Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sustainable Cities Expert Wheels Around Town Last Thursday

Aside from both being capital cities, it's hard to say how much Salem and Washington, DC have in common. So when Gabe Klein, former Director of Transportation for DC was in town last Thursday, visiting Eugene, Salem, and Portland as the Sustainable Cities Expert-in-Residence, it was hard to know what to expect.

Size alone might suggest Portlanders are more likely to be on the same page. Salemites might have a very different set of problems and solutions.

Fortunately, Klein's smart and completely charming, and it was delightful to have a chance to chat with him. A former bike mechanic, he spotted that the tires on the City's Eneloop needed air, and immediately offered to fill them. As a small group of us biked around town, Klein didn't talk too much about other places, other cities, other models; he wore his expertise lightly and with great friendliness.

(Wearing a trenchcoat and stingy brim, Klein stood out with style.
Images courtesy of Chris Jones, Sustainable Cities Initiative

Conversation was hardly systematic, so perhaps this was only an artifact of the limited time and of the vagaries of conversation, but more than anything his comments on Salem Transportation Planning suggested something about a donut hole in the City's thinking about transportation.

Klein's comments focused on two scales, a micro scale, smaller than the street, and a macro scale of regional movement. It was interesting that a center, the neighborhood scale of local, short-hop transportation, seemed to be missing.

Klein spent much of the day talking shop with staff from Salem Public Works, who did not join us on the bike tour. Writing in the SJ about the visit, Chris Hagan said
Salem Public Works Director Peter Fernandez was talking with Gabe Klein on Thursday, who until recently was his Washington, D.C., counterpart.

Klein was in town as part of the University of Oregon's Sustainable Cities Initiative. As the two spoke, the conversation drifted from bikeshares and personal urban transportation to something common to every American city.

"He ran the Washington, D.C., transportation department, and we were talking about potholes," Fernandez said. "Here's this national expert on all kinds of stuff, and the majority of our conversation was about how did he deal with potholes."*

This fiscal year, the city of Salem budgeted $102,000 to fix potholes. That's about 3 percent of the $3.5 million street maintenance budget, which also goes to fixing sidewalks and paving streets.

"They're a nuisance, but they're not a gigantic part of our budget," Fernandez said. "It's just a fact of life for the street maintenance crews."
Later, as we chatted at Venti's after a ride across the Union Street Railroad Bridge and north along Front Street, the site of an SCI study, Klein raved about the enormous right-of-way on our downtown streets. By east coast standards, our generous boulevards have tons of excess capacity. (Klein didn't directly address Court Street, so the caption is from this discussion, but we were walking and talking along it at Venti's, and it was one of the "generous" streets.)

But he also said that concerns about regional traffic movement seemed to trump the prospects of using the excess. Salem Public Works staff felt constrained, he said, by the fact that a little over half of the miles traveled in Salem comes from trips originating outside of the area (the red lines in this slide from a SKATS presentation on greenhouse gas reduction).

What seemed to be missing is that idea that we can still make a dent in the blue lines, the local trip that is 5 miles or less - the exact kind of trip for which a bike is perfect! Moreover, I-5 traffic never hits the Salem grid, and even Highway 22 traffic is limited to a few streets. Mostly we were biking on, and admiring the broad right-of-way of, streets not part of the highway system. Further, by taking cars from short-hop drive-alone trips off the road, the City's road system can better accommodate necessary car trips that originate from farther away.

Again, conversation was informal, and the "donut hole" here might be coincidence and accident. But it still seems telling that potholes were more interesting than bikeways to city staff. In the news story about Klein's visit, potholes trumped sustainability, even. Salem still thinks of mobility primarily in terms of drive-alone car trips, and it probably shouldn't be surprising that conversation might not have spent much time on the short-trip and "personal urban transportation." Really working on mobility choice for the short trip is still reckoned dessert, extra calories, not a main course.

It may be too much to ask for a lot out this particular visit. Indeed, Klein's interests and expertise are a better match for Portland: Streetcars and zipcars are already well established in Portland, and bike sharing is not far away from there (an arm of Alta Planning operates the Capital Bikeshare). Though we have a few zipcars at Willamette, streetcars and bike sharing are a stretch for Salem at this point, and it's clear that Klein works in larger, denser, and more urban environments.

Still, the visit was delightful and it was great to hear from someone who knows real gridlock that Salem's congestion is far from gridlock.

* "Fixing potholes" is important, but of course it's also a political cliche. If one side of the equation is leadership, the other is public opinion. Until there are more of us asking for bikeways and a sustainable transportation policy, potholes and road expansion will get better play than sustainability. Make sure the Mayor and your City Councilor know you want more bikeways!


Brandon Filbert said...

Having just spent time in Corvallis (my hometown) and biking there, I would say that Salem is about 20 years behind the times (with a few exceptions, the Union Street Bridge perhaps being the best example). There are likely many reasons, but I would be interested to know how many people in the highest levels of city leadership bike to work--ever. I suspect that many of them live in the hilliest sections of town, and might thus be less likely to use a bicycle for commuting (or other shorter trips). I would be delighted to be wrong about this supposition.

Without personal buy-in at the very top, transportation change in Salem will continue to be glacial, and alternative transportation remain the province of the "have-nots" and "the die-hards," both groups that do not figure much in political equations. Until that buy-in (or $6 a gallon gas), potholes and parking will likely continue to be the hot topics.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

First the good news. Don't forget the Sharrows! The sharrows are not 20 years behind the times.

Also, the current Transportation System Plan contains this goal:
The City will seek to triple its bicycle modal share of all trips its employees make and reduce bicycle accidents involving City employees by 10 percent by the Year 2015, thereby serving as an institutional model for other agencies and businesses."

Additionally, City Councilor Laura Tesler commutes by bike regularly to her day job. She has some hills. Councilor Diana Dickey bikes less frequently, but she does bike also. The City Traffic Engineer and Transportation Planning Manager also commute by bike - and both have significant hills. (Some others also walk regularly, including the Director of Public Works. Maybe lurking City Staff will chime in with more information...)

However! There seem to be very few others among city management who use bike transport. The pockets of "buy in" are sparse. And behind the language in the transportation system plan there's very little in the way of funded activity.

So yes, it would be great to have more bicycling by high level city staff and electeds. Autoism, the culture of the drive-alone car trip is so entrenched. We are behind Corvallis, Eugene, and Portland, it's true.

Brandon Filbert said...

Thank you, SBB (for want of a better way to address you), for your thoughtful response.

You are right: the sharrows are a good addition in town, especially on Chemeketa, as that street is very useful for downtown access and is a good candidate for mixed use its entire length. I just wish more people understood what the sharrows mean… and didn’t get so hot under the collar about cyclists using them properly (more education?).

Chemeketa brings up one of my pet hopes: that Salem will eventually adopt a network of “bicycle boulevards” to help connect its various parts. After some likely initial resistance, I think this could have a great “bang for the buck” aspect, as I gather one of the side effects of this kind of street is often increased property values (in the long term). There are many neighborhoods near the city center that might benefit greatly from something so simple and innovative. I also would love to see some way of encouraging children to ride to school on bikes (they did once… I’ve seen photos to prove it!).

I think Salem has the potential to be a very fine sustainable transportation city (outside of the hilliest sections, the topography is right), especially with the Union Street bridge addition. The Transportation System Plan gives one some hopes, as well. Cities that put such livability issues first are the ones that will garner tremendous benefits as the culture of Autoism gradually fades (heck, my sons have almost no interest in cars).

I enjoy reading this blog, and look forward to learning more. Perhaps we’ll start catching up with our neighbors (especially if gas goes way up!).