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The Urban Vision : Capture the BIG Picture
Name: Ishani Mehta
Bio: Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.
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Nancy Chase, a senior planner with expertise in natural areas acquisition, has had experience working both with Metro and smaller jurisdictions in the Portland metropolitan region. She has the unique experience of working on both a bond measure that failed and those that succeeded. In the following interview, she shares her experiences on how failure was transformed into success as well as how money raised through this unique financing instrument of bond measures has helped shape the fate of natural areas and green spaces within the Portland metropolitan region. In addition, she also shares her top tips on land acquisition that could be useful in the Indian context as well.
Natural areas bond measure
What steps did you take to ensure the second bond measure for natural areas acquisition succeeded after the failure of the first $200 million bond measure in 1992?
After Multnomah County Parks and Recreation’s successful transfer to Metro, Metro had experienced staff to manage parks, trails and natural areas. We had already built political support for the region’s natural areas master plan through public outreach and political consensus building. One of the criticism from the failed bond measure was that we only had “greenies” advocating for the bond (the first bond measure was sponsored by the Audubon Society). In response to this criticism, a Blue Ribbon Committee of business leaders from the region was formed to help package the bond measure and give strategic advice. Involving the business people not only helped create a better package, but many of them also became contributors to the bond campaign fund.
The Blue Ribbon Committee stressed the need for the bond package to be specific about the natural area acquisitions and trails that would result if the bond was approved. The committee respected the biologists selections, but once they had this list, they picked out additional areas to spread the money evenly across the region — everybody would get something. They also recommended that rather than all the money coming to Metro, a percentage of the bond should go to each local government so that they could buy the smaller areas within their jurisdictions. So all of a sudden there was something for each little town. This was important for the bond to pass — after all, if people are paying taxes, they should see the benefit from it in their jurisdiction and city, regardless of how high the project ranks. Hence, the business component brought in more of the ground level realities and practical marketing approaches to the bond measure.
It should be noted that government staff are not allowed to campaign in favour of a bond measure, but only present the facts — here is what it is going to cost you, and here is what it would buy. Informational maps were created showing where each project is going to be along with a concise description of each project on the backside of the map. There were additional fact sheets answering common questions and highlighting the economic impacts of trails and natural areas in neighbourhoods, such as an increase in tourism, property values and tax revenue. Private funds were raised to hire a campaign manager and staff who along with numerous volunteers worked with neighbourhood groups and non-profit organisations to turn out a positive vote.
We understood from many meetings with the community and park advocates what people thought was important to preserve in Portland’s quality of life. Many of the voters had moved up in the 70s and 80s from areas of the country that had been poorly developed, such as California, and had seen what happens when growth is unplanned; they had moved to this area because they liked the trees and the natural areas. So people were very supportive of protecting natural areas and providing trails that link to natural areas.
So the second bond measure was successful because we had managed to get the pricing right and were specific about where the money would go. Metro had also acquired the management ability. Politically too, Metro shared responsibility and funding with all its partner jurisdictions, making them much more cooperative.
Obviously, this bond couldn’t achieve everything, and that is where the prioritising work we had done earlier, before there was money, really helped. We could confidently tell any city or county that complained about fund allocation that it was their council that adopted this plan. The Blue Ribbon Committee picking out the best out of these priority projects was also helpful in prioritising fund allocation. For instance, Fanno Creek trail is not biologically the best, but it passes through seven jurisdictions serving a wide population base. The focus on selection was definitely to serve regional, not local needs.
Why was the third bond measure introduced?
The bond dollars were nearly expended and there was still a need for more natural area and trails acquisition. It had been quite a booming economy and a lot of people realised that the areas that they considered important were not on the second (first successful) bond measure list. So the third bond measure was proposed for finishing off some old projects and proposing a new project list. They also created a nature in neighborhoods grant fund, to use for green projects such as bioswails for stormwater runoff, or adding natural areas in older parts of the city such as Irvington. For instance, the fund could be used by a school to pull up some of its paving to plant trees and create a community garden; or create a little nature park within developed neighborhoods.
One thing I want to note on the first successful bond measure is that we really felt it was important to keep the public informed of our progress. So our public relations staff ensured that every time an acquisition was made, there would be press coverage. When we had all the pieces to form a particular natural area park, we would make sure that local politicians and citizen representatives were invited to do the speeches and ribbon cutting. Every two years, we also produced a formal Report to the Citizens. The reports informed citizens of the progress in terms of acres acquired, trail miles, etc. and included detailed photos and information. The report copies were made available at Metro, and distributed to all local council representatives and posted online.
So by the time we were ready with the next bond measure, people were familiar with the programme and its track record. One drawback was that in areas where we had already acquired all the desirable land parcels in the previous bond measure, the support groups were not as actively campaigning for the next bond measure although they were still supportive. The third bond measure therefore passed quite easily.
Today we have a big pot of money for natural areas preservation and development from the two successful bond measures that Metro initiated. We raised $227 million from the recent bond and $135 million from the previous one.
What are the next steps for developing natural areas in the region?
We are looking for ways to link the natural areas together so that they are more accessible to the public as well as on foot or bicycle. We also need to increase awareness amongst people and education at every age about getting to these areas and engaging in a range of activities for enjoying these amenities. We should also look beyond the 2040 plan at maybe 2060 to see how we will find the large areas for that period.
Another thing to look at is more amenities for urbanised areas such as street trees, bioswails and naturescaping. For instance, when someone builds an office building, in many areas you are required to have a percentage of landscaping for trees in the parking lot etc. It would be good if we could focus our energies on native landscaping in yards to reduce water usage and provide habitat for bird species and insect species. In my own yard, there is no lawn but there are a lot of flowers and the insect count is tremendous; a reliable food source leads to more birds. I think even if you are in a developed neighbourhood you can do a lot to help the environment through such measures.
- Successfully raising money through bond measures requires building a constituency, involving all stakeholders, and designing an effective and simple information and outreach campaign.
- Allocating the money amongst jurisdictions so that everyone benefits leads to a win-win solution so that everyone is on board and agreeable.
- Determining priority projects before bringing in discussions of money and financing is a useful strategy to ensure that money does not skew focus.
A bond measure is an initiative to sell bonds for the purpose of acquiring funds for various public works projects, such as research, transportation infrastructure improvements, and others. These measures are put up for a vote in general elections and must be approved by a majority of voters, depending on the specific project in question.
Having been here for a few months, it started becoming evident that a lot of the Portland metropolitan region’s innovative best practices in planning and conservation — be it the bicycle movement that Portland leads the US in, or progressive land-use planning — took root in activism and policies that started taking shape around 30 years ago.
Being an aspiring civic leader, I was really curious to find out what distinguished the political and social environment in the past that put the region on a sustainable path towards becoming the greenest region of the US. Evidently, one of the key areas where this legacy of planning has showed immense positive effects is the abundance of natural wealth in and around the Portland metropolitan region.
The best resource for understanding the complex history of the region’s planning framework, particularly for open spaces, is undoubtedly Mel Huie, who is a legend in trails planning and development. Another planning stalwart from the region who has been key in the success of the region’s natural areas programme is Nancy Chase. Mel Huie and Nancy Chase are experts on natural areas planning and acquisition and have been working with Metro and allied jurisdictions for over 30 years. These two are in fact a part of that cohort of visionary leaders, planners and citizen advocates that put into motion the processes and changes which placed the region onto a progressive path.
In the following interviews, Mel Huie and Nancy Chase describe the political environment and the planning imperatives that sowed the seeds for Portland’s effective natural areas program me, and discuss the impacts and challenges at the ground level.
Major governance innovations and planning best practices that distinguish Portland seem to have come about around 30 years ago. What was unique about Portland’s leadership at that time?
Mel Huie: In general for the US, the concept of transit and development of natural areas had started taking shape long back. The concept of streetcars began emerging in the US around 1897, when American cities throughout the US were created through ’streetcar suburbs’. Typically, a developer would build the houses and sometimes owned a streetcar company, which would be tied to the electric power company to replace the horses (that were unsanitary because of all the manure). Developers set up streetcar lines in Portland as well, going into the housing areas through the tie up of the streetcar company and the electric company. But the streetcar was abandoned in the 50s and 60s with the advent of freeways (we still have homes and storefronts built along historic streetcar lines).
On the natural areas side, historically there was the Olmsted brothers’ plan for trails and natural areas across the US. In the 1920s and 1930s there was the City Beautiful Movement, particularly famous in New York. There were poor masses that were stuck in tenements and needed fresh air. So parks and open spaces were created under this movement. On their free day of the week, the masses would have a park to relax in. The sociologists and planners also thought of it as social engineering because they were able to get people out of slums to have fresh air in parks, which could help lower crimes. But this movement also lost steam as the depression and World War II came.
It was in the 70s that Portland had a very young dynamic mayor — Neil Goldschmidt. He came into power in 1973 at an age of only 32. Neil Goldschmidt represented City of Portland in CRAG, which was a bi-state association of heads of governments from five counties and cities and the predecessor of Metro. He hired a team of young, dynamic people, which actually included me as I was on CRAG staff.
Actually, at the time when Neil Goldschmidt became mayor, the downtown and urban core of the city was deteriorating and everybody was moving out into suburbs. So in the late 70s they came up with the transit model (in 1986 the first light-rail became operational). Around the same time, there was a lot of pressure to clean up the Willamette river in Portland. This was during the period when Tom McCall was the governor. So in a way, an innovative mayor was complemented by an innovative governor who came up with the Willamette greenway plan and the state comprehensive land-use goals. The goal of the Willamette greenway plan is to have a continuous greenway from the headwaters of the Willamette south of Eugene, Oregon all the way up to Columbia.
At the state level, we had elected visionary leaders who wanted to preserve the Willamette River greenway, and ensure public access to all the beaches. In fact, Oregon has always had a history of green activism, even before the famous Tom McCall came up with the state land-use guidelines and urban growth boundaries in 1979.
So the governor and the legislature made all this possible. The legislature passed a lot of progressive laws (that it might never pass today!). The state required by law that all the cities and counties at Metro have a comprehensive plan for future growth. Within each plan, there was a set of goals such as for transportation and for urban growth, and the protection of natural areas, parks and trails. In 1973, the first comprehensive plan for Portland city was drawn focusing on transportation needs and natural areas, and included the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
What happened at the ground level after these initial pathbreaking legislations were introduced?
Nancy Chase: Actually, there was financial crisis in the 80s. At that time, I was working for Multnomah County Parks and Recreation with Charlie Seiko. Back then, cities did small little neighbourhood parks and activities like swimming and tennis, and the counties did these larger- scale parks where you could go camping. With the financial crisis underway, the politicians and the county commissioners got together and decided that where they really could make a difference through their actions was in the social services (healthcare for mothers and infants, jails, juvenile courts, homeless etc.). In this discussion, parks were thought of as an extra responsibility that probably Multnomah county could not handle. Planning and parks was not a funding priority at the time; when we would put up project proposals for funding, we would always be behind other priority projects under social services.
So discussions began for giving the Multnomah county parks — Blue Lake and Oxbow — away to the city or private interests. This generated the momentum to look at the provision of park and open space services in the region. Some cities were doing a good job providing neighbourhood and community parks and the counties were trying to provide regional parks; but because everybody in the overall region used all these services, there was some inequity for tax payers and there was no panning on a regional scale. What was really needed was a regional plan to look at these large-scale natural areas, parks and trails.
At that time Metro was just starting to work on regional park planning. So representatives from all local governments started working with Metro to identify park needs and determine which entities should be responsible for these services. For two years after that, staff and elected representatives from all jurisdictions got together and put together a natural areas plan. The end product was the Greenspaces Master Plan showing what the best natural areas left in this whole region (covering all three counties) were. We did this planning process in two stages. At the time, Mel Huie represented Metro and I represented Multnomah county. Metro also hired biologists to evaluate the natural areas that were left.
Mel Huie: Between 1988 and 1992 the Greenspaces Master Plan was developed. It was a Metro initiative, that led into the natural areas master plan. Overall, it took about four years to develop that plan because it was developed through consensus amongst all the jurisdictions.
Nancy Chase: The meetings and consensus building itself was a long and tiring process that lasted 2.5 years. As part of building the natural areas master plan, we conducted a series of workshops and forums for all the citizens and neigbourhood groups to get together and nominate natural areas and trails they felt should be preserved. We had over 200 public meetings. There was a huge difference in scale on what jurisdictions and people thought was important. It came down to nominations as small as one tree that one little city really wanted to preserve versus 5,000 acres on Sandy River.
What was important about our strategy for these discussions was that we did them before the discussions of money were brought onto the table. Money was not even in the picture. People did say why are you doing this when you do not have any money to buy it. We all had been in government and politics long enough to know that discussions around money could skew the focus. Our philosophy was that it was essential to know what natural areas were biologically important and document the facts. By eliminating any financial discussions we tried and managed to keep the discussions firstly on a scientific basis and secondly, even if an area did not qualify on scientific merit, we considered areas that were located in such a way that the neighbourhood really could make use of them and liked them. So the strategy was to have people nominate areas based on both biology and what would help keep communities together, such as a particular natural area in private ownership that everybody liked to walk to. To the component of natural areas, we also added the notion that we needed trail corridors to link these areas, so that people could either get there on foot or bicycle.
The end product, which was the master plan, ended up being universally adopted because Mel Huie took the resolution to every single city and jurisdiction to adopt it. Every city and every county approved this master plan. So before any money was involved and before it became controversial, the areas in the master plan were universally recognised as important for the region. This proved to be instrumental because we had a document approved by everybody about what was important to be saved before there was money to buy the natural areas.
Besides getting an agreement on what was important, this process was also building up a constituency, because all the neighbourhood meetings gave us a list of people who thought it was important and participated actively on a citizen base. A lot of these active people formed their own unit-level groups (such as Friends of Fanno Creek) that advocated for protection of specific natural areas. These ‘friends groups’ worked on protecting these natural areas and Metro could work with these groups. The workshops and forums along with newspaper articles also raised the visibility on the issue.
Simultaneously, we were working with Metro councillors to create an understanding that regional parks should be something Metro does as a region. We were pushing for a transfer of Multnomah county parks and recreation to Metro given the county’s financial limitations and priority to social services. It worked out very well.
Mel Huie: On January 1, 1994, Multnomah Parks and Recreation became a part of Metro, and that way we brought one implementing agency under us so that there was less fragmentation.
Nancy Chase: While this was still in process we were putting together the first bond measure for $200 million. It was organised by a group of volunteers and the first time we had ever done anything like this. It nearly passed even though we we were not specific about what we would buy – just trust us!
Even before the bond measure was introduced, we managed to build political support by inviting politicians and staff to field visits to cities where such plans were successfully in place. In particular, a trip to Oakland was organised, where the East Bay Regional Park District Master Plan was in effect. When the politicians returned, all of a sudden our Greenspaces master plan started to make sense to them in terms of what we were trying to achieve. By the time we introduced the first bond measure for $200 million, there was universal political support for it.
Unfortunately the first bond measure lost by a very slim margin. Exit polls that asked voters why they voted either way indicated that a lot of people who voted against the bond measure felt it was a huge and open-ended plan, so that they did not know if it would directly benefit their area or not. One of the comments from newspaper editorials questioned Metro’s ability to effectively utilise the $200 million to start buying land and managing it when the organisation had never managed property. That is a huge leap to take!
But we picked ourselves up from there and went ahead with transferring Multnomah county Parks and Recreation to Metro. I became a Metro employee. So all of a sudden, Metro had a parks system and a maintenance staff with over a 100 years of experience in managing property. So they had that component ready and we went ahead with two successful natural areas bond measures.
It has been about 20 years. What impact have you seen with the natural areas acquisition programme?
Nancy Chase: I think there is this huge support for natural areas and it still triggers people to continue voting in it’s favour. State wide there have been measures to help, such as ensuring clean water and protection of salmon. I think people really care. We have successfully managed to save some of the green spaces in perpetuity.
Mel Huie: I think that the government managed to buy whole trail corridors in one go such as the Springwater Corridor, the Gresham-Fairview trail and the Trolley Trail because these came up, in accordance with the 1974 bicycle plan, on former streetcar lines that were abandoned. Luckily, the right-of-way remained intact; it wasn’t parceled up and sold to next door neighbours.
Another positive impact is that there is a lot more integration in trail planning in the Portland metropolitan region. The Greenspaces Master Plan has facilitated this integration and coordination.
What are the challenges?
Mel Huie: Implementing the plan is taking a long time, because we are a public agency. We cannot just buy the land we want all the time; some years there is money while other years there isn’t.
Nancy Chase: In fact you can still drive around the area and see land that may seem protected but is in fact in private ownership and not really protected. We have targeted 10 per cent under public ownership, but is that really enough? Within the urban growth boundary, if we are going to have high density, people need to have these parks and natural areas nearby.
The biggest challenge is have we really bought enough land to make it worthwhile for the species over there. It needs to be linked to other natural areas for a deer to be able to survive and not be killed by cars. To have a diversity of species, you really need hundreds of acres linked to larger areas. I do not know if we would ever have enough money to buy it all. Portland was lucky because we had an urban growth boundary around the Portland metropolitan region, which does allow larger land parcels for species outside the boundary.
Another challenge is not having the checkerboard pattern. With the willing seller programme we are going to have holes in public ownership of the land. You have to hope that eventually we might be able to buy that land but it is an unknown and once it gets developed into housing it becomes quite unlikely.
Has there been a conflict between developing trails for people by promoting health and outdoor recreation and protecting wildlife in natural areas?
Mel Huie: I think it is a dichotomy, but the initial focus was more on protecting and preserving natural areas and wildlife. Now there is increasing emphasis on access and public health, passive recreation as well as complete routes for alternative transportation, while the focus on protecting natural areas remains. The scientists see it as imperative for protecting habitat and wildlife and birds; but the plan is for wildlife and people. Both goals are important.
Nancy Chase: The conflict is because people scare off wildlife. In biology it is called the edge effect. If you build a trail or road, then the wildlife on either side of it (depending on the species) gets impacted up to a couple of 100 feet. In our urban areas, however, we do not have any ‘critical’ wildlife species, mammals anyway, because they were all driven out long ago. But we still try to respect the protection of wildlife.
It is kind of a balancing act, because if we do not let people in at all to a natural area, you do not have what we call a constituency to protect it later. Say if politics changes or government laws change in future, you really need the local people there to be supportive to protect the natural areas. That means people need to come there and use it and love it. Earlier it used to be that you would put a trail paralleling the stream, and so the whole time you would have people walking just two feet from the edge of the stream which would be harmful biologically. So now we work with trail planners so you have the trail off the river and then we have spurs coming in as viewpoints to the river. We keep a 50-100 foot buffer so people are not right at the edge of the bank. We also identify sensitive areas such as Eagle’s nests etc. and make sure the trail or the parking lot does not go near it and disrupt it. So we have a good biological inventory and make sure we leave plenty of large areas and do not have trails crisscrossing every where. We minimize the trails enough so people can have a look and get where they’re going.
- Good policies can create an impact in the long-run, but only if complemented by consistent ground-level activism.
- It is important to build political and public support (a constituency) as well as reduce institutional fragmentation and disagreement to transform visions into reality. This is a time taking and painstaking process and requires extreme commitment and deliberation.
- Natural areas are of vital importance to cities, especially in densely developed urban areas. People must be able to enjoy theses aces to appreciate them and eventually finance their revival; however with minimal impact on wildlife and habitat.
As a regional government, Metro pioneered in very long-term planning in the US at regional level with the formulation of the 2040 Growth Concept regional vision. The plan, formulated as early as 1995, is a landmark in long-term planning using the innovative approach of scenario planning whereby alternative concepts of growth were explored before finalising the vision’s growth concept. The 2040 Growth Concept was developed to guide planning in the region over a 50-year horizon and plays a crucial role in complementing the urban growth boundary concept to create dense, walkable and livable cities in the region. Developed through a series of public engagement processes, the plan is both popular and pragmatic.
The long-range plan identifies ten urban design types, namely, city centres, main streets, regional centres, town centres, station communities around light-rail, industrial areas and freight terminals, green corridors, and rural reserves/open spaces. The set of strategies are targeted at ensuring safe and stable neighbourhoods for families, compact development, a healthy economy that generates jobs and business opportunities, protection of farms and natural areas, a balanced transportation system for people and goods, and housing for people of all incomes in every community.
The primary author of the 2040 Growth Concept is John Fregonese, who joined Metro as planning director and worked for five years before starting his own planning firm Fregonese Associates in 1997. Rich in experience, John Fregonese has since then undertaken similar planning exercises for many other cities including Denver and Dallas, and regions including Utah and Chicago. In an interview with The Urban Vision, John Fregonese generously shares his insights and provides lessons for Indian planners.
Read on to understand why and how successful long-term planning is undertaken.
John Fregonese, President, Fregonese Associates
You were involved with formulating the 2040 Growth Concept for the Portland metropolitan region. How was the concept initiated? Why was such a long planning horizon chosen by Metro, as this was not common practice at the time?
Oregon adopted its Statewide Planning System in 1973 at the Conference of Planning, so there already was a tradition of preparing 20-year plans here. Each city had to do comprehensive city planning and land-use planning for a 20 year forecast of population. In part, this required calculating the required urban growth boundary (UGB) and urban land for the next 20 years. So, as early as the 70s and 80s, cities were figuring out the capacity of their plans – how many people will it hold if the plan is built out – over a long-term. With the primary concern being limiting the expansion and sprawl of cities, the calculations involved became fairly rigorous and were observed and critiqued by the state government through the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD). The DLCD closely scrutinized the comprehensive city plan calculations, commenting on issues such as sprawl, excessive and unjustified land allocations, low densities, etc. The most closely scrutinized aspect of the plans was the land required to grow, especially if it involved an expansion of the UGB.
Hence, we ended up with a state-wide coordinated planning system that basically evolved into a system of coordinated population forecasts done at the county level. Based on these forecasts, each city was allocated its share, for which it would then prepare a comprehensive development plan in compliance with state goals the way it deemed fit. While all other cities in the state had their own individual UGBs, the Portland metropolitan region (comprising 25 cities and three counties) was the only region to have a single coordinated UGB because the cities were all growing together. The only function of Metro, the regional agency, at this time was to monitor this coordinated UGB, basically like a referee calling off-sides. There was no regional planning agency.
In the late 80s, it was realised that maintaining a UGB was not improving what was happening within it. A period of rapid growth had started, creating dissatisfaction with the existing urban form, and congestion. Consequently, the state established urban reserves based on a 50-year outlook, beyond the traditional 20 year outlook. The urban reserves were identified by determining where the land is that could be required over a very long term (50 years). Simultaneously, there was a serious look at transportation and land-use alternatives (such as public transit) to building roads for adding transportation capacity for reducing the vehicle miles travelled (VMT). Hence, the region moved along the track of driving less, using less land and trying to be more sustainable.
Further on, in 1992 Metro adopted a home rule charter. This meant that Metro no longer needed to go to the state government to get permission for doing things. It could go to local voters. Hence, a form of government was established that is very close to voters. So in Oregon, they created a new kind of government, which is the regional government, having the same basic authority to create laws as a city or county. There are very few such governments in the whole world, making Metro kind of unique. In fact, Metro is the only regional government in the US that is elected and has a Home Rule Charter.
According to the Home Rule Charter, the number one purpose of Metro was planning. It required Metro to prepare a vision by 1995 and have a functional plan that implements this vision by 1997. And that is basically how the 50-year plan came about.
At this point in time, I was hired by Metro for preparing the plan. While others were apprehensive of taking the job, for me it was a great opportunity to take a big risk and move way up in my category. Before that, I was a planner for Ashland, Oregon which is a city of 50,000; all of a sudden I was planning for a region of 1.5 million. So the scope of planning increased for me by a factor of a 100.
The approach we took was of scenario planning, where we would ask what happens if we follow one path and what happens if we follow another path and then compare those alternatives. From that comparison, we would figure out a strategy that would work and was politically feasible. This is where long term planning and vision for the region came from. We adopted a 50-year outlook —50 years of land needs, a long term transportation plan, etc. — because it really does take that long a period to observe substantial differences between alternatives, which are an integral part of the scenario planning work that we did.
The 2040 growth concept has been implemented for the Portland metropolitan region since 1995 (officially since 1997). Since then a lot of other communities have done the same— maybe not for 50 years, but 20, 30 or even 40 years. It is not uncommon anymore to find 2040 and 2050 regional plans in the US. I just came back from Chicago and they have a plan for the region that goes till 2040. San Diego in California has a plan that goes till 2050. These are examples of long-term regional plans that coordinate local planning.
Why is it important to plan at the regional level rather than allow cities to plan as autonomous units?
The region is the functional organising unit; the region is the level at which cities in a metropolitan area actually work. There is clearly a big role for cities to play in doing the planning. However, coordinating it regionally leads to tremendous efficiencies, much better land use, better coordination between their plans, and less destructive fighting between cities. Moreover, transportation must be coordinated at a regional level; this has been known for a long time now. We have seen regional transportation plans since the 1950s. The innovation that the Portland metropolitan region has demonstrated, which has also been widely adopted now, is integrating transportation and land-use. Since local governments want to manage their land-use locally, we have to work out programmes such that it is in their benefit to cooperate with the regional government. For selling a plan to local governments, one must determine their goals and find overlaps with regional goals, and then promote those areas where the interests overlap.
Ideally, regional plans should precede city plans; this is never the case in the real world. Usually, city plans already exist when developing the regional plan. So one must look at existing plans and coordinate them. I do think that local governments are open to changing their city plans if you can make them better. So just because a city plan exists, it does not have to mean that other alternatives cannot be explored.
The 50-year plan for the Portland metropolitan region is halfway through its implementation. Have you seen any significant changes due to the long-term planning process being in place?
There have definitely been significant changes. Firstly, the open spaces plan of Metro came out of the 2040 Vision. The open spaces plan has now become quite advanced and very successful. It is just taken for granted today, but a look at the initial concept plan will show that the green strips were crucial elements, which set the context for the urban area. We found in all the public involvement exercises while formulating the vision that open spaces were really important to people. If you plan to have dense urban areas, you’d better have a lot of open spaces and natural areas that are well preserved.
The other significant outcome certainly was designing the kind of transportation that we have today, including elements of public transit, biking and walking. This multi-modal transportation system also came out of the 2040 Vision. The system has been very successful compared to almost any other place in the US and even many places in the world. It has actually made a substantial measurable shift away from cars towards transit, walking and biking.
Thirdly, the focus on development of centres and corridors is significant, although it has not been implemented all the way as yet. Progress has been made in many centres and corridors certainly in the City of Portland – you have Hawthorne and Belmont and these revitalized areas in East Portland, you have the Pearl District, and the South Waterfront. Beyond Portland, all the downtown centres in Portland, Beaverton, Gresham, Troutdale and other cities came out of this concept of planning.
Currently, I think the implementation of corridors and centres is in its second phase. The concern now is that while all historic downtowns are doing well, how one gets a place built during the auto-oriented area to shift to a more multi- modal situation when it was designed exclusively for people driving. That is a bigger challenge but I think we are making some progress.
This multi-modal transportation system also came out of the 2040 Vision
How does one plan with built form of a particular kind already in place (with focus on Indian cities)?
Most of the built form is always there, for all the cities that I have planned in. There is a lot of inertia going in a certain direction. So I wouldn’t find that unusual or especially challenging for Indian cities either. The fact is that cities are always evolving; so if you start changing, it will change in that direction. That is the advantage of working over a 50-year period; you can make substantial changes if you keep applying pressure year after year. Look how distinctive Portland is today from the average American city while in 1975, it was exactly like every other American city.
In addition to believing that things can change in the long-term, it also became politically popular to undertake these changes in Portland. People understood, supported and expected them. It was an issue that was debated in local elections, and people supported the direction in which the region was moving. Because of that political support, I think people were able to change the way money was spent, and really divert resources into implementing the plan. That is one of the key requisites; if you are going to implement a long-term plan, you better be serious about following it. You cannot say one thing but keep doing things the old way. In Portland, for example, the processes of land-use decision making, transportation planning and utilities have been considerably changed compared to a lot of other places.
Based on your experiences with regional planning, what do you think are the key features that any long-term plan should include?
We have a big tradition in Oregon of participatory democracy. I do not think this is very strong in India; people are not explicitly asked for their opinion. I think that even if you were to do a stakeholder process in Indian cities that would involve a larger number of stakeholders, it would have significant impact even if you cannot go down to every person. We did a process in Chicago that was not entirely grassroots; it is called grass tops, but involved a lot of people at the grass tops. I could imagine doing something like that in India. Moreover, there must be a strategy that brings diverse people together.
In addition, the planning process needs to be transparent. You do not start with an outcome; you start with an open mind and an inventory of values that you want to achieve. You then examine alternatives that are objectively drawn and scientifically measured together. Nothing is hidden and you deal with unexpected consequences.
Among the various services offered by Fregonese Associates, I found public involvement and scenario planning services of key interest from the Indian context. Could you describe how you go about the public engagement process, particularly in the transportation context?
I recently wrote a chapter in the latest book published by the Urban Land Institute of Oregon, which has our secret. It is essential to understand that not everybody wants to participate to the depth in which they attend all public meetings. We represent the varying levels of interest in a pyramid, where the very top represents the people who would go to meetings. For this segment, you need to organise interesting workshops, and bring interesting people to talk. However, you must also find a way to listen to the people so that there is a conversation, not a lecture. A number of methods such as hands-on workshops can be used to engage this segment of people and get their ideas. We then use those ideas to begin creating the plan. The basic idea involved is that the stakeholders have more expertise about their area than you would, because they live in the area and know about their towns/cities. Hence, using their ideas can allow you to make a plan that is not only more effective but also popular, because when people feel that they have been listened to, they tend to get a lot more supportive.
At the second level of the pyramid are people who would follow the process but get engaged only if you ask them questions. To reach this segment, we conduct online polls, and send out newsletters. At the bottom level, you have people who will not get engaged but listen if they find it interesting. To attract this segment, we have very much used popular media, such as social media, websites and a lot of videos, so that the people who will give us only 5-10 minutes will nonetheless get information and start forming opinions. This way they know about what is going on and can react properly when, for instance, someone running for office says he/she supports or does not support an issue.
Could you also describe the other key area that you work in, namely, scenario planning?
Scenario planning is great. Today it is called scenario planning, but when we started with the 2040 growth plan, it was called Concepts of Growth. The more I learned about it, and I really learned the formal aspects in Chicago, I realized it was more like word problems and thought problems. The innovation that Fregonese Associates did was harnessing computer modelling to build scenarios as if you were building a model of the future. So you take some plausible designs and design it to the level of detail you can, and then model it in the computer objectively and find out results.
You are always surprised by the results; that is why you do modeling! Sometimes there are ideas that you think will be great but do not actually work. In these cases, you look at the model and ask if it is a model effect or will the idea really not work. There is always a human desire to continue believing in what you believe in, not paying attention to objective data. The scientific method is so unnatural to us; that is why it had to be invented! Humans interpret data based on their prejudices. When it comes to scenarios though, you really have to look at it with an open mind.
Sometimes the idea is not as good as you thought. At other times, things might be going better than you thought, such as in the Pearl district of Portland city. When we did 2040 Concepts of Growth, there was no streetcar for the Pearl district. It was definitely a strategy under the 2040 vision, but the specific designs of the streetcar had not even been conceived then. But it clearly helped the whole development and was something we could embrace.
Generally, by comparing scenarios and having conversations about them, you can understand the dynamics and the strategies that work behind the scenarios. Scenarios are meant to discover various strategies, which are then the policies you follow. While in Oregon people have come to accept picking a preferred scenario as the plan, actually what we advocate is to just pick a vision for the future, which is where you want to go. It does not have to be detailed or scientific. Then you should pick strategies that will move you to the vision and always monitor where you are going so that you can adjust because frankly, we cannot predict the future. We can study what might happen and we can devise some strategies ahead of time, but you have to think on your feet and be ready for change when things are not occurring the way you thought. Testing strategies and adjusting the strategies when things are not turning out the way you wanted is therefore important.
Could you tell us about your role in the Climate Smart Scenario planning work that Metro is currently undertaking?
We are building the tool to be able to model the scenarios. How people are going to pick the preferred scenario is not known yet. I think though, from polling and just our sense of it that people are going to pick climate change scenarios and a set of strategies if there are other co-benefits. If you can say that I have two plans – one of them reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent but will make you poorer and your region not as competitive; while the other will reduce your greenhouse gases by 25 percent, but you will be prosperous and have a good quality of life – clearly, people are going to pick the second alternative.
This is how we sold the 2040 Vision as well; highlighting that there would be a good quality of life, availability of transit etc. People basically like walkable communities; it is a very popular thing to have and many people select that. This is a reward in itself and the fact that it would also reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions is great. So there are things like these that we can do.
Given the current situation, where do you see the region going? What are the weaknesses that must be addressed and current strengths that should be built on?
The weakness is the economy, which is not as dynamic and vibrant as it used to be. We have got to figure out a way to be more competitive. I think this is true for much if the US, and not just because of the recession. It has been coming for a while. There was very little productivity in the 2000s and little increase in real wealth in the society. People went into debt to spend more money but there was nothing really there. The recession really indicates that people are drawing back and saving more and spending less, which is drawing a big chunk out of the economy. You go from a zero savings rate to a 5 per cent savings rate, leading to a trillion dollars drawn out of the economy. But this has to be done and we must adjust to that. So basically, Oregon needs to be better at business and really continue to push for a better economy.
There wasn’t a very strong economic element in the 2040 Concepts of Growth, because in the 90s when we did the planning, a good economy was just taken for granted since we were in the midst of a big boom. Creating jobs was the last thing on people’s minds. What was important was how to manage growth. But if I were to do it again, I would have incorporated a very strong economic element and then developed a job creation strategy.
Meanwhile, the current strength really is the political stability of this basic strategy. People here expect it, are happy with it and most local governments are committed to it. It is a nice balanced approach; not too radical or unaffordable, and has given us a good quality of life. It is not perfect, but is certainly better than where we would have been otherwise. I think that means that people are going to continue to tweak and modify it but not make any radical changes to it. It is kind of the way things are around here.
Overall, it has done a number of things that have had a positive impact on people’s lives here.
The planning process has also led to widely accessible housing across the region. Pretty much if you have 800 dollars a month, you can rent an apartment in any part of the region. It is partly because if this that you have diversity spread across the region. Although this is not region with a lot of minorities, but at least now there are no areas without minorities. They are spread around with no concentrations in a particular area, which is a nice thing. Certainly, the concentration of the African-American population in North Portland is a result of explicit segregation. In the 1950s and 60s, they could not live anywhere else. In the 70s while they could legally live anywhere else, people made them very uncomfortable. But now it is much less of a big deal, which is nice.
Overall, you can definitely see that the plan is having its desired impact and is on-track. It is probably not perfect in every way, but certainly had its impact on changing the way the region works. It certainly coordinated plans better, has limited sprawl, improved transit, lowered VMT, improved walking and biking, and preserved open spaces. Overall, it has done a number of things that have had a positive impact on people’s lives here.
- A few weeks after meeting with John Fregonese for the interview, I was fortunate to hear him presenting the proposal for the proposed civic plan for improving downtown Beaverton to the Metro Council. He was presenting in the capacity of planning consultant for City of Beaverton. Evidently, public engagement and scenario planning were key components of the final civic plan. The plan is particularly impressive and is in line with the Community Investment Strategy and Metro’s goal of ‘Making a Better Place’. The presentation threw into sharp focus the key points that John Fregonese makes in the interview above – public engagement and exploring various alternatives with an open mind and free of prejudices is essential to create a workable plan for urban redevelopment.
- Long-range planning is an effective tool in working around the obstacles of existing built form in urban areas that are auto oriented. This however requires commitment to the plan and following strategies through.
- The approach of scenario planning for long-range planning involves comparing the results of following one path/alternative/scenario to those of following another. Use of computer modeling and public inputs as well as sound judgment and data allows planners to create a detailed and close-to-accurate picture of the future, based on which strategies for the present can be chosen that could put the city/region on a sustainable growth path.
- However, it is also important to update continuously based on new information and changes in assumptions. This requires transparency in the process as well as freedom from bias.
- Long-range planning at the metropolitan region level allows for tremendous efficiencies, much better land use, better coordination between their plans, and less destructive fighting between cities.
- Open spaces such as parks, natural areas, wildlife refuges and trails are crucial for pushing through dense urban areas, which are acceptable publicly. In addition, development of urban centres and corridors (served by public transit) enable dense development.
An effective public involvement process recognizes that people have varying levels of interest in participation, and campaigns and workshops and events need to be organized that would cater to these varying levels of interest. In addition, involving everyone might not be possible
Despite a great public transit network and bicycling/pedestrian infrastructure, a majority of residents in Portland still choose single-occupancy car trips as their primary mode of transport. The two primary reasons for such travel behaviour are thought to be lack of information amongst road users about other modes of transport, and habit that favours car use. So with the goal of reducing vehicle miles travelled (VMT), City of Portland decided to try something different, inspired by the TravelSmart Australia Programme.
Hence, in 2002-03, City of Portland engaged individualised marketing expert SocialData to implement the Multnomah/Hillsdale TravelSmart pilot project, making it the first ever large-scale individualised marketing project in the US. The concept of individualised marketing involves providing customized information about alternate travel modes including walking, biking, transit and carpooling to individuals identified as willing to try out other modes of travel (see interview with Derek Hofbuaer). The information (delivered by bicycle 98 per cent of the times) coupled with continuous telephone contact motivates individuals to start thinking about other modes of travel as well as helps them get started.
Pilot project – TravelSmart
The pilot project, implemented with support from the Oregon Department of Transportation, Trimet and Metro, covered 600 households (approximately 1,200 individuals) and was deemed successful. Encouraged by initial successes, City of Portland decided to combine TravelSmart with the launch of the new Interstate MAX light-rail line in 2004.
The Interstate TravelSmart project covered over 14,000 people in north and northeast Portland. Prior to the marketing project, a before-survey was conducted with a randomly selected sample of 1,460 persons in the target area to determine the current household travel behaviour in the area. In addition, a control group was surveyed that did not receive any marketing materials. During September-October 2004, 6,281 households (14,446 people) were contacted for brief telephonic interviews for providing information, with a 92 per cent response rate.
A year after the before-survey was conducted, another random after-survey covering 1,708 people was conducted to measure changes in travel behaviour due to individualised marketing with the control group as the baseline reference. An in-depth study followed this project, under which selected households were interviewed in detail about their modal choices. All data was analysed to assess the viability of promoting alternative modes to cars.
Figure 1 provides a snapshot of the Interstate TravelSmart project.
The results from the post-implementation analysis indicated that car trips had decreased in the target area and shifted to walking, biking and public transit. The total reduction in VMT was 6.8 million miles (14 per cent). It was also indicated that the trips within the community increased after the individualised marketing campaign, which indicates possible community business benefits. In addition, the combination of light rail and TravelSmart increased physical activity 25 hours each year (or about 2 hours each month).
Further, specific value addition of individualised marketing campaigns was demonstrated by comparisons with the control group. Post the opening of the Interstate MAX Line, transit ridership increased for the control group by 24 per cent as compared to a 44 per cent increase in the target area. The reductions in car trips and VMT were also greater for the target area, with 9 per cent more reductions in car trips and 8 per cent more reductions in VMT.
City-wide implementation – SmartTrips
Following the completion of its TravelSmart programme in collaboration with Socialdata in 2004, the Travel Options department of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (City of Portland) modified the programme to reduce costs, add hands-on experiential activities, and extend the contact period with residents to eight months a year. Thus was launched Portland SmartTrips, a large-scale recurring individualised marketing project for the city. The basic objective was to ensure that everyone who lives, works or runs a business in the city knew about all the travel options available to them. Hence, the SmartTrips programme was launched in 2005 in a phased manner, starting with the Eastside Hub target area.
Pilot project -Eastside Hub
The programme has a dual approach whereby residential areas are targeted with individualised marketing tools such as free bike/walk maps and information resources while partnerships are forged with businesses to offer employee incentives that encourage decreasing dependence on drive-alone car trips.
Using an interactive and fun method, adequate support was provided to area residents (in the form of customized information) to make new travel choices a part of their daily life. A variety of useful materials were provided such as a Southeast Portland walking map, a schedule of strolls for seniors, customized transit route information, and walking/biking kits.
Since then, the programme has reached out to all neighbourhoods in a phased manner, targeting one neighbourhood each year between late-March (weeks before the good spring/summer weather kicks in) and early-November. Selection of the target area each year is based on a multitude of favourable factors such as land-use patterns, transit services availability, bike and walking infrastructure, and new light rail or bicycle and pedestrian trails. Table 1 indicates the annual rollout of the SmartTrips programme since the pilot project was completed for the Eastside Hub area in 2005.
|2010||MAX Green Line|
Source: Portland Bureau of Transportation
In general, a SmartTrips rollout in a targeted area involves sending each household in the area a newsletter in late-March showing a calendar of nearby walks, bike clinics and Portland By Cycle rides. Other transportation projects such as area streetscaping, Safe Routes to School projects and transit services are also included. Most importantly, the initial newsletter has a notice for residents informing them about the SmartTrips order form that residents may use to ‘order’ information and incentives for alternative transportation.
Order forms are then sent out in batches covering about 2,500 households per week. Majority of deliveries are completed on bikes. The orders are delivered in vinyl tote bags, and are accompanied with a SmartTrips Calendar of events, an area walking map and a thank you letter.
Orders are typically processed and delivered within a week of receiving the order. It is believed that the programme’s success critically depends on the speed and efficiency of delivering materials ordered, because late deliveries may fail to cash in on the moments when a household is motivated to consider other modes (which is when they place orders). Clearly, the programme relies on striking when the iron is hot.
To ensure complete outreach, households that do not reply with a filled-out order form three weeks after receiving it are sent postcard reminders. With each order, one incentive can also be chosen. I myself have been able to use many of these incentives such as the blinking lights for my bike and the free neighbourhood maps to enhance my biking experience in the city. Other incentives available are a SmartTrips umbrella, Bicycle Map Bandana and Transportation Options T-shirt.
A second newsletter is circulated in May containing a web address and phone number, reminding residents to order materials, in addition to a list of more events and activities. The remaining three newsletters – one on July 1, another on September 1 and the final one in mid-November – are circulated to anyone who orders materials or attends any one event.
Suite of events
The suite of events/programmes used to encourage walking, biking and transit is broadly the same each year, inclusive of the Ten Toe Express Walking Campaign, Portland By Cycle Campaign, Senior Strolls, and Women on Bikes.
- Ten Toe Express Walks – Around 4-6 guided walks are organized every month from May through September to encourage people to explore routes on foot and make walking buddies.
- Senior Strolls – Guided walks are offered from May to October under this banner, aimed particularly at seniors to help them become active and comfortable with walking as a transportation option. This is especially useful since often the ageing community feels most disconnected and requires options to get around and lead an active lifestyle. These slower paced strolls start and end on public transit routes.
- Portland By Cycle Rides and Classes – This is a series of evening rides and classes offered from May up to September. The rides are designed for new cyclists as well as people who have not ridden a bike in years. A safety briefing opens the ride program, and safety tips are offered along the ride by trained volunteer and staff ride leaders. Eight free classes are offered covering varied topics ranging from shopping by bicycle, introduction to bike commuting, to bicycle touring, riding in the rain and basic bike maintenance.
- Women on Bikes – This series is targeted particularly at women, since research suggests that the average bicyclist is a young white male and male bicyclists outnumber female bicyclists. The series includes bike clinics, conversations and rides covering topics such as bike selection, gear for bike and cyclist, bike handling skills, basic bike maintenance, the city’s bikeway network, cyclists’ rights and responsibilities, how to ride with children, how to shop by bike, and bike advocacy. Rides are scheduled to practice skills, try different routes, meet other women to ride with, and demonstrate the ease of commuting by bike.
SmartTrips Business and Welcome
In addition to the residential track, City of Portland is also offering two parallel programmes to increase impact. These are the SmartTrips Business, targeted at employers; and Welcome SmartTrips for residents who recently moved into a new area. The Welcome SmartTrips is a pilot project and is available only for limited zipcodes for now. To eligible households, a goodie bag containing maps and guidebooks, as well as a choice between a chocolate bar from Portland’s Moonstruck Chocolate or an All Day TriMet ticket, is delivered on bike.
Photo of the goodie bag courtesy of Paul Smith (@GreenSmith on Twitter).
In addition, to reach out to diverse communities, Portland Bureau of Transportation recently came out with bike maps in five new languages (Burmese, Nepali, Somali, Russian and Arabic), for immigrants whose first language is not English. The maps are already available in English and Spanish.
The individualised marketing projects run by City of Portland have succeeded in reducing drive-alone car trips by 8-12 per cent every year (2004-11), with a simultaneous increase in the use of walking, biking and public transit as well as carpooling. This is evident in the current modal split. In 2008, this change in modal behaviour was estimated to result in reduction in carbon dioxide emissions amounting to 19 million pounds. Using this as an average, this would imply a reduction of over 110 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions during 2005-10. A particularly significant reduction in drive-alone trips was recorded with the completion of the SmartTrips Green Line (2009) with the final report showing a decrease in drive-alone trips by 18.4 per cent in the target area, helping to save 48 million VMT in the area.
These impressive results have been confirmed through random telephone surveys as well as trip diaries recorded post-marketing. The participation rate (indicated by percentage of area residents that either ordered materials or participated in an activity) for all areas was an average of 30 per cent (similar to the modal share for alternate transportation). Each walk is attended by 30-50 particpants (with new people joining in each time), and each bike ride is attended by about 18 cyclists. The programme is also popular with area residents who submit an average of 1,000 comments annually in praise of the programme.
In addition, bike-friendliness through the availability of information and institutional support under the SmartTrips programme has been a key determinant in the choice made by many to move to Portland (over a third of recently moved respondents in a survey). Businesses have also come out in support of the programme, claiming that biking and walking helps them market their business better.
Comparing these benefits to the cost of the programme allows greater appreciation for the cost-effectiveness of the programme given such impressive results. A typical 20,000-household programme costs $570,000, which translates into $10 per person in any SmartTrips area.
Hence, Portland’s individualised marketing programme has been and continues to be quite impactful in encouraging people to choose sustainable modes of transport. With a large number of captive users of biking and walking and public transport in India, a similar programme would be extremely beneficial in ensuring that the captive users continue to remain choice users even when motorized personal transportation modes such as personal cars and motor bikes become affordable to them.
Derek Hofbauer came to Metro with years of experience at Socialdata, the pioneers of a new innovative tool called individualised marketing that encourages people to choose sustainable modes of transport. Well, the tool isn’t that new; it has been deployed successfully across Europe for over 40 years now! But other parts of the world, including Portland, are still getting familiar with it.
When Derek helped kick start the project in Portland six years ago, the City of Portland was treading unfamiliar ground. However, with limited investments leading to phenomenal returns in terms of changing travel behaviour, the city is now getting ready for renewing it’s individualised marketing efforts (see following post on the SmartTrips Programme).
With its proven track record, Indian cities have the opportunity to learn and adapt these techniques to manage a ballooning demand for single-occupancy car travel. In this candid interview, Derek explains the nuances of individualised marketing, citing experiences from Portland, Australia and Europe to make an irrefutable case for this method. Read on to gain more insights into a novel yet simple concept.
What is individualized marketing?
The concept of individualised marketing was pioneered by Germany-based company Socialdata in the 1970s. The concept was developed primarily to meet the needs of public transportation agencies in Europe who wanted to know how they could achieve increased ridership. A series of research concluded that often people are just unaware of what their transport options are, such as a convenient frequent service bus running near their house, or a safe bike route somewhere near. Hence, encouraging people to use transportation modes other than their car requires targeting their knowledge base, because people are not going to take the time to do this research. Through individualised marketing, you are just helping them out with this information.
Hence, individualized marketing is an approach to provide information to people about transportation options, particularly those available within their neighbourhood. It differs from traditional marketing in various ways. One of the unique aspects of this approach is that you can actually measure successes of the marketing efforts. This is done through a series of before and after surveys. A survey would be launched prior to implementing the actual marketing project, which will be followed up with another survey after the conclusion of the project. In the case of transportation, the surveys can measure the level of travel behaviour change that comes from the marketing in terms of reductions in vehicle miles travelled, percentage increases in biking, walking and transit ridership, as well as decreases in car ridership.
Individualized marketing also differs from traditional marketing in the way you can segment the population using different techniques. Often for a large-scale project covering a large neighbourhood of say, 14,000 households, there is contact phase in which all households are initially contacted to determine where they lie in the spectrum of using non-car transportation — not-interested, interested, or regular users of alternate modes of transport (bike, walk, transit). Typically, about 50 per cent of the group is interested, another 10 per cent are regular users, and 40 per cent are just not interested in getting out of their cars. By segmenting the population in this way, the actual marketing project can focus on the regular users and interested households instead of focusing all the resources upfront and sending everybody in the neighbourhood all the information, because people that are not interested are the least likely to change their behaviour.
Interestingly, individualised marketing demands continuous contact with each individual household, because of which the approach is also referred to as dialogue marketing. We engage the household in a conversation about their travel options. Normally they are contacted to do the survey, and are contacted again when the marketing project begins as well as at the end. In this way, the households are engaged throughout the year. Notably, each time you call them or talk to them, it triggers something in their minds about travel behaviour. After a while, these gentle reminders about travel options get embedded into their mentality.
A key thing to remember with individualised marketing is that you do not want to tell people to get rid of their cars. It is better to set targets such as making at least two trips a week by public transport or bike. The goal is for individual households to make small changes, so that with a lot of small changes, over time that is a large cumulative effect. Hopefully, the behavioral change would also trickle down to children’s behavior so that it becomes a sustainable generational thing. For instance, when parents start biking, their kids also travel on bikes. If they have a good experience, they will be more likely to bike later in life.
We have in fact been trying to measure this sustainability effect and come to the conclusion that behavioral changes continue up to at least three years after the marketing project is first implemented. The reductions in car use probably continue for an even longer period, but we have never taken surveys across the same panel group for more than three years (for various reasons such as people getting tired of filling the same surveys or moving to a different neighbourhood). Even this limited sampling, however, has given encouraging results about the long-term impacts of a one-time individualised marketing initiative in any area.
What areas besides transportation can individualised marketing be used for?
Individualised marketing has been used for areas that involve more sustainable living and require a behavioral change amongst users. In Australia, they do living smart projects, under which they include diverse areas such as transportation, water conservation, recycling, energy conservation, etc. Water conversation is really important for Australia because of the prevalence of droughts. Through their individualised marketing project, it is possible to measure the decrease in water consumption after individualised marketing strategies. It is a lot easier to measure reductions in energy and water consumption because it involves a simple comparison of bills, unlike transportation which requires families to record daily travel diaries. So yes, there are a lot of possible areas that can be impacted with this kind of strategy.
Why and when did the concept of individualised marketing first get implemented in Portland?
Portland launched its individualised marketing programme for transportation in 2002. A staff member at the City of Portland had heard a presentation from an Australian representative about how they were implementing the individualised marketing model, where the before-after surveys showed a 10 per cent reduction in single occupancy vehicle miles travelled (VMT). He returned to Portland and talked about implementing a similar programme here. That is how the SmartTrips Program took shape.
What are the tools and resources required for individualised marketing in the transportation realm?
The first task is sending out order forms to the indentified segments of people. The order forms indicate a variety of material that the recipients can get by checking the boxes to show their interest. If someone is not interested in biking at all, we will not send them biking material such as bike maps. This is the reason it is called individualised marketing; it is customized to individual preferences. The nice thing is that there is no cost to the households for ordering material on the order form. There have been instances of me going to a house with free materials and the owner trying to write me a cheque. When I tell them that the materials are free and it is their tax dollars at work, they are surprised.
Another resource we include in the packages that we send out to households are stop-related time tables based on the address of the recipient, with helpful details such as stops near their house, the routes that run on them and their timings. So instead of a thick timetable that they would never want to use, we give them a small user-friendly card with only relevant information.
We are also trying to encourage people to do their grocery shopping using bikes or on foot. We inform them of the things they need to equip their bike with such as panniers or baskets, and other options such as using a cart with transit. So there is a lot of useful information to give to people.
We would also provide incentive items such as a free neighbourhood map, which was kind of the crux of the programme. The map would show the neighbourhood in detail, displaying stores, schools, bike routes, transit lines, etc. It was a really good way for people to discover stops and stores in their own neighbourhood instead of driving 10 miles to the big store. In addition, it would help in keeping investments within a neighbourhood with people spending their money on local businesses as opposed to big box stores. Hence, we would offer coupons for local businesses, such as a free drink at the local brewery to bike riders who come with their helmets. Bike stores would also participate and offer a 10-15 % discount coupon as well as free on-the-spot bike maintenance and repair. This proves to be a great community business booster.
A particular incentive (used in Australia) is encouraging competitions between neighbourhoods by giving updates to households about their performance as compared to other neighbourhoods. This made the programme a little bit more exciting and effective.
To complement free informational resources, City of Portland also organises events as part of its individualised marketing efforts. They organise programmes like Women on Bikes, Senior strolls, guided walks, etc. These events are publicized in the same order forms that are sent to households with information on resources they can order. Typically these events are organised in the summer months when the weather is better, keeping in mind that it takes about three months from the time the people first get the information to the time they actually make changes in their travel behavior based on the material they receive; and that people would most probably try out these modes in fair weather.
All residents are targeted under individualised marketing, including apartment complexes and residential homes. So you are targeting a diverse group. We also have materials in Spanish. In Canada, we were required to use six different languages to reach out to all people. So there is an effort to reach out to everyone. In particular low-income people really benefit with this free information delivered to their door, because it is so difficult to own a car these days.
All these methods are quite inexpensive compared to building a number of miles of bike lanes — you invest in some maps and other informational resources, a few before and after surveys, some people to put them together etc. — all this generally amounts to between 10 and 20 dollars per person. Additional resources might be required to develop neighbourhood maps, but City of Portland already has neighbourhood maps; so it is just a matter of getting existing resources more involved. In general, most transportation agencies have a lot of resources available, such as brochures on bike commuting, information on walking for your health, brochures on the cost of driving telling people how much it costs to operate a vehicle over the year, etc.
In addition to providing information about travel options, there is also an education component to individualised marketing. Therefore, we usually have an additional section in order forms besides a list of materials that recipients of the order form can order by ticking check boxes. This section is called further services that asks questions such as ‘do you need help using transit?’; ‘do you need help bicycling or walking more?’ etc. If their answer to any of these questions is yes, then we set up an appointment and do home visits. We would go to the house, help the kids understand how to wear their helmets properly, give them little blinker lights to motivate them to bike, and ride with them to show them safe routes to go to school and other destinations. For transit-related questions, sometimes we would invite bus drivers have come to the house and give the household a free 30-day bus pass so they can try out transit with no cost. The one big barrier for people to use transit is that they have never done it before. So just to get them to that first step where they feel comfortable is an effective approach, especially with seniors. Once they see how a trip is made and what the transfers are, they can then make the trip on their own and would usually continue using transit if they have a positive experience the first time round.
This is what individualised marketing is really about; a way for us to hold their hands, get them out of their house and away from their cars, and show them that alternate modes of transport are possible, in the process giving them information and making them feel good about it. We give them motivation and encouragement through small gifts like a pedometer, a little leg bad for their bike or a water bottle. It is these little things that we do to motivate and inspire. It is a very helpful and useful approach and does not take that much money to affect a lot of people.
I usually try to deliver all materials by bicycle whenever possible as this is a good way to deliver the information as well as engage with people and ask them if they have any questions. I did a lot of deliveries on bike myself and people were just amazed that a project like this even existed. It was really exciting to see their reactions first-hand; to see the look on kids’ faces when they get really excited with just a couple of little cheap free things. When they see this information, and they see you on a bike with this huge trailer pulling 500 bags, they get encouraged and think that ferrying their groceries on their bikes is not really such a big deal.
How are results from individualised marketing surveys used?
Useful analysis of the results requires a research and surveying process intensive in the use of time and labour resources for following up with the recipients of marketing material. The Socialdata approach was a little heavier on the research so that almost two-thirds of our budgeting was for surveying. This was just because it was a new technique and we did not know how well it worked here in the US. Skeptics would say that the US is not like Europe and one would never achieve such decreases in car driving here. However, we are seeing that the success of individualised marketing strategies is very similar worldwide. It is probably a little less effective in suburbs because there are not many options for walking or biking to work as there are in urban areas.
Under the Socialdata approach, we also conducted a lot of research to determine the potential that exists for promoting public transportation, bicycling and walking. So we did a lot of in-depth interviews for measuring attitudes and awareness. We would ask the household to complete the survey and maintain a travel diary for one day. We would then take the travel diary back to the household and ask trip-specific questions like why they used a car for a particular trip and not a bike. We wanted to know specific reasons and look at all the barriers they had. On basis of these in-depth interviews we found that generally 50 per cent of the barriers were subjective. They would choose not to bike even when the weather is nice, the trip is short and they have a bike, because of habit. People generally do not think about their mode of transport, and automatically reach for the car keys. So we are trying to change that mentality by telling them that using alternate modes is possible and easy and does not involve a radical change in their lifestyles.
One benefit to these kinds of projects, and this is not quantifiable by any results but based on my observations doing the project, is that when you have more people out bicycling and walking, it tends to make communities safer.
How do these strategies complement/combine with other transportation planning, investments and strategies?
One good approach to individualised marketing is using it when new transportation infrastructure such public transport routes or bike lanes are being opened for public use. If you know a big project is coming, a real good way to promote it is to target all the people living in the neighbourhood or corridor that will be using it. For instance, Socialdata did a project in 2004 when the Yellow MAX (light-rail) line was opened. We had a control group so we knew what the results of our individualised marketing efforts were vis-a-vis the marketing by Trimet and City of Portland. It was determined from this analysis that targeted individualised marketing in conjunction with new public transportation infrastructure had basically doubled the usage of the new line by people versus generalised marketing efforts. This proves that individualised marketing is a really effective tool when planning such big investments, and does not require significant additional investment. So if you are going to build a $50 million transit line, you might as well invest an additional $100,000 and get patronage from the beginning, and hopefully they will become regular users over a period of time.
Individualised marketing can also be linked with transportation planning is to use data from the surveys to look at everyday mobility. Of course, you need to have a good survey to do that. You need a travel diary, and you need to see how the household is combining trips. If you have a robust enough sample and a good survey, you can really study at travel demand patterns during peak hours and other times of the day.
We have already determined through individualised marketing that a lot of the trips made by car are of a discretionary nature, like going to the store. They are not trips that have to be made at a particular time of day, and are at the discretion of the traveller. It is always said that the commute trip is the hardest to change because you have to look nice, it is early in the morning and you have to be on time. On the other hand, discretionary trips are made on a flexible time schedule as and when you have the time, and are therefore easiest to change in terms of mode choice and travel behaviour. If commuters begin to experiment with transit, walking and biking for these trips, they are more likely to have a good experience. On the other hand, if they miss a transit connection and get late for a meeting, then they would never want to try transit again. Our experience also shows that once a commuter gets good at doing shopping trips by bike or transit, he/she is also likely to feel confident about using these modes for work commuting.
What are the key challenges that one faces with individualised marketing?
Nowadays, with limited resources, that constant level of contact with households is missing. Socialdata invested a lot into contacting people. We used to call people a lot and our response rates on a mailbox survey were as good as 70 per cent.
Another challenge is measuring the results. There are a lot of different ways to analyse the same data. If you do not have a detailed travel diary that is mailed back in, the survey quality may be different. However, travel diaries take a lot of postage and a lot of time for households to fill out. Hence, they are being replaced with more phone surveys in Portland. The problem with phone surveys is that you are getting information from just one member of the household instead of the entire household at once. It becomes difficult to see how transportation choices are working within the entire household with only one person’s account.
You can also get into the problem of self selection, because usually the people who take the calls and surveys are enthusiastic about the programme. This may end up just accounting for those people who are actually making the changes because they participate whereas those who are not making the changes are left out from the analyses because they are not participating in the surveys. In this case, your results might reflect more than what likely happened in the entire area.
Another issue with phone surveys is that landlines are being replaced by cell phones. When you call landlines, you generally reach out to an older demographic. To target cell phones, you need to pay the cell phone user. So there are some issues around sampling because of these technology changes.
Going forward, what outcomes do you expect from the next round of individualised marketing in Portland?
In Australia, they ensure that the long-term impact is sustained by redoing the marketing campaign in any city every couple of years. Lesser resources are required to be spent on refreshing an individualised marketing campaign after a few years, but the impact is ensured. City of Portland has pretty much covered the whole city through their SmartTrips individualised marketing programme. At present, they are starting to circle back to repeat the whole process, which is a good thing, especially because a lot of people move to new areas.
I would say that one thing we would like to see is that when people move to a new area, they are greeted with a little kit that has information from previous surveys, because when people move houses and jobs, it is a good time to show them their transportation options as they are still deciding on their transit choices. If they are not aware of the safe routes and transit lines in the new area, they are probably just going to drive. Trimet does already have a programme to provide welcome kits to new employees in area, but there is no similar individualised marketing targeted at new residents in an area. It is a part of our future strategic plan but we have currently do not have the funding. Besides, another issue with such a programme would be to maintain a database of people renting/buying houses, which is a complex affair to manage.
Another thing that Metro is trying to do is to reach out a little bit more into the suburbs because the City of Portland covers only areas within the city boundaries. We are already doing an individualised marketing project in Wilsonville called ‘Discover Wilsonville’. Gresham is also in the process of finishing one. So we are reaching out to these more suburban environments. Now the great thing about individualised marketing is that it can be used anywhere that people have some kind of access to transit options. If biking is not safe, and there are no sidewalks or public transportation, then it is going to be tough to have a successful project. We have progressed in our transportation infrastructure in the suburbs and are progressing to meeting pedestrian needs and bicycling needs as well. So we really want to do some individualised marketing at this stage to make people aware that there are trails and sidewalks and other safe ways to get around by bike. This especially makes sense now with the transit system expanding into Milwaukie. We have a really good opportunity to focus on the rest of the region and hopefully having the same amount of success that City of Portland’s SmartTrips project has had.
- Individualised marketing makes sense when some new transportation infrastructure is set up, especially for public transport and non-motorised transport. For a small additional investments, such marketing can greatly enhance the success of transportation projects. In the Indian context, it might make sense to use this tool to complement the upcoming transportation projects receiving funding under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). These would include all the bus modernisation projects, BRT projects that include cycle tracks and metro/monorail projects.
- The infrastructure marketed must be of good quality and provide the user a good experience, otherwise the marketing project will fail.
- The ultimate objective should be replacing car trips, not cars as a mode per se. Individualised marketing can succeed in encouraging households to replace some of their car trips, particularly short trips of discretionary nature, with other sustainable modes.
- Often, the barrier is habit and unawareness. People are used to moving around in cars and are unaware of the other safe and convenient transportation options. Not having tried these options earlier creates an unfounded fear that can be dispelled through individualised marketing.
- If done properly and in a detailed manner, the results from individualised marketing surveys can also feed into future policy decisions.
Portland’s transformation into one of the greenest regions/cities in the US has been a slow and steady process over the past four decades. In addition to micro-level influences such as strong community involvement, visionary and realistic planning, and substantial activism for active transportation, a significant macro-level influence that enabled this transformation was the state-wide planning system introduced in 1973. A direct result of this visionary set of laws instituted by the State of Oregon was the implementation of the innovative concept of urban growth boundaries (UGBs) in all major metropolitan areas of Oregon including Portland. The utility of this concept has in fact led to its implementation across other states in the US such as California, Washington and Tennessee as well.
The workings and implementation of UGBs is an important lesson to learn from Portland for Indian cities that are currently struggling with urban sprawl. By keeping urban development contained in a compact boundary, UGBs promote more efficient land-use planning along with an assurance for businesses and local governments about where to place basic infrastructure necessary for future development. Moreover, limited resources can be invested on making existing infrastructure more efficient rather than constantly building new capacity for an ever-expanding urban area. Besides this, UGBs are important for another significant reason, explained below.
Urban development patterns in India over the last two decades suggest that often new cities emerge over traditionally agricultural land when escalating property prices create incentives for real estate developers to acquire such land (Gurgaon in the National Capital Region being a case in point). In addition, rural appendages to ad-hoc urban developments have been extensively used as dumping grounds for the urban waste (such as the rural areas around Chennai) while rural inhabitants migrate into urban agglomerations due to lack of lucrative opportunities in the rural areas. Clearly, urbanization in India has not just been sprawled in terms of land-use, it has also been predatory as far as rural areas and their economy is concerned.
The concept of UGBs is essentially the antithesis of this ad-hoc and predatory form of urbanisation seen in India. The boundary controls urban expansion onto fertile farmland and precious forest cover. The concept of UGBs embodies respect for urban and rural areas and their economies alike, allowing them to coexist in an inter-dependent way. As will be evident below, this was the primary realisation and motivation that led Oregon to initiate the State-Wide Land-Use Planning programme, incorporating UGBs into state legislation.
Governor Tom McCall and his allies (a coalition of farmers and environmentalists) convinced the Oregon state legislature to create UGBs as part of the state-wide land-use planning programme in the early 1970s because he was extremely concerned about the adverse impact that uncontrolled and unplanned urbanization would have on the state’s two primary industries – agriculture and timber. In addition, there was a focus on the need for retaining the state’s natural beauty and easy access to nature.
The Columbia Region Association of Governments, which was one of the predecessors of Metro, undertook extensive planning to propose a UGB for their region (comprising six counties). In 1978, the proposed UGB was approved by the Land Conservation and Development Commission as consistent with statewide planning goals. Metro inherited the responsibility of managing the Portland metropolitan region’s UGB when it was constituted in 1979.
In adopting the regional UGB, Metro coordinated between regional and local comprehensive plans, consistent with state-wide planning goals. Hence, the process of defining the UGB involved more than drawing a line on the map. The boundary was based on a projection of the need for urban land based on the plans and growth projections of the three counties (Washington, Multnomah, and Clackamas) along with 24 cities and 60 special service districts under Metro. The land development plans of individual property owners were also taken into account.
The Portland metropolitan region is required by law to have a UGB that contains at least 20,000 acres (81 sq km) of vacant land, in addition to maintaining restrictions on the development of farmland. For instance, the minimum land-parcel required for a single unit outside the UGB is much higher than within the UGB to facilitate farmland development. While land outside the boundary allows protection of forests and farmland, the land-use within the boundary supports urban services including roadways, water supply and sewerage systems, and other utilities that are conducive to compact and livable urban communities.
The state-wide planning law is pragmatic and realistic in the sense that it requires Metro to maintain a 20-year supply of land for future residential development inside the boundary. The Metro Council went a step ahead in 2002, asking technical staff to also determine the requirement to maintain 20-year land supply for new jobs, thus allowing for sustainable economic expansion of the urban areas as well.
All this requires the Metro Council to conduct a review every five years of the existing land supply to prepare an urban growth report, that analyses both residential and employment needs of the region. The employment section describes a 20-year projection of the number and types of jobs expected to come in the region and the type of buildings and land-use it might require. The residential section projects how many new households are expected over the 20-year range and the public investment and housing needs to accommodate the new households.
If the urban growth report indicates that the existing UGB provides sufficient capacity to accommodate growth forecasted over the next 20 years, then it is left unaltered. Only if the report indicates that the existing UGB does not have sufficient land availability to accommodate the 20-year growth forecast, does the Metro Council take necessary steps. Even in such a situation, however, expanding the boundary is considered only as the final alternative after considering other possibilities with local governments to increase the efficiency of land use within the existing boundary to accommodate more growth. These steps may include upzoning, increased investments in public transportation infrastructure, and redevelopment of brownfields.
The Metro Council has up to two years after the completion of an urban growth report to consider a possible expansion of the UGB. The unique feature of the process is the scope for a regional conversation that requires coordination and consensus between Metro, the county governments and all other jurisdictions concerned.
In addition, the Council also has powers to, under special circumstances, expand the UGB to meet immediate needs to provide lands for specific purposes that cannot be accommodated and cannot wait till the next urban growth report. However, these special powers are rarely used. The process requires local governments to petition the Metro Council to consider expanding the UGB outside the five-year review cycle. Such a petition cannot be made in a year in which an urban growth report is required to be completed. Moreover, the petitioners must address extensive criteria and provide complete justification for requesting such a narrowly targeted expansion outside the normal review cycle.
Since the boundary was first drawn, it has been moved quite a few times, although most of those moves were less than 20 acres. Substantial additions have been authorised very few times, as follows:
- 1998: About 3,500 acres were added to make room for approximately 23,000 housing units and 14,000 jobs.
- 1999: 380 acres were added based on the concept of “subregional need” (such as a situation where a community needs land to balance the number of homes with the number of jobs available in that area).
- 2002: A huge addition of 18,867 acres was made to provide 38,657 housing units and 2,671 acres for additional jobs. This action also created important regional policies to support neighborhoods, protect industrial areas and enhance regional and town centers. Nonetheless, these expansions represented an increase of only about 9 percent, whereas population increased by about 17 percent since 1990.
- 2004: 1,956 acres were added to address the need for industrial lands identified as part of the 2002 planning process.
- 2005: 345 acres of land was added for industrial purposes, completing the 2002 planning process.
The current UGB encompasses approximately 400 sq miles (about 256,360 acres). As of February 2000, about 1.3 million people lived within the boundary.
New system for additions to UGB
Prior to 2007, the five-year review system created some strife amidst landowners and citizens who remained uncertain of areas for urban expansion. Additions to the UGB were authorised according to criteria determined by state law, according to which high priority lands must be added before lower priority lands can be added. However, this criteria only dictated which land to exclude for certain (based on fertility) without necessarily assisting in the decision of which land to include, in case of additions, to create vibrant urban communities.
This uncertainty especially affected landowners at the edge of the UGB, while also adversely affecting investment decisions in the region. Hence, based on suggestions from the region’s leaders, the Oregon state legislature adopted the Senate Bill 1011 in 2007, enabling the region to clearly identify and earmark areas outside the UGB as urban or rural reserves as well as working farms and forests for the next 50 years. Hence, the region now has a formal method to consider what makes a good site for a city and remark such sites as urban reserves.
In order of priority, the classification of land reserves that can be added to the UGB are as follows:
- Urban reserve land: Areas outside the current UGB that are designated as lands that could be brought inside the boundary over the next 50 years to accommodate growth are called urban reserves, as opposed to rural reserves (areas outside the boundary where future urban development cannot occur for a period of up to 50 years). Various factors are considered to designate land as urban reserves such as potential for dense urban development through efficient land-use and provision of basic infrastructure, capacity to support a healthy economy, preservation of natural ecological systems, and minimising conflicts with farms, forests and nearby natural areas.
- Exception land (non-resource land): This is the land just outside the UGB that is not farm or forest land but is not designated as urban or rural reserve.
- Marginal land: This is a class of exception land outside of designated urban and rural reserves that allows dwelling units on exclusive farm use land.
- Farm or forest land: Within this category, further prioritisation is done on the basis of soil class or forest productivity, such that higher priority is given to areas of lower productivity.
Under the new system, instead of starting from scratch after every five-year review to decide whether and how to expand the UGB, the region has an identified stock of reserves to consider for additions. Hence, the reserves process provides greater certainty for local governments, businesses and rural landowners.
The Metro Council took formal action in June 2010 to designate urban reserves in the Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties. The process required counties to conduct extensive suitability analyses in their respective lands outside the current UGB limits, covering an overall area of 400,000 acres, to decide which areas should be considered urban and rural reserves. The decisions have been based on a set of prescribed factors that were set out in the legislation that created the reserves process.
No UGB expansions will be considered until all reserves are acknowledged by the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission. While two counties have already completed the identification process and received acknowledgment from the commission, the Washington County was required to redefine the proposed reserves list. The county arrived at a consensus with Metro Council in March 2011 and the redefined proposal has been submitted to the commission. Acknowledgment is expected later in 2011. Overall, over 28,000 acres of urban reserves and 267,0000 acres of rural reserves are expected to be added across the three counties.
The most recent urban growth report accepted by the Metro Council was in December 2009, and the Council is currently in the process of considering whether or not the boundary will be expanded. The 2009 report indicated a need for additional capacity within the UGB for new housing units and industrial sites that are 50 acres or larger.
At least half of the housing needs identified within the report will be met through the provision of additional capacity within the existing UGB according to the capacity ordinance adopted by the Metro Council in December 2010 as part of its Making the Greatest Place initiative. The capacity ordinance were adopted after considering comments from members of the public, local governments and the Metro Policy Advisory Committee. The adopted capacity ordinance (Metro Ordinance no. 10-1244B) is a set of policy amendments that would strengthen protection of industrial land and increase focus on public investments geared towards growth in town and regional centres, employment areas and transportation corridors.
The concept of UGBs has come under criticism and scrutiny over the past decade and is considered controversial by some. This is because of the substantial rise in housing prices, especially on the West Coast of the US in this period. According to critics, limiting the supply of developable land through UGBs puts an upward pressure on the price of existing developable and already-developed land, leading to higher housing prices. However, supporters of the concept counter this critique by pointing out that housing prices have increased similarly across the country and according to economic analysis, farmland appreciated similarly to the other land. Moreover, evidence suggests that Portland’s housing market is still more affordable than other West Coast cities.
The implementation of UGBs is a unique learning experience from Portland. The approach is of interest for more than one reasons. Firstly, there is a dual focus on protecting rural farmland and forests as well as vitalising urban areas through town centers and suitable infrastructure investments. A trip to the edge of the UGB is enough evidence to prove that this dual approach works as one observes a drastic transformation from densely developed urban areas with residential and commercial establishments to large parcels of farmland and scenic forests and wetlands.
Quoting the Metro website (www.oregonmetro.gov), “it isn’t hard to figure out why we love the Portland metro region. Through shrewd planning and a love of place we’ve kept nature close to home and country close to city”.
Secondly, the region has retained an interdependence between urban areas within the UGB and rural reserves outside through activities such as farmer’s markets that allow farmers to directly sell their produce in cities without much transportation cost. This also promotes the sustainable concept of ‘locavorism’ which hinges on consuming local agricultural produce to reduce shipping and use of chemicals, preservatives etc.
Finally, the process for implementing and revising the UGB involves a regional dialogue amongst all stakeholders including local and county governments, public organisations, citizens, businesses and farmers. This unique collaborative process of identifying reserves for the next 50 years displays both vision and inter-agency cooperation.
Managing smooth flow of traffic has been a daunting challenge in Indian cities, where not only is car use growing exponentially, but the scope of modal conflicts is larger than in developed countries. Indian roads are used by over 18 modes of transport, including non-motorised commute and freight options such as bicycles, cargo rickshaws and pedestrians.
In this light, even slight inefficiencies in traffic management multiply into huge economic and environmental costs in terms of delays, congestion and carbon emissions. A cost-effective solution to ensure smooth flow for all road-users (including pedestrians) is, therefore, imperative. Taking the cue from Portland in Oregon, US, such solutions would need to be more broad-based, inclusive of both traffic management and demand management options.
Portland has integrated its land-use and transportation planning for the past three decades, resulting in denser transit-oriented development and lower congestion. Moreover, the region does not have as many modes of transportation to worry about.
Nonetheless, car dependence has been high and rising, with over two-thirds trips made by cars. In addition, visionary policies to support active transportation have allowed bicycle traffic to increase at an impressive rate of 8-10 per cent while pedestrian traffic has also improved. Besides, freight is a relatively important part of road traffic in Portland. The Portland area is the third most trade- and freight-dependent region in the US, contributing significantly to the region’s economy. Hence, smooth flow of traffic is an important economic priority.
The growing concern of inter-modal conflicts between cars, buses, trucks, bikes and people began to be addressed on war footing about five years ago, when Metro and its regional partners embarked on a programme to manage and operate transportation systems at the regional level. The Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) programme refers to strategies that aim to make the most of the existing transportation system. As Principal Transportation Planner at Metro, Deena Platman points out, “technology is perhaps the best solution to address some of these conflicts, as there aren’t enough resources and there are huge environmental impacts of large capacity expansions (building more roadways). Managing what we have more efficiently is clearly the solution.”
With the broad policy idea of optimising efficient management and operations of existing transportation systems, the Regional TSMO Plan was incorporated into the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan for the Portland metropolitan region. The plan, developed with guidance from TransPort (an inter-jurisdictional sub-committee of the Transportation Policy Alternatives Committee) and the Regional Travel Options Subcommittee (a workgroup made up of public- and private-sector interests), is a roadmap to guide transportation management solutions in the region for the next 10 years.
The plan presents regional transportation goals that need to be achieved through efficient systems management. These goals include improved travel time reliability, lower number of crashes, improved on-time arrival of public transit, reduced travel delays, lower consumption of fuel, and reduced air pollution and carbon emissions.
To achieve these goals, the plan highlights a set of strategies and investments (including intelligent transportation systems) around four broad areas: multimodal traffic management, traveller information systems, traffic incident management and travel demand management. These strategies are elaborated below.
- Multimodal traffic management provides arterial and freeway multimodal traffic management and operations functions including adaptive signalling, transit priority treatments, access management and arterial performance monitoring and data collection.
- A priority area for investments is updating signal timing. Clearly, a major trigger of modal conflicts in Indian cities, especially on arterial roads, is inflexible signal timing that is based on old traffic patterns. This problem has been prevalent in the Portland region as well, since updating old signal timing plans is costly and difficult. Hence, the region is implementing adaptive signal projects through phased investments, targeting high priority corridors first. Under adaptive signalling, signal timing adapts to real-time traffic conditions. Successful implementation of adaptive signalling in the region has been achieved in the City of Gresham, where signals along the East Burnside street were upgraded to adapt to real-time traffic flow, reducing average travel time for autos, trucks and buses by 15 percent.
- Another focus area is the collection of region-wide performance data on arterial roadways including traffic counts, speeds, travel counts, classification counts, weather-based counts, and accident data. A concept of operation has already been prepared for this, in association with the Portland State University. The performance data is expected to allow planners to understand gaps in achieving the goals outlined under the Systems Management Plan.
- In addition, a huge signal upgrade project to replace the old automated systems has been implemented. So far, about 11% of traffic signals in the region (located along the highest priority corridors having multiple jurisdiction ownership) have been upgraded at an investment of about $3 million. Similar projects are scheduled to be taken up in the near future, which would also incorporate advanced intelligent transportation systems (ITS) such as truck priority and bike priority signals.
However, TSMO is a broader term than ITS, and includes additional components like traveller information systems and demand management.
- Traveller information systems provide current and forecasted traffic conditions. The information is relayed to the public using web, telephone (511), dynamic message signs, highway advisory radio or personal in-vehicle navigation systems. For instance, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)’s web site, TripCheck.com provides travel information. The website received over 23 million visits in 2008, and surveys indicate that over 80 per cent respondents alter their travel plans based on information from the website. Moreover, ODOT’s website is now being harnessed at regional level to place travel information from local jurisdictions on it as well.
- Traffic incident management provides a coordinated, timely and efficient response to traffic incidents (such as crashes) that block travel lanes. Clearly, this is a huge deficit area in Indian cities, where incident response times are on the higher side. Learning from Portland, partnerships among agencies to coordinate response capabilities can clear blockages faster and reduce the likelihood of secondary crashes. According to a 2001 study, clearing incidents five minutes quicker can save 270,000 hours in traffic delay in the Portland metropolitan region each year. Currently, ODOT runs a Freeway Incident Response Program.
- Travel demand management is a complementary strategy that provides alternate options to commuters which allow lower congestion and improved traffic flow. Without this complementary strategy, the other three strategies to optimally utilise the existing infrastructure and assets would fail, because traffic would grow beyond existing road capacity. Hence, travel demand is being managed in Portland to maximise investments in the transportation system and relieve traffic congestion, particularly during peak commute hours. Under this strategy, regional travel options such as walking, cycling and light-rail are marketed to potential riders. As a result of such marketing efforts, ridership on TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line in North Portland nearly doubled in 2005.
In addition to using a combination of strategies that target optimisation of existing assets as well as demand reduction, Portland’s TSMO plan is also unique and useful because of its regional approach. In fact, all strategies fall into to major categories:
- those for individual travel corridors and single-agency services, and
- those for regional programs and projects that require interagency cooperation The strategies and actions fall into two major categories.
A federal funding allocation has been made for the TSMO programme, and the allocations are made through the regional committee TransPort. Notably, fund allocation is directed to investments that are most needed for the entire region from the perspective of facilitating flow of traffic along corridors, irrespective of the jurisdictional boundaries. The investment decision is linked to existing land-use patterns accounting for industrial areas and high traffic flow areas.
Moreover, investments and negotiations with equipment vendors are made jointly by multiple jurisdictions. For instance, recently, City of Portland bought a central signal server and is working with other jurisdictions so that everybody in the region is on that central system.
All jurisdictions involved realise that it is important to manage transportation systems at a regional level instead of local level, because commuters travel across jurisdictions on a daily basis. This is the reality of an urban economy in a metropolitan region, and commuters do not care that asset ownership changes when they cross jurisdiction lines. Hence, to ensure seamless smooth flow of traffic with minimal inter-modal conflicts, as well as substantial cost savings, it is imperative that jurisdictions within a region join hands and collaborate to optimise their transportation systems. This is the essence of transportation systems and traffic demand management in the Portland region.
Deena Platman, Principal Transportation Planner at Metro in Portland, Oregon is implementing cutting edge solutions to a problem that is exceptionally common to large Indian cities today – inefficient traffic management. A transportation planner with over 15 years of experience, she currently leads a revolutionary programme called the Regional Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO), aimed at optimising the existing transportation system in the region.
The programme is of interest to the Indian context because it involves the use of suitable technologies to target congestion triggers like signal timing, mismanaged intersections, delayed incident management, and modal conflicts. In addition, it is also useful to understand the importance of regional cooperation to optimize traffic circulation and systems management, a crucial element missing from the Indian context.
Deena Platman plays a key role in facilitating and ensuring such cooperation within the region for implementing innovative TSMO solutions. She also brings with her a variety of experience in commonly ignored areas such as provision of high-capacity transit services, and freight management in the urban context.
In this interview with The Urban Vision, Deena Platman shares her insights about difficult areas of transportation systems management that impact all cities with growing transportation demand and traffic. She also shares her experiences of being a woman transportation planner, highlighting a massive increase in acceptance for women in the field.
Read on to understand an ideology and planning process that Indian cities could benefit from while planning for an ever-increasing dependence on road traffic.
I was really interested in why you chose transportation planning as a career option, especially since it was not a conventional choice for women when you were deciding your career.
When I went to planning school, I had originally thought I was going to enter environmental planning. However, as I started progressing through the coursework at Portland State University (PSU), I realised that I was really enjoying my transportation classes. Later, I did an internship in the transportation planning section at the City of Portland, and it resonated with me. Transportation is tangible to most people; they really understand it at a basic level and everybody needs it. So I felt transportation planning would make quite an impact and I loved the connection it had with everything else. Moreover, I got to be an environmental planner as well, worrying about environmental issues in a transportation context.
I started planning school in 1993, by which time one light-rail line had already opened and a second one was under construction. My first position involved planning the Interstate light-rail, which is operational today. So in the span of my career, I have actually been able to see transit projects built and used. It was pretty exciting to start my career with things that would have a long-run impact!
When I had started working, a new study called LUTREC had been released. It was a major study in land-use and transportation that pointed out that we could achieve our desired goals of compact, walkable and livable communities if we deviate from the conventional roadways model by trying to link transportation to land use. In essence, the study supported our concept of compact urban growth through the urban growth boundary (implemented as early as the 1970s when there was a pretty dramatic change in land-use planning in the region).
The other interesting thing that I entered into at the beginning of my career was the Region 2040 Vision, which has defined our regional planning efforts and which Metro at the time was finalising. As I transitioned from an intern into a professional planner at the City of Portland I was part of the effort to integrate that regional vision into our own policy framework, our comprehensive city plan, and our transportation plan.
You worked on freight planning while at City of Portland. Usually, freight is not a priority while planning for urban transportation. Is it different for Portland?
Looking at my career, the neat thing has been that I always pick the path less travelled because I think it is most interesting. While there were a lot of planners involved in light-rail and bicycle planning in Portland, there were not a lot of people in freight planning. It was kind of a challenge and I liked that.
I stepped into the role of freight planning at City of Portland at a time when we were having issues. The business community was unhappy with the way the City was ignoring freight issues. So I started working on this issue along with another planner who preceded me. Together, I think we were able to raise the bar and establish a dialogue to make people understand. Now, City of Portland not only has a freight master plan but is actually putting projects forward. They have a thriving advisory committee comprising 40-50 business people. The committee meets for two hours every month, and are serious about talking about freight and providing advice.
About five-and-a-half years ago I was asked to move to Metro to work on freight planning since the Federal Highway Administration had freight under its purview and was pushing Metro to do more. We rose to the challenge and I spent my first two years at Metro working specifically on freight. It was a really interesting opportunity. I led the development of the region’s first freight master plan and its integration into our long-range planning. I also launched an advisory committee that was active in allocating funds for freight planning.
When we developed the freight master plan, it involved trying to bring the ideas of land-use focus into freight planning by attempting to understand what was happening in industrial areas and what the needs were. The big issue was looking at the last mile; the access from major facilities.
Interestingly, the Portland region is a major export port in the US for grains and resource material. We provide the port out from our Columbia basin where a lot of agricultural products and food supply originates. We are also at the confluence of two rivers so that we have a deep water marine port for international trade. We also have a major airport, as well as the confluence of two interstate freeway systems that connect us out to the east as well as the west coast. We have two Class I railroads and we are the favoured route for moving goods east from the west coast, typically northwest because of our route through the Columbia gorge. So we are really heavily connected to freight and to the movement of goods.
Earlier, I don’t think our elected officials really understood this, since our industrial areas are a little bit hidden. Our primary port facilities are actually on the edges of the community along the river and were not integrated. Subsequently, we really had to think about freight planning.
Today, we have really strong relationships with the Port of Portland as well as the Port of Vancouver, because we are a bi-state and have interconnected freight activities on both sides of the river. We work very closely with our partners across the river northwest to make sure that we are looking at the same things.
What is the biggest challenge in this region for freight management in the urban context?
Freeway issues are huge and we have a lot of issues with trucks. Trucking is still king, whether for moving goods from the port, or just simply getting deliveries back and forth. So we focused a lot on the design of our roadways to integrate trucks in a way that is supportive of the other livability issues that we want resolved.
A lot of concerns were raised early on about bike-truck conflicts. We were able to bridge some of that animosity by coming up with good designs and actually keeping people talking to each other. So there is a lot of interesting stuff that we are doing, and a lot more that we need to be doing.
What is the programme that you are currently working on?
About five years ago, the agency embarked on planning for Regional System Management Operations. About three-and-a-half years ago we decided to house the programme here at Metro and create an actual position for managing it.
I was very interested in moving into technology and personally thought that this was perhaps the best solution to address some of the concerns that the freight community had. After all, significant additional capacity is not going to be gained by building more roadways – there are not enough resources or interest, and such investments have other adverse impacts. So managing what we have more efficiently is clearly the solution. This is the logic that we have really adopted as policy in this region.
I basically started the Transit System Management Operations (TSMO) programme at Metro. We have a federal fund allocation for system management operations, and I oversee the allocation of those funds to projects across the region. In addition, we are also leveraging different funds that we had applied to and have received grants from. So after years of toiling quietly, all of a sudden it is raining cash for systems management. It is really interesting and we are seeing a lot of new projects happening right now.
How do you allocate the funds across the region to ensure optimal spending?
The allocations are made through the regional committee TransPort, which has representation from all regional and local jurisdictions. The committee has representation from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), our counties, and city jurisdictions responsible for managing transportation. In addition we have representation from PSU, Metro, Port of Portland, and consultants from the private sector. They have actually been meeting since 1993 but it was very ad-hoc. We stepped in, formalised the committee as part of our advisory committee structure here at Metro, and got that focused.
But it is not so much about spreading the money evenly. It is more about funding projects that make the most sense at the time. The great thing about this committee and the fact that they have worked together for so long is that the priority of each jurisdiction is not “I have to get my share”. Determining where the money is invested is more about “this is where I think the demonstration project would have the greatest impact or is needed the most”. We link the investment decision to existing land-use patterns accounting for industrial areas and high traffic flows. It is understood that different parts of the community have different needs.
The committee really does have a regional outlook and members always consider how any investment in their jurisdiction supports the movement of everybody else. They are probably the most thoughtful about seamless transportation, recognising that the average road users do not realise that they have moved into a new jurisdiction and somebody else might own the traffic signal.
The committee has been conscious of this from the start. The whole purpose of forming the committee was basically developing an ITS plan for the region. As they worked on the plan, they realised that such a committee is really valuable. Much before Metro got involved with the committee, it had created a joint fibre optic network to share data across the region. City of Portland bought a central signal server and is working with the jurisdictions so that everybody in the regions on that central signal system. We even coordinate the type of equipment we buy to not only make sure there is comparability but also to facilitate joint purchasing agreements. We also have a lot of inter-governmental agreements to be able to work in each others rights-of-way. So there is a lot of resource sharing and knowledge sharing. With this regional vision, the committee asked Metro to step in and provide regional support.
What projects are under implementation under TSMO?
The first project we completed was a Regional Strategic Plan for System Management, formulated in conjunction with our advisory committee for systems management. Approved in June 2010, the Regional TSMO Plan will be our guide for making investments over the next few years for the entire region. We are now in the process of spending allocated funds. I spend an awful lot of time working with partners to help get the projects off the ground.
Metro has maintained a few projects that are getting ready to kick off. We have a ‘Concept of Operation’ for gathering performance data on our arterial roadway system. Currently, we do a good job of data collection on the freeway system, but we do not have a lot of data for the arterial (main) roadway system in the region. Performance data includes traffic counts, speeds, travel counts, classification counts, weather-based counts, and accident data. Instead of getting occasional traffic counts on a need basis, we would like to get continuous traffic counts across the region. As of now there is inconsistency across the region in terms of the time of the year when we might get counts from various areas. With the new project though, we are all of a sudden going to create continuously streaming regional data.
We are working very closely with PSU and spend a lot of money enhancing our state archive system there. I strongly believe in maintaining a relationship with your research university; it is tremendously important for any region that wants to be innovative. You have to work with your researchers and then be able to translate that into the real world. I think we are doing a great job in this area.
This demonstration project will define the parameters of how we are going to achieve continuos regional mobility data – the type of equipment required and the performance data we need to measure. This is Metro’s first project to be implemented under the Systems Management Plan, and I am very excited about it.
There is a huge demand for performance data since our region has adopted the mantra of ‘outcomes-based planning’. Performance data is necessary to actually gauge the outcomes and the gaps in achieving those outcomes. Archiving such data is essential for long-range planning. On the other hand, operators have a different need for the performance data in terms of getting real-time data for their current operations. But both planning and operations require the same data. My programme is essential to develop the mobility data required and is definitely a regional project that everybody is helping with.
Signal timing is another area we are looking into. A problem, not just with our region but most regions across the country, is that updating old signal timing plans is costly and difficult. Timing plans are sometimes not changed for over ten years. Meanwhile, traffic patterns might change completely with new developments coming in. Hence, several of the jurisdictions are working on adaptive signal projects in places where it makes sense. Under this system, signal timing adjusts using algorithms based on the presence of cars and other road-users, so that the signaling system truly adapts to existing traffic conditions. It still requires attention and calibration, but not the traditional upgrading of signal timing plans. We are doing several demonstration projects in adaptive signaling across the region. We are also comparing different vendor systems, so that we have an assessment about which ones we think are working better and where adaptive systems do not work.
However, we will not have adaptive signaling everywhere. Hence, updating signal timing alongside signal upgrades is necessary. Hence, we have also been spending a lot of money on upgrading basic signaling infrastructure. Recently, we completed a big signal upgrade project. The computer systems that run our traffic system are old and the regional committee outlined a base level that they want to get the signal system up to.
We had the opportunity with some federal stimulus money coming in a few years ago. Literally within the course of five days we had brought the committee together and informed them of the project. The good news about the committee is that individual jurisdictions already have their systems management and ITS plans in place and already knew the projects they wanted to do. So we asked them to come together, and we set the parameters of the equipment we wanted to buy to upgrade controllers and update the signal timing as well. All jurisdictions identified their highest priority corridors, we worked out the cost estimates and we were able to get to a baseline cost of about $3 million. Eventually, we were able to deliver a project that upgraded about 11% of traffic signals in the region along the highest priority corridors with multiple ownership.
We will do a similar project again with funds allocated to the region. We are looking now at doing a little bit more of equipment upgrade. There are a lot of elements of ITS such as transit signal priority on frequent bus corridors, truck priority signals for smooth traffic flow, and installation of bike signals that we can implement to achieve 21st century traffic signal systems.
However, TSMO is a broader term than ITS, and includes additional components like demand management and traveller information systems. We are in fact doing a lot of work on traveller information right now. We have a project that is harnessing ODOT’s web portal (used by ODOT to push media out to local media and businesses) in a way that local jurisdictions are able to put local information on it as well.
The Regional Approach
Why is it important to manage transportation systems at a regional level instead of local level?
The roadway does not stop when you cross the jurisdiction line; you just keep going. So you have to make sure when you are doing, for example signal coordination, that it is continuous. You cannot have one jurisdiction implementing one set of timing and another jurisdiction doing something completely different.
Besides, there are cost savings in managing transportation systems at a regional level. You are able to enter joint purchasing agreements that make equipment cheaper. There is also the opportunity for joint staff training and learning from each others’ experiences.
This also lends itself to regionalism of travel information. If you are trying to bridge people across the region, they need to understand the whole concept. You can’t keep travel information in watertight compartments. That really is the critical need of regional transportation systems planning.
What were the challenges you faced in coordinating amongst multiple agencies?
The members on the committee are all human beings and have different personalities. So you need to be flexible in understanding what their limitations are to be able to contribute fully. It is a little bit of psychology really to understand the best ways to move forward. I spend a lot of time brokering between agencies and trying to make sure that everybody is talking to each other and is aware of what is going on. Otherwise, it is really easy for a jurisdiction to limit their focus to only what they are doing.
My primary job, for which I was hired, was to make sure everybody is talking and sharing information. If I come to know of something that is happening in one jurisdiction, I would tell them of similar things happening in another jurisdiction and initiate a discussion. This job is not always easy, but it is important. It is about building relationships. My boss calls me the ‘den mother for boy scouts’!
Personal Planning Experience
You commute everyday. Do you use personal experiences on roads to feed into the planning process?
I actually have used my husband as the ‘typical person who doesn’t work in planning’ for reference, getting his layman opinion on various things we do. I am a firm believer that planners should not be sitting at their desks but actually get out there. I use multiple modes to commute throughout the day and I am able to use those experiences to deal with anything from a minor signal failure on my route (for which I would know who to call) to ideas about how to improve mobility on the arterial I commute on everyday to work. And then my kid is using the Trimet bus system. So it is kind of hard not to incorporate these personal experiences into the planning process.
How would you rate the change based on the work you have done based on what you have encountered through personal experiences?
I am not sure I can answer that. I actually came into this programme just at the peak of travel demand and then we had the big recession, leading to a decline in travel demand. It is just starting to come back up. Moreover, we are just getting projects headed out of the door, so we have not had the opportunity to test if they are working or not. For example, in my community two of the corridors where we upgraded the signals are just now in place. We are adding an adaptive signal system in there. I’ll be able to actually experience any changes because of that once it is in place.
Transportation systems planning and management is a very dynamic field with technologies changing everyday. How do you deal with that?
My strategy is to make sure that I stay connected with industry journals and periodicals such as ITS America. I stay in touch with the professional information that surrounds us. I do the same thing for freight. Any time you are in an industry that is kind of unusual like this one, you have to stay current with what is going on and keep up with the research. I try and actively follow the Transportation Research Board committee. I read Wired magazine articles because they make a connection back in. So one does need to put in a lot of extra work.
On top of staying connected to my focus area, I also need to stay abreast with what is going on in the general planning world, because I need to be able translate this niche area into what our agency is doing and what the region is doing in broad terms. An example of that would be that we are embarking on climate change scenario building work. My work is very much related to this programme. I just finished writing a white paper that talks about the benefits of some of the strategies that we are implementing on carbon emissions. I can supply them the information; but also the projects that we are going to put in place are very likely to contribute to the success of our desired reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Further, I think one of the benefits of TransPort is that we bring experts and vendors in from the outside to talk to us about latest technologies. I would argue that the planners in the region are maybe not as up to date with latest technologies as maybe the traffic engineers are. We are trying to bridge that gap and make them more interested.
What motivates you to take the road less travelled?
I love the challenge. I am really curious and I like to learn new things. I find things that have not really been done before very interesting, because I get to lead it. You have a whole line of people doing traditional things in transit, who have been doing that for a long time and specialise in that. There’s less competition for freight! So there is this niche there where you can actually adapt yourself into a leader fairly quickly. But the bottom line is that I like to work with a bunch of different people and learn new things.
Do you think transportation has become a more viable career option for women?
You know, it has gotten easier. I would have to say that when I came in in 1995 into the field as an intern, the first wave of women who had just established themselves in transportation planning were just ahead of me, and they paved the way. Just having conversations over years with my older women mentors, I can say that what they experienced was dramatically different from what I experienced. I never really felt like being a female was a hindrance because I just had so many great women role models ahead of me. We speak of it as being a male dominated industry, but if you look at Metro staff, you will see there are a lot women employed.
In addition, Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) has been an incredible resource for us. I was on the board with them for six years and am still very active. It is kind of the premier transportation planning organisation in the country. I think that because the organisation has been so strong, it has nurtured the next wave of women, making it very comfortable to be a woman in transportation.
In fact, the reason WTS was started in Washington DC 27 years ago was that men were getting together for ‘boy’s lunches’ and the women were being excluded. So the women were feeling that they were missing on an opportunity for advancement through peer exchange and they wanted to create their own organisation. They organised this huge seminar without any official funding support and thereby created an organisation through which they could have peer exchanges. Today, there are so many women role models in the field, and it is because we have some really tough people who had to endure circumstances that were not terrific. But today gender has become a non-issue in the field.
What are your goals and vision for Portland transportation management?
At this point in my career, it is interesting to study the impact of things that i helped implement to see where we have been successful as well as things where we have not been successful. We are currently at a point where we are refreshing the first generation of reforms and it is as exciting as developing second generation software.
Within systems management, we already have a strategic plan which really looks at upgrading to a multi-modal traffic management system in important areas. Multi-modality in the real sense would have to accommodate not only trucks and buses but also pedestrians and bicyclists and things that don’t get considered in the traditional model. Making sure that the system caters appropriately to the land-use that it serves is also important.
In terms of travel information, my philosophy is that the public sector provides the data and I am very much a believer in open-source data. Equipped with data, the private sector is quite creative in innovating new tools. So our role really is to provide the data and maybe some direction as to what we want to see. There is scope for public-private partnerships in this area. We already have a large number of transit applications available and the public can select the one that works best for them.
Incident management is another area that we are working on. We are responding as quickly as possible to incidents on the freeway and arterials, to ensure quicker traffic flow.
So in these three areas, we want to take a leap. In addition our partner programme, which is the Reginal Travel Options programme, handles demand management. They have also done strategic planning work, and are taking a big run on how to support multi-modalism through non-motorized activities. They are involved with a lot of individualised marketing efforts. That is kind of where we are heading, and it is going to keep us busy.
Which is the next road less traveled that you want to take?
I’m not sure yet. Right now, my personal life is transitioning into it’s next phase with children off to college. So personally for me, the field is wide open. I love what I am doing right now. I love technology and I can see taking a path into the technology side. There are some really interesting applications and software packages that are coming in around sustainable transportation. I think that might be where I go next. Talk to me in five years, because I am myself really curious as to where I would be but am not sure as of now.
- Adopting the concept of compact urban growth and linking land-use planning with transportation planning early on has today allowed the Portland metropolitan region to manage the flow of traffic better in the region. Optimal use of technology and existing infrastructure support management of traffic that is definitely huge, especially in the light of significant freight activity.
- Establishing dialogue on a continuous basis amongst stakeholder groups and government agencies, along with a two-way dialogue and information exchange with research institutes is critical in ensuring efficient solutions and conflict resolutions.
- A regional outlook in traffic management by bringing on board all affected communities and jurisdictions leads to targeting of solutions to areas that would be amenable to seamless travel options rather than equally dividing funds among jurisdictions for making scattered and uncoordinated investments. This is particularly true for traffic management systems such as signals, because the commuter does not know when he crosses a jurisdiction’s boundary and would only care about uniform signalling practices.
- Continuous performance data, including travel and traffic counts, is important on both real-time basis for engineers and as archives for planners to achieve outcomes-based planning and actually gauge if the outcomes are being achieved.
- Signal timing updates and adaptive signaling are the way to go to respond to ever-changing traffic situations. These tools can also be used to enhance bike and pedestrian safety and comfort.
- Staying up to date with technologies and vendors, as well as joint purchasing agreements by multiple jurisdictions, allows the implementation of suitable and advanced traffic management technologies and equipment in a cost effective manner. In addition, peer exchange within niche planning areas as well as a broader planning horizon allows planners to adopt best practices in a broader context.
Public spaces need to be built in a way that is both useful and appealing, and public art can play a vital role there. I remember attending a transportation conference in New Delhi where a case was cited of using public art to transform a solid waste management plant that was hated by residents into a community area where kids play today. I remember listening to that case as if it were a distant dream. Not that distant anymore, because the city of Portland is a hub for public art.
When I walk to work every day, I cross this brilliant iron-cast statue of a woman. She looks stunning as she stands at the centre of a semi-circular seating area where the tired walker ocassionaly rests or smokers converge (most other roads in the area are tobacco-free zones). This statue is located on an otherwise busy intersection (Oregon Steet and 7th Avenue) and falls along the last leg of my journey from home to work. So by the time I reach it, I am usually tired. But the statue unfailingly instills a renewed vigour in me, preparing me for the final stretch as well as the rest of the day. To a weary traveler, a wonderful sight can be extremely refreshing.
And that is the power of public art. Involving artists in a multi-disciplinary approach has huge benefits. Art allows mundane buildings and facades to look exciting (such as the Portlandia sculpture); it can enable the conversion of unattractive intersections and crossings into relaxing public spaces and stop-overs (like the Pioneer Square structure); it can increase the utility of a public space by providing seating space (like the Oregon Street statue); it can increase safety by providing barriers between cars and pedestrians (such as the sculptures placed along the road to Portland State University); and it can also increase the appeal and the number of visitors to a shopping district (such as the fountain built of stone coins alongside Nordstrom in Lloyd district).
Recognizing the need for public art, the state of Oregon passed the Percent for Art legislation in 1975, becoming the third government in the US to pass the legislation. With the early accordance of priority to public art, Oregon’s art collection has grown over 30 years to showcase 1545 unique creations.
The City of Portland helps fund public art by requiring participating bureaus to contribute a percentage of eligible improvement project costs (new construction and major building alteration) to its Percent for Art programme. The programme is implemented by the Regional Arts and Culture Council through various public-private partnerships and has been recently audited to suggest further improvements.
In addition to enlivening public spaces and corridors and making them more walkable and livable, official acquisition of public art has also given a major boost to the very talented artists’ community in this region. The programme has been a key patron for the growing art community that is creating legacies every day.
Rex Burkholder is one of the key reasons that the Portland metropolitan area is today a bicycle friendly region. Over the past two decades, he has come a long way from being a bicycle activist and founding the Bicycle Transportation Alliance to being elected in 2008 for a third term as councillor on the Metro Council. He first joined the Council in 2001 and represents District 5 in Multnomah County. Through the years, he has championed various causes aligned with his broader goals of achieving sustainability and mitigating climate change. He spearheaded the update of Metro’s Regional Transportation Plan and now leads Metro’s Regional Climate Action Strategy.
Drawing on experiences of interacting with communities while teaching high-school science, serving as faculty at the Portland State University Office of Student Development and as a founding trustee of the Coalition for a Livable Future, he has achieved tremendous success in engaging communities in crucial decisions. In 1998, he was voted the Most Effective Citizen Advocate in the metro region by 1000 Friends of Oregon and was honoured as a founder of a New Northwest by Sustainable Northwest in 1999.
Rex Burkholder earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy from Tufts University in 1989 and a teaching certificate from Portland State University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biology. More details on the issues that he is pursuing are available on his webpage at http://news.oregonmetro.gov/4/
In this interview with The Urban Vision, Councillor Rex Burkholder talks about the need for organising communities to empower individual voices. He also praises the relative responsiveness of Metro to citizen’s needs and demands as well as the overall supportive framework provided by the state of Oregon. Councillor Burkholder appears hopeful and prepared to meet future challenges such as climate change and transportation safety.
Read on to understand what it takes for a determined individual to transform his will into the way.
Let’s start at the beginning. What motivated you in the 1990s to take up the difficult task of transforming the way Portland lives?
It started with my involvement with the Boy Scouts. Scouting was an important part of my life. A part of it was going out and having fun, but it was mostly about public services by doing projects and helping people. Even as a young person, I was interested in environmental stuff and taking care of natural areas (though it wasn’t called that at the time). We would just go to pick up litter. I also started a recycling programme in my community as a boy scout. I think my family was a major influence. My mother is a major volunteer in her community and she had us volunteer as well.
So as an adult, it was pretty natural for me to look for an organisation that was doing work that I was interested in and volunteer for them or become a board member. I even started a couple of organisations because there weren’t any working on issues such as bicycling (biking).
I was always a bicycle (bike) user. I started biking as a kid and I never stopped. To me, it was a nice mixture of improving personal health, being able to enjoy the world, and also doing something for the environment. In the 1970s, the US had a major resurgence in the interest in biking. This coincided with the oil crisis, when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices. The US has always been very dependent on foreign oil. So for me, this was a big motivator; one that I have kept since. Hence, my whole life involved commuting by bike.
And then I had children. My first son was five years old when he got on to a bike by himself and we went riding in our community. At the time, there were no bicycle facilities anywhere. As a young male adult, I could ride anywhere. I could just race the traffic, yell and scream at the drivers, and make them pay attention. But having a child made me realise that children are much more vulnerable as they do not have such skills. At that time, this inspired me to look for other people with similar concerns.
It is always about other people too. An organiser cannot really be successful unless other people are interested too. So you can either get them interested, or if they are already interested, you just need to help them figure out what to do. And that’s what I did. I helped pull together a group of interested people to form the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). Some of the organising effort was quite mundane – who would keep the database of interested people; who would put out the newsletters and make sure it got to the post office; who would file the paperwork to create a legal entity that could collect donations, etc. Even though it was mundane, I had the time and interest and worked on that part. Then I worked on framing the issue in a manner so as to speak to people about it.
I also worked on understanding how the system works. That is in fact what brought me to this job. I found out that there was this agency (Metro) that actually had a lot of influence over how we spent transportation dollars in the region from the policy side, and the transportation dollars that came from the federal government were also redistributed through here. So I volunteered on a committee here – another volunteer opportunity. It was the Technical Advisory Committee on Transportation. I got to learn how the system worked – where the money came from; where it went; who made the decisions; how the criteria on policies were decided; and even all the acronyms of transportation! Gaining all that knowledge made my work with the organisation more effective because we could understand where the levers were to pull.
On the other hand, the organisation was very important and complementary, because it provided a voice. For instance, it allowed us to send 200 postcards to an elected official demanding action. Had I myself said that I wanted this, it would not have made any difference. I’m just one person; a volunteer. There are lots of people who want stuff. So no one would have listened. Therefore, organising is important for making explicit the desires of the public that were not otherwise seen by the elected officials and decision makers. This model of organising is something that I have learned a lot about over time. You gain power by giving voice to people who care about something but don’t know how to speak for themselves. When they speak together, they see results.
In the case of bicycling, our efforts really snowballed. Each time we had a success, more people came to know about it and the interest would increase. With the construction of bike lanes, more people would ride their bikes and demand more bike lanes where there weren’t any. So it led to a very rapid change. 20 years ago, none of this infrastructure was in place. Today, it is normal for us to spend a relatively large amount of money on bicycle facilities. Moreover, while thinking about each project we ask how we can make sure that it is safe for people biking and walking.
So, basically the philosophy is – one person could be an expert of the world, but why should anybody listen to him. But if you organise a lot of people around the same issue, then the people in power would obviously have to pay attention.
So when you started looking for other people who shared your concerns and passion, were they easy to find?
Well, one of the interesting aspects, and a good contrast, was the ease of finding people with biking interests versus those with walking interests. Everybody walks, and therefore, nobody feels like “I am walker and must fight for my rights.” But bicyclists seem to feel like they are an embattled minority – they are pushed around by giant vehicles and no one pays attention to them. So it was easier to say, “I am a cyclist and I identify with other cyclists”.
Some people join the effort for support because they need help with their concerns. Others do it for political reasons or for health reasons. We also received critical support from companies that sell bicycles as we help bring them customers. These relationships have enabled us to build the organisation fairly rapidly to be a pretty powerful force in the state.
20 years later
You bike wherever you go, transforming bicycles from a mere recreational tool to a serious mode of transportation. Do you feel there has been an attitudinal change towards biking over the past 20 years in line with the example you set every day?
Compared to the rest of the US, Portland has actually seen a pretty big shift in terms of biking becoming a viable option for a greater number of people, even if this still isn’t true for a majority or even a large minority.
I think the key thing is to create the conditions where biking is actually an option. This is very similar to the history of transit in our country. Very few people took transit when it was of poor quality. Does it make any practical sense to ride the bus when it is unpunctual, unpredictable and infrequent? The same thing is true for biking.
However, with biking there are two issues that we have to deal with. One is making sure that the facilities are there and that people perceive them as safe and convenient.
The second involves addressing the public’s perceptions about general stuff like the weather. In Portland it rains all the time. How do you ride your bicycle in the rain? Well, you could put rain coats on! Maybe your socks get wet once or twice a year, but that should be ok. So a cultural shift is required too.
Moreover, we are such a rich country, even poor people typically own a car. I guess 9 out of 10 households have cars. Driving a car is very convenient and has been quite inexpensive. So why change? We are seeing a cultural shift now with lots of people making a change because they can choose to. They may do it because of political, economic or environmental reasons. So we do have a lot of people who have the option but choose not to use cars.
However, the largest percentage of people who ride bicycles still comprises those who do it for the economics. Biking is the cheapest, fastest, and most convenient way to get around.
Making sure these people are safe should have been a government concern for a long time. But all government planners drive cars and have always thought about cars. Maybe some took the train because they felt it was sexy. But biking? So there are these cultural barriers that we have to get across as well.
There are some neighbourhoodsin the region that have 10-15 per cent of residents who ride their bikes to work throughout the year. In the summer time when the weather is fine, you get an even higher percentage in neighbourhoods that are convenient. So there is the urban design and evolution issue too. You actually have to design it so that people can get to places they need to.
On average, the Portland metropolitan region fares well compared to the rest of the country in terms of biking for commute. For the whole region, including far-flung suburbs, about 4.5 per cent of commute trips are by bike (according to US census data) as compared to around 1.5 per cent trips by transit. So, biking is actually used more than a mode of transportation (public transit) that gets hundreds of millions of dollars every year. So just with a few million dollars, we get a pretty good response! Once you start biking, it’s just fun.
Absolutely! I went on a bike ride recently after ten years! It really was fun, especially the trail along the Willamette River.
I call trails “gateway drugs” to biking. Build a nice trail, with a beautiful park and a natural area, and people love it so much that they want to ride more. And then they are gradually willing to take on a road with a bike lane and so on.
Over 20 years later, do you feel you are close to achieving the vision you set out for when you started?
I had no vision. I just felt it wasn’t right to have your life endangered to ride a bike and we needed to fix it. At that time I didn’t have any answers. I had to do research for myself to find out what works and what doesn’t. I talked to people who know how roads are built to find out how we could make it safer for biking and if there was a better way to do it? So there was a lot of self education.
The vision, really, in my mind is about how we can develop cities sustainably. And transportation has a big impact on that. It may not be the be-all-end-all, but it certainly has a large impact in our circle of things. It is one area that is fairly discretionary in terms of choosing what mode to spend your money on. The choices of transportation spending in turn have a big impact on urban form and therefore, a big impact on things like greenhouse gas, pollution, safety and quality of life.
So that is why I focused on transportation. It all comes from that big picture of how we survive on this planet as a species without destroying it. Urban areas are where our biggest impact takes place.
And I understand that you are also an integral part of the update of the Regional Transportation Plan of Metro?
Well, we just finished that update and it was a four-year process. It is something that we do under a federal law every four years. But this was a major change in direction of that programme and we made that change happen by starting quite differently and actually going to the public and asking them what they wanted.
The way we did this was by first telling them that we spend $700 million on transportation every year just for the Portland metropolitan region (just public expenditure, not private). And then we asked them if they were getting what they wanted. And they would normally ask what we meant by this, and we would tell them that we wanted their opinion on what they wanted their community to be like and how they would spend transportation dollars to achieve that.
So what did we get from the different groups that we spoke to? There was a wide variety of groups (low-income groups, only-Spanish-speaking low-income groups, environmentalists, business people, health care professionals, etc.). When posed with this question, they all said the same thing – we want a strong economy, we want a safe and healthy community, and we want some place that is fun to live in and is a vibrant and exciting place to be.
It is these outcomes that we redesigned our transportation plan around, which is a totally different process from the rest of the US. The rest of the country focuses first and foremost on how to improve the flow of traffic. Then they get into details such as freight, but it starts out with transportation as an end in itself. But it is not.
Transportation is, in fact, a means to get to something that we want. Using this approach, one designs quite differently, asking how transportation would link with health, equity, economy etc. This is quite a different question, and so that is why it took so long to update the Regional Transportation Plan; because we redesigned it totally.
It is very interesting that now the federal government is taking a lot of lessons from what we learned, which we hope will help other states use a similar approach. They are also doing a lot of work to provide technical assistance to other places that want to do outcomes-based planning.
We have gone a step further now with outcomes-based planning and are using it for other decisions that we make like our land-use decisions and our design and development decisions. So for me, this is one of those revolutionary concepts that actually make so much sense. Why didn’t we do this before? Because we have a history of practice of doing it a certain way!
Portland’s doing well on various sustainability indices. What do you think works for the Portland metropolitan area (policies, funding structures, infrastructure, land use planning, etc.)?
One thing that is very important and makes a big difference in Oregon is the state-wide planning system that we have. It was adopted in the ‘70s. It has 19 goals and while some of them are pretty obscure, the No.1 goal is public involvement. It says that the public has a right to be involved in every decision we are making in the government, specifically for land-use, transportation, affordable housing and similar issues. So there is this culture that has developed where people expect to be involved and the elected representatives and the government work to make sure they are involved; it is one of our big responsibilities. It has really been built into the culture.
Here is an example of how this responsiveness affected my advocacy. In many cities like New York and San Francisco, there is a very strong practice of Critical Mass actions on a regular basis, where bikers shut down the downtown during rush hour and create all sorts of traffic conflicts as a protest against car-dominated planning. There was an attempt to organize Critical Mass for biking here as well, because it sounded cool. But the concept never caught on, and a lot of it was because we had a responsive government.
My organisation, which didn’t organise Critical Mass, was actually able to point out how much investment we are getting; that these problems are getting solved and the government is responsive. Again, this is an involvement piece, where we went to the government and said we have a problem and the government responded that they better solve the problem. We may disagree on the exact response, it may cost money with a fight over how much money gets spent on it; and support may need to be built over time. But the overall approach of the government is to listen to the public and accept there are problems that need fixing and agree to work on them.
This culture is very different from other states. I might complain about the Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) a lot. But I am told that our DOT is actually very open, engages the public, and has an investment strategy that is quite different from any other state. This is all because of an open and responsive government.
What are the issues that remain to be addressed?
A big issue is safety. We still have a very motor vehicle oriented concern about safety. There is a huge lack of reporting. Unless someone is seriously injured or killed, it will not be reported as a biking or pedestrian accident. Moreover, the official response too often is “that person shouldn’t have been crossing the street there”, or “they should have been wearing bright coloured clothing”, when the real question is why do we have a 45 mph speed limit in a business area with houses around it? Well, it is because cars need to move fast!
So safety is still a big issue. Of course, the fatality rate has really been dropping in the whole country. I guess some of it is due to changes in attitude, which recognises that more has to be done for this section of road users. But we still just look at biking/pedestrian accidents simply as tragic, when instead we should be looking at our design to determine what is wrong with it. Why was this person going so fast? Why couldn’t they see the bicyclist? These are design issues that we can deal with.
In addition, enforcement of traffic laws is a huge issue. Speed is another regulatory issue.
Another issue is the ongoing subsidy for car use. Free car parking is available everywhere while it is still hard to find good bicycle parking. Given that the price of gas in the US is so cheap relative to the true cost of oil, it becomes very hard to convince car users to try the alternative. Well, why should they, when their existing mode is nearly free and comfortable and they don’t have to be rained on!
Finally, we must look at are our communities’ design in a new way. Can your child get to school easily within the neighbourhood? Can they get there on a non-busy road? Can they cross the street alright? We have not designed that way in very long time, because the assumption was that you drive everywhere. And so, it is very convenient if you have a car, while it isn’t if you don’t have one. This in turn affects equity, safety, and pollution. So a lot of work still needs to be done.
It is interesting that despite the relatively low gas prices, Portland has the highest number of hybrid cars in the US. What is your take?
We are early adopters. I don’t know where that came from though. We have the third highest number of Nissan Leaf’s that have been ordered, despite being a small community. There are big long lines in downtown Portland for I-phones. That kind of social innovation and interest in new things has benefited our investments in biking as well. People want to try something new, and are willing to be upfront about it.
What will be your next steps after your current term as councillor?
My major concern right now is climate change, and how do we respond to that effectively. And I see that needing more and more work. I am not interested in running for an elected office. Metro is a very peculiar government, very different from most of the governments. I have been very happy here at Metro, because I have been able to make change happen within this environment.
What I hope to do now is make change happen on a larger scale. So I am in the process of exploring options for that. I do not have any answers yet. I could possibly work with a university or with another government; not as an elected official but as a manager in a programme that looks at the issue of climate change and how to respond to that.
Maybe you’ll have time to come down to India and spearhead community involvement there?
I would love to come down to India. I have been invited a number of times to South America to talk about sustainable transportation and climate change and what we have been doing in Portland. I think it is mainly because I am an elected official from the first-world who says, “I ride my bike and guess what, we are spending money to help people ride bikes and take transit”. This is a message that is not usually heard from the first world countries. They would usually recommend building a big highway and buying cars. So yes, it would be fun to come to India as well.
- Organising people around an issue is the best way of making your voice heard. Community engagement allows many individual voices to aggregate into a much stronger voice that cannot be ignored. However, this process is time consuming and often grueling, and takes a lot of determination and hard work. Constant efforts, discussions and marketing can also create cultural shifts, with more people willing to live sustainably.
- Transportation, and for that matter any issue that affects daily life, is all about providing options. Governments should not impose any one solution on everyone, but rather create conditions that allow commuters to select active transportation including biking and walking as viable options. If the conditions are right and practical, a larger number of people will themselves make choices that favour of greater use of active transportation.
- Urban design and form are key determinants of what transportation options are viable. Hence, instead of focusing policies on creating smooth transportation flow, a better approach would be to use outcomes-based planning, which considers efficient mobility as a means to achieve desirable outcomes such as health and equity.
- The Portland region, and the state of Oregon, has a very responsive government unlike other regions of the US. This has allowed communities to be involved in major policy decisions and play an important role in shaping the urban form.
- Nothing is perfect, and requires constant improvements and deliberations. Portland, despite being a leader in supporting sustainable choices such as active transportation, still has issue such as safety, culture and increasing car use to deal with.
(Portland residents are twice as likely to use transit and seven times more likely to commute by bicycle than the average metropolitan resident of the U.S., according to the latest census bureau estimates [Mayer 2007]
Source: Portland’s Green Dividend, CEOs for Cities).
 Critical mass in biking is basically a form of protest. The concept is that you get a lot of people on bicycles and they ignore the traffic rules because you have the critical mass. You have so many people on bicycles that you cannot be stopped.