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Portland: Celebrating America’s Most Livable City

Last Fall, many members of the Portland Office of Transportation and city administration were gracious enough to talk with me and show off some of the amazing features that make Portland, Oregon one of America's most livable places to reside.

You've previously seen bits and pieces of that trip here on StreetFilms, but we've never posted the entire half hour adventure which contains over 12 minutes of additional footage. And with the incredible turn in leadership in the past months and the speed at which changes are coming, it gives me hope that NYC could one day become as livable as Portland!

This is our first video posting over 15 minutes so we've tried to keep the file size as small as possible. Thus, the quality is a smidgen lower. Please send us feedback on how it looks and if your computer is able to play it.

[intro music]

Tom Potter: [00:16] Transportation is so closely tied to Portland’s liveability. In fact when people come here or businesses, it’s always one of the things they talk about is how many choices they have with transportation. And of course we encourage people to get out of their cars and ride public transportation, use some of our several hundred miles of bike lanes and our light rail and streetcars. You know we have… we give people a lot of options. I think it pays off in the long run because it not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but it just makes it a lot nicer getting around.

Sam Adams: [00:50] Portland has a long tradition of being a progressive community especially in the areas of transportation. We’re number one rated for bicycling, walking. We work really hard to be a multi-model system that allows not only cars and buses and we brought streetcars back and light rail, but also human powered transportation like bikes and walking.

Chris Smith: [01:12] I think that a lot of that is a very deliberate result following from the Downtown plan of the 1970’s where we, unlike a lot of US cities, decided to really maintain the Downtown, not let it decay. So we have a great environment here for pedestrians, for cyclists, for transit. It’s an easy place to get around without a car.

Mia Birk: [01:32] There’s no better investment that the city has made than in bicycle infrastructure and promotion. It has been an incredible bang for the buck, very cost effective, great for liveability, great for health of our citizens, great for air quality, great for congestion.

Jeff Mapes: [01:47] I myself am a bicycle commuter, started nine or ten years ago and I’ve noticed it grow tremendously in popularity and it’s really become a kind of a major transportation, social, cultural issue in Portland. It’s pretty fascinating to see.

Ellen Vanderslice: [02:02] I think one of the strengths of Portland is that it is really a very pedestrian friendly city, and that has to do not just with having good places to walk, but with the fact that we do have this great transit system that you can make linkages between all the different modes. I like to say that walking’s the glue that holds everything together, but I think Portland has really understood that in a way that a lot of haven’t quite tumbled to yet.

Rex Burkholder: [02:26] We’ve seen the average vehicle miles travelled per person dropping from about 23 miles per person in the early ‘90’s to about 19 today. That’s totally in contradiction to the national trend, almost every other region in the country has had an increase in vehicle miles travelled, and so the roads are full of people driving farther and farther all the time.

Fred Hansen: [02:48] If you look at our transit ridership we rank in our population 25th in the nation, and yet in terms of transit use we rank number 12. Many more of our citizens are utilising our transit as a way to get around. We’re one of the few places in the nation that has our transit use growing faster than auto use and faster than our population.

Speaker: [03:09] Today we have almost 12,000 daily cyclists going across four bridges into and out of Downtown. In the early ‘90’s that number was just a few thousand so we’ve more than quadrupled that number.

Rex Burkholder: [03:21] The average work commute trip has dropped from ten to seven miles now. The average family spends only 15% of their income on transportation, nationally it’s around 19%.


Diana Christensen: [04:04] I’m Diana Christensen. I teach physical education here at Sunnyside Environmental and we’re all into biking and riding and getting to school in alternative methods. A lot of kids bus. We have ride and walk and bike to school Fridays. Like Sarah, our youngest, definitely are kindergartners, we have several parents who ride to school, have their kids on the trailers on the bike, and then we have few first and second graders that will be ridden in escort with their parents.

Speaker: [04:32] We get really creative around here about how to get more than one kid at a time on your bike, cos when you have two kids and neither of them is riding their own bike yet, you’ve got to figure out a way to haul everybody around.

Speaker: [04:44] We carry three kids. Seter our son’s five and Kyla is three and Solson’s one, so we carry three and it works pretty well. Kyla rides after we drop off Seter and the kids are happy.

Diana Christensen: [04:58] Originally when we first got here there weren’t any bike racks beyond the lawn out there on the playground. We had a set installed and kind of beginning to take a bend around the wall, you can see that they… already we’ve spilled over to the railing here. Need definitely more. You can also see that the structure’s covered. We have a pretty active volunteer group and a lot of parents who help, so they came out and installed the covers. Everybody brings their own locks, you know, and we certainly talk about the need to respect others property and how if it were your bike out here you wouldn’t want to come out here and find the lights on or somebody had taken something and that we just are going to be respectful of others property and recognising that that’s somebody’s transportation.

Sarah Taylor: [05:41] Our goal here is to actually bring the neighbourhood in and have the neighbourhood be a teacher to the kids as well as the kids being a teacher to the neighbourhood. And we love what we see here at Sunnyside. We love the relationships that we’re having with the community and having people be able to bike to school is really an important part of that. And we also teach a bike curriculum as part of the school.

Diana Christensen: [06:05] Fifth grader every year gets a ten hour instruction of Oregon traffic safety law around the use of their bicycle. And over the course of the week from Monday through Friday, by Friday we’re taking them on a trip around the city.

Speaker: [06:20] Portland is a liveable city, as a bikeable city, is an amazing place to live because we can get almost everywhere as a family on our bikes and there’s nowhere else I’d live where you can do that as efficiently, as relatively safely. There’s a lot more awareness here among drivers… of bicyclists as equal users of the streets than there is in other places.

Speaker: [06:46] There are two busy streets we have to cross to get here and we use crosswalks for both of those. And in fact today, you know, I was kind of nosing the chariot out there, looking both ways to see if any cars were coming and on my left somebody stopped and then a big truck was coming on the right, kind of a little maybe over the speed limit and he totally put on his brakes and stopped and we crossed the street. So that’s what I mean by a community, people care about each other and care about the kids and… so I feel really safe.


Rex Burkholder: [07:21] Here’s a really cool innovation that the City of Portland has done. This intersection is right where you’re coming off a major recreational trail and transportation corridor that goes along both sides of the river. And then the cyclists that use it are going in two different directions, to North Portland and to North East Portland, so it’s kind of a bicycle scramble call it where the lights are triggered by bicyclists pavement signal loop and this allows the bicyclist to stop all the traffic by parking the bicycle on a signal that’s actually marked just like this on the ground, and then it stops traffic in all directions, so the bicyclist can leave from here and go in all directions, instead of having say if you want to go north you’d have to cross one time and then cross again which creates a lot of hazards for people and especially if you’re not a very experienced cyclist which we get a lot on the trail here. They’re less experienced and don’t know quite how to deal with traffic as well. So this is a major safety feature, convenience feature, it makes it easier and faster to get through if you’re a cyclist. And we have literally thousands of cyclists that use this facility everyday and so it helps to manage the traffic and makes it much safer. Another sign of innovation is something that has been used in other places, but the fact that it hasn’t swept the country until we started doing it here. Go Portland.


Mia Birk: [08:54] This is South East Lincoln that we’re standing on here and the South East Lincoln Bike Boulevard is… it’s really cool because it’s like a metaphor for all that we’ve done in Portland. In the ‘80’s South East Lincoln here was what we call a traffic collector, there was quite a bit of auto traffic on the street and it was a major thoroughfare. And in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s the city, really with pressure from neighbourhoods and citizens, turned this street as well as a number of other streets into what we call bicycle boulevards where we did traffic calming elements to make this street more liveable and slower traffic, reduced traffic and much more friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians. So let me tell you what we did to this street. At a couple of key points on this street at South East 39th, two blocks this way, and South East 20th, which is about almost a mile that way, we put in what we call traffic diverters and so traffic has to turn.

Mark Lear: [09:51] One of the biggest challenges to developing a bike boulevard is you can’t make it easy for cars to get onto the bike boulevard off of a busy street. If you fail to make those kinds of improvements, what will happen is you’ll have a lot more cars on the bike boulevard and we don’t want a lot of cars on our bike boulevards. So what we do at this location is only allow cars to come out off the local service street onto 39th but we don’t allow cars to come in from 39th onto Clinton. In this case this project has worked really well. It’s made it so bicyclists can pass through easily, but it keeps cars off, it actually acts as a good treatment and diverts cars that would otherwise be on this facility.

Mia Birk: [10:31] We also put in things that slow traffic down which includes the traffic circle that you can see over there, and speed bumps along the street to slow traffic down so that the speed of cars is pretty similar to the speed of cyclists, which creates a more comfortable environment for everyone. And then more recently we have put in signs and circles to identify the street as well as other bike boulevards as being part of this special bike boulevard network.


Mia Birk: [11:07] People were very concerned about diverting traffic off of a street, how are they going to get to their houses and it might cause traffic on other streets to go up. So, and this was… that happened here, there was a lot of fight, it was a difficult project and what happened as a result is also very similar to what happens in many other cities and that it’s so pleasant afterwards that property values go up, becomes a wonderful thoroughfare for people walking their dogs and jogging. It’s a very popular street for people bicycling, for people walking, for kids to be out and about and it’s just become this wonderful community street.


Speaker: [11:45] Come on young lady.


Sam Adams: [11:55] I particularly spend as much of my time outside of City Hall as I can because, you know, this is where it happens. This is where we’re either going to succeed or fail around, you know, bridges and viaducts and bike paths like this and, you know, I work on a lot of policy, but the best way to learn if those policies are really working is to go out there and see it and do hands-on yourself.

Chris Smith: [12:19] Robert Puttnam who wrote the book, Bowling Alone, which sort of chronicles the decline of citizen engagement and sort of participation in the country, studied Portland and found that the trend was exactly the opposite.

Elizabeth Kennedy-Wong: [12:29] Most of what I do in this job is actually getting people to do things that they would probably like to be able to do anyway. So it’s a lot about kind of identifying people’s self interest and promoting positive incentives to voice what you’d like to see in the city.


Ellen Vanderslice: [12:46] We’re standing here on the Davis Festival Street. It’s one of two Festival Streets that we’re building… building right now as a matter of fact as part of the old town Chinatown 3rd and 4th Avenue streetscape project. The whole streetscape project that redevelops all this area is something the community wanted for a long time. And when they sat down and started working on what would actually be done, one of the things they identified was really a lack of public space.

Lloyd D. Lindley: [13:13] In Portland we’ve tried to get as much out of our streets as we possibly can, for example, developing streets that do more than just drive and park cars. So what we’ve tried to do is create a hybrid street that functions for cars, functions for parking, but at the same time can be conveniently closed off and function as a small piazza, a small plaza for festivals and functions that the local neighbourhood can engage in. Some of the things that get in the way with a standard street are things like curbs, light poles, fire hydrants, all kinds of utilities. And those kinds of things typically get in the way of a really clean pedestrian environment. What you might also see here that you don’t see on a typical intersection is a very flat open area. What this does is provide a very pedestrian oriented kind of intersection for people who may have maybe wheelchair bound, they have an easy way to access this place. And it also creates an even transition from the street into the inner plaza area. Right over here these are large plinths and what these are going to be for are art installations. They also function to direct traffic and control and slow down traffic as it enters this place. The plantings are actually an extension of the Chinese garden. Some years ago we opened our classical Chinese garden and what we’ve tried to do is bring the plant material such as palm trees out into the street.


Ellen Vanderslice: [14:51] This is really an experiment for the Portland Office of Transportation and if it goes well I think there are a lot of people around this city that would like to see this implemented in other places. I think that any time you make a space that doesn’t say right off the bat first of all I’m for cars, that you make a place that really says I’m for people, that that in itself contributes to the liveability. But I think there’s something more that we’re looking at here and that is that the making of this place is more than just about the concrete and the granite and the surfaces that we’re putting here and the beautiful design that we have, it’s really about finding a way to create community, the activity of managing these streets and the fact that the community has to form some kind of an entity to… to manage the Festival Streets, that is part of building this community.


Greg Raisman: [16:00] Behind me is called a diagonal diverter and there’s a busy street that direction, there’s a busy street that direction in one block. So if motor vehicles wanted to avoid being on those busy streets they might try to cut down by either this residential street behind me or that residential street. But what happens is because this diagonal diverter is in place, they’re forced as they turn off of those busy streets back onto the busy street. And it keeps these residential streets behind it residential. It keeps it so there’s fewer cars, fewer people cutting through the neighbourhood, and it keeps it so that the cars are on the busier streets where we really want more cars to be because they’re designed to handle heavier traffic. This diagonal diverter was designed with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind. It’s really nice as a pedestrian to walk by it, but at the same time it’s a cut-through on a bicycle boulevard that goes east and west through North East Portland. And there’s actually little pavement markings on the street that point bicyclists through it, to really let them know that yes, indeed, they should be using these cut-throughs through the diverter as they’re travelling through the neighbourhood.

Mark Lear: [17:02] Where I’m standing now is on a curb extension that actually is a green curb extension, it has a bioswale that treats soil and water that’s running into this facility. What’s cool about this curb extension, not only does it treat storm water but it shortens the distance for pedestrians that are crossing 21st. One of the other really great things about this project is that it incorporates speed bumps. About three years ago citizens that lived on 21st came to the city and said that they wanted speed bumps and the city said no. The reason for that was 21st carries just under 5,000 cars a day, and as a local service street our upper limits for where we would put speed bumps was 2,500 cars a day. So the neighbours just kept coming back for about three years asking us if there was a special process that they could go through. We worked hard to look at whether we could put the project in and not have diversion going into neighbourhoods, and we actually started a pilot programme. And we’ve had speed bumps in now for over a year and we haven’t had any complaints that I’m aware of from the neighbourhood of the diversion. It’s an excellent example of one of those projects where you can do speed bumps on a higher volume street without problems, and if we didn’t have the speed bumps here, we’d have 85th percentile speeds of 32 miles per hour, now we have speed down to about 25 miles an hour/26 miles an hour, so it’s really reduced speeds.


Fred Hansen: [18:47] Two-thirds of our riders are on our bus system and our commitment is to be able to make that bus ride be every bit of quality that the light rail is. You can call up at any one of our almost 8,000 bus stops throughout this whole region and find out not just the next schedule time, but the actual arrival time. All of our buses have the ability to carry up to two bicycles on the front when people want to be able to use bus to make at least part of their trip. Likewise on light rail, we have the ability to be able to have specially dedicated places where bicycles maybe hung so that people can make use of that system as well.

Chris Smith: [19:24] The streetcars actually a great story of partnerships here in Portland. We wanted the streetcar to work with the whole transit system even though it’s owned and operated by the City of Portland, not by our Regional Transit Agency. The fare system is completely seamless, so if you buy a streetcar ticket it works in the bus, the bus ticket works in the streetcar. You can see that this stop actually serves both buses and streetcars so if you happen to be on the street going in this direction, you can take the first vehicle that comes, whether it’s a bus or a streetcar.


Don Baack: [19:52] About 15% of our streets are all in southwest which is an area about 35 square miles. We have 15% sidewalks. 43% of our arterials have no sidewalks. Result of all that is that were many places where it was really, really difficult for pedestrians to get from place to place and most of them didn’t know how to get around because there was no signage. So we put together the network, then we began working on building connections. And as soon as we got one network completed we put signs on it so people could find their way. We’ve probably got close to 500 of these around southwest. And the arrow indicates the direction. The walker indicates it’s a pedestrian path. The 6 is the number of the route and South West Trails is simply identifying as part of the South West trail network. The other thing that we’ve done is do up maps and the maps are pretty thorough. Our trails group, this is our little logo here, and the Department of Transportation worked on these jointly. It was our job to figure out the connections and it was PDOT’s job to actually publish the maps. This street is a trail the way we call it because it’s point to point trail, so the trail comes here and we’ve got about 1,000 feet of trail that is really in the woods and no cars on it, and then we got more streets and then they’ll end up going through a park or a school ground or something like that. So we end up with, you know, a combination of things where people want to walk but it isn’t necessarily trail as we would think of walking through the woods. You know the majority of the routes, because we’re trying to get pedestrians from place to place on a linear trail, we’re using the streets where we can. And then we went from that to figuring out where we wanted to have the most important routes and the criteria we used is walkable streets. The other things we have on the map is features that you’d want to know if you were walking, like where are the bathrooms, where are the water fountains, where are the parks, other major things of interest, where are the commercial areas. We’ve got the grocery stores noted so someone looking at this could say, oh there’s a grocery store, I can walk to that. The whole thing’s focused on where people want to walk.


Linda Ginenthal: [22:01] This is the bike parking that we put in for city employees. Over the years as we’ve been promoting getting more people on their bikes that we needed to add… last year we needed to add 40 more, and we added those and we’re running out of bike space. They’re on every little post and every corner we can sort of sneak them in, so it’s been pretty spectacular to grow this quickly.

Greg Raisman: [22:25] This is an on-street bike parking facility where we converted one and a half automobile spaces into 13 bike racks, by placing these bike racks right on the asphalt and then provided a barrier with reflectors on it so it would be visible. And we did it because the street that’s behind me is Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. There’s a lot of bicycle traffic, there’s a lot of pedestrians and what was happening was there was a lot of bicycles that were congregating on the street and on the sidewalks, and because the sidewalks were so narrow it was starting to create some issues. After we put it in it was so successful that businesses two blocks away unanimously asked for another one.


Sharon White: [23:08] I coordinate the crosswalk enforcement actions as a partnership and the whole point of it is is to bring more awareness and education about what the Oregon crosswalk law is. If I go ahead and find a location and where we’ve received community complaints about cars not stopping for pedestrians, we also take into consideration locations that have had pedestrian collisions and also feedback that we get from Portland Police. So once we decide on a location, we go ahead and scope it out and make sure it’s appropriate, see which time period during the day would be best. Usually for a two hour time period I’m a pedestrian decoy and I cross back and forth in a crossing. It’s usually a marked crossing but sometimes we do signalise crossings as well. There’s one police spotter and he tells officers on either side of the street that are tucked away that a certain car or bicyclist or pedestrian has violated the law. Then the police officer pulls over that individual. If it’s a clear violation they’re given a citation. If it was not 100% clear, then they’re given a warning. Here in the City of Portland our citations for not… failure to yield to the pedestrian is a Class B violation and a $242 fine.


Kirsty Hall: [24:43] This is a programme we just started running in the past week and it’s a new programme especially designed for senior citizens. Here we have five seniors who are going to be riding today with us from Elders in Action and we’re going to be riding around Mallament Park here in South West Portland.

Speaker: [24:58] This bike project to me is another example of how Portland cares for its seniors, or is starting to care for its seniors.

Clarence Eckerson Jr.: [25:08] Are you looking forward to riding today?

Speaker: [25:08] Yes I am, I’ve only done it once before and I hadn’t been on a bike since I was 15 years old. It’s a lot of fun.

Clarence Eckerson Jr.: [25:17] How long’s it been since you’ve ridden the bike?

Speaker: [25:22] A good 50 years. Loved to ride a bike when I was a kid and so now I think, you know, a bike would be great.

Kirsty Hall: [25:31] Initially we’re hoping the programme is just going to help seniors stay fit and healthy and active, and we’re partnering with Oregon Health and Sciences University. We have a PhD researcher there who’s looking into seniors and how they can retain function as they age. And so we’re going to be using some valuable survey work and feedback from this programme. But we do have another goal and that is also in the long run to hopefully have bikes at senior centres around Portland, and seniors can just hop on to a bike and hopefully if they need to go to pick up a prescription or if they’d like to run to a friend’s house nearby, just run some errands, get some exercise, they can also do that. So those are some longer term goals.

Speaker: [26:10] It gets me out of the house and also it’s good exercise.

Speaker: [26:13] And I had thought that maybe, you know, I could go to my condo down here, get a little older and I’m not standing on my feet, you know, to walk, I’d get my exercise this way.

Kirsty Hall: [26:25] A big concern is safety and perception of safety. A lot of seniors have told us that they feel very afraid of falling off a bike. And this is why we have these three wheeled tricycles here, they’re much more stable for seniors to ride, and that was a very conscious decision that the Office of Transportation took when we purchased these bikes.


Speaker: [26:55] I just like to do stuff that would improve the quality of senior life and for myself also of course. And I’ve always wanted one of these bikes.

Kirsty Hall: [27:07] They love it. Everybody was a little apprehensive when they turn up. You can see the fear in their faces sometimes cos they haven’t ridden in such a long time. As soon as they get on the bike and we get everything adjusted for them, they just take off and it’s like a duck to water, they’re just so happy to be riding again.


Kirsty Hall: [27:28] I hadn’t ridden a bike in three years and I remember when I hopped on again it just felt like… it was just… I felt like I was a child again and I definitely get that impression from the seniors that are riding on this programme. It makes them feel young again and it makes them feel healthy again.


Diana Christensen: [27:54] I love being in Portland, it’s a great place. My car died last year in August and I was like, whoa, what am I going to do? So I said, well I guess I’m going to ride my bike to school tomorrow, and then I rode it the next day, and then I rode it the next day and now I’m a commuter and I dig that Portland allows me to do that safely.

Speaker: [28:13] The major thing that everybody’s going to tell you about Portland is what a great outdoor lifestyle it is here. You know you’re close to the ocean, you’re close to the mountains, rivers, wilderness and the city itself is a wonderful place to get around.

Speaker: [28:28] Everyone on a bike is glad to see someone else on a bike. You ring your bell, you wave, you smile, it’s a great sense of community.

Greg Raisman: [28:34] I really feel like I’m in a place where we can showcase our people getting to know each other and working together can really make a difference in making a place that really works for people.

Fred Hansen: [28:44] Portland is my home. I was born and raised here and although I’ve certainly lived in a lot of other parts of the country over the years, it’s liveability, it’s walkability, it’s the fact that we’re weird.

Speaker: [28:57] I’m always glad to come back to Portland because as far as I’m concerned Portland is the place to be.

Speaker: [29:03] Between the bus and walking I hardly ever drive anymore. It’s great.

Speaker: [29:07] We like to come out and visit the West Coast. The main thing I’d say is this is easily the most liveable city in the United States that I’ve been to so far.

Speaker: [29:15] It’s great for walking around, people actually stop at crosswalks for you.

Mia Birk: [29:19] If you stood out here all night you would see that every… almost every other minute all night long there’s a cyclist coming through. And it’s so pleasant. I sit on my front porch and I wave at the people and have a glass of wine and I listen to jingling of bells and the swishing of wheels and the chattering of people back and forth.

Speaker: [29:37] It’s got the dynamism of a big city but it’s got the… it’s got the community orientation of a smaller city.

Mark Lear: [29:44] When we take speed bumps off a street when we’re doing maintenance, we get a flurry of phone calls where people are saying, what happened to my speed bumps? We’re constantly getting people that are calling us and wanting bike lanes or sidewalk improvements, and when we make those improvements we get thank you letters and people send us chocolates.

Linda Ginenthal: [30:02] We get love letters on a regular basis for our programmes. No kidding. I mean just delightful, delightful notes that say we love Portland because of the work that you do and you know you can’t... you can’t buy that.



Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • Peter K

    Well done Portland! A fine example of how a city should opperate...can't wait for Feb myself as I'll be leaving Atlanta, GA one of the most backward cities in the nation and heading to Portland, OR : )

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  • Lucy Dee

    I am moving to Portland. I wrote down everything I was looking for, did an internet search and up popped Portland. I have never been there accept in my heart. I found myself without a vehicle since Nov and been using my bike, wanted to live somewhere I didnt need a bike for a long time. This video shows such a beautiful model of what is good in the world and I look forward to being apart of it. Thank you for the video!!!!! See you soon.

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  • http://www.lewislandscape.com Portland Oregon Landscaping

    Portland has definitely become one of the more livable cities. But we still have a long way to go in terms of creating more green spaces to help improve air quality.

  • Dwestvideo

    I like how it's sunny in the video.............. That must have been the day of summer. Oh well, at least u got 1

  • OB12OLD

    My first trip to Holland was in 1962. My last trip was in 1991. There were far fewer bicycles on the streets the second time. I hope that trend has been reversed.

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