First, it’s helpful to know that Complete Streets is shorthand for a set of transportation policies and design elements which balance automotive, pedestrian, bicycle and mass transit road use. The idea is that everyone ought to be able to use our roads safely, no matter how they choose to do so. Wikipedia says that by 2013 more than 490 U.S. municipalities and other jurisdictions had adopted a Complete Streets policy, including Portland three years ago (text). Since then there have been continuing discussions about how to further the goals of Complete Streets, including the recent Spring Street changes.
So far, so good. But why are folks confused and upset? Two things:
Bad communication. While City Hall insiders and transportation policy wonks know about Complete Streets, most people who live, work and visit in Portland have no clue. There’s been no systemic outreach to inform the public about these policies, or why they’re good for Portland. And without better outreach it’s only predictable that folks will react negatively to changes they don’t understand.
While officials at City Hall may disagree with the lack of effective public outreach, it seems clear that most people would have liked a better introduction to Complete Streets before it showed up in their favorite right-of-way. Thankfully bad communication can be rectified – here’s hoping the City gets on that right away with a series of forums, public presentations and discussions for the general public. And not just at City Hall.
Second – where’s the regional approach? Transportation policy is regional by its very nature. If Portland changes the way streets work, it impacts everyone who travels here for work, for shopping or for a visit. While it’s true that we have an ongoing regional transportation effort, it’s also true that their work is even less visible to the public than the City’s Complete Streets policy. And without input and understanding from the people who come in and out of Portland, transportation policy choices like the ones made recently under Complete Streets stand little chance of public acceptance.
Which is a shame, because the objectives of Complete Streets are good ones. But without better public communications and a regional perspective, good policies can get quickly lost in angry reactions to changes that people don’t understand. Here’s hoping that Portland does a better job of that in 2016.