Portland’s Urban Freeways

I’m here for a couple of days in Portland, Ore., a renowned center of progressive urbanism known for its commitment to excellent bicycle infrastructure and its recent investments in mass transit. And it’s all true. There’s lots of biking here. I rode the MAX Light Rail from the airport to my hotel, took a nice long 30-minute walk to a great dinner in a great neighborhood on the other side of the river last night, and took the MAX back. There are some solid frequent bus lines. People have a lot of the right ideas.


But there’s also this freeway system. 84 bisects the east-of-the-river neighborhoods into cleaved-apart northern and southern sections. Where I’m staying near the Convention Center is cut off from the basketball arena and other things right down by the river. The urban core west of the river is cut off from the surrounding neighborhoods by a freeway loop. And the upshot of all this is not only to degrade the experience in the urban areas, it’s to ensure that the residents of auto-centric suburbs have easy access via private car to all the different amenities of the city.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about this—almost all American cities were afflicted by the great urban freeway binge of the postwar decades. But these matters can be really important in shaping metro areas, and even though freeway removal projects don’t quite have the sex appeal of new rail investments they can be just as valuable. A nice new at-grade boulevard that interacts with the street grid and has room for a dedicated bus lane can be a wonderful thing.