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Origins of Post-Motordom: Portland, 1971

February 20, 2013

“Paradigm shift” is a hackneyed phrase, but if there was a moment in urban history when one happened, it was in the early 1970s.  That time in Vancouver is associated with the Great Freeway Fight; the rejection of these massive arterials into the core of our city was ‘the most important thing that never happened.’

But that resistance to Motordom was happening in a lot of cities in North America: Toronto, San Francisco, even Washington, D.C. – typically a consequence of upper-income neighbourhoods using their power to stop the roadbuilders and their plans.  (The coalition that formed in Vancouver, sparked by Strathcona residents and Chinese merchants, is an exceptional part of our narrative.)

These times were also associated with the emergence of new leadership at the local level (TEAM in Vancouver), generational change, social liberation movements, less willingness to accept the word of authority and more willingness to entertain new ideas.

In Portland, Oregon, those forces came together with a remarkable group of new leaders, some of whom are still active.  But it was long enough ago to be, in a sense, ‘historical’ – and documents from that pre-digital age are taking on new meaning and importance as their relevance becomes more apparent.

Like this one – “a fascinating memo penned by a City Hall staffer in 1971,” just posted by BikePortland.  While not directly relevant to Vancouver, it’s still worth reprinting here as a document important to its time, when it might be said that the Age of Post-Motordom began.

The memo, titled, Disincentives to the Automobile (PDF), was written by Alan Webber, a staffer to then City Commissioner Neil Goldschmidt. Webber (bio) went on to have a notable career in journalism and is most well-known as being founder of Fast Company magazine. Today he’s an author and speaker considered an, “Expert on change and innovation in the knowledge economy.”

Webber’s six-page memo was created to “stimulate discussion on the role of the automobile” in Portland’s Downtown Plan. At the time the memo was written, cities around the country were being tasked by the Environmental Protection Agency to do something about high levels of urban air pollution (The “Anti-Planner” Randal O’Toole shared more historical context for the memo on his blog in 2008). The tone and content of the memo reveals a deep understanding that car overuse has a negative impact on the creation of a vibrant, livable city. Far from being simply “anti-car,” the memo reads like something you’d hear espoused by an advocate or planner at a modern-day active transportation conference.

From the introduction:

While labelled “Disincentives to the Automobile”, the concern of this paper is really the creation of a comprehensive transportation system, offering real alternatives to the private automobile. In that sense, whatever is an “incentive” for mass transit, buses, pedestrians, trucks and bicycles is a “disincentive ” against the automobile. The overall goal is to arrive at a more favorable balance between the city and the car, between the erosion of the city by cars and the attrition of automobiles by the city.

Car traffic seen from Burnside Bridge-1

This photo, taken from the Burnside Bridge in 2009, shows what the 1971 memo was hoping to avoid.

The memo quotes noted urban planner Jane Jacobs and calls for adopting, as City policy, the idea of “the attrition of the auto” by, “removing convenience and expense as arguments for the car, and to encourage diversity, freedom of movement, and a positive environment for people in the downtown core area.”

Webber’s talk of incentives reminds us of the current work by PBOT’s Transportation Options group that promotes biking, walking and transit — not by villifying car use — but by making them easier and raising awareness of their existence. His talk of a “positive environment for people” brings to mind Enrique Penalosa’s famous quotes that we can create cities that are good to cars or for people, but not both.

The memo was broken into two parts: Disincentives to the Automobile and Incentives for Transportation Alternatives.

The first part called for parking restrictions, more stringent testing for driver’s licenses, higher gas taxes and registration fees, and more. Here are some highlights:

I. Disincentives to the Automobile Parking

- make an inventory of present downtown parking spaces and set an absolute limit on the number… designed to discourage peripheral parking facilities that increase commuter traffic,

- create a Portland Parking Authority… institute higher fees for people entering parking lots between 6:00 and 10:00 a .m., thus specifically discouraging commuters while encouraging midday shopping, in effect levying a commuter parking tax;

Licensing and Maintenance

- raise the demands of the testing process;

- approve increases in gas tax and vehicle license fees;

- encourage merchants and banks to accept as proper identification papers and cards other than driver’s licenses;

Traffic Flow

- halt freeway construction in the urban area; halt all street widening

- designate specific core area streets as inaccessible to private automobile traffic;

-add toll booths to major entrances to the city… with funds received to be spent on financing and developing mass transit

- make it a violation of City code, punishable by police ticket, to enter the city from 7 :30-9:00 A.M. with less than three persons in any standard size automobile

And the second part, Incentives for Transportation Alternatives, dealt with improvements to walking, biking, taxis, buses, carpool policies, and so on. It started with this introduction:

“Without a fully developed alternative transportation system, a series of implemented disincentives to the automobile may prove punitive to lower-income citizens exclusively. The goal here, therefore, is to develop an alternative transportation system, based on the theory that it will take a series of transit options to counter the singleness of the automobile. The advantages of such a system, which might initially include walking, full-size and mini buses or vans, taxis, car-pools, and bicycles, are the encouragement of choice in mobility, the breakdown of the boredom of the private automobile, and the disruption of downtown dullness.”

Pedestrians

- Initiate a pro-pedestrian traffic light campaign so that at regular intervals WALK signs show all directions, permitting cross-intersection pedestrian traffic;

Bicycles

- get the various bike path parties working together rather than competing in the expenditure of bike path money; design a system of bike trails and paths to enable the bicycle to compete with the auto; this means commuter use from residential neighborhoods to downtown area, and not only recreational use of the bicycle;

- provide new “bike lights” along bike paths to regulate automobile and bicycle traffic separately;

- create bike paths across major bridges to encourage commuter use;

- set up stations with loaner bikes available for walk and ride use [bike share!]; make bicycle parking available downtown;

The memo is a fascinating look into where the politics of transportation were in Portland in 1971. In some ways, it shows how far we’ve come, yet in others it shows how far we have yet to go. These days, such direct language about the problem — and the common sense solutions — would unfortunately be considered a political risk. And of course the local media would have a feeding frenzy if any Commissioner released such a document.

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