Road rage, screaming at the bus driver, throwing rental scooters into the river: nothing gets people going quite like arguing about their daily commute. Over the course of the past six weeks, the DE Portland cohort has been exposed to a lot of passion about PDX transit and, as we’ve settled into our internships and routines, we’ve developed some of our own.
This past weekend marked Portland’s turn to host a new flock of the electric scooters that are migrating across the country’s urban centers. A trio of companies (one of which we recognize, having already made its mark back home in Durham) raced to acquire permits and be the first to offer rides. The local Willamette Week tweeted out a request for comments: “See an e-scooter going the wrong way down a city street? …Want to complain about them beeping all night? Send tips…”
That was a mistake.
A few days later, they published some of the ‘tips’ they received. They highlighted perhaps the most virulent in the headline: “Thanks for protecting us against the real menace, People on Scooters. Enjoy doing whatever [expletive] you call journalism.” In fact, most of the tips were anecdotes about pedestrians nearly getting flattened by erratic drivers. Much of Portland agrees: it’s cars that are polluting and dangerous in a dense urban space. This has led to a high number of bus-only lanes and priority for the light rail at intersections – getting around downtown by bus is very easy and very fast. However, these improvements haven’t made their way out to much of East Portland, where a higher number of lower-income, transit-dependent people live (despite what the increased focus on highway development in these neighborhoods might imply). My community partner, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, spends a great deal of time, effort, and resources advocating for expanding the transit-oriented urban planning model.
The Week had to concede: it seems like people are enjoying the new mode of transport, especially if the scooters are encouraging people to leave their cars at home. In fact, the paper followed up a couple days later with praise for the city’s new riders: “Good Job, Portland: Only One E-Scooter Has Been Thrown in the Willamette River So Far.” The headline seems sincere to me – back home in Baltimore, where bikes had to be pulled out of the harbor on the regular when a rental program was introduced, a single scooter rescue would mean a fantastic success.
Portlanders’ passion about transportation isn’t just visible on the internet’s message boards. Alongside OPAL staff and members of Serve the People summer youth program, Hazel and I attended a TriMet Advisory Committee meeting to advocate for funding YouthPass, a program which would provide free transit passes for Portland’s public-school students. When we arrived, we were given a meeting schedule: It began: Introduction and Public Comment (20 minutes). What a joke! The introduction lasted about five minutes. Members of the community, who had woken up early and travelled downtown on a work day, spoke for an additional 75. There were requests for increased service in several neighborhoods, pleas for additional funding for the streetcar, support for the funding of electric busses (one lone voice spoke for a natural gas-powered bus system but was followed up by what was basically a rebuttal from a member of the electric crowd), and a long series of comments reminding the committee about the importance of youth engagement in transit.
It was great to see so many people, of various ages and backgrounds, opine on how Portland’s transit system should be expanded. Having spent six weeks relying on it to get around, I can’t emphasize enough how appreciative I am of a system that allows you to cross the city so easily, and I can see why people are proud and excited to invest in it. I would love to see the same passion for transit back home or in the Triangle, where car culture is so frustratingly dominant. It’s clear that a functional transit system is its own advocate, price and ease-of-use pushing people to be vocal about its continued subsidization. At the same time, it makes sense why most prefer their cars in Baltimore or Durham – as isolating, polluting, dangerous, even selfish they can be – when relying on bus or rail means huge waits and limited range.
I may not be at the point of tweeting snarky comments to the local paper, but I’m definitely going to miss being in a city full of people who care about urbanism. And, should someone feel the need to write a Chronicle piece about bikes blocking campus sidewalks, I’ll have some choice tweets for inspiration.