Tuesday, December 29, 2020

2010s and the Decade in Review: Stagnation

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.

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.

Vision 2020 and the Sustainable Cities Initiative also generated excitement but have seemed to be mainly dead ends now a decade later. 

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.

Other Wins

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.

See the previous "years in review" here.


Walker said...

You are underestimating the importance of the massive win that stopping the boondoggle third bridge represents. Consider Dunkirk and the Battle of Coral Sea — neither was a victory in the ordinary sense, but they loom large as great victories when taken in perspective and with recognition of the wins they made possible later.

The victory here was not just stopping an absurdly grandiose plan, but also in preserving the opportunity for many more victories to come, none of which would even be possible if the bridge was added to the plan.

Jim Scheppke said...

I would like to think that the biggest "win" of the decade came on October 12th of this year when the Salem City Council approved a motion by Councilor Tom Andersen to set a goal for Salem to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to get halfway to that goal by 2035. This could never have happened without the efforts made to take back our Council from the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce and their allies after 14 long years when they were in control. Pulling the plug on the SRC came of that, but a more positive accomplishment is the new Council goal that will soon become the basis for our first Climate Action Plan and for revisions to the Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Systems Plan. It will be up to citizens hold our Councilors accountable, and to insist that everything the Council does from now on contributes to, and does not work against, our climate action goals.

MikeSlater said...

I can understand that if your lens on Salem is biking and walking, it's been a frustrating decade with far too few successes. That's true for climate change as well, where the City dallied for many years before even committing to develop a climate action plan. (A change of heart we can attribute to the work of 350Salem and their allies, as well as Councilors Andersen, Nordyke, Hoy and others.)

If we step back and look at the broader built environment and their policies, I think we can find more successes to keep us motivated going into the 2020's. I've been hearted by the City's increased commitment to natural resources. My short list: a significant increase in the City's tree canopy, a new urban forester with an ambitious agenda, the restoration of the Pringle Creek stream outlet, improved care for the Oregon white oaks at Bush's Pasture Park, the acquisition of new parkland, new and updated master plans for nearly a dozen of our parks, ongoing habitat restoration on Minto Brown Island, and more. Salem also has a highly rated stormwater management system that increasingly relies on green infrastructure.

When we look at development policies, we can find changes to the Service Development Charges (SDC's) that provide for a better distribution of funds, connectivity requirements for new housing developments (which speaks to the recent City Observer article's point), reduction of parking requirements, streamlining the design requirements for multi-family housing, creating a new, innovative funding mechanism for individual affordable housing developments, permitting accessory dwelling units, a new downtown streetscape regime, and more.

Most importantly, we've seen a wave of public participation by Salem residents that is starting to reshape in the City. There is no doubt we are very late to take responsibility for our role in climate change and we still continue to prioritize cars over walking and biking, but I see reason for optimism.

Ken Karp said...

Stopping the 3rd bridge was a giant success but the costs go beyond the 13 wasted years of effort and the $10 million (an amount that does not reflect the true value of lost staff time).

A schism was created between the "build the bridge" and the "not this bridge" factions which continues to this day. The homeless issue, the coronavirus threat, and the way SPD acted during protests would have been handled more professionally by a cohesive Council. This state of affairs will continue to harm the City.

The 3rd bridge fiasco was due to ODOT's indefensible attempt to lay the burden on the City (which lacked the needed expertise). It is, was, and will be the responsibility of the State to provide that segment of the intrastate highway system.

I recently watched a sales pitch by a Salem real state agent. Instead of the message that was used during the battle, it was stated that crossing the river was only a minor inconvenience that some people suffered during brief periods of time in the morning and evening.