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Dear City Council: A prescription for healthy streets

By Rob Sadowsky, Contributing Columnist

I write this letter to the Portland City Council as it seats two new members: Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick. As you sit down over the next few months building new relationships, making new appointments, swapping bureaus and considering new directions. I offer this prescription for healthy streets:

Our streets have the potential to transform our communities. Trans-portation policies of the past too often divided communities, particularly those most underserved. Instead, be inspired by the potential offered by building livable communities that are vibrant, active and economically sustainable for everyone.

Transportation is regional. Policies and programs must be tailored to meet the unique needs of the tri-county region and the diverse communities within the region. Transportation systems and policies link us all. The Portland economy is strengthened by building connections and filling gaps in the network that make it more difficult for our residents and employees to move within the region.

Collective action is stronger than individual action. Portland needs to embrace partnerships with civic, transportation, recreational, educational, social-change, health, environmental, business, development and community organizations. We need to move away from divisive politics that pit people who walk, take transit, drive cars, and ride bicycles, or who help move freight around the city, against each other. Perhaps most importantly, we urge you and your bureaus to listen first before taking action.

Good transportation policy transcends demographics. Be conscious of social equity issues in transportation and strive to engage diverse constituencies, particularly across lines of gender, age, income, race and ethnicity. It is simply not enough to hold a public hearing to engage constituencies;  you need to go out and listen first, build shared goals and engage in meaningful dialogue.

A truly multimodal network is a balanced system that meets many shared goals. Strive to achieve a balanced transportation system that accommodates the needs of all users while mitigating the effects of congestion, high speed and risky driving behaviors.

Deliver results. It’s not over when projects are funded, plans are adopted or policies are approved. We expect implementation to lead to on-the-ground progress.

Change behavior through encouragement and education. It’s not just about building the network. We are building a balanced transportation network through education and encouragement. We must continue to invest in Sunday Parkways and Smart Trips as well as in maintenance and construction.

Confront reality and let data drive decisions. We need to use current data and transportation modeling to guide decisions. The reality of today is that fewer people are driving cars and more people are biking, taking transit and walking. Our land use policies, parking policies and on-the-street plans for the network need to celebrate this new reality.

Tell it straight. If we are going to continue to lead the nation in building livable communities, we need to come straight out and tell our citizens that the transportation choices we make have a direct impact on all of us. Larger, heavier vehicles mean our roads are more costly to maintain. Reducing our transportation carbon is essential to prevent increases in asthma and other respiratory diseases. Ultimately, investing in a balanced transportation system will save us money.

Be bold and unique. We are Portland. We are innovators who set the tone for the rest of country when it comes to many things, transportation included. This bold and unique character attracts new businesses whose employees are looking for a healthy lifestyle that allows them to easily navigate their neighborhoods and urban core by walking and biking. Healthy streets are simply a key ingredient for economic success.

Hire and recruit the best people who can implement this vision. You will have many choices ahead in bringing on new staff to implement policies and citizens to serve on committees. Let’s go out and recruit people who not only have experience with implementation, but also share these guiding principles and vision.

Healthy Streetbeat is a monthly column for Street Roots written by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). Rob Sadowsky is the executive director of BTA.

The following is the first in a two part article. This first part outlines a set of guiding principles for Healthy Streets. The second will offer a framework for implementation.