Components of a 21st Century Comp Plan

September 9, 2014

Portland is currently developing a new Comprehensive Plan, only the second full plan in our history (the first was in 1980 – in the last century!). You can learn about the update project and play with an innovative tool – the map app (where you can make comments on the geographic aspects of the plan).

The plan has the traditional elements: land use, transportation, sewers, water lines, parks, etc.

But this is a new century, and I’m concerned that the world we live in now needs some plan components that we don’t have: open data and broadband.

Open Data

Our city is a collaborative effort of citizens, businesses, non-profits and a host of government agencies. The collaboration can only work better when data is shared among the partners. Portland recognized this in 2009, becoming one of the first cities in the country to adopt an open data resolution, and ran a competition for applications using the data sets that were released at the time. But a resolution is only an aspiration, and the effort has waned a bit since that time. Some data sets have been updated, but others have not, and we’d love to see a lot more.

I think the Comprehensive Plan is an excellent opportunity to make this official city policy (and law) rather than just an aspiration. Can we make every new City IT system produce open data (subject to reasonable exceptions based on privacy, security and cost)? Can we make all that data available on a license-free, redistributable and machine-readable way? I think Portland is the kind of city that can do that!


Internet connectivity is a critical factor for economic competitiveness and educational attainment, but the United States lags seriously. Our households have slower access – and pay more for it – than countries in Europe and Asia. Portland currently stands 200th on the global list of cities for access speeds. And the connectivity we do have is not evenly distributed across the city. This is a key equity issue! Atlantic Cities did an interesting set of maps of adoption by neighborhood in a number of cities, including Portland.

CenturyLink has just begun offering Gigabit (50 times the current rates of connectivity) service in some neighborhoods of Portland. And the City is working hard to recruit Google Fiber. But neither offer the assurance of universal service.

I would suggest that a policy of affordable and universally available broadband connectivity is every bit as important to include in the Comp Plan as water and sewer lines. This goal from Portland’s Broadband Strategic Plan might be a good candidate:

“Eliminate broadband capacity, equity, access and affordability gaps so Portland achieves near universal adoption of broadband services for all residents, small businesses and community-based organizations.”

Feel free to discuss these ideas (and suggest details for the policies) here. But if you feel like it’s important for the City to include something about these policies in the Plan, I’d suggest you comment formally. You can attend any one of the four public hearings this fall (the first on September 23rd) or you can send written testimony to the Planning and Sustainability Commission at psc@portlandoregon.gov.

Update: Here are the details on the first hearing:

5pm on Tuesday, September 23rd (room will open at 4:15pm and testimony sign up will start then)
Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, 1900 SW 4th Ave, Portland

Subsequent hearings are:

5pm, October 14th
Parkrose High School

5pm, October 28th
Portland Community College, SE Campus

4pm, November 4th
Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, 1900 SW 4th Ave, Portland


Have Your Bike Shed Ambitions Been Frustrated?

August 3, 2013

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has an ongoing process to clean up and improve the zoning code called “RICAP” (Regulatory Improvement and Code Amendment Package). We keep a database of suggestions, problems and common adjustments and periodically select items from the database to work on in packages.

We’re about to put together another such package, and there’s an issue that I’d like to get some feedback on (it’s not currently recommended for inclusion in the next group).

We allow garages to be built in the “setback” areas of a property (required buffers from the sidewalk or neighboring properties), but other storage structures have to be built in the interior of a lot.

But a garage is defined as being big enough to hold an automobile (9 feet x 18 feet). If you want to build a storage structure for smaller vehicles like bikes, motorcycles, Segways or scooters, you can’t do that in the setback areas.

Have you tried to build a “bicycle garage” and been limited by this zoning rule? I’m trying to determine how significant an issue this might be. Please share your experiences.



Do Food Carts Have Measurable Amenity Value?

December 16, 2012

Data reported on by the Business Journal would suggest that office buildings near food cart pods (collections of carts, not individual carts) have lower vacancy rates!


Trying to Explain the Comp Plan in the Time it Takes to Cross a 20-minute Neighborhood

December 7, 2012

I had the pleasure of being a guest on what the Portland Afoot Podcast called “their wonkiest” episode (but “surprisingly riveting”), trying to make the connection between Active Transportation and our current efforts to update Portland’s Comprehensive Plan.

Download it here or search for “Portland Afoot Podcast” on iTunes.


Transecting Portland’s Urbanism

September 30, 2012

“Transect” is a word given an additional usage by new urbanist planners to mean a continuum of neighborhood types ranging from the dense central city out to the increasing less dense edges of a region.

Today, returning from the East Portland Sunday Parkways, I rode home on the Springwater Trail and had the opportunity to transect Portland’s various flavors of urbanism, including:

  • A restoration project on Johnson Creek helping bring salmon back to the creek
  • The “Cartlandia” food cart pod – a bike-friendly oasis, complete with beer garden, on the very auto-centric 82nd Ave – where I had lunch (and I can’t see what all the fuss at City Council about the liquor license was about – it’s a very family-friendly environment)
  • Light industry and urban agriculture (Zenger Farm), side-by-side
  • The vibrant, built-in-the-streetcar-era urbanism of the Sellwood neighborhood
  • The amusing urbanism of Oaks Park, side-by-side with withe nature-in-the-city urbanism of Oaks Bottom
  • Kayakers enjoying Ross Island, just before I encountered our newest streetcar terminus and rail museum
  • A view of the downtown skyline from the Eastbank Esplande

We are truly blessed…


How Should We Assess the Health Impacts of West Hayden Island Development?

June 19, 2012

Sometime this fall, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission will be making a recommendation to City Council on whether or not to annex West Hayden Island for the purpose of enabling the Port of Portland to develop a rail/marine terminal.

The question is already controversial and it’s easy to see this being positioned as a “jobs versus the environment” choice (although in fact I think it’s really more nuanced).

I’m just sitting down to read the draft plan (PDF) and plan to attend the open house Wednesday night. I expect this will be one of the most challenging decisions I’ll be involved in while on the Commission.

But before we get to the big decision, we have an important step on the way next week. Staff will brief the Commission on what factors we might want to have go into some form of Health Impact Assessment as part of the decision-making process this fall. The briefing packet (PDF, 111 pages, sorry) outlines what health information we already have and what we may want to collect (for example, more noise data).

But the meat of my question is expressed in the staff memo introducing the packet, suggesting the issues we might want covered by a Health Impact Assessment:

  • To what extent would the distance and topography between the WHI [West Hayden Island] port and residences in EHI [East Hayden Island] provide an effective buffer that would mitigate noise effects from the operation of the facility or the rail traffic to and from the facility?
  • To what extent would port-generated rail traffic on the elevated rail line that currently crosses WHI cause a noticeable increase in noise effects over current rail traffic? For example, the time of day, duration, or both of port-generated rail traffic may cause a noticeable increase in noise effects.
  • To what extent would port-generated truck traffic on NHID [North Hayden Island Drive] cause a noticeable increase in noise effects over current or projected truck traffic? For example, the time of day of truck traffic may cause a noticeable increase in noise effects.
  • If a HIA [Health Impact Assessment] determines that port-generated traffic would cause a noticeable increase in noise effects, what types of measure could mitigate these effects?
  • What is the geographic extent of the affected air shed and what populations, schools, employment centers, etc. are located in this air shed?
  • How will port-related activities affect air quality in the affected air shed?
  • What other sources of air pollution are present near the WHI port and what is their contributions to air pollution in the affected air shed?
  • What is the current prevalence of asthma and other respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer risk, low birth weight babies in the affected air shed?

Today’s topic for discussion: are these the right questions to be asking? Are there other factors we should consider?

Also, I anticipate the argument will be made that some of these factors cannot be judged without a more specific facility design, and assessment should be postponed until an Environmental Impact Statement phase (after annexation). Others will argue that these are critical issues and should be assessed before annexation.

What do you think?


Telling the Climate Action Success Story in One Infographic

April 11, 2012

One of the duties of the Planning and Sustainability Commission is oversight of the City’s Climate Action Plan.

This week we got our second annual update on the progress of the plan. Last year when we got the first report, it took several slides to show how efforts in different sectors contribute to our overall carbon reduction efforts.

At the time, I challenged staff to try to tell the story in one slide. Then I forgot about it…

But they didn’t! This year they presented this slide, which does a wonderful job of telling the story:

index - Copy

Click image to show full size

Well done! My thanks and congratulations to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability staff, not just for this wonderful graphic, but for a great plan that we’re truly making progress on.


Best Practices for Web 2.0 Engagement in Planning

April 1, 2012

Via Planetizen:

This piece from the Placeshakers and Newsmakers blog gives some practical advice for how to do online engagement for planning projects.

One huge takeaway is that you have to explain what the constraints on a project are. It’s easy for someone approaching your web site/tweet/facebook post to assume a blank sheet of paper. And that’s never the reality.

I can’t count the number of times on my transportation blog that I’ve had to reply to a comment on one of my posts with another comment saying some form of “gas tax revenues can’t be used for non-roadway improvements…”

It’s vital to create the proper context when soliciting community involvement online.

But while I’m on the subject, I want to pass on my compliments to the Portland Plan team for their excellent use of online tools and social media throughout the Portland Plan process. I hope many of you can join us on April 18th when the plan goes before City Council (6pm, Council Chambers in City Hall).


The Case for Bicycles in the Portland Plan

December 19, 2011

My friend Elly Blue took the time to submit the following as written testimony for the Portland Plan. I could not have done a better job of making the case for why the Plan must treat cycling as a vital tool in achieving our strategic objectives.

Dear Planning & Sustainability Commission members,

Please consider this email to be written testimony about the key role of bicycle transportation in the economic prosperity/affordability strategy in the Portland Plan. Prioritizing the smooth flow of bicycle traffic throughout the region will continue to provide exponential returns in all elements of this strategy, as I will describe below.

I live in Southeast Portland, where I am a writer and co-own a small business, PDX by Bike, that helps visitors to Portland discover our city by bicycle and enables them to support bike-friendly local businesses. In the last year I wrote a ten-part series of columns about bicycling and the economy, which can be read here. In researching these columns, I was stunned by the growing economic importance of bicycling nationwide not just for people who ride bicycles but for community-wide prosperity. Transportation affects every aspect of our economy, on a household level and societally.

Below is a summary of how bicycle transportation fits in to the Portland Plan’s 2035 objectives for prosperity and affordability. I have provided citations to studies, often shortening the links. I am happy to provide any further citations, information, and commentary that the committee would find useful.

1. Export growth: In a down economy, Portland’s bike export industry is booming. Thanks to our reputation for bike friendliness and the availability of talented workers who understand all aspects of the bicycling industry, companies including Chris King, Rapha, PDW, Nutcase, Ellsworth/Zen, and many others have moved to Portland in the last decade, hired, and grown here. They all provide family wage jobs while producing bikes, apparel, gear, and components that are in increasing demand worldwide.

2. Urban innovation: See above. Moreover, Portland is a hub for the custom craft bicycle framebuilding industry, which is growing as fast as the demand for bicycling nationwide (which is to say very fast!). Entrepreneurs in fashion, writing, coffee, technology and even freight delivery have found success in starting new businesses — or branching out in existing endeavors — to tap into local and international demand for all things Portland and bike. The bicycle braintrust here in Portland is not available anywhere else in the world, and this continues to attract media attention and professional in-migration. These folks are chomping at the bit to provide jobs, and every bit of support they can get, from economic boosts to further improvements in the bikeway network, helps them grow their businesses and give back more to the community.

3. Freight mobility: Bicycle transportation and freight are natural allies. Though we use entirely different roadway systems most of the time, both interests are served by reducing the traffic congestion, road wear, and crash hazards posed by single-occupancy automobiles being the region’s primary mode of transportation. All of these barriers to freight mobility are mitigated by increased bicycle transportation. Moreover, within the city, cargo bicycles can be cheaper and more efficient to operate than trucks; UPS operates a cargo bicycle fleet during the holidays, and the City of Portland has found it economical to have its office supplies delivered by B-Line, a local bicycle freight company. I predict that, with encouragement, we’ll see growth in bicycle freight embraced more widely, including by trucking companies, creating jobs as well as improving bottom lines and community prosperity, safety, and health.

4. Growing employment districts: In 2008, Portland-based firm Alta Planning + Design found that the bicycle industry alone contributed $90 million annually to the local economy, providing as many as 1,150 jobs. Portland’s bike industry has grown substantially since then, despite the economic downturn. Since the Alta study in 2008, at least 100 directly bicycle-oriented businesses have opened in or moved to Portland. Despite lagging job growth overall, businesses tied to the bicycle economy have been growing and adding employees. It is worth noting that these figures do not include businesses that operate by bicycle or that profit from catering to customers, clients, and employees that bike.

5. Neighborhood business vitality: When people ride a bicycle rather than drive a car for most of their trips, they tend to shop and work within biking or walking distance of home. Recent studies have shown that people who shop in neighborhood retail clusters by bicycle spend more money each week than people who arrive by car. Other research has shown that building bicycle infrastructure creates nearly twice as many jobs per dollar spent as building car infrastructure. Bicycle parking in particular has a direct economic impact on local retail businesses. A forthcoming study from PSU, to be released at the end of 2012, is looking at the broader scope of the economic benefits of bicycle infrastructure to Portland’s local businesses. Finally, when employees are able to bicycle to work, economic benefits include often substantial employer savings on parking costs as well as a measurable reduction in sick days and improvements in mental health.

6. Access to housing/cost of living: City-wide access to safe, convenient bicycle transportation is key to driving down the often ignored “transportation cost” of housing. In Portland, bicycle infrastructure has been built according to a “low hanging fruit” philosophy. This means that improvements aimed at improving the safety and comfort of bicycle transportation have been made incrementally, and those increments have corresponded with the commute needs of Portlanders who are relatively well-off and politically engaged. This strategy has been effective in creating a world class bicycle network in parts of the city; unfortunately it has also contributed to the association of bicycling as an elite amenity. Meanwhile, bicycling remains an essential transportation utility that is still used and needed across all sectors of society, but which has been provided for with less attention to equity than is needed. One way to create more equitable economic opportunities is to prioritize active transportation facilities by type of street rather than by specific neighborhood or corridor. Also, bicycle-transit connectivity (including investments in the transit system) must continue to be improved citywide.

7. Access to housing/cost burden: Affordable housing, to be truly affordable, needs to come with secure, indoor bicycle parking facilities as well as on-street short-term bicycle parking and access to bike-friendly routes that lead to neighborhood business districts, parks, and schools.

8. Education and job training. Access to education, job training, and jobs is contingent on reliable, affordable transportation. Cars break down, requiring expensive repairs. Portland’s transit service is being reduced while the price to the user is going up. Bicycling is often the most reliable, cheapest, means to travel, so long as no major infrastructure barriers are imposed, such as impassable freeways, major roads without bike facilities, lack of bike parking at the destination, or instructors or employers who are hostile to bicycling. Portland’s Community Cycling Center’s “Create a Commuter” program is an excellent example of one way to provide affordable mobility to those who most need it. Access to the growing bicycle jobs sector is important as well. Portland is already home to a new campus of Ashland-based United Bicycle Institute. Improving access to opportunities to learn bicycle maintenance and manufacturing skills — for instance at community colleges and in high schools — will act as an equitable multiplier for the growing bicycle economy.

9. Household economic security. The direct cost of owning and driving a car is, on average, over $8,000 per year. The poorest fifth of U.S. families spend twice the average, amounting to 40% of their take-home pay. These costs often are directly in conflict with other expenses such as food, housing, and medication. Meanwhile, the cost of bicycling remains extremely low or free. A reasonable commuting bicycle, a lock, lights, and a helmet can be purchased for a one time investment of under $500; maintenance costs need not exceed $150 per year. Community bike projects like the Bike Farm and the Community Cycling Center offer opportunities to receive free bikes and maintenance, and repairs can be done cheaply by owners. Bicycling for transportation further contributes to household economic security by significantly reducing the risk of common, and economically devastating, diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and mental illness. Car crashes are great creators of poverty; and as a major cause of disability, loss of income, and inability to care for others, they disproportionately affect the poor. Likewise, lung and heart diseases that result from over exposure to auto fumes, for instance from growing up next to a freeway, are a public health issue that produces and reinforces economic inequalities.

There is a gender equity issue here too. Women are responsible for the majority of household trips each day, including 77% of passenger-carrying trips. When children can ride independently to school and elders can get around without a car, caretakers (who are statistically twice as likely to be women) are freed up to participate in income earning work. For true household economic security, grocery stores, schools, and workplaces must be clustered in neighborhoods and must be safely and comfortably accessible by bicycle and on foot by someone who is carrying a child and/or heavy groceries. This affects every aspect of the Portland Plan. I would particularly like to draw the commission’s attention to school placement as a vital issue in transportation equity.

Finally, the health benefits of riding a bicycle far outweigh the health risks. And as more people ride bicycles in a given area, traffic safety improves for everyone, no matter what mode they are using. Yet the poorest Portlanders often have the least access to safe, convenient bicycle routes and bicycle advocacy, services, and education.


One question that isn’t covered on this list is the public costs of our transportation system. Portland’s entire bicycle network up until 2008, when it was generally recognized as the best in the nation and among the best in the world, incurred the same public cost as a single mile of urban freeway. Automobility drains money from the local economy as well as public coffers, and our freeways produce massive external costs and are often a barrier to active transportation. The devastating financial results of continuing to invest in road systems for single occupant automobiles is well-described here. Bicycling, on the other hand, both saves and makes money — for local businesses, for the city, and for individual households. The only challenge is to make it available to everyone.

In summary, bicycling is already vital to Portland’s current economy and will even more so to our future prosperity and resilience. If we are to have a viable, equitable, well-maintained transportation system in 2035, it is essential to pursue an overall strategy that encourages bicycling at every level — from street markings to zoning to parking policies to school placement to business tax structures and more.

Thank you for reading this. I look forward to the results of all your efforts.


Elly Blue


How to Testify Effectively on the Portland Plan

November 8, 2011

Tonight was the first Portland Plan public hearing, and I think it points the way for how to effectively advocate for policy in the plan.

We got excellent testimony in a number of areas including equity, health and the role of youth in our planning processes. But my colleagues and I shared some common feedback to the testifiers – we want specifics. The Plan covers a lot of areas from a lot of angles. If you think something is missing (or wrong), we’d like you to tell us where, pretty specifically (as in, “on page 37 you should add this idea in the action items”).

So here’s my advice on how to have maximum impact with your testimony experience:

1) Prepare your three minutes of verbal testimony to give us the rationale for your idea.

2) Leave us written testimony specifically mapping out the places in the plan where you think your issue needs to be expressed, and how you’d like to see it reflected.

That one-two punch should do the trick. And as a reminder, here are the remaining input opportunities:

Portland Plan Hearings (public comments welcome)

Tuesday, November 15
5:30 – 9 p.m.
Parkrose High School

Tuesday, November 29
5:30 – 9 p.m.
1900 SW 4th Ave., Suite 2500A

Work Session and Recommendation

Tuesday,  December 13
12:30 p.m.
1900 SW 4th Ave., Suite 2500A

To submit written comments by email

Send comments to psc@portlandoregon.gov with the subject line “Portland Plan testimony.”

To submit written comments by mail

Send a letter with your comments to the Planning and Sustainability Commission, 1900 SW 4th Ave., Portland, OR 97201-5380, Attn: Portland Plan testimony.

For more information or if you have questions, please call 503-823-1303.