(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 424: Roadways for People
This week we’re joined by Oregon Metro Council President Lynn Peterson to talk about her book Roadways for People: Rethinking Transportation Planning and Engineering. We chat about better project scoping, capacity building, engineers going to actually walk and bike their project areas, and highway expansion in cities.
You can listen to this episode at Streetsblog USA or the hosting archive.
Below is a full unedited AI generated transcript:
Jeff Wood (2m 17s):
Lynn Peterson, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Lynn Peterson (2m 27s):
Thank you for having me.
Jeff Wood (2m 28s):
Well, thanks for joining us. Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Lynn Peterson (2m 31s):
Sure. Grew up in Wisconsin with a background as a elderly pol conservationist. And what that means is being able to see the entire system of how an ecosystem works so that when you throw that stone into the pond and you understand the ripples out as you’re managing the land, as you’re managing the ecosystem, that you understand the ripple effects that you could have in populations of animals as well as the flora and the fauna. And so that’s, that’s where my parents, and that’s where my entire family sat. And so as I grew into this engineer, suddenly things start not actually getting put together correctly, where one kind of is overruling that ecosystem approach, that system approach.
Lynn Peterson (3m 20s):
And I spent my entire career trying to figure out again, how to build a transportation project that builds community, not destroys community.
Jeff Wood (3m 28s):
What made you wanna be an engineer and then a planner? Was it something that started when you were a little kid or was it something that grew when you were older?
Lynn Peterson (3m 36s):
Yeah, I made the decision as a 12 year old. My stepfather is also a civil engineer. He did remote sensing, image interpretation, and we got to do six week vacations out to the west coast from Wisconsin to take pictures on the ground of geologic formations to take those 3D pictures back to the Midwest so that when the students at the University of Wisconsin were seeing things from above, they would actually be able to see what it meant on the ground so that they would be able to correctly interpret images. And so I got to play out in the west coast where I landed as a professional. Years later.
Jeff Wood (4m 14s):
You started in Wisconsin, and do you have a story in the book about that, specifically about Highway 12? I’m curious how that kind of shaped your thinking as well.
Lynn Peterson (4m 22s):
You know, it was a political decision for this new secretary to come out and say, we have a new project and it’s based on a safety issue. And I had never heard of it. It was in our region. It was not, it was not on our radar. It was a political decision to grow a larger market share for the Wisconsin Dells, which was north of Madison by about 70 miles. And I 90 goes from directly from Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, over to the Wisconsin Dells. So there’s an interstate system completely serving it, but the new secretary wanted another way to get there, having had a business at the Wisconsin Dells.
Lynn Peterson (5m 7s):
So suddenly I’m asked to do the safety study after it was announced there’s a safety problem. I’m like, this doesn’t add up how, and then when you delve deeper into it, and what I’ve learned in my career is that we are just starting to learn what, what does safe mean for everybody, right? But in that case, what I found is that the vast majority of the fatal collisions were caused by D U I. And so straightening and widening is not going to help in that case. And it wasn’t until years later when an actual medical doctor that oversaw the Oregon Safety Commission in the state of Oregon said out loud, you cannot engineer your way out of bad behavior.
Lynn Peterson (5m 56s):
And it was the first time in my career that somebody had given me permission to understand that I can’t solve everything as the engineer. There are other people, there are other partners that you need to bring on to make sure that you reduce those risk factors and make everybody safe. It’s not all on you, but you need to involve them.
Jeff Wood (6m 16s):
So that takes you to rethinking your stance on the road, on your professional life. I’m curious about, you know, how safety has evolved a bit since that time, and your thinking on it specifically, especially when you were kind of thrown into the situation where you had to prove safety after safety was used as as a almost. Yeah. For building a road.
Lynn Peterson (6m 38s):
Yeah. Delving into the definition of safety really means that you have to delve into what it means for each community along a roadway. And that is really about land use and context and culture and how people are actually using the roadway and also data, right? For a very long time in our planning studies around roadways, we would collect very little information until the last 10 or 15 years on actual pedestrian fatalities, pedestrian collisions, bike fatalities, bike, and really dig in and why? Why did that happen? And so as we’ve gotten more data and we’ve been more curious about how, how safety is perceived by folks, as well as what design elements you can bring into a row design to help with that safety for all modes.
Lynn Peterson (7m 30s):
It, it’s only been in the last 10 to 15 years that we can actually say, oh, this will help. It’s not just based on myths, for instance, on Highway 12, well, if you widen it and straighten it, that should make it safer,
Jeff Wood (7m 43s):
Make people go faster, it,
Lynn Peterson (7m 45s):
It makes people go faster. And in those days, you know, I haven’t kept up on this, but insurance companies really like higher speeds because you actually don’t survive, right? No. At lower speeds, you end up with a physical problem, you’ve survived, but it’s a long-term recovery or a long-term disability. And so back when there was no motivation for anybody to actually delve any deeper,
Jeff Wood (8m 11s):
You wrote the book about the way that we can rethink roads. And I think safety’s a part of that. I’m curious, you know, what you went into the book thinking that you wanted to accomplish. There’s a lot in there. You know, there’s new systems that people should be following. There’s new thoughts on guidebooks, new thoughts on, on how we should think about equity and those types of things. But when you first sat down to write this book, what was kind of the impetus and why did you go the direction you did?
Lynn Peterson (8m 37s):
You know, we called it roadways for people so that we center people at the heart of the conversation. And that’s really what the last part is. It’s rethinking planning and engineering, right? If you center people and community, then you looking at a greater ecosystem, as we just discussed with the elderly appalled habitat and ecosystems. You’re looking at the community as a whole, not just a congestion or safety problem at this one point. And there’s usually a bigger reason why there’s a safety or congestion problem at a point that does not have to do with the actual geographic point.
Lynn Peterson (9m 23s):
It has to do with how people are using the system around it. And if we are not curious about the neighborhood, the community, the impacts of affordability of transportation or the impacts of affordability of housing and where people live and where they need to get to, then we don’t actually understand the full range of problems within a community that they’re facing, the barriers that they’re facing. And we don’t come up with a wider range of solutions. So we can either isolate communities and reduce their ability for opportunity, economic health, everything.
Lynn Peterson (10m 2s):
We can reduce that by isolating them and making it more unsafe or more congested, or we can figure out all the ways in which we need to improve for the people living in the community, right? A lot of what we get into the mindset as an engineer is this is the asset we own, this is the road we own, this is the interchange we own, and it’s congested. And so my responsibility is to widen, straighten, make larger channelize, give more signage just right there. But as the Secretary of Hawaii, d o t said, when we did a training about five years ago for a hundred engineers and planners in Hawaii, d o t, he said, guys, I’ve made a huge mistake when I came back to Hawaii, d o t, from the private consulting, I noticed you all were using Google Maps to design your projects.
Lynn Peterson (10m 56s):
And I told you, get in your car and go visit your project, go drive through your project. But that was a mistake. I should have told you to go walk through the project. I should have told you to go bike. I should have told you to take transit and make observations about how people are using the system, right? Because your perspective as being able to cross a street is so different than just driving through the intersection. So it’s really just, again, centering people.
Jeff Wood (11m 25s):
I really like that. And I think that there’s a, a number of discussions in the book about centering people, especially in places like in Baltimore and in New Orleans where, you know, ultimately the projects that you’re doing, outreach and community input for aren’t really finished or they’re not moving along. But something happened in between that made the community trust that the process would be okay. And the same thing with a place like 82nd Avenue in Portland where the road was given back to the the region by the state. And there is a whole community of folks, the a Pano folks, the Asian community there, the Jade district, that creates a discussion about how that road should be designed, how that road is used.
Jeff Wood (12m 7s):
I think that’s really fascinating too, thinking about those processes and how that focuses on people and not just a transportation project.
Lynn Peterson (12m 14s):
Exactly. The planning process that was started on 82nd started with community members feeling safe enough, and we’ll get into what that means to articulate what their needs were within that quarter, whether they were small business owners or whether they were kiddos getting to school. But 82nd Avenue in Portland is the highest transit ridership line in the entire region. And so there’s all these transfers that are going on east to west, north to south. So just crossing the street as a transit user or just needing trees to provide shade were huge issues within the community.
Lynn Peterson (12m 55s):
But if we started with the traffic engineer scoping out a project, they would say, well, all 10 of these intersections need new signalization. They need new hardware. There would be very little attention paid to the pedestrian crossing the street or the number of crossings per mile, right? So we started with the people to identify what they needed and then built out with the traffic engineers and with the planners, like, how do we scope this project? And really that’s where we usually get sideways with a process is that somewhere 20 years ago, 10 years ago, somebody saw congestion at an intersection, they scoped the project, then it took 10 years to get to the planning process.
Lynn Peterson (13m 44s):
And by that time, somebody’s already estimated a cost for that project. And then they come and they say, Hey, here’s the project we’re gonna do. And the community’s like, that’s not the project we need. What are you talking about? We need X, Y, and Z. And they’re like, well, that’ll drive up the cost that we’ve already scoped, so we’re not gonna be able to do that. Right? So it started 10 or 20 years ago, and that’s where I wanna focus, is we need better scopes and better estimate ranges because we don’t know, right? We haven’t done the in depth and we should never be held to something that was created 10, 20 years ago. And that’s what a transportation project takes to get through between funding and the planning and the engineering, it takes 10 to 20 years.
Lynn Peterson (14m 32s):
So we should never be set into a scope that was created 10, 20 years ago. So 82nd is a really good example in the Baltimore, the BP Tunnel project, which is moving forward with funding now, as well as the 82nd. We also started with the assumption that there was a lack of trust and that we had to build up trust. And so both of those projects needed to establish a way within each community that is unique in, in the BP tunnel. It was creating a committee that was actually empowered to start looking at ways to still have a railroad going through their community, but basically mitigate upfront the impacts rather than somebody else deciding this is where it’s gonna go.
Lynn Peterson (15m 20s):
And then mitigate impacts, which we may never be able to mitigate it. It’s an upfront discussion about we, we realize this railroad is gonna have to go through here. We can’t push it out, we can’t push it away. How do we design it so we can live with it and make our community better and stronger in the long run? In Portland, we spent two years prior to being able to have that conversation on 82nd, actually building up capacity within community based organizations to just be able to talk about transportation. So we granted a lot of organizations, a lot of grants, to be able to build up that capacity higher on staff, get them, get them up to speed with these projects.
Lynn Peterson (16m 5s):
So in terms of in the Asian community, having folks that were trusted members of the community be able to go out and have those conversations in places that were safe and be able to speak in the languages that they felt they could actually communicate in and not English. Again, we got a lot more information from that kind of conversation, rather than just having a town hall meeting where an engineer gets up and says, there’s congestion. Here’s my solution. Let me know what you think on this card. And then walks away.
Jeff Wood (16m 38s):
I found that interesting, the Baltimore example where it seems like there was a switch that got flipped early on the F R A and and Amtrak orbit antagonistic, or the community felt like they were antagonistic towards them and something switched a little bit into the project where it changed and everybody felt like they could trust each other. What, what was that switch that flipped?
Lynn Peterson (16m 58s):
Well, I can’t speak on behalf of the community members or, or the project lead, but I, I would say one of the things that probably would ring true to everybody is that if you are given an opportunity as a citizen to be in a room with project leads that look like you and understand your lived experience and give it the importance to the empowerment to have that lived experience conversation and not just about data that may not have been collected ever, then that trust starts to build up. The second part in these projects that’s always super important is to show how the input has changed the possibilities, right?
Lynn Peterson (17m 45s):
And a lot of what where we get sideways is an engineer will go back to their desk and redo something, but never actually communicate back to the community. Oh, I made changes based on what you said. That, that’s great. They heard, they reacted. But as we point out in the book, there’s a learning loop to every part of the process that you make assumptions going in, but you have to test those assumptions. And sometimes it takes two or three times or more with a committee, with a community to show them that you’ve listened, but you might have not heard or understood their lived experiences. You, you really need to think about it as testing your assumptions.
Jeff Wood (18m 26s):
I think that’s interesting too. You know, the idea that you have the advisory committees, you go in and you know, you listen to the community and then you go back and, and maybe reframe some things or fix some things and then say, oh, is this, is this what you meant? Is this what I have now on paper what you meant? And they can say, yes, that’s what we meant. Or no have no, I have no idea what you’re talking about. You must have taken our our words out of context. Exactly. I think that loop is really fascinating and interesting and part of your process.
Lynn Peterson (18m 54s):
Yeah, there is this desire and a lot of us have it just in innately within us to want a linear process, right? Every step is unique and we’ve, we’ve created a timeline and we’ve given the public a timeline and we’ve given all of the elected officials a timeline, but none of those timelines actually account for learning and growing. They’re making a lot of assumptions about, well, I know what the problem is, I know what the solution or, you know, I could have two solutions in my head, but once you get into it, you’re gonna find that there is a larger problem that requires a lot of partners and a lot of listening for understanding.
Lynn Peterson (19m 36s):
And that’s sometimes where we get sideways. Cause we’ve made promises as the transportation professional, I can get this project on the ground for you in 18 months. It’s simple. But having no idea that they just walked into a community that has been traumatized by simple projects that don’t actually benefit them at all for decades, right? We have to be open to understanding what’s going on in the community and what we’re stepping into. No two interchanges are the same.
Jeff Wood (20m 7s):
That reminds me of the discussion that we just had about capacity building and thinking about capacity building. Because when you’re talking about a second avenue specifically, you have to build the capacity for folks to have those conversations. And it’s something that I think that the d o t is actually starting to do a little bit as well, where for the infrastructure bill specifically, you know, for all that funding that’s going out, all the small communities that don’t really have capacity to apply for grants, they probably need, what if we help you? What if we, you know, figure out a way to get you some help in, you know, making these grants? So I appreciate kind of the long tail of capacity building in that respect. And I think it’s important for the projects that you mentioned too, because there’s so many places where if you have somebody local speaking the local language, it actually translates better obviously than it would if you go in and use a bunch of terms that nobody locally understands.
Jeff Wood (20m 57s):
And I think in New Orleans, the perfect example is, you know, using the, the neutral ground, right? If you’re from the area or you or you’re in the area, you understand that. But if you’re not from New Orleans, you probably would never have heard of that term before.
Lynn Peterson (21m 9s):
Yeah, exactly. I think the amount of work in my day job as the Metro Council, president Metro has put a lot of time and energy to all of the things that we do. Not just transportation, land use planning, but like waste management. We manage all the waste in the region. We’ve done a whole bunch of capacity building within community based organizations just to have conversations about waste. Because in multifamily complexes, they want to recycle, but they’re not always given that chance. And they want to be able to voice that. They wanna be able to take the recycling. And out of all of that work that we’ve done, we now have three members of the metro council out of the seven that come from a community based organization because they got involved and they got excited and they understood that it was a safe environment.
Lynn Peterson (22m 3s):
And they’re finding their voice as elected officials, not, not just as, you know, a daily community-based organization advocate. Not just as a resident, but also as an elected official. And you can see how when you create these environments and you allow for that learning to occur, the culture changes and is much more accepting about new ideas and lived experience.
Jeff Wood (22m 29s):
We had Duncan Wang up on the show from IO a number of years ago, and when I saw that he became on the council, I was like, whoa, that’s crazy. Crazy awesome. Is what I mean. But yeah,
Lynn Peterson (22m 37s):
No, exactly. Crazy. Awesome.
Jeff Wood (22m 40s):
It’s so cool to see advocates, you know, start to step into that bigger role and try to make change in the communities that they obviously care about so much.
Lynn Peterson (22m 47s):
Yeah, and I come from a similar background coming outta 1000 friends of Oregon, again, learning how to go from being an advocate to an elected official is, is actually a quantum leap, right? Of learning in and of itself in order to push things forward, but be pragmatic at the same time. I mean, we are very, very large, very diverse region. And every single one of us has to figure out how do we push forward and not lose anybody in the meantime? Right? You gotta have people behind you if you’re leading.
Jeff Wood (23m 22s):
Exactly. Well, so a couple of weeks ago we had Greg Shill and Jonathan Levine on the show from the University of Iowa and University of Michigan respectively. And we talked about the Asto Green Guide. We talked about kind of the legal landscape that baked that guide into court systems and stuff like that. And in your book, I found this really fascinating. You know, you suggested that engineers that follow these guides without context opened themselves up to greater liabilities, whereas a lot of these organizations use the guide as kind of a crutch, almost as a legal savior to a certain extent. Do you think it’s possible to kind of strip ourselves out of that like a hundred years of, of legal opinions that have kind of buried mobility in the transportation landscape?
Lynn Peterson (24m 6s):
There’s not just the legal system, right? There’s all of the state administrative rules as well. When you think about system development charges that apply to development that are based on reducing the level of service as development occurs, right? So we, we have these things baked into a lot of different parts of our policies and our laws. The the answer is yes, California’s moving forward with a V M T vehicle, miles traveled reduction based on greenhouse gas emissions. So they’ve baked that into their system development charges for development that you actually have to show a reduction in bmt, not a reduction in travel delay for a vehicle.
Lynn Peterson (24m 47s):
So it, it’s starting to change. Oregon, we’re playing with it. Washington is playing with it. There are a lot of states that are playing with this idea. It will take time. But I think the most important thing for a planner and engineer is that if you talk to any of, you know, your city attorneys or the state attorneys, they will tell you that they can only defend you successfully if you actually went out and understood the context of your project. If you blindly put down a standard or guidelines, then you are, you’re much more liable and you have to document that you went out, you understand the context, you have to document that.
Lynn Peterson (25m 32s):
And to me that’s, that documentation should be almost like journaling, right? What did I learn from going out into the community? What did I see? What do I need again to test my assumptions on this? History again, has a long tail, as you said. I like that. When we went to build out the interstate system, the Green book actually had a lot of flexibility and still does, right? It has a wide range of lane widths, a wide range of everything. But the states actually narrowed that flexibility down to almost nothing. So that thousands of engineers across the landscape were building exactly the same thing.
Lynn Peterson (26m 18s):
They didn’t want any change, right? It was driver expectations. It should be the same in Florida as it is in Oregon. That was the mentality. And so it started to create a copy exactly type of mentality within all of our cities as well, right? So it didn’t matter what the context was, you only have one way to do business and that’s it. And that’s where our safety came from. It wasn’t from data. It was like, well, we just need the driver to understand whether they’re in Illinois or California. The same expectations about where the signs are gonna be, how wide the lane width is gonna be. All of that needs to be the same.
Lynn Peterson (26m 59s):
But now we understand it doesn’t, that, it really depends on the context. Every roadway, every light rail, every street car is gonna be different.
Jeff Wood (27m 8s):
The McDonald’s, a vacation of transportation planning, standard potatoes, rustic potatoes from Idaho. Yep. And everybody gets the same fries. Yep.
Lynn Peterson (27m 18s):
Jeff Wood (27m 18s):
I, I just, I feel like I’ve been frustrated by the guidebooks over time. And I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m a, I’m trained as a planner and maybe it’s, cuz you mentioned this in the book, that there’s a difference between planners and engineers in certain ways that they think and the big picture stuff versus, and the dreaming obviously that planners can do sometimes versus kind of the standards and practical implications of, you know, putting down roads, et cetera. But I just get frustrated by it and I feel like I’ve had a lot of conversations about it, but I I never really come into a satisfactory, we’re gonna change it and it’s gonna be better answered. Not that I was asking you that question, but just, you know, that thinking like, I need it to change. I need this 40,000 people to live each year, right? I need, you know, a better way to go about things.
Jeff Wood (27m 59s):
And I, I feel like there’s a, a general frustration from advocates, but just generally about that,
Lynn Peterson (28m 6s):
What I have found generally is that the only way to start thinking in a, in a culture that’s been created over the last a hundred years differently is that we need different performance metrics for both planners and engineers, right? So a planner, it’s about the process, but we still think linearly about the process and we call it the rational planning process. And it’s based on data. And again, a lot of the lived experience that we see on the ground has not actually been collected as data yet. And so a lot of folks don’t feel seen or heard because there’s nothing reflecting back to them in the data, what they know in their heart and what they see every day, whether their kid can cross the street or not.
Lynn Peterson (28m 56s):
So that rational planning process means, again, that’s why the learning loops, but we also need to put quality of life indicators into the planning process. Not just going back to the scope. There’s congestion at this intersection planner, go out and talk to people, we don’t care what you find out right from the engineers. But that, that planning process needs to be again, rooted in how people are actually living in that space and what the bigger transportation problems are around that intersection. They might find, as we did at WashDOT that we came up with a really great roundabout as a solution at an intersection that was having some safety problems, took it out to a town hall and said, look at this amazing roundabout we’ve created.
Lynn Peterson (29m 49s):
And the community almost in union unison was like, yeah, that’s beautiful, but it’s at the wrong intersection. The intersection downstream was actually causing the problem. So they put in two roundabouts. So it’s just, it, you know, it’s that on the planning side, you need to be open again to this looping. And then on the engineering side, we really need to get past the performance metrics, the success measures that I was measured against. And every single one of my, you know, former colleagues are still measured against. And that is in the design phase of when you’re doing your engineering, are you reducing congestion and are you improving safety? That’s it. And it’s really just safety for vehicles.
Lynn Peterson (30m 30s):
And when you go in construction, it’s on time under budget. Those are the four performance metrics. And that has to change, right? And the only way to get those performance metrics to change is for more individuals in planning and engineering to feel more comfortable with things that are not necessarily pure engineering. Like there’s a universe of data and information that needs to be brought to the table that reflects that lived experience.
Jeff Wood (30m 58s):
Do you think we have shared goals and values around the country about what we’re trying to accomplish with our transportation system? Your face is like, you’re asking me this really hard question.
Lynn Peterson (31m 12s):
Jeff Wood (31m 12s):
Sorry, I don’t mean to No, no, no. I,
Lynn Peterson (31m 17s):
I think that there’s obviously more and more interest and more of an awareness that we have less understanding, especially in urban areas of the impact of a transportation project. And I think more and more people are getting curious about what does that mean to actually have success? What does success look like? Where I think we get crossways with each other is when we actually don’t create that Venn diagram of where do we have overlap? Where do we actually all care about and start from that seed and then build out, right? If you’re just the owner of a highway or a roadway and you go in and you don’t spend the time finding out that this project is gonna create gentrification, then your project is at risk of failure.
Lynn Peterson (32m 6s):
And so you need to, we need to figure out as a society how to start that conversation and not just make the assumption that we don’t have anything in common.
Jeff Wood (32m 16s):
Do you think that adds up to, you know, each project being kind of a, a bespoke individual process that is hard to, you mentioned earlier the timelines, I mean 10, 15 years, I think people are getting frustrated by not just transportation but housing and all of these other things that are taking years and years and years when they feel people feel like we don’t have years, we have this climate crisis, we have affordable housing crisis, we’re having problems getting access to all the things we need access to. The timelines are getting longer and the processes are getting longer. I mean, it’s important obviously, but I think that that’s kind of something that comes up as well.
Lynn Peterson (32m 54s):
Yeah, and I don’t have a study, but I have a lived experience that the majority of the projects that take longer are because they start out wrong and fail.
Jeff Wood (33m 6s):
And that goes back to your scoping discussion too, thinking about how, you know, if you’re a highway department for example, and you scope a project like you said 20 years ago or so, and it’s, you know, 50 million, and then you go back to the community and say, okay, well this is our project, and then you tell the papers this is gonna cost 50 million and then the project changes and it costs a hundred million instead of re scoping ahead of time and not telling the folks that it needs to change. You’re gonna get hammered from all sides on that project. Whether it’s a transit project or a sidewalk project or a road project, it doesn’t matter. But those processes that you’ve laid out actually lead to better projects, maybe shorter projects as well.
Lynn Peterson (33m 42s):
Yeah, I believe very strongly in a risk assessment model, a lot of the state dots that have had a lot of money flowing through them have built up very robust risk assessment models so that they know can I be on time and under budget? What we worked on when I was secretary of WashDOT is we worked on incorporating this kind of thinking early into the process so that we were reducing the risk, right? Because what you don’t want is to spend all this time and energy to take out a solution that then gets just it, it gets killed because nobody likes it because you actually, you just created it in a vacuum.
Lynn Peterson (34m 24s):
So the more upfront work you can do, the more likely you can get to an actual successful project and successful for more people than just those driving through the community. But for everybody, and you see that time and time again, the project leads who have a bigger understanding of the political landscape, who understand and have trusted relationships with people in the community have a much better starting spot than those who are in their office on Google Maps,
Jeff Wood (34m 60s):
One of the projects that ties the, the book together is Oregon DOT’s Rose Quarter project, which is a pretty, I guess, controversial project locally because of all the opposition to it. And I’m curious why that project kind of speaks to you personally as something that you wanted to kind of frame a book around.
Lynn Peterson (35m 19s):
The Rose Quarter project is located on Interstate five just across the river from downtown Portland on the east side in the Albina neighborhood. It is an area that was once in the, you know, prior to the interstate going through a thriving black community. The interstate split the community in half, right? Isolated parts of it. But then also because of our use of the word blighted and tax increment financing, we devalued the land. You know what that land value was by calling it blighted. Then the city, the region ended up building a lot of public infrastructure, a convention center, the Blazer Stadium, the Coliseum.
Lynn Peterson (36m 7s):
They worked with a hospital that took out blocks and blocks and blocks of housing and still didn’t use it all and just left it vacant for decades. And all of that trauma lives within that area, or has moved out because we as a society did not allow for intergenerational wealth to occur by devaluing that land and not giving people really the worth of what the community really was. So there is a lot of work going on right now to revision that area and bring community back, and at the same time create intergenerational wealth. So those that are constructing the project right, are people of color and we are creating intergenerational wealth that people who own the buildings are people of color to create intergenerational wealth that the artists are coming and being able to generate intergenerational wealth.
Lynn Peterson (37m 5s):
So it is all about trying to recapture not a past moment, but recapture land that is actually quite valuable. The problem is, it is the only place where we have two lanes in each direction on the interstate and it’s very narrow. There’s obviously a lot of buildings built up on each side, so you can’t really widen it to the three lanes, which is our maximum policy for the region of three lanes in each direction. But there is actually a safety issue, not for fatalities, but just people driving too fast and doing rear ends and creating a lot of congestion at the narrowest point between two other interstates coming in. So all of that background is to say it’s a hotspot of activity, it’s a hotspot for visioning, but yet you still have the interstate separating the two parts of the community.
Lynn Peterson (37m 56s):
And the question was how to use this project to reconnect. Because if you put a lid on I five at the same time that you are adding what ODOT proposed is an auxiliary lane to help with the merge weave movements, reduce those collisions, reduce that delay, what happens on the surface then when you build this lid, what does it look like? Does it actually connect or is it just another dead zone that we’re creating? Right? We wanna create economic vitality. You wanna create physical vitality and the only way to do that is to be able to build across the lid with buildings where you are actually generating that kind of economic and and physical vitality.
Lynn Peterson (38m 39s):
So that was really the core of the issue was could you build buildings on top of the lid and who’s gonna pay for that?
Jeff Wood (38m 47s):
And the state said that Portland should pay for it, right? Oregon d o t is like, we’re a transportation company, we, that’s what we do. And so all this other stuff, right?
Lynn Peterson (38m 57s):
There was a legislator who said, I’m not personally responsible for the division within the community, you know, with this interstate, therefore the state should not be held responsible for trying to reconnect. We obviously got past that. So right now the project is in a pretty good spot in terms of the work, but why I wrote it into the book is it was literally you were watching something come up to a failure point and you could point out a hundred times over in public settings and behind the scenes you are headed for a failure because you’re not listening, you’re not listening to the full range of the complexity of an urban environment with the generational trauma that has occurred.
Lynn Peterson (39m 44s):
You are not listening. And they ran right into a brick wall. We told them the brick wall was there, but the D O T just continued to want, you know, to want to proceed forward on timelines saying we heard you, but never actually changing the scope, never actually changing the solutions that, and ran right into a brick wall. And we asked the governor to help sort it out and luckily she did.
Jeff Wood (40m 9s):
Do you think that, this is a hard question. Do you think that there should be expansions of roads in center cities?
Lynn Peterson (40m 18s):
You know, it depends, right? Because there are parts of our community that have been so under-invested in that they don’t even have the basic infrastructure and they would be clamoring for something that would be a holistic, but would also add capacity for vehicles. Because as we all know, major metropolitan regions across the entire country have built out for the car. There will be a time 50, a hundred years in the future when they are well served with transit, but they’re not all there yet.
Lynn Peterson (40m 57s):
And so for us to say, oh, you shouldn’t have a way to get to work. I’m not, you know, I’m not interested in giving you capacity. I guess I go back in a more holistic vein, what does capacity mean? Because there are hundreds of different ways we can add capacity, but you still need a basic road to run a bus. And if that basic road is not safe for pedestrians, why would anybody use the bus? So we need all of these things to complete the system and eventually get to a system that is what I would call every, every major arterials and integrated corridor management where you have your transit, right?
Lynn Peterson (41m 38s):
You have your safe pedestrian walkways, you have your bike lanes, you have safe crossings, and there are a lot of them that’s all adding capacity as well. So to say we don’t wanna add capacity, we have to be very careful, I guess about the definition and be aware that if you want to have a bus rapid transit system, you’re still gonna need to figure out how to add capacity, right? You’re adding capacity by putting in a bus rapid transit system. Are you gonna take a lane that’s existing or build a new one that’s up to the community to decide that should not be a value judgment ahead of time because there are trade offs that we all need to have that conversation about.
Lynn Peterson (42m 25s):
So I never say never. I would like us to try everything, but, but if it turns out that that doesn’t get us all of the success measures met, then we need to be open to saying, all right, so what are we willing to do? How are we willing to manage this corridor if we put in an additional lane? What does that mean?
Jeff Wood (42m 48s):
What’s been the response to the community solutions based method that you’re suggesting in the book? What have folks told you about it in terms of how they feel it could be used for their projects?
Lynn Peterson (42m 59s):
Yeah, it’s been out there for a month and a half, so we’re just starting to hear some things. And one of the more interesting comments I’ve gotten is, Lynn, I love this book, but we need more success stories in it. And I, I agree across the country we need more success stories, but I think we’ve laid the foundation for this conversation. And I think what we’re trying to show is you can actually be more successful and do more good as a planner and engineer for a lot more people if you just stop and breathe and understand that it’s an iterative process. Never, never assume that your assumptions are 100% accurate or the way the world works for other people.
Lynn Peterson (43m 45s):
And I think that conversation is what’s important.
Jeff Wood (43m 50s):
Was there anything that you left on the cutting room floor that you wanted to put in but weren’t able to For? For brevity or for time? Oh
Lynn Peterson (43m 56s):
Yeah. An entire second book.
Jeff Wood (43m 59s):
I figured, I, I almost could tell by reading it, there’s something else out there. Well
Lynn Peterson (44m 4s):
We put, we put in some of the big umbrella solution type work that you can do to design a project that is actually multifaceted, multimodal, right? And one of those is practical design. And a lot of what we get is what you were saying your, your most frustrating part of being the planner is getting into that engineering phase and being told, I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Whatever it is that the community wanted, I can’t do that because, well, it turns out putting a practical design lens on your projects means that you can probably do more within your budget or for less if you actually dig deep into what the actual safety problem is and not make a bunch of assumptions.
Lynn Peterson (44m 48s):
Again. So practical design practical solutions, it’s been used in different states differently and there’s a little bit of a backlash at this point, and we don’t need to call it practical designer practical solutions, but it is about the flexibility within engineering design guidelines that you actually have the ability to use if you understand the underlying problem. And that that is where we, again, with the scope, we get sideways. And so how do you look at a safety project? For instance, I, while I was Secretary of WashDOT, I got a call saying, Lynn, we just wanted to let you know we’re gonna be taking down 500 trees next week.
Lynn Peterson (45m 31s):
Tell me more. Why are we taking down 500 trees next week? Well, we did a safety audit on a corridor and this is one of the solutions. So tell me what was the problem? What was the safety problem? Well, we have rear end collisions, so there’s not a line of sight issue. No. So the trees aren’t in the way of, you know, again, being able to see somebody come around a curve, no, that’s not the issue. Our, our deer bear cougars, coyotes, are they coming outta nowhere? So we need to like reduce the amount of habitat too. Close throat? Nope, that’s not the issue either. Well, what is the issue? Well, it’s urbanizing and there are a lot more driveways and people are stopping fast and they’re getting rear end collisions.
Lynn Peterson (46m 16s):
And I said again, why are we taking down 500 trees? What makes that more safe? So they went back and they decided they didn’t have to take down the 500 trees and that there was a series of other things that they should probably do, like reduce the speed limit through an urbanizing area and maybe some engineer, some other engineering things. You know, besides signage
Jeff Wood (46m 39s):
Was the thinking that people would be able to turn into another lane because they wouldn’t rear end? No, it was just the trees were there and
Lynn Peterson (46m 48s):
Two lane roadway and engineers really just don’t want any obstacles on the side of the road. Yeah, but yet they weren’t hitting the trees. Nobody was hitting the trees. That was not the issue. It was a rear end collision. So is that kind of conversation that every project, small to large, what is the underlying problem? What have we learned from the community that shapes that underlying problem? And then how does the design of the roadway help or hurt?
Jeff Wood (47m 16s):
There was a story out of Los Angeles, I think last week, where they were gonna take down 12,000 trees because they were trying to fix sidewalks. And I guess the tree roots were making it hard to be flat. You know, it was an 88 accessibility thing. They were, they were acquired to by a, a thing that passed a number of years ago, 1.8 billion supposed to go to it. But it seems ridiculous that you’d have to take down 12,000 trees for sidewalks. There’s gotta be another solution. So, you know, a lot of this is interesting because of the solutions that people come up with in their minds that they think are the correct ones. But I mean, for me, taking down a tree that’s as a, as someone who cares about the trees in front of my house. Actually, maybe a couple years ago, right after Thanksgiving, a box truck came by and hit a PHUs tree in front of my house and they had to take it down.
Jeff Wood (47m 58s):
It was a nice old, and PHUs trees are notorious for, you know, 30 years and they’re done. But it was, it was just sad, you know, I had to walk outside. I saw that there was a crack in the center of the tree and had to call the, you know, the city to come in and tear it down cuz it was a danger, you know, if I could have saved it, I, I would’ve tried. But it just, those types of things just make me upset. So when you talk about 500 trees, 12,000 trees, anything like that, there’s gotta be an answer because you’re not gonna get replacement for that. And this is maybe a different conversation than engineering conversation, but no, it,
Lynn Peterson (48m 28s):
It’s part of the design of a project, right? When ODOT asked the community initially, before we did a deep dive into 82nd Avenue, they worked with the community just to do a quick, like, what could we do to help you? We hear that there’s a safety issue, we hear that you need a better environment. And they said, just plant trees. That would be our number one thing that we would ask. It is so hot out there waiting for the bus. It is so hot walking to the bus, it is so hot, walking to the local business, just plant trees. And they said, absolutely not. The maintenance of those trees we don’t have the money for Didn’t even go into like, what would a public-private partnership look like with the community?
Lynn Peterson (49m 14s):
Just flat out answer. No, that’s, that’s where we get so sideways with each other. We actually do value very similar things in our own communities, but when it comes to our work, we’re not taking our human perspective into work. We need to start doing that. Well, I’m sure when they go home, they have a very pleasant place that they walk their dog that is tree-lined. Everybody deserves that. Yeah. How do we value that? Yeah.
Jeff Wood (49m 43s):
Well the book is Roadways for People, rethinking Transportation Planning and Engineering. Lynn Peterson with Elizabeth dor. Where can folks find the book if they wanna get a copy?
Lynn Peterson (49m 51s):
Island Press is the publisher and you can find it on there. It’s also on Amazon.
Jeff Wood (49m 56s):
Nice. There’s IndieBound and bookshop, bookshop.org local, you know, you can go and get it from your local bookstore or you can tag your local bookstore in your bookshop order. If you’re too far away from one, I’m sure that they have it there. They’ve had all the other Island Press books. If you go into your local bookstore and ask for a book, they’ll actually order it for you, which is good. Not that I, you know, haven’t used Amazon on occasion, but go local. Lynn Peterson, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
Lynn Peterson (50m 19s):
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.