When it comes to transportation, the city of Bend is capable of impressive tone-deafness.
A year and a half ago, in March 2016, City Council asked voters to approve a 5-cent gas tax to pay for road repairs. The proposal sank like a pebble in a pothole, failing in 18 of 20 precincts. Hiking taxes is never easy, but the city compounded the challenge by creating a special election for the gas tax, at a cost of $70,000, just two months before the May 2016 primary.
Translation: We waste your money. Can we please have some more?
You’d think the city would learn. Yet on Sept. 17, the city temporarily closed several streets downtown to automobile traffic for what, ironically, city contractor Commute Options calls an “Open Streets” event. Bend pays Commute Options $45,000 to conduct two such street closures annually, one in May and one in September, according to the organization’s contract with the city. Banning cars and trucks in this fashion, Commute Options explained, is intended, in part, to “build support for broader transportation choices.”
Really? Convincing people in cars of the wisdom of investing in buses, bike lanes and whatnot by spending tens of thousands of their dollars to irritate them makes about as much sense as asking people to give you more money while wasting it conspicuously on a needless special election.
Open Streets is, itself, a fleeting piece of largely harmless, if pricey, theater. The real problem is the city’s endorsement of the anti-car transportation vision it embodies, as if the only way to improve life for cyclists, pedestrians and mass-transit users is to make life unpleasant for people in automobiles. It’s a zero-sum proposition.
Is this the message City Council really wants to send?
That’s not a rhetorical question. The city’s poised to make some important transportation decisions. These include the selection of a consultant to help with land use and transportation planning and the assembly of a Citywide Transportation Advisory Committee. The consultant and committee will be guided by state policy, which isn’t friendly to automobiles, even as they look for ways to boost local transportation funding, which will be provided largely by people who spend a lot of time behind the wheel. Further tone-deafness, it should go without saying, won’t be helpful.
If you’d like to know just how hostile the state is to cars and trucks, check out the city’s request for proposals from potential transportation consultants. Among the objectives of the consultant’s primary task — helping to update the city’s transportation plans — is the implementation of something called an integrated land use and transportation plan (ILUTP). The purpose of the state-mandated ILUTP is to “increase transportation choices and reduce reliance upon the automobile,” which can be accomplished in a number of ways. The city can develop densely in a manner that naturally reduces the need for car trips, for instance, and it can do things like reduce available parking spaces and charge for them.
“Too much parking,” the city’s ILUTP claims, “correlates with more automobile ownership, more vehicle miles traveled,” and so on. One way to force you out of your car (and onto a bike or bus), then, is to limit the number of things you can do with it. Like park it. Such heavy-handed methods echo the “Open Streets” view of traffic management, in which encouraging transportation alternatives goes hand-in-hand with squeezing out cars and trucks.
There is, fortunately, a check on this type of transportation extremism. The city’s transportation consultant, with the assistance of its yet-to-be-formed transportation advisory committee, is also supposed to figure out how to raise more money for transportation. According to the city’s request for proposals from traffic consultants, “this may include a bond measure or other funding strategy, in the Fall of 2019 or Spring of 2020.”
It’s entirely reasonable for the city to ask voters to approve some funding for alternatives to automobiles, including, among other things, bike lanes, sidewalks and safer crossings of major streets. Such amenities make Bend more livable and safer even as they provide options for people who’d rather pedal or walk than drive. As someone who cycles regularly to work, I appreciate bike lanes as much as the next person — except for those godawful raised things beside Farewell Bend Park. But that’s another story.
However, the primary goal of Bend’s transportation plans — and its funding requests — must remain the improvement of traffic flow for cars and trucks. And it shouldn’t be close. Cars and trucks are how most people get around, and they’re how most people will continue to get around for the foreseeable future. Try riding a bike to work when it’s 10 degrees outside or lugging half a dozen bags of groceries onto a bus.
The city could, of course, continue to pursue an “Open Streets” transportation vision, as the state and transportation activists would like. But if it does — or, just as importantly, if voters simply believe that it is — the city should prepare for more gas-tax results.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.