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.

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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 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!

Montreal at Eye Level

“Montreal at Eye Level” is a reference to “The City at Eye Level”. While I don’t usually wait a few weeks to write a travel post, I’m glad I waited this time because I learned something disappointing about Montreal after I returned to the US. This disappointment totally changed my perspective on Montreal and how I was planning to write this post. I was originally planning to express my excitement for all the cool placemaking projects and car-free streets.

While the projects and car-free streets are still cool, I wish they were all permanent. Many of the innovative placemaking and car-free streets that I was excited to see in Montreal are closing for the winter. Neighborhoods will temporarily lose placemaking projects that make their neighborhood unique and automobiles will return to what I thought were permanent pedestrian malls. Yes, I realize Montreal has long and harsh winters. However, people in Montreal still go outside during the winter so why can’t the placemaking projects and car-free streets continue through the winter?

Rue Sainte-Catherine

Since Rue Sainte-Catherine is likely Montreal’s most famous pedestrian mall, I’ll start with this example. Why can’t the below street be car-free all year?

Saint-Catherine St E April 2016

April 2016

Saint-Catherine St E August 2016

August 2016

Saint-Catherine St W April 2016

April 2016

Saint-Catherine St W August 2016

August 2016

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Pedestrian Mall on Rue Sainte-Catherine E in Montreal

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Placemaking on Rue Sainte-Catherine E in Montreal

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Musical bikes on Rue Sainte-Catherine E in Montreal

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Giant Chess Boards on Rue Sainte-Catherine O in Montreal

Place Shamrock

While Avenue Shamrock remains a one-lane street during the winter, all the placemaking in the below photos close during the winter. I haven’t lived in an environment where placemaking closes during the winter. What do families in Montreal do during the winter to have fun when the chess board and carousel are no longer there?

Shamrock Avenue May 2015

May 2015

Shamrock Avenue August 2016

August 2016

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Chess on Avenue Shamrock in Montreal

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Carousel with bikes at Place Shamrock

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Parklet at Place Shamrock

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Parklet at Place Shamrock

Jean-Talon Market (Marché Jean-Talon)

While Place Shamrock closes during the winter, Jean-Talon Market remains open during the winter. Jean-Talon Market is adjacent to Place Shamrock. I’m curious whether the outdoor pianos remain during the winter. I found people playing outdoor pianos throughout Montreal. I’ve never seen so many outdoor pianos anywhere!

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Protected Bike Lanes

While I’m disappointed by how many placemaking projects and car-free streets in Montreal are temporary, I’m confident that at least one project is permanent. Some of Montreal’s protected bike lanes are permanent because they are built using concrete barriers instead of temporary posts. Most protected bike lanes in the DC region and throughout the US are temporary because they use posts.

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Boulevard de Maisonneuve O and Rue University

Montreal still has protected bike lanes that were built using posts and a parking lane. Unlike many post-protected bike lanes in the US, Montreal drivers don’t appear to park in the bike lane. Surprisingly, this was accomplished with only a few posts and signs. I only see one post and no parking-related signs in the below photo. How many posts and parking-related signs would be in this photo if this bike lane was installed in the US? I realize US cities are trying to use many posts and parking signs to educate the public about where to park and protect cyclists. But how many posts and signs are really needed to accomplish these goals?

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Looking northwest on Rue Clark at Avenue Laurier O

Future Blog Post

My one year work anniversary is quickly approaching! While I interned part-time at Oregon Metro for a year during grad school, this is my first full-time work anniversary! My first day at MetroBike was October 25. I plan to reflect on my first year and what I look forward to doing in my second year. Since I can’t publicly share the exact station locations that I have been working on, I plan to share a general overview of how much fun I have had during my first year.

Walking, Biking and Riding Transit in Portland, OR vs. Washington, DC

Since my car-free travel behavior has changed dramatically between Portland and DC, I want to compare how my walking, biking, and transit riding habits have changed between living in Portland and now living in the DC region.

Except for the few months in late 2015 and early 2016 where I fully depended on walking and riding transit in Portland because I felt too anxious biking, I mostly walked and biked for all my trips in Portland. I was planning to also mostly walk and bike throughout the DC region because transit is expensive (not as expensive as owning and maintaining a car). While I still walk and bike in the DC region, my boss provided me with a transit card for work trips so I have been riding transit much more than I planned to when I moved here. My boss also provided me with a Capital Bikeshare maintenance key (no time limits like normal keys) for work and personal trips so I haven’t been riding my private bike as often. Since I can’t carry my panniers on Capital Bikeshare, I have been mostly using my private bike for getting groceries and other shopping trips.

Biking in Portland vs. DC region

I don’t live in DC so, while DC has bike racks almost everywhere and the bike racks are usually designed correctly, I have experienced no bike racks or poorly designed bike racks often in Arlington. The below photo shows a ladder or wheel bender rack at a grocery store near my home in Arlington. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with bike parking issues when parking a Capital Bikeshare bike because I have always found an empty dock.

 

Since I depended so much on the DC region’s great trail systems when I lived in the DC region during summer 2014, I was looking forward to depending on the DC region’s great trail systems again. Even though I rode a road bike last time I lived in the DC region, anxiety from my extreme fear of heights has gotten much worse so I have been struggling to ride on hilly trails like the Custis Trail and trails along steep cliffs like the Four Mile Run Trail. Since I doubt I will conquer my fear of heights soon, I’m planning to buy a $3-4,000 recumbent trike so I can reduce the anxiety I feel when biking on hilly trails and along steep cliffs.

 

While the trails are great for long-distance trips, they don’t go everywhere so I still have to use on-street bike routes. I forgot how bad most of the on-street bike infrastructure is in the DC region. Yes, I know DC has protected bike lanes, which are actually better than any protected bike lanes in Portland. However, protected bike lanes in the DC region are on very few streets so I rarely ride on them.

I’m missing Portland’s neighborhood greenways. I used to live at SE 27th and Salmon, which is on a neighborhood greenway, so I memorized the neighborhood greenways. I rarely had to ride on busy roads outside of downtown Portland because neighborhood greenways went almost everywhere. Thankfully, I have found one element of neighborhood greenways in the DC region. Sharrows are found throughout the DC region. Even though the DC region has installed sharrows, which is a critical and cheap element to Portland’s neighborhood greenways, the DC region has horrible wayfinding for cyclists so the sharrows aren’t part of a neighborhood greenway. Due to this, I feel sharrows are only used in the DC region to communicate to cyclists that the government believes that the street is safe enough for biking and to communicate to motorists that they should expect to see cyclists using the street. Sharrows do much more than this in Portland so I miss biking on Portland’s neighborhood streets.

Before I totally dismiss the DC region’s on-street bike network, I’m excited to share that the DC region has several Level of Traffic Stress (LTS) maps. As all the below maps show, the DC region has plenty of work to do to make their on-street bike network feel more comfortable and less stressful. However, I find these maps much more useful than normal bike maps. This is mostly because a normal bike map shows all bike lanes the same while a LTS map shows bike lanes by how comfortable or stressful they are to ride on.

Arlington County, VA 2017 Bicycle Comfort Level Map (click to download front and back of map)

Montgomery County, MD Bicycle Stress Map (click to view map)

montgomery-county-lts-map

According to a presentation by Stephanie Dock, who works for District DOT, at the Transportation Techies meetup in October 2016, District DOT will be publicly releasing their LTS map soon so I’ll add their map when it’s released.

This blog post is getting long. I try to keep my blog posts under 1,000 words and will go over 1,000 words if I keep writing this blog post. While I still want to compare how my walking and transit riding habits have changed between Portland and DC, I may have to write about them in a new blog post. Readers, do you want me to write about my walking and transit riding habits in this blog post or start a new blog post?

Car Dependence to Car Free

I moved from Kannapolis, NC to Silver Spring, MD on June 29. I wanted to write a blog post before arriving in Silver Spring about how I expected my life to change as I went from being dependent on my parents’ car for nearly every trip to car-free for every trip. Since I had to pack, keep up with emails and sleep at least a few hours per night, I ended up not having time to write this blog post.

Now that I am in Silver Spring, I want to reflect on my experience so far with living car free. In order to check how I am handling living car-free, I wanted to hear whether I would ever say, “where is my parents’ car when I needed it?” I haven’t said this once. Instead, I have asked, “why are people driving an automobile in a region that has good (could be improved in many ways) walking, biking and transit infrastructure?” When I asked this, I actually looked at my driver’s license and noticed it expires on September 19, 2016. This will occur after I have graduated from Portland State University and hopefully have started a full-time job. If I find a job in a location where I don’t need to drive an automobile, which I am determined to find, I am seriously considering not renewing my driver’s license. For the reasons I have discussed in previous posts and many more reasons that I haven’t written about yet, I would never have thought this in Kannapolis. However, since I have been involved with bike planning meetings in Kannapolis, I would like to say that Kannapolis recognizes that people are asking for healthy and liveable communities so it is working hard to make Kannapolis more bike friendly. I look forward to someday returning to Kannapolis and biking safely to do all my trips. I am confident this day will come before I die.

Since the walking, biking and transit infrastructure is reasonable in the DC region, I have been walking, biking and riding transit for all my trips. This includes biking to work, walking to lunch, biking to the grocery store, biking and riding transit to downtown DC, moving from home to home by bike, and many other trips. While I can write an essay on my experience with each of these trips, I decided to focus this post on just a few aspects of my experience with biking over 50 miles in one day throughout the DC region. I included comparisons to the Charlotte region and the Netherlands.

What better way to explore the DC region than by bicycle! As the below map of my July 4 ride shows, I have biked over 50 miles throughout the DC region in a single day. I did another 50+ mile ride on July 20. Due to my cell phone dying both times, which I have been using for directions and counting mileage (both need constant use of GPS and 3G), I don’t have an exact number of miles. Having my cell phone die also brings up a very serious safety issue for me because I need a cell phone to call my cousin, who actually lives in DC, and police. I am currently looking at purchasing another battery and/or a bike computer so I can do everything I want to do and not risk my safety.

Ray's 50+ mile bike ride on July 4

Ray’s 50+ mile bike ride on July 4

Continuing with how I biked over 50 miles. The last time I biked over 50 miles in one day was when I was in the Netherlands during the summer of 2012. I have never biked over 50 miles in one day in the Charlotte region. While the bike infrastructure is slowly improving in the Charlotte region, which one can see with the Charlotte City Council’s vote to build the Cross-Charlotte Trail, not having biked at least 50 miles in one day in the Charlotte region informs me how terrible the bike infrastructure is in the Charlotte region. The main reasons I biked over 50 miles in the DC region was because the trail networks are well connected and last for miles and many roads like Beach Drive have slow-speed traffic and many cyclists to bike with.

Sections of Beach Drive are closed to motor vehicles on the weekends and holidays

Sections of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park are closed to motor vehicles on the weekends and holidays

I start riding on these trails and roads and forget how long I have been riding. It makes it even easier to ride for miles when I ride alongside a stranger or two as we discuss our histories, why we love cycling, how we would improve cycling in the DC region, and above all motivate each other to keep going. I can’t wait to do this with my future classmates and coworkers as we ride thousands of miles together!

I plan to bike over 50 miles every weekend I am in the DC region and continue biking over 50 miles per day as often as I can once I arrive in Portland. While the DC region has a great transit system, I find biking to be the best way to explore the DC region because I am not restricted to exploring where the transit system goes, it costs less to bike, biking is faster than walking, I enjoy getting lost in a neighborhood I have never been in before, I can stop where ever I want, I enjoy watching people as they move and interact, people on transit are usually glued to their cell phones or sleeping, and many other reasons.

Since my parents, especially my mom, have been asking me what I am doing at my internship, I will provide a quick overview. Even though my title is Transportation Planning Intern at Toole Design Group, which I thought would have involved reading and writing transportation planning documents and less GIS analysis, all my work has been GIS analysis. In addition, the path to receiving my current internship was unlike any of my other internships and I have had several internships. Without writing another essay, I will just say that I applied for the internship in March after being recommended by a current employee in Toole Design Group’s Boston office for a full-time GIS Analyst position. I know the Boston employee from serving on the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP)’s Young Professionals Committee. I ended up applying for both the GIS Analyst and Transportation Planning Intern positions.

Continuing with what I am doing at my internship. After reading the internship responsibilities in March, I was informed what my internship responsibilities were going to be in June. Since I am currently working on a real project from the start of the project until I have to leave for Portland (short stop in Kannapolis), it was worth the wait to find out what my internship responsibilities were going to be. I have been using ArcGIS 10.2 and Google Earth so far to determine where 200 bike share stations should be located for Philadelphia’s bike share program, which will launch in 2015. I have been communicating with Toole Design Group staff in Portland, OR and Silver Spring, MD and City of Philadelphia staff. One of the things we communicated about was requesting data from the CyclePhilly App, which is shown below. I have never had an internship as fast-paced or involve as many people as this internship is. With the help of my supervisors, I have felt prepared for every challenge and am ready for what my next challenge brings!

CyclePhilly App’s first six weeks reveals where people in the Philadelphia region ride

CyclePhilly App’s first six weeks reveals where people in the Philadelphia region ride

I want to write about many more aspects of my transition from car dependence to car-free, but will save these aspects for future posts and in-person discussions. Since I am interning full-time, taking time to eat so I can try to gain weight while biking, doing all the house chores (living alone at the moment), biking countless amount of miles per day, and trying to get enough sleep per night, I am not sure when my next post will be. I am writing new draft posts every day when I see, hear, touch, smell, and taste something I want to write about. I have so far written nearly 50 draft posts, which are ready to be fully written so definitely have plenty to photograph, research and write about. Yes, my next post should have fewer words and more photos.