Streets in the Trump Era: A Mission Statement of Sorts

I am beyond delighted to be starting 2017 with a new blog and website highlighting the work of the StreetLab, an upstart division of Lancaster Engineering that we launched late last year in order to better respond to the increasingly multi-disciplinary nature of transportation problems. As you might know, I’ve been writing about transportation issues for many years as a contributor to Portland Transport and before that on my old blog Half the Fun. One of my goals in launching this site was to get all of the writing under the same virtual roof as my professional practice, and I’ve been eager to use this forum to start some important conversations about transportation in Portland at a moment I see as a crossroads.

And then November 8, 2016 happened.

As important as I think topics like parking management, Vision Zero planning, and active transportation are to the future of cities, they certainly don’t seem as urgent now as they did a few months ago. As much as I’d love to think about optimizing parking pricing, my thoughts instead drift to my many friends who are frightened for their very existence. Consequently, I’ve struggled with what forms my work and my writing ought to take in the age of Trump in order to best create the change I want to see.

The transportation professions might well be less impacted than most because we’ve made so little progress over the last several decades. Even in Portland, a city that is ahead of the curve by any estimation, progress on the major fronts of safety and sustainability have come in fits and starts when they’ve come at all. The politics around many of these issues have long been toxic, and if you’ve ever been to a public meeting where parking or bikes came up, you were hearing your share of #alternativefacts well before Kellyanne Conway gave them a name. And lest we forget, it was barely a year and a half ago that a bunch of kids literally jumped off a bridge to keep the wildly missed former POTUS from letting Royal Dutch Shell pillage the Arctic. So Big Oil has been gettin’ it done for a while now; having one of their own in a Cabinet post is a mere formality. The path in front of us has always been steep, and Trump only serves to steepen it by a degree. Change will happen at the local level, as it always has, and it will happen in spite of massive systemic opposition from the state and federal bureaucracies, as it always has.

In that sense, Trump’s election might well represent an opportunity. His presidency is so threatening to so many that the levels of political engagement that are occurring, particularly among young people, are like nothing I’ve seen in my life. You know where I’ve really noticed that conversations were changing? On the bus, that fantastic mechanism that does double duty as both a mode of transport and a community gathering place. A year ago, conversations among millennial riders took up the Super Bowl or Grammys. Last week, by contrast, I overheard two young riders mistaking Lincoln Chafee for Jason Chaffetz until a third young rider interrupted to help sort it out.

This energy has manifested in some profoundly important ways on the streets. Taking to the streets in protest of politics gone awry is perhaps the most American activity one can engage in, and it’s been inspiring to see Portlanders setting an example for the country with frequent and boisterous protests. But I’ve been disappointed—appalled, really—at how our police force and our new mayor has reacted to them. The riot gear, the overzealous use of force, the arrests of children and seniors—that’s not who we are as a city. And one thing that really has grabbed my attention is the fact that the crackdown has taken place ostensibly out of a desire to keep traffic moving. Watching it all unfold, one might reasonably assume that it was unfettered mobility rather than free assembly that our Founders ensconced as a cherished and protected activity.

Though appalled, I am not surprised, because I have been fighting these battles throughout my career. The notion that streets—urban streets, even—are first and foremost meant for the conveyance and storage of automobiles is one that is so widely held that it has become the default starting point for all conversations. It’s a strange and temporary delusion owing to the fact that we’re right about at “peak car,” give or take, and so car culture is as prominent as its ever been and most decision makers grew up in an era where they were inundated with it. But this viewpoint has become so widely accepted that it hasn’t generated much thought or attention outside of the transportation wonkery. Since the election of Trump and the resulting protests, though, I’ve seen the purpose of our streets emerge as a prominent topic of conversation everywhere from my Twitter feed to my wine bar. I still disagree with more people than I agree with, but we’re having those conversations now, and widely.  In moments of crisis, opportunities abound.

It is thus more important and more relevant than ever to ask these questions: What are the highest and best uses of our streets, and how should we prioritize all of the myriad potential uses relative to one another? What sorts of designs and policies will it take to achieve these outcomes? With which metrics do we determine our successes and failures? How much is all of this going to cost, and how will we pay for it? And perhaps most importantly, how does our approach to our streets impact our larger public life? Which communities are we serving well, and which are we failing?

These are tough questions, and how cities answer them will go a long way to determining which ones ascend and which are left behind. I hope that we at StreetLab can help Portland and others approach these questions with sober, data-driven analyses that are properly focused on the intersections (ahem) of transportation policy with equity, economics, and livability. Though I’m terrified about the political environment that we find ourselves in, it’s clear that these politics make this sort of work more important than ever.

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