Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Sincerest Form Of Flattery - Lessons Learned In Portland, Oregon

In our last post, we talked about our fabulous vacation to Portland (and Bend) Oregon, and what we experienced while using the superb array of transportation options there. Here, I'd like to cover what we saw as takeaways from those experiences - the lessons that we think would be helpful here in OKC as we expand our alternative transportation infrastructure.

1. One little tidbit we picked up in Portland is streetcar sponsorships. The Embark buses obviously already sell print advertisements and bus wraps on the outside, which brings in revenue, but the Portland Streetcar went a step further: the "voice" that announces stops inside the vehicle would add, "The Portland Streetcar: Brought to you by (insert company name here)." I'm sure a local company would love to pay to get that exposure, maybe even enough to help close the funding gap that's keeping Embark from providing evening and Sunday service on all routes. Just a thought.
The MAX pulling up to Pioneer Courthouse Square
2. The pedestrian infrastructure in Portland is extremely conducive to walking as a way of getting around. There are sidewalks and crosswalks everywhere, along with automatic walk signals. How does this differ from normal walk signals? Automatic signals don't have a button that has to be pushed to activate the signal; when the traffic light turns green, the pedestrian signals in that direction immediately switch to "walk." It's important psychologically to not have to "ask permission" to cross at an intersection as a pedestrian. This simple change makes a pedestrian feel welcome and included, rather than alienated. I can't tell you how many times John and I have come up to an intersection in OKC just as the light changed, but because we pushed the crossing button at just that moment, we didn't get the walk signal. It's frustrating and demoralizing; and worse of all, since we usually just go ahead and cross (after checking to see if cars are turning across the crosswalk), if we happened to be struck by a car, we would bear the liability because the walk signal wasn't on. We shouldn't have to wait through an entire traffic light cycle just because we arrived a second too late to hit the button, and we should also have some legal protection if we get hit by a car when lawfully and reasonably crossing the street at a crosswalk. 

Another great feature of Portland pedestrian crossings: the "walk" signal stays on - not blinking, but steady - for a LONG time. There's none of this getting the "walk" signal for 5 seconds (not even enough time to cross the road in most places), then blinking "don't walk" for 10 seconds. Again, this is another subtle difference that makes a pedestrian feel welcome and protected.

Walking across the Burnside Bridge - note the car lanes, sidewalks, AND bike lanes.
Sunset view from the streetcar - yet another way to get around in Portland.
3. Similarly, the bike infrastructure in Portland is supportive of cyclists. To some extent, it's as simple as having lots of bike racks available all over the city. We also found that bike lanes are nearly universal; if there is a main road, there's a bike lane on it, period. Even when we headed out of town on our way to Bend, we were still seeing bike lanes at around 200th Street and beyond. This was an area that you could barely call the city anymore, bordering on woodsy. And better yet, people were still USING the bike lanes at that point. With bike and pedestrian infrastructure, there really is a level of "if you build it, they will come" that plays into it. From a public health standpoint, this is a no-brainer: want a healthier, more fit population? Provide your citizens with ways to walk, cycle, and move more, and they will use it; everybody wins.

Part of the Riverfront Bike Trail

View from the Riverfront Bike Trail
4. In that same vein, another big asset in Portland is the connectivity of public transit to hiking and biking trails, and how this plays into the overall connectivity of the city. As I said in our last post, we were able to take a bus out to a wilderness hiking trail and then hike in the forest for 7.2 miles. At multiple points during our hike, we could have hopped onto a bus (there were bus stops out there) and gone home, and when we reached the end of the trail, we were able to get on the MAX light rail train and head back into downtown Portland. Between the extensive bike lanes, the various bus and MAX routes, and the many miles of hiking trails, we could conceivably walk, bike, and hike all over the city, anywhere we choose. This is helpful to John and me as people who choose not to own a car, but it's also a great option for anyone who wants to get out and move more rather than driving. OKC is already working on extending and improving bike trail connectivity, and I'm here to say that we need to keep doing exactly that! I've seen the future and it's totally worth it.

Finished hiking? Just catch a bus back home!

Finished hiking? You also have the option of taking the MAX light rail.

The Washington Park underground MAX light rail station at the end of our hike through Forest Park.
The point here isn't to dump on OKC. Portland has its own issues, like the skyrocketing homeless population (to be fair, however, this is not because Portland repeatedly fails its most vulnerable citizens; the situation is quite the opposite. And while we enjoyed our riverfront bike ride on Thursday morning, John and I both had to admit that we definitely prefer the river trails in Oklahoma City - they're much easier to navigate. The reason we're talking about this is because evidence shows an upward trend of young people moving into walkable cities, and if Oklahoma City wants to continue to attract that demographic, it will have to keep making changes that align with that culture. So far, OKC has been doing many things right, but there's still a lot of potential for improvement. I've seen a great deal of community pride and excitement since moving to OKC, so I have faith that the city can continue to grow in a way that will make us the kind of place that other cities aspire to be be like.


  1. I think the things you point out are absolutely spot on about takeaways from Portland - I lived a summer there (and also actually grew up right outside of Bend), and the culture of supporting many modes of transportation is something I really came to value after only living a few months in the city. I think your blog is a really great way to bring light to that culture (and the benefits that come with it!) within a city that does have pockets of people that maybe don't know there are others that desire that culture shift too.

  2. I enjoyed this post, although it must be noted that your focus was on inner Portland. There are a great many areas of Portland where the transportation options (and even sidewalks) are not as prolific and welcoming. While it's certainly wonderful for tourists and those that can afford to live IN inner Portland, there is a large population on the outer parts of Portland who are not so lucky to get all of these things. I can see what you're saying about OKC being different from Portland, but be careful not to paint Portland as a transportation utopia. It does have many wonderful assets, yet there are a lot of areas that lack.

  3. Here's to hoping public transportation infrastructure can improve in the OKC metro area. Unfortunately, in regards to bike commuting, I find many people simply want to spin this into an argument of "proper car-driving citizens" versus "pedal-pushing hipster baristas" .. wish everyone would chill out, responsibly share the road, and quit encouraging division by choice of car or bike. This story , which has been on the front of the OU Daily website for almost three weeks now, demonstrates the lack of seriousness often present when discussing improvements to local bike lanes, share the road campaigns, and other legitimate pro-cycling initiatives.