Pedestrian Friendly is a Community Effort in Portland

May 24, 2017 • 8 min read
Byron Beck

Byron Beck

PDX Correspondent

Walkability Meets Community

Making a city more pedestrian friendly is a two-way street, and is possible only when both community and small businesses are involved.

Portland has been leading that charge for several decades. Both the public and private sectors have demonstrated their commitment to making the city more pedestrian friendly, and Portland continues to make it to the top of the list as one of the nation’s most walkable cities.

This month, Washington D.C.’s Island Press will publish “Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All.” The timely tome includes a chapter on one of Portland’s neighborhoods: “Redeveloping with Pedestrians in Mind: The Pearl District, Portland, Oregon.” Author Philip Langdon, former editor of New Urban News and a freelance journalist for prestigious publications such as the New York Times, said, “In my judgment, the Pearl District is the most outstanding edge-of-downtown district created in any U.S. city since the beginning of the New Urbanism movement.”

Townsquared was curious what makes Portland neighborhoods so pedestrian-centric, so they reached out to two outlets that are active in the field of foot traffic: the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Portland Walking Tours, one of the most popular tour operators in all of Oregon.

“Portland is very pedestrian friendly because of our short blocks and because of how the city developed,” said PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera. “The historic streetcar lines and the neighborhoods and commercial centers that sprung up around them are the backbone for the pedestrian friendly neighborhoods that people love about Portland. Many Portland neighborhoods were built around streetcar lines from the late 19th to early 20th century. Those land-use patterns with predominantly small-scale commercial development mixed with nearby residential are the places people picture when they think “pedestrian-friendly Portland.”

History of Investment in Mobility

pedestrian friendly

Rivera also pointed out the work that’s been done in Portland’s Central Business District over the past decades. “From the bus mall in the 1980s, to the streetcar in the early 2000’s and the redevelopment of the Pearl and South Waterfront, Portland has made a lot of investments in pedestrian friendly places,” said Rivera. “Combined with our historic neighborhoods, these investments have really allowed a large portion of the city to become a place where you can walk, bike, and use transit for most of your trips.”

Bob Fisher, General Manager of Portland Walking Tours, agrees: “Portland city leaders made a decision in the 1970s to try and revitalize the city. Part of that revitalization plan was to make the downtown more pedestrian friendly,” said Fisher. “[City leaders] took out lanes of traffic and extended sidewalks to make the downtown more friendly for walking. They also made sure to include trees, planters, benches and public art to make the downtown more inviting and aesthetically pleasing.”

David Schargel started the Portland Walking Tours (PWT) more than 15 years ago because of his love for his hometown. His wife encouraged him to turn that love into something more than just a weekend hobby. “Our first walking tour was a free city tour David gave for the local hostel association,” said Fisher. “There was such a demand for his free tour that he hired and trained his first employees. The rest is history.”

Today, PWT has over 50 employees. They run more than 60 public events a week, ranging from city, food, and beer & wine tours, to ghost tours and more.

It’s not just Portland that wants to be pedestrian friendly. Fisher believes all cities want to be more accessible to pedestrians. “In addition to changes made by a city to encourage walking, it is easier to walk when you’re downtown than trying to jump in your car and drive everywhere, like you might do in the suburbs,” said Fisher.

Fisher also realizes there is something different about Portland. “City leaders have worked hard to make sure that pedestrians are included in our transportation plans,” said Fisher. “We are definitely not a car-centric city like in other parts of the country. Also, Portland drivers are notoriously polite and courteous to pedestrians.”

It’s Not Always Rosy in the City of Roses

pedestrian friendly

“We could always do better,” said Fisher. “Wider sidewalks, more dedicated pedestrian paths and better markings on crosswalks in some areas would be welcome addition.”

The city is continuing its effort to become even more pedestrian friendly.

“Many of the areas of Portland most deficient in pedestrian infrastructure are also where the highest concentrations of underserved communities live or work,” said PBOT’s Rivera. “As housing costs rise, an increasing number of no-car or low-car households are moving to places with less transit service and deficient pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. An updated Pedestrian Master Plan (PMP) will provide planning and policy guidance tailored to the needs of each area, and will better serve communities that have limited options to get around.”

PedPDX is Portland’s updated citywide pedestrian plan. Since 1998, the PMP has guided pedestrian-friendly design and policies in Portland, and has served as a model across the country. The new PedPDX will update and prioritize sidewalk and crossing improvements, and identify key strategies and tools to make Portland an even greater city for walking.

“While the downtown area and many older neighborhoods of Portland have high-quality pedestrian facilities, much of the City still does not have a balanced, interconnected, or safe pedestrian network,” said PBOT’s Rivera.

Pedestrian Friendly Cities Are Safe Cities

Walking is often considered an unsafe, uncomfortable, or inconvenient transportation option. An improved pedestrian network is needed to make walking a viable option. According to Rivera, PedPDX will develop a new policy and the planning-level guidance to achieve this objective in their pedestrian network.

“The 1998 Pedestrian Master Plan struggles to provide adequate guidance for areas like East Portland and Southwest Portland because they present environmental challenges and right-of-way constraints,” said Rivera. “Our updates will provide the flexibility needed to address the City of Portland’s current development goals and its future needs.”

In order to remain relevant and effective, the PMP needs to be updated to reflect policy changes, incorporate modern design best practices, address the need for context-sensitive solutions, take into account an emerging understanding of transportation equity, and include a “Vision Zero” approach to pedestrian safety.

“Vision Zero” is the philosophy that all traffic crashes are preventable and it is not acceptable for anyone to die or be seriously injured on streets. Although Portland’s traffic fatality rate is among the lowest of the 50 biggest cities in the nation, the number of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists killed on local roadways each year has remained flat over the past 20 years. During that time period, an average of 37 Portlanders died in traffic collisions annually, including 11 pedestrians, 2 bicyclists, and 24 motorists each year.

An updated PMP will ensure that the City of Portland continues to lead the way in walkability. The PMP update will not only plan for basic pedestrian infrastructure needs, but will also identify the places where a higher level of design is needed to provide a safe and appealing physical environment that supports social, cultural, and health needs.

“The PMP update is urgently needed because Portland is growing so quickly, and we need to keep up with that growth using thoughtful, data-driven investment strategies in an era of limited financial resources,” said Rivera. The City of Portland is now home to over 600,000 residents in a metro region of 2.4 million, and the City is expected to grow by an additional 260,000 people by 2035.

Another reason the PMP update is timely is because promotion of walking as the mode of choice for shorter trips, and walking to transit or other shared-ride services for longer trips, is an essential component of the City’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions and address the threat of climate change. The Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2015, set an objective that by the year 2030 the daily vehicle miles traveled per capita would be reduced by 30 percent from 2008 levels. Furthermore, it set a target that 80 percent of residents will be able to easily walk or bike to meet basic daily, non-work needs and have safe pedestrian or bicycle access to transit.

Small Business Storefronts Create Foot Traffic

pedestrian friendly

Small businesses can get into the business of making their neighborhoods more pedestrian friendly too. Portland’s Central City Fundamental Design Guidelines and the city’s Design Review process have helped generate many of the buildings with storefronts and vibrant pedestrian areas the city enjoys today. These guidelines include specific guidance and photographs that business owners can reference in order to understand how to make their storefronts more pedestrian-friendly.

The Portland Development Commission, now called Prosper Portland, is also commited to help make Portland more pedestrian friendly. Improving neighborhood livability and safety is a central goal for Prosper Portland, the city’s economic and urban development agency. To that end, the agency’s Prosperity Improvement Program Grant delivers business and development-focused technical assistance, and funds small-scale real property improvements.

Businesses can use the matching grant funds for either hard or soft costs like signage, lighting, storefront, sidewalks, landscaping or other permanent fixtures, all of which can contribute to an improved pedestrian experience.

For small business owners who want to find out more on how to make their storefronts more pedestrian friendly, a good place to start is the web page for PedPDX where there are links to the pedestrian design guide. PBOT’s SmartTrips program offers walking maps, guided walking tours and information.

With the help of the city, small businesses can make Portland a fun and safe place to walk. “Well lit sidewalks are a must,” said Fisher. “Not prioritizing cars over pedestrians is another. Nothing worse than having to traverse a sea of parking lot asphalt to get to the front door.”


pedestrian friendly

The PedPDX citywide pedestrian plan will:
•Establish a clear plan, vision, goals, and objectives.
•Identify gaps and needs in Portland’s pedestrian network (including needs for new sidewalks, crossings, and other pedestrian improvements)
•Prioritize so that Portland is directing funding to locations with the greatest needs first (project prioritization will reflect the City’s commitment to improving equity outcomes and reaching a Vision Zero goal).
•Articulate the strategies, actions, and tools they will use to improve walking conditions within prioritized areas, and across the city.
•Identify context-sensitive design solutions for various part of the city.
•Update the City’s pedestrian classifications and designations, which help drive pedestrian design requirements.
•Identify the performance measures used to track the progress implementing the plan over time.

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