Vanishing Automobile update #16

Tearing Out an Urban Freeway

Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer has what he thinks is a great idea: Tear out Interstate 5 along Portland's Willamette River. The land the freeway sits on, Blumenauer exults, could be used for parks and high-density, mixed-use developments.

Several years ago, someone proposed moving this freeway to enhance the waterfront. But Portland decided the cost was too great, partly because any other location would have displaced hundreds of homes or businesses. Blumenauer's proposal neatly avoids that little problem.

But it creates another problem. What happens to the more than 200,000 people who use this stretch of freeway each day? Blumenauer says they can ride the light-rail line he has long wanted to build from Vancouver, Washington (north of Portland), to Clackamas County (south of Portland). The fact that the vast majority of those people aren't starting or ending their trips anywhere along this route doesn't bother Blumenauer any more than the fact that both Portland and Vancouver voters turned down funding for this rail boondoggle.

Blumenauer observes that downtown Portland was dying thirty years ago, but today is a vibrant retail and entertainment center. He credits the removal of a road from the west bank of the Willamette River and the construction of the city's light-rail line, and says removing I-5 could lead to a similar revitalization of east Portland near the river. However, he has missed a few things.

For example, he notes that a popular downtown park, Pioneer Square, was once a parking lot. He doesn't add that when it was turned into a park, the city built two multi-level parking garages just a couple of blocks away. Tens of thousands of cars use these and the many other city-owned parking garages in downtown Portland every day.

Portland was once famous for limiting the amount of parking developers could install when they built downtown buildings. This drove development to the suburbs, so the city lifted these restrictions a few years ago. Without the automobile, downtown Portland would be as dead as the six pedestrians Portland's west-side light rail has run down since it opened less than three years ago.

Light rail has far less to do with the rebirth of Portland's downtown than the retail gentrification done by people such as Bill and Sam Naito (who developed Old Town Portland and the Galleria) and Richard Singer (who developed businesses in downtown and nearby Northwest 23rd). If these people had to depend on light-rail riders for their businesses, they would be out of business. When Portland planners tried to find a north-south light-rail route through downtown, numerous restaurants, bookstores, and other businesses threatened to move if the line were located on their streets.

Blumenauer's proposal could come only from someone totally out of touch with how most Portlanders (and most Americans) live. They don't center their lives around downtown. Many never even go downtown.

The 1.3 million people in the greater Portland area travel an average of 37 miles per person per day by automobile. By comparison, light rail carries the average Portland-area resident just a quarter of a mile a day. All transit together carries them an average of less than nine-tenths of a mile a day, just 3 percent of auto travel. These are averages, of course: Most Portlanders rarely if ever use transit.

Portlanders drive not because their region is poorly designed but because they have lots of different places they want to go and transit is too slow, expensive, and inconvenient to take them. Driving speeds average 25 miles per hour, compared to light rail's 20 miles per hour (but not near 90 percent of potential destinations) and bus's 10 miles per hour -- not counting the time spent getting to, waiting for, transferring between, and getting from transit routes.

Blumenauer complains about the "noise, pollution, and ugliness" of a freeway, but fails to note the huge benefits created by that freeway. For one thing, it is far safer than city streets or light rail. Fatalities per passenger mile suffered on urban freeways are half those on city streets and just a third of those caused by light rail.

Further, highways and autos give people access to better jobs, better medical care, a wide variety of low-cost consumer goods, more recreation opportunities, and socializing with a wider range of friends and relatives. Automobility is a hundred times more important to our lives than the internet. It is just this mobility that people such as Blumenauer seek to destroy.

Remember, this is the Earl Blumenauer who told National Public Radio that congestion "is exciting. It means business to the merchants. It means an exciting street life. It's the sort of the hustle and bustle -- and people don't mind going slow."

Remember, Portland is the city where planners want to increase congestion on most freeways to what traffic engineers call "level of service F" -- meaning bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic. "Transportation solutions aimed solely at relieving congestion are inappropriate," they say, because "increasing highway capacities would eliminate transit ridership."

And remember, Portland planners also say that they want to "replicate" Los Angeles in Portland because Los Angeles, the most congested urban area in America, has the fewest miles of freeway per capita of any U.S. urban area. Blumenauer's proposal to demolish a critical portion of Interstate 5 would certainly contribute to that goal.

In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev saw his first U.S. interstate freeway and said he was shocked by the waste of time, money, and effort. In his country, "there was little need for such roads because the Soviet people lived close together, did not care for automobiles, and seldom moved."

Today, as Russians buy automobiles in record numbers and move to their suburbs, smart-growth advocates such as Blumenauer want to recreate 1959 Moscow in American cities. I think it is safe to say that this is not a good idea.

Representative Blumenauer's proposal is on the OregonLive web site. You can read Nikita Khrushchev's comments on American highways and housing, such as why he thinks Soviet apartments are better than American single-family homes, in Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: Volume II--The President (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1984), pp. 542-543.

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