(Photo credit: Flickr user crumj.)

Stephen Rees raises the question of what kinds of cities Vancouver should take as models to try to emulate.  North American cities?  When people talk about transportation in North America, they eventually end up talking about Portland.

People like Portland.  In part, they like it because it’s one of the most–if not the most–forward-thinking cities in the US when it comes to transportation.  It’s excellent for cycling.  Their parking meters take credit  cards, and parking’s priced effectively enough that it’s never too hard to find a spot, even downtown.  And they’ve got light rail.  For a city that size, they’ve got a lot of light rail–from more conventional trolleys to the spine of TriMet’s system, the mammoth light rail Max, a sometimes-grade-separated surface train that runs from the suburbs through downtown.  The best part is, to encourage more people to get out of their cars and onto buses and trains, you can ride for free in the downtown core.  Yes, you read that right.  In Portland’s busiest, densest districts, you ride buses and trains for free.  Forward thinking indeed.

Maybe the best thing about Portland’s transportation planning is how the city has cheap, creative little ideas that make big differences for how people get around.  If you ever bike in Vancouver, you know it can be a pain in the ass to find a place to lock your bike.  Especially in dense neighbourhoods.  So in Portland’s downtown core, the city’s taken one or two street parking spots at the end of blocks and installed heavy-duty bars for cyclists to lock their bikes to. The bikes aren’t falling all over the sidewalk, and you can lock a lot of bikes in just one or two street-parking spots.  It’s a great idea, and Vancouver should do it, like, yesterday in the dense parts of Commercial, Main, West Broadway, downtown, and the West End.  Just to start.  Also, since Portland’s street parking rates are high enough to ensure people don’t ovruse parking, you can always find a spot to park.  The best part about that?  It reduces the congestion of people circling the block looking for parking spots!  Vancouver could use ideas like that.

But it’s also worth pulling back to bring the big picture into focus.  This photo above is of the view of downtown from the south.  It’s all freeways.  And that picture doesn’t even show the city’s main freeways on the other side of the Willamette river, the I-5 and the 84 heading out through the eastern suburbs to the Gorge and The Dalles.  These freeways are Eisenhower’s legacy.  They’re products of the middle of the twentieth century, when the US was, all of a sudden, the richest country in the history of the world, oil was cheap, and the family car was at the centrepiece of the country’s transportation policies.  These freeways show what a serious investment in transportation infrastructure can do.  It can transform the way people live.

Portland made that investment in transportation infrastructure in the 1940s and 1950s, along with the rest of the US, and it changed the way its citizens lived their lives.  It has not made anything like a comparable investment since then, and consequently the overwhelming majority of Portlanders still live and move through their city just the way Eisenhower envisioned–in their cars.  For all its forward-thinking and great, creative little ideas, Portland’s efforts to get people out of their cars have been nibbling around the edges, doing things on the cheap.  So Portland remains fundamentally a car-dependent city.  Even in its downtown core, cars dominate the streets, with only the streets the Max runs along the few exceptions to that rule.  As a transit geek put it to me this past weekend, Portland’s the best of the worst.

So when we’re thinking about Portland as a model of how to make Vancouver less car-dependent, it’s worth remembering the wisdom of Flava Fav: don’t believe the hype.  Vancouver can and should implement a lot of Portland’s cheap little ideas.  But if we want most people living in the city to have the option of a car-free life, we’re going to have think bigger.  A lot bigger.