Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What Do You Want in Congress Square?

Hello fellow enthusiast(s) of the car-free lifestyle in Portland, Maine. Today's brief posting is about the plaza at the heart of Portland's Arts District known as Congress Square.

Congress Square Plaza during a summertime First Friday
If you've been following the local news, you might know that there is some ongoing discussion about what to do with the plaza directly in front of the Eastland (eventually to be reopened as a Westin hotel) and with the square as a whole. Public opinion seems split between allowing the hotel operators to build on most of the plaza to extend the hotel's ballrooms, while others are determined to see the space live on as a (hopefully more successful) public plaza. Despite living a few hundred feet from the plaza, I don't have a super strong opinion either way. I think either outcome is a good opportunity to improve on what is there now.

If you have a vision for the square, the city wants your feedback! Head over here to share your ideas and show support for other people's submissions.
Click the image to share your vision for Congress Square
Some of the suggestions so far seem a bit vague, mentioning the generic "green space" and "open space." So far my favorite suggestions include safer pedestrian crossings, regular programing in the plaza, and movable chairs/tables.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bicycle Sharing in Portland, Kind of

After enjoying a brief layover in Boston (on the way to another location in Massachusetts for Father's Day) this weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Portland, Maine kind of has it's own bicycle sharing program up and running. The company operating the Portland operation is called Zagster.

There is currently just one one station located at the Portland Transportation Center and it's more a rental program than a sharing program, but it's still a positive sign in a city that is exploring possibility of setting up an "actual" multi-locational bike sharing program similar to Boston's Hubway or New York City's new Citi bike.

I haven't had a chance to test out the bikes, and I am probably not in their desired demographic since I own a bike and already commute on it every day. But at only $20 for a day's use, it sounds like this would be great for visitors to our fair city (assuming they make it through the cyclist hell hole of highway ramps that is right next to the transportation center!). You can read about the program here on Boston.com. I haven't seen it mentioned in the local media yet.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Complete Streets

Portland's Complete Streets Policy, adopted by the city council last December, was recently recognized by Smart Growth America as one of the best complete streets policies enacted in 2012.

What is a complete streets policy? Smart Growth America sums it up in the following way:
Instituting a Complete Streets policy ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.
Sounds like a common sense way of looking at transportation in an urban environment. The fact that Portland didn't have a complete streets policy prior to last year doesn't mean that all of its existing streets  are not up to par, but it should mean that our streets may be able to live up to their fullest potential in the future. Congrats to the city and the people involved with it at City Hall for this recognition!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Thoughts on a Blizzard

First of all, hello there. I am still around, a fact that you can verify any time by visiting my daily photo blog. I have not posted on this blog lately, but that is one of the benefits of having a second blog that I don't promise to post on with a specific schedule. I am still car-free and living in Portland so I will continue to have thoughts to post here every now and then.

Today I want to write a little bit about the recent blizzard, named Nemo, which forcefully swept through the city over the past two days. The total snowfall of 31.9 inches was a record for the city, and an impressive total to actually see, and travel through, in person.

As is the case during any substantial snow storm, one of the first changes you notice is how quiet it becomes. Streets that were once clogged with noisy traffic become almost eerily quiet as the number of cars decrease and the sound of the remaining cars is substantially reduced by the surrounding snow. There are still sounds of the city and its inhabitants, but those sounds generally take a softer and more pleasant tone.

The other thing that is immediately noticeable, as hinted at above, is the reduction in automobile traffic. Streets such as Congress Street, the main route through the center of the peninsula for both automobiles and pedestrians, becomes a shared-use street that peacefully accommodate a small amount of traffic and pedestrians equally.

Not only is traffic reduced, but more importantly, it is significantly tamed.  Snow covered streets require cars to move slowly and to be more thoughtful of their surroundings. Politely asking motorists to obey specific speed limits or to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks often does not work, but snow does.

As illustrated in the example above from Fore Street, pedestrians have been forced to the road due to the sidewalks not yet being cleared (more on that later). The car that went past them was moving at the same speed, and the movement of neither party was impeded. This was a pleasant situation where a road was efficiently shared by different modes of transportation.

I've never been to another continent to see it in person, but I admire some parts of the world where cities are built to embrace pedestrians and cyclists (or at the very least, are not built to ignore everything but cars). I would love to see a Portland that operates more like the parts of Paris shown in this Streetfilms video. Just like some European cities, Portland's downtown area has a lot of streets that are not wide enough to make reasonable accommodations for all uses such as mass transit, cars, pedestrians, and bicycles. Building roads that combine all those uses seems like a win-win. Our existing streets and sidewalks, our largest public open spaces, could be used to their fullest potential if they were designed in this manner.

There are challenges to creating more people-friendly streets. The foremost may be our auto-centric culture, which is more complex than I am able to eloquently describe or to prescribe a cure for. On a local level, calming traffic is generally seen as waging a "war on cars." Such a narrow view of our shared spaces is a major obstacle. Our current transportation networks and land use patterns basically force most people to car ownership, so it would take  a drastic change in our culture to make people aware of any alternatives to the current situation. The positive news is that a change is already under way. A Press Herald story from this past July notes that car registration in Portland has fallen an amazing 23% from 2004 to 2011.

But back to the topic of snow. As noted in the example above, the roads here cleared before sidewalks by the public works department. This is common practice that we can all support because it allows emergency vehicles to move around the city when needed. For the most part the City of Portland does a great job at taking care of our streets and sidewalk all winter, but snow will always be a challenge for all modes of urban transportation. One of my favorite things about snow is that, in moderation, it can make the city a more charming place to live for pedestrians (and cyclists if you have the right equipment for a winter commute!).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Longfellow Square Crossing

This crosswalk across State Street has always been a bit of a bottleneck. It located right after the major Longfellow Square intersection of State and Congress Streets and provides pedestrians a direct route for heading into the West End via Pine Street. Here is a Bing maps bird's eye view photo of the area. I'm not sure how long ago they added the little flashing flashing LED lights below the yellow pedestrian sign on the other side of the street from this photo, but it's a nice touch to signal when people are trying to cross. Ultimately, this crossing and the rest of State Street would be vastly improved by slowing traffic that is cruising through Portland as fast as possible to cross the Casco Bay Bridge. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Way Across Marginal Way

Looks like this pedestrian refuge island on Marginal Way, conveniently located across from the entrance to Bayside Village and Walgreens/Trader Joe's, is complete. It also appears that they might even add some flashing lights on the poles. similar to the nearby crosswalk on the Preble Street extension near Hannaford. If all of the proposed development in Bayside comes true, I imagine that this intersection may someday have a full set off traffic lights.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bicycle Faux Pas

Here are a couple photographic examples of improper bicycle etiquette. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Carless in Portland

In case you haven't seen it yet, the Press Herald ran a story today about the steady decline in car ownership in the city. To summarize, the statistics show that the number of passenger vehicles registered in Portland has been declining for several years while ridership on the local bus system has gone up. The article features some brief profiles of car-free individuals, such as city councilor David Marshall. It's nice to be reminded that I'm not alone and I look forward to some possible follow up stories on the subject. I wouldn't mind being interviewed as well as someone who has lived a generally successful life here without a car since 2008. As noted on the Rights of Way blog, the city's housing and transportation policies are "focused overwhelmingly on building cheap or free parking" despite the trend that people are driving less and demanding better/safer/healthier/more sustainable neighborhoods.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Franklin Street Sidewalk - Part 1

If you've travelled in this area the last few weeks you've probably noticed a new sidewalk has been created on the eastern side of Franklin Street between Middle and Congress Streets (highlighted in Orange below):

While this is a very small step in comparison to the possible re-design of the street proposed by the Franklin Reclamation Authority it is a step (or should I say... sidewalk) in the right direction. There still exists a gap in the sidewalk on the Western side of this stretch of Franklin Street, as well as the Eastern Side between Congress and Marginal Way. It's also worth noting that the footpath connecting Federal Street is still not blocked but is also not accommodated (no crosswalks or maintenance or paving) by the city.

Here are a few shots of the new sidewalk. Consider it a small step towards the future Franklin Street.


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