Fact of the day: 59 miles

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Here's today's fact of the day:

Portland may pride itself on livability and transportation, but it has a shameful secret: 59 miles of unpaved dirt and gravel roads. That’s more than three times as much as in Nashville, Boise, Seattle, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, Austin and San Francisco—combined.

Lots of details and backstory at Willamette Week.

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    Strange that they would choose to describe this fact as "shameful." Frankly, we should start de-paving more neighborhood streets, making them less prone to attracting the fast moving traffic that has had the effect of dedicating them almost exclusively to cars.

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    While the chart showed that there were several miles of unpaved roads in SW, the article never mentioned it. The activists on the East side are missing the fact that they would get some real support from those of us on the West side that see the same problems. In addition to the unpaved roads we suffer from roads that have not been maintained and are so full of pot holes that they might as well be unpaved and soon will be. I doubt that they were included in the stats.

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    I've driven down a number of streets in SE that have holes large enough to swallow a car. There were so many holes you couldn't avoid them all, which makes you worried about getting your vehicle stuck. There is no way any of those roads were safe for pedestrians and certainly not for bikes.

    While having roads that slow down vehicles is an admirable goal, many of these streets are to the point where they aren't safe to drive on at all. What are you supposed to do when you live several blocks down, have heavy items that need to get to your house, and the only route is so filled with holes that you can't get down the street?

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    I'm with Jenni. There is a huge difference between unpaved but maintained* and horrifyingly neglected. Portland is always ripe with ideas and the implementations of traffic "calming" policies. Some are effective, and some produce unintended consequences which effect bigger problems.

    (* I'm not sure Portland actually does any maintenance on unpaved roads... that's a whole other discussion.)

    To shrug our shoulders and say "Oh well, cars drive to fast anyway" allows the city a cop out in addressing a very real problem. Officials can more easily point to the "LID" program and tell residents to "Do it yourself".

    Of course, this is a greater burden on those of less economic means, ergo the City then allows working class neighborhoods to fall into further disrepair - talk about regressive policy!

    Potholes that could house an alligator farm are not quaint. Unpaved roads that challenge the suspension of BigFoot are not rustic.

    Maybe the bicyclists can walk their bicycle the last 1/4 mile home, but when the fire truck or ambulance has to negotiate Lake Lents to get to a victim, "quaint" ain't what anyone involved is thinking.

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      As someone who walks on my neighborhood dirt roads at times, I think the 59 miles vary considerably in terms of conditions and impacts.

      That's what Mayor Adams talked about - creating a list of prioritized sections and working through it (like Cully).

      But I still don't have the data, I hear anecdote. And those anecdotes have to measure up in priority against fixing a system with lots of traffic deaths and serious injuries, as well as helping people who can't get around safely on paved streets.

      The lack of safe networks to walk, bike, and walk to transit is a problem that is also regressive, as some people can't afford to drive.

      So, I don't know if you read my comment as being about quaint, rustic, or shrugging my shoulders - but it wasn't meant to be any of those things. It was meant to note there are a lot of people who don't agree all of our dirt streets are problematic, and a desire to move beyond anecdote and compare potential investments based on data.

      As a reminder, traffic crashes are the leading cause of deaths among Americans aged 1-34, and the ninth highest cause of deaths in the world.

      And as I noted, if we want to improve safety, choices, and pave streets, we could work to shift the transportation money from the six CRC highway interchanges that will cost over two billion dollars.

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        I get that you are indeed more interested in issues of traffic safety, but I'm not getting the leap from paving a road to instant injury accident.

        It's easy for us to go off on our own particular tangents, but I think both of us are taking note - different ways - of a prevailing problem in Portland's traffic infrastructure. Portland has a way of slapshotting money at different projects ("Let's paint bicycle people"; "Let's reconstruct Couch/Burnside," etc...), but still the most obvious and basic needs are missed.

        Without even addressing the potholes that can eat bicyclists and leave not a trace, Portland has a remarkable number of intersections sans any traffic control. While the city builds road humps, biothingys, and sloshes around a lot of green paint, the simple installation of stop signs would do wonders. Seems we try so hard to be state-of-the-art, we ignore the fundamentals.

        Innovations that create safer corridors for bicycles and pedestrians are fine, but the basics - sufficient intersection traffic control, safe walkways and sidewalks for pedestrians, maintained streets that accommodate both motor vehicles and bicycles AND do not pose impediments to emergency traffic should be priorities.

        ... and yes, w/ 59 miles of unpaved roads, there must be a priority list established through critical evaluation of each site.

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          Ah, excellent - we were talking past each other.

          I wasn't trying to say paving roads would definitively and immediately increase traffic crashes (though I see my traffic calming point may have been read that way).

          I was trying to focus on: we have to choose between spending money on maintenance, safety projects, and networks of complete choices (probably on paved streets) versus paving streets. And usually I'll choose the former, though given a prioritized list of the 59 miles, might find a compelling couple of projects.

          As far as the unsigned intersections, there are a fair number of studies showing they actually increase safety.

          Americans are used to traffic signage telling them all the rules, and if they follow the rules, they'll be safe.

          Yet the "naked streets" movement has been transforming Dutch, Danish, and Belgian cities, and now London, and is reducing crashes there. The concept is that without signage (and sometimes without lane markings), people are forced to pay attention to what's going on around them, instead of just looking for the next sign directing them that there's something to look out for. Hence, people drive with heightened focus, and approach intersections without stop signs by yielding, instead of zooming through. That means pedestrians, cross-traffic, etc. are safer.

          Read more here

          Of course, there's the ongoing debate on whether we have enough unsigned interchanges to get drivers used to the idea that there may not be a stop sign on the cross street. Greg Raisman at the City of Portland probably has data on the number of crashes at unsigned interchanges - I'll drop him a line and get back to you.

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            A number of years ago I got nailed at one of those unsigned I-sections (now w/ a 4 way stop) in SE. I T-boned a gal who zipped in front of from the right, so even though I was traveling about 15-20mph, it was my fault. That particular I-section had an elevated yard w/ foliage on the corner that blocked both the other driver and me from seeing one another.

            No offense, but I think the Dutch solution falls into the category of being too avant garde. There are way too many variables that would play into this - and transitioning to this would be a tow company's dream. The logic of leaving as-is seems similar to the arguments around leaving all potholes and unpaved roadways as-is. It's using theory to justify a current problem and therefore making no effort to move on it and improve conditions.

            In my case, there was no way I was acting wrongfully (or un-Dutchlike?!) - but then, I had the false expectation that since I had no traffic control, cross traffic did. Neighbors poured out after the wreck and reported that they had seen numerous accidents at that intersection. The City finally solved THAT problem simply and effectively, and put up 4 STOP signs.

            Sometimes the best solutions are the most simple and traditional.

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    The property owners on unpaved sections of road are financially responsible for the grading, prep and innitial paving. When the road section is paved it's then deeded to the city. At least that's how it was when a section of road near where I grew up was paved. A lot of the people in the neighborhood didn't want it paved because it did slow traffic down. Others didn't want it paved because it was going to cost them a lot of money (those were the ones on the section of unpaved road). The money factor is probably the biggest reason those sections of roadway aren't paved. That don't come cheap and with most people facing higher property taxes and stagnating wages, I wouldn't think they'd be too gung ho to shell out a bunch of money to pave a road that they're probably fine with being unpaved.

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      It remains unclear to me why many roads are maintained by the city (and county and state), but where a road is unpaved, it has to be maintained by the property owners along that street.

      Those same property owners also pay property taxes. Why aren't they entitled to the same level of service as everyone else?

      Obviously (or perhaps not obviously), there was a time when gravel roads were getting paved without individual property owners being required to foot the bill -- anyone know when that changed?

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        As I understand it, after the road is paved it's deeded over to the city. If that's actually the case then the property owners would actually own the land that the road is on right now.

        Those property owners may be paying plenty of taxes, but those taxes are not for the city to do work on private property for no extra charge.

        A similar situation exists with sidewalks. The proparty owner actually owns and is responsible for the sidewalk running in front of/through their property. If there's a problem with the sidewalk, the property owner has the option of fixing the sidewalk themselves, hiring a licensed contractor to fix the sidewalk, or letting the city fix the sidewalk. If the city fixes it, the city will bill the property owner. If the bill isn't paid a lien is placed on the property. Of the three options, the most cost effective (if you have the time, skills and equipment) is to pull the permit and do the work yourself. The next would be to hire a contractor. I think the most expensive option is to have the city do the work and bill you.

        In this case, even though the sidewalk is 'private property' it's an easement for public access across that property.

        I'm pretty sure that the property owner is allowed to do the repairs him/herself because they actually own the sidewalk and therefore don't have to be a licensed contractor to do the work. Just as the property owner, if they're also the resident, and it's not a commercial property, is allowed to do work on their own home as long as they're not getting the home ready for sale or rent.

        I'd hazard a guess that the unpaved roads are that way because, while the property owners might want the roads paved, they probably don't want to pay for the work. The city, being strapped for cash or wanting to use surpluss cash for other projects, isn't keen on pushing people into a project that they don't want to pay for, and/or will have to bill or lien the property to be compensated for.

        Paving ain't cheap. It takes a while and even more money to pull permits, I don't know if engineering plans would have to be submitted, etc. Personally, if I were on an unpaved road in the city, I wouldn't want to have it paved if I was to be responsible for a section of road.

        Back when I was a kid and that section of road just up the block from us was paved, the homeowners were hopping mad that they were going to have to pay for the paving.

        I'm sure that if those property owners were willing to pony up the money to pave those sections of road, they'd be paved just as soon as the permits could be pulled.

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          "As I understand it, after the road is paved it's deeded over to the city. If that's actually the case then the property owners would actually own the land that the road is on right now."

          Right. But why should private property owners pay for the improvements only to deed them over, at no cost, to the city?

          These are public thoroughfares, they should be maintained by the public. Regardless of the technical legal status, by any reckoning, these aren't private property -- a landowner can't simply decide to put a fence around his part of the street.

          I'm still unclear on the history - can anyone answer this question? Were all the paved streets in Portland initially built by the adjoining landowners - or were they built by the city/county/state directly?

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            I would think that the advantage (for the property owner) of deeding over the roadway would be to not be financially responsible for the maintenance in the future.

            Also, it may be that the land deeded to those property owners may actually extend to the center of the road. I don't know, the property I own in Portland is already on a paved road, and I'm pretty sure (although I haven't looked) that the property line only goes to the curb.

            It'd be interesting to see where exactly the property lines are on those unpaved roads. But I'd just about bet money that they go to the center of the unpaved road. In that case, the city paving the road of its own accord would be the equivalent of building a road across private property (at the owner's request) for no compensation.

            I understand that there's a difference between city and county ordinances, rules and practices/policies, but there are a lot of gravel roads out here in my neck of the woods (Mulino) that are gravel or maccadam. Those are private roads, and as such owned by the property owners lining them. Those property owners are personally and financially responsible for the maintenance of those roads.

            There was an issue a while back when a property was going to be developed in my area, and the property was on a private gravel road regarding increased traffic on the road and who was going to foot the bill for the extra maintenance. There are also some paved roads out here that are private roads, and I'm sure that the property owners on those are responsible for their maintenance, not the county.

            BTW, I like your public thoroughfare argument. Next time the sidewalk in front of the property I own in Portland has to be repaired, I'll run that by the city. Maybe I can get them to fix it for free. After all, I am paying property taxes. ;-)

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    Maybe I'm biased coming from a fairly rural area with plenty of perfectly nice dirt roads, but I don't think there's anything intrinsically "shameful" about dirt roads. In my experience as long as dirt roads are well-maintained, they can function just fine for cars, bikes and feet. And probably for a lot less money.

    Of course it's that "well-maintained" part that's key. And from the sounds of it, what's really shameful about these 59 miles is that they're so poorly-maintained (and the fact that promises to fix these roads were broken). But it's not a lack of asphalt that allows these roads to turn into small lakes, it's a lack of maintenance.

    One thing I wondered reading the article is: 59 miles, is that a lot? It sounds like it at first, but from what I can gather from this site:


    the city has 4,700 miles of streets. So 59 miles is a little over one percent of that.

    More of this kind of proportionality would have made the article more informative. But that would probably have taken away from the muckraking approach the WW seems to be going for here.

    Predictably, they talk about the City's bike infrastructure as if it's some kind of perk. (And when exactly did they start pursuing the Oregonlive cranky-commenter demographic?) But where those 4,700 miles of car-centric streets are already built, a comparably useful bicycle transportation network has barely reached the baby-steps stage. The earliest evidence of a nascent transportation network hardly qualifies as a perk.

    And the WW talks about bioswales to the west of Tabor as if they're fancy neighborhood frills, but those bioswales are storm water management devices, meant to protect the river. They're located where they're located because that's where the Brooklyn Creek once flowed:


    And of course the Willamette is on that side of Tabor too. If the creek basin and river had been on the east side of Tabor, that's where the swales would be located.

    Seems like the WW is trying to generate some outrage, but they're relying on some shaky comparisons and a real lack of proportionality to do so.

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    I guess I saw the WWeek story as old news, with people shocked, shocked that poor areas of the City are ignored as other projects which arguably benefit far few residents are fast tracked. Sort of like the stories about gentrification whitening our city...

    Spencer the issue is two fold. We aren't in an rural area, we are an urban area. These are sections of the city that were annexed decades ago. Look at the comparative numbers cited in the article. Apparently we know something that virtually every other city in the country doesn't know about how great it is to drive on dirt roads.

    These roads are not well maintained--again, look at the excellent videos and photos on the WWeek page.

    There are clearly choices here, and contrary to what Evan claims, we have data on how many and where these roads are located, and it's pretty shocking.

    It's clearly another example of a long series of broken promises by city leaders as they fast track vanity projects at the expense of basic infrastructure maintenance.

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      Paul, I didn't say we lacked data on how many and where the roads are located.

      I said I hadn't seen the data on how big the problems of dirt roads are - that is: "The loose dirt litters the air and water, and the rutted streets pose hazardous barriers to kids, the elderly and the disabled."

      So, what's the impact on air and water of that dirt? How many kids, elderly, and disabled can't get where they need to go because of the street conditions? How hazardous are they?

      And then we could compare fixing them to other investments.

      I would agree that the issue is an example of an overpromise of many political candidates, and was appreciative of Saltzman's statement on it.

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      Apparently we know something that virtually every other city in the country doesn't know about how great it is to drive on dirt roads.

      Paul, as a political scientist, isn't challenging assumptions part of the job? Or relying on data to make judgments?

      I live in Woodstock, and while the street I live on is paved, the cross streets are not. I have previously lived in SW in an area with a number of unpaved roads. Frankly, from my experience, I'm not convinced that it's an intrinsically bad thing that the city has so many dirt roads. The basic problem which everyone can agree on is that the roads are not maintained. I can attest to the state of disrepair these streets are in. Most people here also seem to agree that whatever the existing laws regarding unpaved road maintenance may be, the city should be responsible for these streets' upkeep. However, if all of the roads in Portland were paved, but the city never performed any maintenance on some of those roads, they too would fall into a state of neglect and disrepair. We can agree that these streets should be maintained, but that is not the same issue as whether or not they should be paved.

      I agree completely with Evan: I don't see anybody providing any data showing why, if equally well-maintained, paved roads would be universally superior to unpaved roads, be it for transportation, financial, health, or environmental reasons. Until somebody does, I don't see any reason to accept that premise at face value, especially when we're talking about a 300 million dollar investment. Instead, the popular logic seems to go along the lines of:

      Mexico = Unpaved Roads
      Rural Areas = Unpaved Roads
      San Francisco = Paved Roads
      San Francisco > Mexico and/or Rural Areas
      Paved Roads > Unpaved Roads

      Paved roads are associated with progress, therefore they must be better. The fact that the WW's cherry-picked collection of cities has less paved roads than Portland by itself doesn't tell us anything. Meanwhile, while anecdotal, I have seen that people drive more carefully and safely on unpaved roads than on paved roads (including those with speed bumps) by orders of magnitude. I see people consistently choose walking on a dirt road over walking on a sidewalk on a paved road. Unpaved roads do have their advantages.

      The bottom line is that I'm not convinced that unpaved roads by themselves are a problem until I see some data to the contrary. The problem is that they have not been maintained, and that they are distributed totally unevenly throughout the city based in no small measure due to wealth. We need not confuse the issues, and we should be basing a 300 million dollar decision on solid data rather than a collective gag reflex in response to dirt roads. There is a value in challenging commonly-held assumptions.

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    If you had geographical representation you would probably be less likely to have these problems.

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    Turns out there aren't immediately accessible numbers on crashes on unsigned intersections. I think it's safe to say most deadly crashes happen on arterials and higher speed streets.

    Here are a bunch of interesting documents from the city on safety, including data showing 30%+ decrease in crashes on traffic-calmed streets and the mayor's presentation at the Transportation Safety Summit.

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