February 17, 2013

Foe of State and High traffic change asks how walkable city has to be

He says that making the streets two-way would increase traffic congestion, air pollution and accidents.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Standing in Longfellow Square and watching a wave of cars roll up State Street, Brian Peterson imagines traffic moving in both directions.

Today's poll: State and High streets

Do you think Portland should transform State and High streets into two-way streets?

Yes

No

View Results

click image to enlarge

Brian Peterson stands at the intersection of Congress and State streets in Portland. He opposes the city’s plan to convert High and State streets into two-way streets.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The change is one city officials hope to see, but Peterson sees only trouble.

"It's crazy," he said of the plan intended to make downtown Portland more pedestrian-friendly. "It will shut the city down. Portland constantly is being voted one of the most walkable cities in America. How walkable does it have to be?"

Peterson, a professional photographer who lives in Westbrook, is waging a one-man battle to keep Portland's arterials flowing. He said he represents the view of most motorists in Greater Portland.

On the other side of the issue are city officials and neighborhood groups who see the city's one-way streets as a failed legacy of the auto-centric urban planners of the 1960s and 1970s.

High and State streets were converted to one-way arterials as part of a plan developed by Victor Gruen, a planning consultant the city hired in 1967. Gruen is best known as a pioneer in the design of shopping malls in the United States.

High-speed traffic creates barriers for pedestrians and degrades the quality of life for people who live in the city, said Anne Pringle, president of Friends of Deering Oaks.

"This is our opportunity to take back our city from Victor Gruen," she said. "We now have a different community value structure."

The city's proposal mirrors a national trend. Over the past decade, dozens of cities, including Minneapolis, Oklahoma City and Louisville, Ky., have converted the traffic flow of major one-way streets to two-way in an effort to revitalize downtown neighborhoods and commercial districts.

The thinking about road design has shifted, said John Duncan, director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation Committee.

Pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit are now being taken into account, he said, and planners have learned how to move more people without building more roads or adding traffic lanes.

"It's the road diet principle," Duncan said. "In other words, we can live with less road capacity for traffic."

From Peterson's view, that's all bad news for drivers. He said city officials are capitulating to the parochial interests of some Portland neighborhoods and aren't concerned with the regional impact.

He contends that converting High and State streets to two-way would increase traffic congestion and, in turn, air pollution.

Two-way traffic also would lead to more accidents, he said.

His evidence includes a Portland Press Herald article from 1973, in which a state traffic engineer said that converting the streets to one-way streets will relieve "major safety and capacity problems across the Portland peninsula in the north-south direction."

Peterson, 62, doesn't drive through the city any more than most people. His obsession with stopping the city's traffic calming programs began in 1998, when he still lived in Portland and began questioning a city plan to build a series of asphalt berms and speed tables on Stevens Avenue.

He created a website, www.stopchickenlittle.com, to rally motorists against the project. The site is still running and now includes a section on the proposal for High and State streets. He said he devotes 10 to 20 hours a week on research, updating his website and writing letters to state and city officials.

To Peterson, the stakes are high. When combined with projects to narrow Franklin and Spring streets, changing the traffic flow on High and State streets would hurt the city's commercial viability, he said.

For Franklin Arterial -- now renamed Franklin Street -- officials hope to reconnect streets that were severed by the construction of the divided four-lane arterial. They also want to squeeze the lanes closer together to open up land for development.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: State and High streets

Do you think Portland should transform State and High streets into two-way streets?

Yes

No

View Results