GOOD Bicycle Transportation

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“What we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center

Our challenge is set.  As one of the creative teams working on the GOOD Ideas for Cities, we are tasked with coming up with the future of bicycle transportation in Portland.  As envisioned by our local expert liason, Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org the scenario is this:

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When it comes to bicycle transportation, Portland is at a crossroads. We are known worldwide as a bike town; yet we have stalled when it comes to building a network of truly world-class bikeways in the central city. We have picked all the low-hanging fruit. Now it’s time to do the big projects that present a challenge to politicians and the status quo, but that also present an exciting opportunity for the health of our city. But what we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?

Recent historical trends show that while auto use seems to have plateaued, bike use has skyrocketed and shows little sign of tapering off. The biggest risk to making even more significant jumps in bike use is that the vast majority of Portlanders simply feel afraid to ride a bike close to auto traffic. The City of Portland and other local agencies already know what to do and we have some great examples already deployed: the cycle tracks on SW Broadway near PSU and on SW Moody toward the South Waterfront district come to mind. However, those facilities lack connections to the rest of the network and in the case of PSU, they are woefully underdesigned. They are both islands of possibility amid a sea of reality.

The neat thing about this challenge is that in many ways we know what success could look like. Many of our local leaders have been to places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where bicycling in dense urban environments isn’t just viable, it’s prioritized over auto access. The result is happy, healthy citizens, fewer transportation costs for everyone, and much more efficient and livable city. How do we help Portland move towards that same bicycle-centric reality?

One of the resources that Maus mentioned is the NACTO Urban Biking Design Guide (image excerpt above), of which included Portland transportation planners and traffic engineers were part of a major effort to bring cities across the country together to create a design manual that frees them from the shackles of outdated, state-run, auto-centric design guidelines.

We have until February 16th to prepare concepts, where they will be presented alongside the rest of the teams working on their specific issues.  Stay tuned for more info!

Research and the Researcher

A strange thing happened to me, and indeed the world, only a few short months ago when a group of people decided to set up camp and literally occupy Wall Street to protest economic inequality the United States. Never before an activist by nature, I found myself becoming more educated in the statistics and issues and started following the protests. Spending many a late night witnessing the raids on camps via Livestream, I was shocked to discover that our own cities and police forces would treat peaceful protestors in such a way. Therefore, when Portland finally formed an occupation of its own, I was immediately interested in these brave souls and their large campsite in the heart of the city.

While this movement is perhaps the most significant protest movement since the ‘60s, the occupations themselves are something that one rarely sees in the United States – a place where informal squatter settlements are illegal and almost impossible to create in the highly regulated urban environments we maintain – as we have seen recently with the dismantling of these camps across the country. As an anthropologist by trade and currently specializing in public space as part of my masters degree in urban studies, the urban occupations in downtown Portland were the perfect intersection of the two: several hundred people forming a temporary informally planned settlement within an urban park with no top-down processes determining socio-spatial systems. The curiosity was overwhelming.

In a (personally) record-breaking time span of three hours I decided to rush headlong into a research project proposal in order to investigate who the occupiers were, how the spatial orientation of the camp was organized, and what sort of social behavior came out of a situation where hundreds of people were living virtually in public and forced to solve problems in unique and challenging ways. What I found in the process of this three-week long ethnography was a virtual microcosm of society 500-600 people strong packed into two city blocks at Chapman and Lownsdale Square parks. While there I was able to become involved volunteering at the Information Tent, the hub of the camps where people would drop off donations, ask questions, and just generally get information. The interaction with the occupiers and non-occupiers alike created instant bonds of what the protestors call solidarity, as I blended the participation in the movement with the research and academic perspective.

My first protest, November 5, 2011.

My first protest, November 5, 2011.

This blend of personal involvement and research raises some interesting questions: just what is the real relationship between the research and the researcher? In many cases it involves the researcher not only choosing the research they conduct for whatever reason, but also some sort of personal involvement in the people, place, or in this case, politics along with observations or analysis. Interacting with people, as a person, is a very strong and significant activity. Emotions at times of crisis or celebration create a connection with the people you spend time with, especially significant in a situation where a village of people under duress is forced to befriend one another and resolve conflicts at the same time.

In this case, my personal feelings are very much in favor of the movement itself, which led me to conduct this research and also become involved. Had I not felt the way I did, I may not have volunteered and assisted in the progress of the camp. However, if I had only done observational research, I would have never gotten the kinds of data that I gathered by joining in the communal meals, drama, or clustered  neighborhoods formed in the “private space” of the camps. I would probably not have fully understood the perspective of those fighting to keep their newfound homes and community, or the frustration of those whose lives have been filled with struggle and grief. I also wouldn’t understand the anger behind the protestors, all the while remaining peaceful in the face of what could only be explained as intimidating, even oppressive, force.

If I were to remove myself completely from the equation, observe objectively and only from a distance, my stories and research would be completely different. I believe that they would be less accurate and more of a historical narrative than an in-depth investigation into the people and processes. While it is important to remain objective to an extent and attempt to analyze without bias, the fact remains that I would not have conducted the research had I not been interested in Occupy Portland to begin with. In my opinion, I think this is true for most of us as well.

I am passionate about giving people a public place to relax, interact with friends, eat lunch, or even protest. I think that ultimately my motivation is to improve the places that I would like to enjoy as well, which leads to my specialization and focus on the public sphere. I would never be able to spend so much time actively pursuing something I did not feel strongly about. The research and the researcher are always tied and can never be truly separated, whether it’s because of the decision to research the topic or the level of personal involvement, we all have something to add as people to our projects. If we can better understand this and acknowledge it, I believe it can better the scope and content of academia and potentially even allow the research to relate to the non-researchers, too.

The full project page can be found here.

Science of Pedestrian Movements

[Originally written by Jason King]

An interesting article from the Economist on ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘ echoes much of the seminal research of William Whyte (City), Edward T. Hall (The Hidden Dimension), and others that have closely studied the behavior of pedestrians and other users of public spaces.   The interplay of cultural habits that tells us to step right or left to avoid collisions on a busy street can lead to a certain inherent poetic ‘choreography’ when viewed.  There are different theories on how these actions are coordinated, and the article focuses on new scientific methods for predicting and studying pedestrian movements.  As Jane Jacobs mentioned in The Death and Life of Great American Cities this urban realm is likened to a ballet:

“It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

It was interesting, in this context, to remember my recent travels to Europe, namely London, where traffic on the roads occupies the left lane, but as mentioned in the article, there is not a correlation between this and pedestrian movement.  While they mention that London follows pedestrians on the right, that is an oversimplification, as it doesn’t necessarily follow, at least in my experience.  Many people follow the walking to the left, which is culturally learned in the UK, mirroring the driving, but the influx on many non-locals that have their own rules often leads this to degenerate into chaos.  Thus there is not a typical rule of thumb – and you are therefore required to be much more actively engaged in the surroundings to navigate successfully.

As mentioned in the originally referenced article, culture is less important in this process as is habit and repetition: “Mehdi Moussaid of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, this is a behaviour brought about by probabilities. If two opposing people guess each other’s intentions correctly, each moving to one side and allowing the other past, then they are likely to choose to move the same way the next time they need to avoid a collision. The probability of a successful manoeuvre increases as more and more people adopt a bias in one direction, until the tendency sticks. Whether it’s right or left does not matter; what does is that it is the unspoken will of the majority.”

The importance of this sort of study (sorry thought, as mentioned, this not a ‘youngish field’) has long been known in urban realms.  It is being rediscovered by other sciences and disciplines (seems like everyone wants to study the city now!) such as physics, who are using modeling in the context of crowd safety, particularly in a more multi-cultural world, to better understand what has long been studied the old-fashioned way – by watching people in person or through video.

While thinking of people in similar terms of particles may be helpful, as people are governed by many rules – there is somewhat of a wildcard element in human behavoir as people act as “particles with a ‘will’”, doing sometimes unpredictable things and non-linear behaviors.   The issues with modeling are obvious, when you take into account the sheer number of variables at play even in the most simple pedestrian-to-pedestrian interaction.  The article mentions this in the context of a study between Indian and German pedestrians, where the direction is also complicated by cultural spatial rules as well:

“Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians.  Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians. An experiment in 2009 tested the walking speeds of Germans and Indians by getting volunteers in each country to walk in single file around an elliptical, makeshift corridor of ropes and chairs. At low densities the speeds of each nationality are similar; but once the numbers increase, Indians walk faster than Germans. This won’t be news to anyone familiar with Munich and Mumbai, but Indians are just less bothered about bumping into other people.”

It would be interesting to do a lit review of cultural spatial studies, building on the work of Hall, to see if these have been updated, and if we have learned anything new in the past 20 years, since The Hidden Dimension was published in 1990.  The world has changed dramatically and is much more global, thus it makes sense that even this sort of revolutionary study, while still somewhat applicable, will have changed due to a changed world.

This goes as well to updating Whyte’s classic video studies of public spaces (i.e. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces), which are great but extremely dated and not reflective of a much more culturally rich society.  A screen shot of one of the videos shows a different environment than what exists even 20 to 30 years later.  This doesn’t mean his data are any less relevant, but that we must continue to engage in further study to learn more.

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A research agenda that looks at these phenomena, how we use spaces, how we react and incorporate multiple cultural viewpoints, and more is vital to our continual understanding of proxemics, pedestrian movement, crowd dynamics, and more.  This can be done by incorporation of more scientific modeling of typically non-urban disciplines, such as the complex modeling processes in physics.  It is, to me,  much more interesting  to envision this study through updates of the seminal urban research studies, which would be a worthy endeavor in our ever globalizing world and our constantly diversifying cities.

Ricardo Legorreta 1931-2011

[Originally written by Jason King]

Legorreta + Legorreta:  It is with great sadness that we learn that Ricardo Legorreta died on the 30th of December 2011.

“La vida es como las olas, hay que respetarlas y amarlas, estudiarlas y no combatirlas.
Hay que sacar provecho de ellas para llegar a nuestro objetivo”
                                                                                                                                                –Ricardo Legorreta

He will be sorely missed.

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