The carfree challenge

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› steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY A large group of San Francisco’s top alternative transportation advocates traveled to Portland, Ore., for the Towards Carfree Cities international conference June 16-20, marveling at a transportation system widely considered to be the most progressive in the United States.

"Portland is light-years ahead of everyone else in this country," said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, who attended the conference along with representatives from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, San Francisco State University, prominent urban design firms including Arup (which is designing the new Transbay Terminal project), architect David Baker, and other institutions.

Public transit in Portland is extensive, cheap, frequent, and easy to use, with the Max line — unlike Muni — allowing bicycles on the trains. Walking is encouraged by new design standards and public information campaigns. A riverside freeway was replaced by open space years ago. And the large network of bicycle paths and other improvements to promote cycling have made Portland the only large city to earn the putf8um designation from the League of American Bicyclists (San Francisco is one tier down at gold).

"But the reality is Portland is far from being great," was the sobering assessment from keynote speaker Gil Peñalosa, the former parks director of Bogotá, Colombia, who pioneered carfree policies there before pushing the issues internationally through the nonprofit Walk and Bike for Life.

Cities are facing multiple crises connected to over-reliance on the automobile — declining public health, environmental degradation, resource depletion, loss of community, and not enough space in US cities to handle the 100 million people they’ll need to accommodate in the next 35 years. And Peñalosa said most are responding with baby steps that deny the scope of the challenge.

"We’re not doing enough," he said, noting that even the best US cities are way too dependent on automobiles compared to cities that have made the biggest advances in reducing automobile use, such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, and Vancouver.

"That’s where Portland belongs, and that’s the challenge," Peñalosa said. "Under existing conditions, we have to make major leaps instead of baby steps."

It was the first time that this eighth annual conference has been held in the United States, and organizers said they hoped its message will resonate in a country that needs to change profoundly if it is to efficiently manage its growth while playing a positive role in dealing with global climate change.

Many of the ideas raised at the conference and pursued in Portland are beginning to spread. The conference opened with Depaving Day, a pavement-removal effort that has many adherents in the Bay Area, and closed with Sunday Parkways, during which a six-mile loop in North Portland was closed to cars. Such "Ciclovias," which Peñalosa started in Colombia, are planned this August in New York City and San Francisco.

"There are people from all over the world doing amazing work," said local conference coordinator Elly Blue of the Portland group Shift, which organized the conference to coincide with Portland’s annual Pedalpalooza, two weeks of fun bike events and other festivities.

Many attendees noted that global warming, high gasoline prices (and the specter of Peak Oil), worsening public health, and persistent traffic congestion have made many big city leaders more open to carfree concepts than they’re ever been.

"The climate is changing," League of American Bicyclists director Andy Clarke said. "This is our time. It’s our moment to seize the opportunity and change our communities."

Mia Birk, Portland’s former bicycle-policy coordinator, added, "We’re not anti-car, but we’re trying to create a system where walking and biking are viable transportation options." Birk now runs Alta Planning and Design, which is working on carfree and car-light projects with hundreds of cities around the world, including some in the Bay Area.

"What we’re talking about is a true cultural revolution to encourage that kind of shift," Birk said, inviting the crowd to "be a part of that revolution."