Living Car-Free in American Suburb

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. I am currently living car-free in the American suburb of Oregon City, which is located at the southern edge of the Portland, OR region.

Portland Region Map

Oregon City is located at the southern edge of the Portland region. I live and work in southern Oregon City. Source: AARoads

I will admit that I did not envision living and working in a suburb similar to my childhood hometown of Kannapolis, NC when I moved from Kannapolis to Charlotte in August 2009 to start undergrad at UNC Charlotte. Since I hated feeling forced to drive an automobile for every trip in Kannapolis and loved the freedom of many transportation choices in Charlotte, I never imagined returning to a suburb after graduating from UNC Charlotte. As I hope this post shows you, returning to a suburb may have been the best decision for my career.

While I still prefer living in an urban area and miss living in Arlington, VA’s award-winning Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, I feel I am making a much bigger difference working in the suburb of Oregon City than I could have made working in a big city. This is mostly because I am the only transportation planner at Clackamas Community College (CCC) and one of the few active transportation planners in Oregon City.

I worked or interned in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Portland (OR), and the DC region, so I am confident that if I worked in a large city I would be in a large transportation department with many staff working on active transportation planning issues. While I am not trying to devalue the work that planners do in big cities, especially since they have to work on more complex issues than I have in Oregon City, how much difference does EACH of these planners have in creating change in their big city?

Since I am an entry-level transportation planner, I keep thinking about how much more difference I am making in Oregon City than I could have made as an entry-level transportation planner among many entry-level transportation planners in a big city. While I have to get permission to do things like apply for grants, I have been given plenty of professional freedom so far to pursue what I feel would be useful for improving multimodal transportation choices at CCC. This also means that I have to be more responsible for the decisions I make because I am the only transportation planner. Since I was micromanaged at a previous job (purposely not giving specifics because I do not want to embarrass a previous employer) and this overwhelmed my supervisor and me, I am thankful my current supervisor is not micromanaging me.

While I wrote earlier how Oregon City is a similar suburb to my childhood hometown of Kannapolis, Oregon City has much better active transportation access to Portland than Kannapolis has to Charlotte. After biking from my home in southern Oregon City to Downtown Oregon City on almost completely connected bike lanes, signed bike routes and sharrows, I can ride on almost completely connected trails all the way to Downtown Portland. The regional version of the below trails map can be found here. I actually helped create this map during my internship at Oregon Metro.

Portland to Oregon City Trails Map

Regional trails between Oregon City and Downtown Portland. Source: Oregon Metro

The below map shows most of the bike infrastructure between Oregon City and Downtown Portland. Since Portland’s famous neighborhood greenways and Oregon City’s signed bike routes and sharrows aren’t shown at this zoom level, I wanted to note that this is missing from the below map.

Portland to Oregon City Bike Map

Bike infrastructure between Oregon City and Downtown Portland. Source: Google Maps

Unless I rarely wanted to visit Charlotte or spend lots of time and money on transferring between multiple transit systems in the Charlotte region (I can take unlimited trips on TriMet’s light rail lines and buses throughout the Portland region for $5/day), I could not have lived car-free in Kannapolis. While the Carolina Thread Trail is working to connect trails throughout the Charlotte region and I volunteered to help create the Carolina Thread Trail Map, it is not possible today to use trails or any other bike infrastructure to bike between Downtown Kannapolis and Uptown Charlotte. Since Charlotte’s bike lanes, signed bike routes and sharrows are not shown at this zoom level, I wanted to note that this is missing from the below map.

Charlotte to Kannapolis Bike Map

Bike infrastructure between Uptown Charlotte and Downtown Kannapolis. Source: Google Maps

Oregon City has good biking and transit access to Portland, so I have been able to visit Portland frequently without driving. While some people in Oregon City have suggested I should buy a car so I can travel quicker, owning and maintaining a car is expensive. Plus, my job literally involves helping people to reduce car dependency. I can currently motivate people to reduce car dependency by telling them that it is possible to live car-free in a suburb like Oregon City because I live car-free here. How would they react if I told them I gave up and purchased a car for the first time in my life?

While I live car-free in my personal life, I cannot reach all my work trips by walking, biking and riding transit. Since I did not want to buy a car for work trips, my supervisor helped me reserve the below hybrid electric car, which CCC owns. This car is only available during the summer term because students learn how to reconstruct the car during other terms. Due to this, I have had to use expensive transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to travel for work trips during the rest of the year. Even though I was nervous about whether my supervisor would support my car-free lifestyle, he has been very supportive.

I have so far driven the hybrid electric car to and from the Clackamas County Coordinating Committee (C4) Meeting near Mt Hood. Since this was the first time I drove after moving back to Oregon and I didn’t drive much when I lived in Virginia, I had to adjust to driving again. I have always been a slow driver, but Oregon drivers have been proven to be among the nation’s slowest drivers so I fit in.

2018-06-13 08.57.34

Hybrid electric car provided for work trips. Photo: Ray Atkinson

As my below Instagram post shows, the C4 Meeting provided me with good insights into Clackamas County’s transportation priorities. Unfortunately for my work to reduce car dependency, widening I-205 is definitely the top priority. Oregon DOT (ODOT), which presented about the I-205 toll and widening project during the C4 Meeting, has been trying to get support for widening I-205 by saying this will reduce traffic congestion. While traffic congestion may be reduced in the short-term, induced demand has shown that widening highways never reduced traffic congestion in the long-term. This is why ODOT needs to use the I-205 toll revenue to fund active transportation projects, which have been proven to reduce traffic congestion on highways. If ODOT is looking for an existing program to review, I recommend the I-66 Commuter Choice Program because revenue from the I-66 toll in Northern Virginia is directly funding active transportation projects in Northern Virginia.

I have not decided what my next blog post will be about, but it will probably be something about what I am experiencing in Oregon. Thank you for reading my blog!

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