I recently spent a long weekend in Portland, Ore. It was hard not to marvel at all the things that city does well on the transportation front. I began to wonder what elements could be applied here.
Of course, comparing the Portland area to the Southland is a bit unfair. It has the advantage of being much smaller, and in the world of urban planning that usually translates into getting things done faster.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Portland and L.A. is something you notice within minutes of walking off a plane: A light rail line stops at the airport terminal. For $2.05, you can board a train that takes about 40 minutes to reach the central business district.
The line was completed in 2001, making Portland the first city on the West Coast to have a train running to the airport. In the last fiscal year, 1.2 million people took it to and from the airport, according to TriMet, the local transportation agency.
By contrast, the current proposal here to extend the Green Line to LAX wouldn’t actually take the Green Line to LAX. The train would stop near Parking Lot C, where passengers would transfer to a people mover.
Three light rail lines enter downtown Portland from the suburbs, and next year a fourth will arrive. All have opened in the last seven years after decades of planning. In many cases, the trains run right up the middle of the street -- stations are literally on the curb. They run slowly and stop often in downtown, and it doesn’t appear to be a problem in terms of people-train-car conflicts.
Portland officials also drew a square around downtown and declared it a “fareless zone.” If you ride the train or the bus only within that zone, it’s free.
One of the worst things about downtown L.A. is the number of parking lots. The lots have made it difficult to create the kind of critical mass of people that attracts businesses important to a thriving city center.
While downtown Portland certainly has parking lots and garages, it’s nothing like the magnitude you see here.
This is the result of some smart things Portland officials did going back to the 1970s. Back then, state air quality officials began cracking down on car pollution. They imposed tight rules on emissions and told cities to find ways to get people to drive less. With that kick in the rear, Portland initially created a plan that capped the number of parking spaces downtown, thus encouraging more people to take mass transit.
Officials also zoned the city in such a way that the buildings closest to mass transit stops were given strict limits on how much parking they could construct.
Los Angeles has the exact opposite policy: New residential and commercial buildings have minimum amounts of parking they can build. There is no maximum.
Attempts to relax the minimums here have been controversial: When the city planning department tried to do it last year for buildings near transit lines, an upswell of protest put things on hold. No one believed people would buy new residential units without parking, and nearby residents feared newcomers would start parking in their neighborhoods.
Of all the transit-related things Portland has done, perhaps none has gotten more attention than the revival of the streetcar in 2001. The line has since been expanded and runs in an eight-mile loop through downtown. It also connects a new neighborhood along the Willamette River to the relatively new Pearl District and the older northwest side.
Stops are typically one to three blocks apart. And like buses, the streetcar has that magical gift of missing virtually every green light because it’s always stopping. In exchange for lack of speed, however, the streetcar offers a hyper-local service that is convenient to reach for anyone living or working near the line.
Like light rail and buses, the streetcar is free within downtown. Because many people are riding for short distances, it has few seats but a lot of room for standing and it runs at curb level.
Proponents say it has attracted millions of dollars of development along the route. About a third of the cost was paid by nearby residents via an assessment. And businesses continue to subsidize it through sponsorships.
In Los Angeles, the Community Redevelopment Agency has looked into building a streetcar line downtown, but it likely would require a heavy investment from the private sector.
“The best part of it is that it’s relatively cheap and it leads to a much more compelling pedestrian environment -- and real estate values go up because it’s permanent,” said Tom Cody, a principal with developer Gerding Edlen, which is building projects in Portland and L.A. “Critics say, ‘Let’s put in a DASH system,’ but a DASH bus can always go away. A streetcar, if done correctly, comes with landscaping, shelters, trash cans, and because it’s putting eyes on the street it makes neighborhoods safer.”
What can L.A. learn?
After returning from Portland, I dialed up Gail Goldberg, chief of the Los Angeles planning department. Goldberg knows Portland well -- in planning circles it’s often used as a model -- and one of her sons lives in the Pearl, the old manufacturing district now filled with high-rises and buildings converted into housing.
She focused on a few issues: Redevelopment laws in Portland are, as she understands them, more flexible in terms of providing incentives to get developers to build what the city wants. And she thought business improvement districts in Portland had shown more willingness to spend money on their communities.
On the transit front, Goldberg said, “I like that they understand the value and are willing to have free service in the downtown area. . . . They’ve somehow learned that it’s not a subsidy, it’s an investment.”
Goldberg said the things people see in Portland in 2008 are the result of smart decisions made as far back as the 1970s -- when the region moved to adopt an urban growth boundary and invest in mass transit.
“They had a great plan adopted 20 years ago,” Goldberg said, “and the City Council sticks to the plan.”