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My View: Portland's anti-car history is backing up a lot of freeway traffic

Speaking before a friendly crowd at the City Club of Portland, city Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat declared her top priority will be to provide more alternatives to the automobile for Portland (Transportation director calls traffic “public health threat,” Web story, April 22).

That may have been well received at the City Club, but the backlash hasn’t been pretty. By declaring traffic a public health crisis, Treat has not only alienated the majority of Portland’s commuters but also failed to admit that a 40-year effort by her predecessors has failed to get people out of their cars.

Treat was selected almost a year ago by city Commissioner Steve Novick after a national search. She had previously been appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to serve as that city’s transportation director, where she worked on bike-sharing and pedestrian projects. That gave her a resume sure to satisfy not only the new, progressive commissioner but also Portland’s progressive brand of transportation politics.

Portland’s new urbanists are enamored with all things Swedish, even if it’s a big-box store (IKEA) anchoring an otherwise failed transit-oriented development, and Treat is no exception. Fleshing out her ideas, Treat set forth the goal of “Vision Zero,” which she described as a Swedish-inspired movement to attain zero traffic-related fatalities.

“Imagine a time when a parent can bring a child to OMSI or the farmers market without having to drive,” she said.

But any parent can do that now. The streetcar tracks are right by OMSI and neighborhood bus service can get you to any farmers market. Did Treat really mean it would be great to have no cars going to OMSI? Does Vision Zero really mean zero cars? Is that how they do it in Sweden?

Treat could have benefited from a history briefing before her pronouncement.

Portland’s planning class has been waging war on the automobile since Neil Goldschmidt was elected mayor in 1972. Prior to that, planners were working on girding the metro area with freeways. But Goldschmidt was opposed and learned he could move the federal funding into an alternative concept. The freeway idea was abandoned and the MAX light rail was born.

Goldschmidt ended up as Jimmy Carter’s transportation secretary. Developers ended up with lucrative public subsidies to build along the new lines. Commuters ended up with more traffic.

When the Metro regional government agency was granted planning authority by a 1991 vote, the war on the automobile accelerated. Goldschmidt’s transportation philosophy was admired by Vera Katz (she became mayor in 1993), Earl Blumenauer, Charlie Hales and many others in city government.

Bubble curbs, speed bumps and “traffic calming” devices began popping up all over. The streetcar tracks that had been torn up when I was in grade school were being laid down again as the city prepared to once again embrace that 19th century technology.

Despite the amenities, people didn’t get out of their cars, so more direct pressure was exerted. In 2001, a high occupancy-vehicle lane was established on both sides of the Columbia River on Interstate 5. Unless commuters carpooled, they would lose a third of the road capacity during rush hour.

After failing to change behavior for five years, Washington threw in the towel and removed the lane. Oregon soldiers on alone.

During the past 40 years, the anti-automobile crowd has assured us that personal transportation is an unsustainable, environmental disaster. But what’s really happened? The smog-belching behemoths of the 1970s have become small, clean and efficient. Peak oil predictions have come and gone. We have electric cars. We have hybrid cars. We have cars running on natural gas. And despite all efforts at behavior modification, the vast majority of us prefer to get around by car.

As Portland’s transportation commissioner, Steve Novick needs to ask himself if he is responsible to the majority. If he is, he needs to ask himself if Leah Treat can be.

Dave Lister is a Tigard business owner and a former member of Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.