattle has been doing lately, it’s working. Bike traffic over the Fremont Bridge is up 14 percent this year and (though even Tuttle is skeptical of this finding) the bike counts on two new neighborhood greenways are up more than 600 percent.

Tuttle’s organization, which has just two paid staff, has been turning heads in Seattle for its extremely effective political organizing. Tuttle has deputized volunteers in 26 Seattle neighborhoods to gather local support for greenways.

greenways groups map

It’s no coincidence that SNG’s official map of
its neighborhood affiliates is divided up into
city council districts. Spreading the love has been
key to the group’s strategy.

In 10 years, their goal is to have a 250-mile of linked routes, including some multi-use paths and protected bike lanes, throughout the city.

“It’s very strategic political action,” said Tuttle, whose influence at the city is such that she was invited to personally weigh in on the selection of Scott Kubly as Seattle’s new transportation director.

tuttlee-bike

Tuttle on her e-bike.

(Kubly and Portland’s transportation director, Leah Treat, have been peers for years: they were the two closest deputies of former Chicago and Washington DC transportation director Gabe Klein.)

It’s work that seems well suited to Tuttle, a former organizer for climate-watchdog group 350.org who says her strength as a community organizer is “finding other people’s strength.”

It doesn’t hurt that Tuttle herself, who said she’s almost 60 and rides an e-bike, doesn’t look the way people expect a biking advocate to look.

“In a way, I’m the poster child for what needs to happen,” she said. “Middle-aged, not super physically fit people are the ones who need to say, ‘It’s not so hard.’ I think that’s a mistake a lot of bicycle advocacy groups make, is they try to get people into shape. People don’t want to get into shape. They just want get about their lives.”

SNG also makes a point not to make biking the core of its public message. The group responds with public events and pressures city hall for action after any walking-related fatality. Its alliance with the city to endorse Seattle’s current parks ballot measure grows out of SNG’s message that neighborhood greenways are a cheap, simple way of turning neighborhood streets into de facto parks.

greenways meaning

A page from SNG’s “Neighborhood Greenways Toolkit 2012.”

But though Tuttle and her team are obviously proud of their work and confident of their influence in Seattle government, they’re also huge fans of Portland and a city staff who Tuttle says is full of visionary, socially adept planners, project managers and engineers.

Mark Ostrow, Tuttle’s lead organizer in the Queen Anne neighborhood and a Portland native, said he visits the city every chance he gets, and is confused when he gets the sense that biking advocates here are discouraged.

“Maybe you shouldn’t wring your hands and gaze at your navel so much,” Ostrow said. “This is someplace people still go to for pilgrimages.”

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