To fairly assess the state of Bend’s transportation system and consider its future, we first need to be clear about the ultimate objective of transportation. We have to think about its purpose in the broader context of our lives, and we must evaluate whether transportation infrastructure and policies satisfy that purpose.
That means recognizing Bend’s transportation system as one domain, among others, of local government meant to serve Bendites’ general interests of long-term wellbeing, security and happiness.
Transportation is not really about moving cars or providing bike lanes or routing transit. Those are tactics that may, or may not, serve Bendites’ goals. But they’re not the point of transportation any more than a touchscreen is the point of a cellphone or x-rays are the point of healthcare. They can influence results, but they’re not goals themselves.
Unfortunately, transportation discussions and planning often begin at the wrong starting point, framing issues narrowly as a matter of accommodating traffic or maximizing throughput. Implicit in that framing is the assumption that there’s no meaningful nexus between transportation and general wellbeing, or, if there is, it’s a simple corollary of parking stalls or intersection turnover.
But that assumption is incorrect and costly, because transportation significantly impacts the quality of our lives — not simply as a matter of if we have transportation, but how that transportation occurs. That is, different tactics used to address transportation needs generate vastly different socioeconomic results. When priority is given to vehicle-oriented infrastructure and policies, outcomes are poor; when “alternative” modes are prioritized, outcomes are good.
The empirical record shows that high dependence on personal vehicles is incredibly damaging to communities: it corrodes wellbeing, destroys health, harms the environment, cripples local business, endangers children, requires unsustainably high taxes, reduces housing affordability and, inevitably, makes us all very unhappy.
Conversely, walking, cycling, transit and other “alternative” modes improve community wellbeing, health, environmental quality, business results, childhood outcomes, fiscal sustainability, living costs, innovation and creativity, community involvement, equity and, naturally, happiness.
Once we recognize that the transportation system is not just about moving people and goods but accommodating Bendites’ greater aims, the strategic imperative of reorienting away from vehicles and toward other modes becomes clear. And that begins with reorienting our infrastructure and policies away from a vehicle-dominated model.
As things now stand, many of us are truly dependent upon personal vehicles for our daily routines. We drive across town to work, then back across to pick up kids from school or to shop. It’s hard to imagine our lives without getting around by vehicle because we don’t really have much choice.
Getting around Bend is easiest by car because the city — not just its system of roads, sidewalks, bike lanes and transit, but that too — is designed around vehicle travel. Distances among housing, shopping, work and school can sometimes only be covered by car due to problematic land use. Prospective pedestrians and cyclists are put off by large, fast-moving vehicles that make human-powered travel unpleasant or dangerous. Vehicular arteries sever Bend into incomplete sub-districts for those on foot or bike. And our transportation system funding mechanisms subsidize vehicle travel and penalize other modes.
Bendites’ current transportation behavior is programmed by land use, funding and transport policies instituted years ago. Our vehicle dependence is not so much chosen as dictated.
Going forward, this needs to change. And fast. Our current condition is self-defeating and unsustainable. We’re not being made better off by vehicle-dominated transportation, and the clock is ticking on climate change.
However, just as legacy planning and funding mechanisms have prodded Bendites into excessive vehicle reliance, so too can infrastructure, land use and funding changes improve future outcomes.
A first step toward improvement entails recognizing the City’s (and the Citywide Transportation Advisory Committee’s) good work on zoning, sidewalk and bike infrastructure enhancements. But it also entails acknowledging how much additional work is needed for our broader interests to be served.
We offer some modest, empirically-validated near-term proposals to nudge things in the right direction:
- Migrate to user-pays systems for vehicle transportation system funding (congestion pricing/tolls, fuel taxes, paid parking and vehicle registration fees).
- Require that all new developments are “complete” neighborhoods, and incentivize “complete” developments in existing neighborhoods.
- Replace code parking space minimums with maximums, without changing any of the numbers.
- Unbundle parking from apartment leases and condo purchases.
- Ban drive-thrus.
- Install, engineer for and enforce citywide 20mph speed limits, while making every street safe and comfortable for pedestrians and cyclists with traffic calming.
- Link east and west Bend with dedicated pedestrian and bike connectors.
- Subsidize citywide transit with free fares, and dramatically expand service.
- Commit to no further urban growth boundary expansion.