Living Car-Free in American Suburb

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. I’m 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’ll admit that I didn’t 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’m 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’m 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’m confident that if I worked in a large city I’d be in a large transportation department with many staff working on active transportation planning issues. While I’m 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’m an entry-level transportation planner, I keep thinking about how much more difference I’m 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’m the only transportation planner. Since I was micromanaged at a previous job (purposely not giving specifics because I don’t want to embarrass a previous employer) and this overwhelmed my supervisor and me, I’m thankful my current supervisor isn’t 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 couldn’t 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 isn’t 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 aren’t 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’s 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 can’t reach all my work trips by walking, biking and riding transit. Since I didn’t want to buy a car for work trips, my supervisor helped me reserve the below hybrid electric car, which CCC owns. 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.

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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 haven’t decided what my next blog post will be about, but it’ll probably be something about what I’m experiencing in Oregon. Thanks for reading my blog!

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Capital Bikeshare vs. Dockless Bikeshare

As a resident of Arlington, I have a unique location to watch Capital Bikeshare “compete” with dockless bikeshare. I put “compete” in quotes because the mutual goal of Capital Bikeshare and the five dockless bikeshare companies is to get more people biking. However, some bike planners believe dockless bikeshare will pull enough people from Capital Bikeshare that it won’t be able to compete with dockless bikeshare.

Since bikeshare is still new to most Americans, I want to make sure everyone knows the difference between dock-based and dockless bikeshare. As the below photo shows, dock-based bikeshare systems require the bike to be docked at a station. Capital Bikeshare is the main dock-based bikeshare system that operates in the DC region.

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Photo: Ray Atkinson

As the below photo shows, dockless bikeshare systems have bikes that are self-locked. The five dockless bikeshare companies operating in the DC region are Jump, LimeBike, Mobike, ofo, and Spin. While Jump is the only company with e-bikes, LimeBike and Spin announced last week that they plan to start offering e-bikes soon.

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Photo: Ray Atkinson

While all six bikeshare systems have apps, which are shown below, it’s possible to use Capital Bikeshare without the app by purchasing a pass at the kiosk. Since not everyone has a smartphone, this reduces the barrier to bikeshare. In addition, only Capital Bikeshare can be used by paying cash. Many low-income people don’t have a credit or debit card, so this gives them access to using bikeshare.

Capital Bikeshare vs Dockless Bikeshare

Source: Transit App

I have a unique location to watch this bikeshare situation because of how the permitting process is unfolding across the DC region. While Capital Bikeshare is permitted to operate throughout the region, only DC has given permits to all five dockless bikeshare companies. As this Greater Greater Washington post explains, DC and Montgomery County, MD had an easier process than local jurisdictions in Virginia to create pilot dockless bikeshare programs because they are governed by Home Rule. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means state law preempts local law. Local jurisdictions must receive permission from the General Assembly to act on local matters. Yes, Maryland is also a Dillon Rule state. However, Montgomery County became the first county in Maryland to adopt a home rule charter in 1948.

Since DC is geographically small and dockless bikeshare companies have been struggling to inform their customers that they don’t have permits to operate outside of DC, I’ve been watching how human behavior and government processes react to this issue. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which is impacting the ability of local jurisdictions to create pilot dockless bikeshare programs and regulate the dockless bikeshare companies. This is why Virginia doesn’t officially have dockless bikeshare yet. Arlington wrote this blog post to educate people about the different types of bikeshare. I found the following statements interesting.

“the six-month trial of dockless bikeshare is entirely a DC project at this time. The operators do not have an agreement with Arlington County so their operating location is within Washington, DC borders.

If you see a bike in Arlington, you can contact the operator to collect their bike to take back into DC, or you can ride the bike back into the operating location (JUMP bike offers a $1 credit every when a bike is ridden back into the operating area).

This is all still very early in the experimental phase so there is no telling right now how policies could change.”

If this wasn’t confusing enough, only four of the five dockless bikeshare companies have permits from Montgomery County, MD to operate in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. I believe the fifth company, Jump, has decided not to expand to Montgomery County yet because it wants to focus on DC. None of the dockless bikeshare companies have permits to operate elsewhere in DC’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Plus, they can’t operate on National Park Service (NPS) property. This is important because the National Mall and regional trails like the Mount Vernon Trail are owned by the NPS.

Dockless Bikeshare

Map of dockless bikeshare’s service area in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, MD. Source: WashCycle

Even if the NPS gave permits to the dockless bikeshare companies to operate on its property, e-bikes are banned from NPS-owned trails. However, I haven’t seen this ban enforced and it doesn’t appear to be discouraging many people from riding e-bikes on trails. I’m curious to see whether this controversial NPS ban becomes more heated as LimeBike and Spin join Jump in having e-bikes.

Since the dockless bikeshare parking issues have been reported everywhere, look at Dockless Bike Fail’s tweets for photo evidence. What do you think about the issues I have discussed in this post?

Walkable Retirement Complexes Surrounded By Automobile-Dependent Land Uses

I have been on countless family vacations but my family’s most recent vacation was very unique for one major reason: transportation. From Saturday, December 24 to Friday, December 30, I was a van passenger and stayed with my family in hotels that are located in automobile-dependent areas adjacent to I-495 in Alexandria, VA (suburb of DC), adjacent to I-90 in Erie, PA, and adjacent to I-480 in North Olmsted, OH (suburb of Cleveland). Since my dad values easy interstate access, we have stayed in automobile-dependent areas during most family vacations throughout my life.

As soon as I had the freedom to choose where I wanted to stay, I escaped the suburbs and stayed at an Airbnb in a more walkable and transit-accessible location in Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District. I walked and rode transit everywhere until flying back to DC on Sunday, January 1. The below tweet shows the reaction I received from locals after they asked me what I was doing in Cleveland. Since this blog post was getting long, I moved the “Cleveland at Eye Level” section to my next blog post.

Visiting Grandmothers

Since I’m aware that this blog post could be seen as me complaining about not having freedom to explore outside of my family’s van, I want to clarify that my dad mostly chose to stay in automobile-dependent areas because we were visiting my grandmothers in automobile-dependent areas of Erie, PA and Westlake, OH. The retirement complexes where my grandmothers live are walkable only within the confines of their retirement complexes. Both retirement complexes are surrounded by automobile-dependent land uses so my grandmothers can’t safely walk beyond their retirement complexes. As an active transportation planner, this was very depressing to see.

Thankfully, catching up with both of my grandmothers wasn’t depressing. I enjoyed seeing how networked my Erie grandmother is into her retirement community. After eleven years at her retirement community, she literally knows everyone by name and everyone stops to talk with her. I loved seeing and hearing this! I also enjoyed chair yoga with her and my twin sister.

Since my Ohio grandmother just moved into her retirement complex the day before we arrived, she isn’t networked into her retirement community yet. However, I enjoyed seeing and hearing her take the initiative to meet people in her retirement community. I also enjoyed playing Kings in the Corner with her and my family.

Part 2 of 3 about my family trip can be read in my next blog post.