2020 has been a rotten, terrible year, and the moments to highlight seem obvious. Probably with some distance, some things that were overshadowed by the Pandemic will appear with more significance under different light. But that'll take a little time and perspective.
So what about the decade just past? That might be a more interesting unit to review right now than the past year.
I have the Union Street Bridge as the greatest unambiguous success, and the "no build" decision on the SRC as most important success, though a deeply mixed one in important ways.
|It's glorious on it and below it! (2013)|
The biggest failure is that over the course of a decade, we've made no real improvement in biking and no meaningful progress on reducing drive-alone trips. "Congestion relief" - making it more convenient to drive - stubbornly remains as the primary problem and primary frame for solutions. In that regard it has been a decade of treading water and futility. We have failed in important ways.
This is one perspective, of course, hopefully a strong one; but you may see it differently, have different criteria or values or perspective, and identify a different list.*
The Big Win: Union Street Bridge
|Front page on the Union St Bridge opening|
March 15th, 1913
Union Street Bridge is for me the most wonderful thing, landing at the very top of my list of favorite places in Salem.
A strong thing, it is dynamic, and it has never been simple, one thing only. Since we don't say the "Center Street Car Bridge" or "Marion Street Car Bridge," I have begun to call it just the Union Street Bridge. The railroad history is important, and part of the reason to love it, but specifying mode as a railroad bridge or as a footbridge seems limiting. It's a bridge for people. Though it was first open in 2009, it reopened for good in May of 2010 after lead abatement. During the 2012 flooding, and again in 2019, it was a great place to watch the river's power. It's a great spot to watch holiday lights on the Willamette Queen. For a bit there was a piano on it in 2012. Last year and again this year there have been Peregrine Falcons. So many good things happen on it as an exemplar of public space. It also connects to West Salem. There's work to be done on the connection across Wallace Road, but as a bridge and place it must be on the short list of best places in Salem.
|Music, July 2012|
The Minto Bridge also opened in 2017, but I don't love its design.
I think it's overwrought and its relation to water, nature, and history
is less scenic and revealing than the relations revealed by the Union
Street Bridge. The path immediately south of the bridge is obviously on
reclaimed industrial land, and it will be a while before it settles in
as "nature." It also doesn't connect to anything other than the park,
and it is less useful than the Union Bridge. More people walk on the Minto Bridge than the Union Street Bridge, but more people bike on the Union Bridge, and in total volume they each function like a collector street and during summer peaks like a minor arterial.
While it is the fulfillment of a long intention, and it was expensive, after a few years the Minto Bridge is fading as a novelty, and is no longer top of mind the way the Union Bridge is. But others love it, it gets lots of use, some days significantly more traffic than on the Union Street Bridge, it has been a place for temporary art and protest, and it's an important accomplishment and addition to the parks system. When the amphitheater is complete, it may get still more traffic. It also counts as an unambiguous success.
Underacheiving Wins and Ambiguous Results
Despite the wonders of the Union Street Bridge, and more than any other straight-forward wins and also more than the losses was the overall muddling along. That's really the character of the decade for mobility. We were stagnant.
Because the final Record of Decision for No Build killed the SRC, you might think it should be a straight-up "win." But it was a long, long slog and it did not change the conversation. It drained energy from advocates who might have applied their attention to more positive and constructive ends. It also drained some $10 million in transportation funding that might have been better spent on sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes. As the immediate sequel to the SRC we had a "Congestion Relief Task Force," which maintained and reinforced the autoist frame of the SRC. Over the decade we did not manage to change the fundamental terms of our analysis or debate. And that is why, as important as it was to stop the SRC, it remains a partial and ambiguous win. We have to change the mobility paradigm in this coming decade.
In 2012 the City adopted an updated set of walking and
biking chapters to the Transportation System Plan, "Bike and Walk Salem." Implementation has been slow and partial. Too often it, like
other plans, is Potemkin performance, and not determined action. The
words themselves and plan adoption were the main performance, and not any
action. The contrast between the resources applied to the SRC and the resources applied to the walking and biking plans is telling. We are left with a list of projects and piecemeal implementation as funding allows, and our main politics of congestion relief for drive-alone trips works against prioritizing walking, biking, and busing. We should instead resolve the tension in favor of non-auto mobility.
One of the concepts in the bike plan carried extra significance as symbol and pilot. While the Winter-Maple Bikeway was an achievement, and there were small improvements constructed on it, things like new or realigned stop signs as well as speed humps, no changes were made on the segment south of D Street, nor on Auto Group Avenue and points north to Keizer. The signage on Market Street at the school has been hit many times and is already ragged. Though it took 8 years, a key crossing on Norway at Fairgrounds Road was finally constructed, and that is very nice, but it also testifies to the lack of urgency. As a thing the Greenway remained limited and partial, incompletely realized. It has also not yet become a springboard to more Greenways.
As the city tries to reclaim and redevelop abandoned State properties, progress has been so slow. At Fairview and the North Campus of the State Hospital, things have taken so very long, and there has been too much much emphasis on Mill Creek Corporate Center way out on the edges. Basic housing would be so much more helpful than warehouse jobs. The local market, and not City policy, is responsible for much of this, but City has been more interested a a kind of business development than housing policy or housing abundance. The citizenry has also preferred to keep zoning for single detached housing and the "homevoter" thesis also explains at least part of why the City has been more focused on business development than housing abundance. Maybe this will change. Our land use and development paradigm also needs change.
Completing the new Police Station is tremendous, but there's a very good chance in a few years we will conclude we should have done police reform first and then decided what kind of building we needed for any new or different staffing and any new concept of policing. The building we just opened may be superseded or outdated much more quickly than we would like by new ways to deliver public safety services. The paradigm may be changing, and a new building might more usefully have been built under it.
There was in the decade a pattern of major decisions made looking backwards, with small increments of change, rather than forwards with new paradigms.
The Outright Losses and Dead-ends
The great disappointment is not making progress on reducing drive-alone
trips and in increasing non-auto travel. This is more of a consequence than cause, the result of pretty much everything else mentioned here. Numbers from the census are down, Bicycling Magazine has us on a trajectory of decline, Places/People for Bikes rates us low, since 2016 the City has declined to reapply for the LAB "bronze" certification, and the City substitutes embroidered words for action. At the 10-year review of the 2009 "Blueprint for Better Biking" there is more, and it drills into ways we have continued our autoist preferentialism rather than prioritizing walking, biking, and busing. See also at mid-decade a couple of notes from a memo greenwashing the SRC, "Memo on Alternate Modes Study Shows How Little has been Done" and "Memo on Alternate Modes Study, Pt 2 - TDM Badly Underfunded."
|We weren't close in 2010, and still aren't a decade later;|
worse, we aren't on track to make the slightest difference
in another ten or fifteen years
There were so many lectures, too. Each of them was an opportunity, but none of them gained traction, and they resulted in dead-ends without momentum, seemingly just blah-blah-blah to City staff and to the wider citizenry. It was always mainly preaching to the choir, not able to burst into any wider consciousness.
- Jeffrey Tumlin in 2013
- Gil Penalosa in 2014
- James Sallis in 2014
- Daniel Firth in 2015
- Dan Burden in 2017 (preview, and then the sad commentary of the City's obsession with the SRC at the very same time)
A little more successful was Chuck Marohn's talk in 2016 (preview here, link to video here), and of all of them it may yet yield a substantial return. But still, overall these talks just didn't seem to build to anything enduring or any real change in course.
A symbol of this is the way the City has not embraced first Sunday Streets and then Open Streets Salem, off-loading it to volunteers and non-profits. Sunday Streets took place in
2013, 2014, and 2015. But it went on hiatus in 2016. Reformulated for
Saturdays as Open Streets Salem, it took place in 2017 and 2018. And it went on hiatus again in 2019. The Pandemic cancelled it again in 2020. Cherriots Trip Choice is apparently leading now, but this paints it as "alternative" and "fringey" rather than central and important. Maybe we will see it in 2021, hopefully we will see it, but it does not yet seem to have a secure place in our cultural and civic life.
|Trending wrong way on death and serious injury|
And, of course, the most grievous losses of all, those whom drivers killed in crashes. Mid-decade I started tracking the deaths of those on foot and on bike and the totality is just shattering. Recently a driver killed Selma Pierce in West Salem, and the prevailing narrative is "just a tragic accident." This has to change. Between traffic violence and emissions, we have to start seeing driving itself as activity inherently with harms, and an act about which we need to be so much more intentional. Ultimately, driving needs to be transportation of last resort rather than the default and mobility of first resort.
Though the City commissioned a "Pedestrian Safety Study," its recommendation to revive jaywalking laws compromised it badly. There was too much death in the streets and traffic
safety did not improve. The City looked away from the most important
elements: Less driving and slower driving. Cars and their drivers, not people on foot, are the problem to be solved.
|from Walkable City Rules by Jeff Speck|
One element that the City has control over is parking, but over the decade there wasn't enough movement on right-priced parking and parking reform. The area covered by meters did expand on the edges of downtown, but not into downtown. Reducing parking minimums has been a struggle. Early this year in the middle housing code amendments there were some reductions, and it looks like this year the State as part of HB 2001 will require even greater reductions. So perhaps there is momentum.
A strong action for congestion relief is to end the subsidies and mandates for free parking everywhere. Free parking induces extra drive-alone trips, and we need to think more seriously about that.
|In 2019: Demonizing meters|
and reinforcing expectations for "free" parking.
When are we going to unwind this?
We have to change the frame of our conversations about congestion, about safety, and about climate. All of these analyses converge on a need for less driving.
As there is more construction downtown, the moment that really stands out in the decade is the McGilchrist & Roth renovation. Even more than Southblock at Boise, it seemed to offer new life to downtown. This has seemed to be the keystone for the others. Without it new construction at 260 State, 245 Court; and the renovations at 260 Liberty (but perhaps also the demolition at 280 Liberty), 440 State, and the Gray Block seem less likely. The success of Archive seemed to help with other venues like Victory Club, 1859 Cider, the Ventis expansion, Isaac's Room, Bo & Vine, and others. Even with some churn and some closures, altogether the second half of the decade seemed very positive for downtown. Now it just needs more housing and a grocery store. It will be interesting to watch in the next decade.
|Roth (Fred Legg, left) & McGilchrist (George Post, center)|
after renovation - via CD Redding
(Hopefully the loss of restaurants from the Pandemic will not set things back too far. Restaurants are a luxury good in some ways, but they are key elements to public life in a good city, and have many indirect benefits even when you aren't a paying customer. The flight of big, anchor retail, the closures of Nordstrom and JCPenney was also significant. Downtown in the 2020s may transform - and hopefully with more housing!)
And of course Cherriots added Saturday and evening service and a new appointed board. They were going to add Sunday service, but the Pandemic unwound a lot of the growth and it's hard to say where we are. Nationally transit has budget problems. Cherriots just published an RFP for a consultant on a do-over of selecting a site for the South Salem Transit Center, and that will be something to look forward to in the next few years.
A Final Thought: a Loss and Crossroads
|Cars are harmful|
Final pie chart from Our Salem
|When will we act in a determined way? (NOAA)|
And finally, the climate lens. We have done so little on emissions and climate. Just dithering or business as usual. A few Potemkin symbols, but little structural change. We could have been doing big things, but we did little, preferring to think about the SRC and congestion relief. Again, we looked away from less driving and changing the transportation system. It has been a lost decade in that regard.
With the revisions to the Comprehensive Plan in "Our Salem" and writing a new Climate Action Plan both in process, we have a real opportunity to plot a new course, but the initial drafts and planning tendency in both have been timid rather than bold.
And if we applied $10 million to the SRC just for planning, a commensurate investment in Climate planning is not at all disproportionate. The 2020s are something of a make-or-break decade for us. We can do this.
|"Merely bad or truly horrific"?|
NY Times, Sept. 23, 2020
* There might be more to say in a second post for "honorable mention" on developments like the Geer Bike Park, Northwest Hub, and Safe Routes to Schools, which were important also. The politics in Council composition and Mayor have also oscillated, seemingly promising change in one policy direction or another, and there could be more to say there, although the primary commitment to autoism has been essentially undisturbed. This post was already pretty long.