Transforming Our Streets: Parklets in Portland – New Intersection 911 Video

Thanks to Rebecca & Karl for pulling it together for some spontaneous video interviews. It was fun putting together the prototype of this parklet with other people’s detritus.

Me and Karl joined Rebecca after we met the day before on the Transport Your Activism ride.  Learn more about Rethinking the Right-Of-Way.

Dignity Village – More Than a Tent City

Shortly after moving to Portland, I began working within the city’s continuum of homeless services. While I had some experience with this in Philly, through street counts and staffing emergency shelters, my experience in Portland has been more entrenched.

One misconception I held was that if someone was on the street, they were avoiding the shelter system due to a variety of valid concerns. This may be true for some folks experiencing homelessness, but many people are interested in warm, clean places to sleep and meet their basic needs. The problem is capacity: there are simply not enough beds to house those on the street, largely due to a lack of capital and operational funding. In Atlanta, where thousands have no beds in shelter and the homeless are defacto banned from the city center, one solution has been large warehousing of the homeless. It is not pretty or comfortable, but it is a shade better than sleeping on the street. Most of the funding for those shelters are through private contributions. Our country refuses to fulfill the basic human right of housing for all. Instead, we see homelessness as an inconvenience, an eyesore.  We criminalize homelessness and push it further to the outskirts of society.  As long as we cannot see it, it must not exist.

Along with an incredible list of non-profits, who have taken on the task of providing basic needs and transitioning the homeless to affordable housing, there is also the ground-up solution of tent cities.  Tent cities allow safe spaces for homeless housing. Tent cities have their own governance, all the officers and decision-makers are also residents. Tent cities provide a source of autonomy that many shelters (once you wait 3 months for a bed) cannot provide. Many tent cities are operated on unused private or public land, sometimes in violation of property laws. It seems that a simple solution would be the provisioning of public land for this use, but because tent cities require a degree of visibility, there is resistance from more affluent citizens.

The Pacific Northwest has gradually accepted tent cities as part of the solution toward ending homelessness.  Such efforts in the Northeast have generally been installed as protest, although there is now a tent city in Camden, NJ. Dignity Village in Portland is part of a movement to create tent cities across the country.  Here are 2 videos that give a glimpse into the world of a tent city:

Working in the Winter Warming Center, a more temporary and crude housing option for homeless residents, I’ve seen how much can be done with little resources. We’re able to house about 100 homeless residents for about $1000 a night. Surely we can come up with the funding to support all of our homeless, if we can muster up the political will to do so.

New Project: INTERSECTION 911

After moving to Portland last September, I’ve largely enjoyed my new city’s smart planning and general responsiveness to unsafe conditions.

I noticed, however, a few things unique to Portland that made intersections feel less safe:

  • Lots of 2-way stops, even though 4-ways seem a safer bet
  • Plenty of streets intersecting larger, arterial byways have very poor visibility of oncoming cross traffic.  This is due to parked cars and other obstructions close to these intersections.
  • Some streets seem to be unofficially designated “no bike zones” because of the speed and density of vehicular traffic (i.e. MLK, Burnside), which makes crossing them even more difficult.

There is the political (and social) will to make our streets safer where I live, but still much needs to be done.  In places like Philadelphia and New York City, there is less (but growing) will to reimagine our intersections as safe, communal spaces.   My sense from the initial reaction is the acceptance that visibility is important, but not every city is ready to give up parking at every corner.  I’d like to challenge the notion that the convenience of parking a car should not endanger pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers.

Portland has a vague, largely unenforced law that prohibits cars that are 6ft or taller from parking within 50 ft of an intersection.  This law is only enforced when someone complains, and on recent excursions to document intersections, I’ve been overwhelmed with how many vehicles were violating this law.  Short of me creating a full-time, unpaid job for myself by reporting all of these cars — who’s drivers most likely don’t understand the law as it’s buried in city code — I see a need for Portland to go on a ‘parking diet’ and take an active role in prohibiting parking that makes it dangerous for cross traffic.  I consider cross traffic any car, bicycle, or pedestrian attempting to cross a street where they do not have a physical barrier (i.e. stop sign or stop signal), to aid the lack of visibility.

The word I’ve gotten thus far, is that the city doesn’t want to lose the parking spaces, particularly on commercial strips like Alberta and Hawthorne.  If the parking were removed, it would lead to more cruising for spots, which leads to more cars circling neighborhood blocks, spewing carbon monoxide and adding to a general sense of congestion.

Seattle, which arguably has a higher demand for on-street parking, has a citywide law that prohibits parking within 30 feet of all intersections.  Similar laws are on the books across the country.  One sense in Portland is that this poor visibility forces drivers to compensate by driving more cautiously.  The idea is Mental Speed Bumps: less traffic control and more visual stimulation, lead to traffic calming.

I do appreciate that many side streets are kept calm and there is a culture of planning in Portland which makes every intersection a bit safer than your average city.  But, I’m not sure I’m buying that mental speed bumps have a comprehensive impact on safer streets.  In a time when more drivers are distracted by eating, cell phones, bad weather or lighting conditions, passengers and so forth, I’ve had enough close calls in this city to wonder just what works to make drivers more aware, drive slower, and perhaps, drive less.

I’ve created a mini-blog called INTERSECTION 911.  A space to

  • document intersections perceived to be dangerous
  • connect perception to reality –  back up with data whenever possible
  • highlight successful intersection interventions in Portland and other cities
  • understand the process – how Portland addresses problematic intersections
  • create tools to help others advocate for changes in their cities
  • pressure the city to investigate and address intersection concerns

There are other folks working on similar projects, for now I’m creating my own space to keep my information nuggets together.  Eventually, it may make sense to contribute to Livable Streets.  I also plan to take a free class at PSU on Transportation planning (thanks, Greg!) this Fall, and continue to build relationships with stakeholders.  For now, I’m going to make parking near intersections my first concern and see what comes about.  Let me know if you have any ideas!

AWESOME Underground Bike Parking in Japan

Granted, the critical mass of bicyclists in Japan is large: bicycles are used for over 30% of work and school commutes. This is much higher than say Portland or New York, especially considering the comparison between these dense cities and an entire country. I wonder where this sort of massive bike parking could be utilized in the United States, maybe Grand Central Station, or JFK Airport?

Usability demo:

This is a more in-depth look at the system:

Read more from Danny Choo.

Build Mass Transit & Bicycling Infrastructure NOW!

An open letter to President Obama:

Dear Obama Transition Team:

Please emphasize mass transit, bicycling, and walking within your Infrastructure plan.  Statistics show us Americans are driving less and less, while mass transit and biking are growing fast.  Let’s account for this and build a country that is proud of its sustainable transportation options.

Build a world class rail system, ensure easy-to-use and high-frequency transit systems throughout our cities, and require all building projects to accommodate safe travel for bicyclists and pedestrians.  These are the type of Green Jobs we need, not simply building new roadways, which only further promote the use of unsustainable transportation options.

If Americans gained access to a reliable, affordable, and high-speed rail system, we would also resolve the enormous problem of airplane emissions.  To date, there has been little discussion from your Transition team regarding air travel and its enormous impact on our environment.  We need alternatives to flying and driving long distances, a world-class rail system would effectively do this while providing millions of jobs.

Please fulfill your promises regarding the promotion of sustainable forms of transportation, make the creation of a nationwide network of mass transit, bicycling, and walking infrastructure a hallmark of your Administration.  This type of focus will lead to job-creation and sustainability we can all believe in.  Thank you for your time.

Steve Bozzone
Portland, OR

Send your own thoughts on Obama’s transportation priorities.  See also: Obama CTO / Obama’s Urban Policy Prioritizer.