Sunday, June 2, 2013

Local Op-Ed: Extend and Improve the Old Town / Chinatown Pedestrian Zone!

Old Town / Chinatown Pedestrian Zone.  From The Portland Mercury

Picture this: it's midnight, and downtown is alive with activity.  The sidewalks are filled with people enjoying sidewalk dining in the cool night air, and crowds of pedestrians wander the streets.  Pedi-cabs slowly work their way though the revelers, and all without a car in sight!  This could be the future of Portland's Old Town/Chinatown district, but only if the City Council makes the right decision this week.  Since early this year a small part of the city has been closed to vehicles on weekend nights, creating a safer and more welcoming area for pedestrians.  Residents, nearby businesses, the Portland Police Bureau, and the Mayor have all expressed their support for the program (Oregonian). 

Area Closed to Cars.  From Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement

But without City Council action, cars will soon return to the streets and once again create a nightly scene of congestion and conflict.  By voting to extend and improve the program when they meet June 5th,  City Council can help create a safe, vibrant nightlife for Portland and again demonstrate that this is a city that values its pedestrians (City Council Ordinance).

Walking is a necessary component of any trip - even those that drive downtown must walk after parking, and when traveling from business to business.  Tragically, walking is needlessly dangerous in the United States.  People on foot are 20 times more likely to be killed than people driving, on a per-mile basis.  This need not be the case.  The experience of countries that have made pedestrian safety a priority, such as The Netherlands and Germany, demonstrates that walking can be much safer (Pucher and Dijkstra, 2003)

International Pedestrian Fatality Rates.  From Pucher and Dijkstra, 2003.

Creating a safer environment for pedestrians is a complex challenge for a city, and Portland has recognized this with a diverse range of policy and design programs to improve safety for those on foot (Portland Bureau of Transportation).  A comprehensive safety regimen combines systematic, broad improvements with targeted actions in priority areas.  The Old Town/Chinatown car-free program is a low-cost, focused intervention for a busy nightlife location with a history of frequent pedestrian-vehicle interactions.  Large crowds of people, narrow sidewalks, heavy vehicular traffic, and a preponderance of bars and nightclubs make the area dangerous for both pedestrians and cars.  Research has shown that pedestrians are at a higher risk of being involved in a fatal crash when intoxicated, especially during nights and weekends (Öström and Eriksson, 2001).   Before the car-free zone the program area was one of the most frequent locations for police service requests, especially vehicle-pedestrian crashes and "interactions".  Additionally, heavy vehicle congestion made emergency response times slower, reducing the quality of life for patrons and residents alike.

The car-free program has created a safer and more welcoming environment for pedestrians, while also improving police and emergency response in and around the area. The current program, and the extension proposal being sent to City Council, restricts vehicle access and parking between 10:00 pm and 3:00 am on Fridays and Saturdays on NW 3rd Ave from W Burnside to NW Everett St, NW Couch from NW 2nd Ave to NW 4th Ave, and NW Davis from 2nd Ave to NW 4th Ave.  Special areas have been designated for taxi, limo, and pedicab pickup.  Emergency vehicles and disabled access vehicles are allowed in the car-free zone.

Access Routes.  From The Portland Mercury.

The pilot program is generally popular with the community, business owners, and the Police Bureau.  Due to increased police visibility and reduced congestion, the Portland Police Bureau believes that the program has been successful at improving safety (The Portland Mercury).  Business patrons and visitors also seem to be enjoying the car-free zone, although the crowds have been slow to adapt to the newly available street space.  As the signage has improved and awareness has increased, the program has become more popular and the streets better utilized (The Portland Mercury).  If approved by the City Council, the program will be extended through the busy summer months until the end of October, when it will be reviewed again.

Though the program has been successful, there's still much that should be improved.  More study is needed to quantify the effect on crime, parking availability, air quality, residential access, and unwanted noise. Moreover, the city should move the program beyond just a safety focus and toward distinct pedestrian place making. Welcoming food carts, permitting temporary street seating, and allowing pedi-cabs to slowly traverse the zone would all encourage more pedestrian use of the open road.  These uses would need to be sensitive to possible emergency and access vehicles, but without through traffic or parking there should be plenty of road space available.  The aesthetics of the car-free zone could be improved too, making a more inviting space akin to the nearby closed portion of SW Ankney.

Is This Inviting?  From The Portland Mercury
The ordinance suggests the possibility of establishing a non-profit organization to oversee and develop the car-free zone program.  This is a great idea, and would be instrumental in the continued improvement of the program.  A dedicate organization may also help to develop an independent funding strategy, and offer guidance on future changes or expansions to the program.

The car-free zone has been successful so far, and can be even better as it matures.  The City Council should keep the area free of cars by passing the ordinance before them on June 5th.  They should also actively pursue opportunities to improve the program and create a vibrant place for pedestrians.

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