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Local Businesses Clash with the City of Portland Over Major Thoroughfare's Road Diet

A pair of signs hang on a building overlooking an intersection of Foster Road and 67th Avenue. The signs read Local businesses along Foster Road displaying signs protesting future "road diet" project

Shifting away from car-centric road development may have major support from planners, academics, social scientists and liberal think-tanks, but the transformation of a major Portland, Oregon road has brought out a sound and a fury of backlash from local businesses. The Foster Transportation and Streetscape Project will transform a major road in SE Portland, shrinking from four car lanes to two.

The transformation is what The Federal Highway Administration calls a "Road Diet," which "converts an existing four-lane undivided roadway segment to a three-lane segment consisting of two through lanes and a center two-way left turn lane." The plan will add two bicycle lanes, on-street parking, and green infrastructure, while nearly doubling the width of sidewalks. The plan is part of Portland's Vision Zeroplan, a transportation safety plan which has a goal of reducing annual road fatalities to zero. The city has recorded nearly 1,200 collisions and eight fatalities on Foster Road in the last decade, designating the thoroughfare as a High Crash Corridor. By transforming the road, the city hopes to reduce collisions and fatalities by up to 20%, while increasing the economic potential in the district. The transportation project will occur between 52nd and 90th Avenue, with construction scheduled to begin in early 2017.

Map of Greater Portland and Foster Road Transportation and Streetscape Project. The project begins approximately five miles south east of the city center. Map of Greater Portland and Foster Road Transportation and Streetscape Project Conceptual design of the Foster Road Transportation and Streetscape Project provided by Portland Bureau of Transportation. The design illustrates how the street will look once construction is complete. The design points out how trees and bicycle lanes will be added, sidewalks will be widened and land dedication will be reduced.Conceptual design of the Foster Road Transportation and Streetscape Project provided by Portland Bureau of Transportation

The project was unanimously approved by the City Council in 2014 and has the support of the Foster Area Business Association. They believe making the district safer for pedestrians and bicyclists will boost economic development in the area, encouraging locals to spend more time and money in the neighborhood. Similar road diets have slimmed down roads in other Portland neighborhoods and have since proved successful in reducing crashes and fatalities. However, some local businesses are worried the project will cause them to lose potential customers, while increasing congestion and making commuting times much longer for other Portlanders. Foster Road has nearly 30,000 car and truck commuters every day, and cutting the space for these cars in half could mean double the commuting time for those who rely on the road to get to work. This would most likely steer many vehicles to use other routes, meaning that these commuters would not stop to shop at businesses on Foster Road. In addition, businesses that rely on truck deliveries, such as furniture stores, could potentially be affected by missed delivery times.

A business along Foster Road uses its sign to warn commuters of potential impacts from the road diet. The sign reads Local business alerting commuters of potential impacts

The backlash from local businesses is noticeable. Many have protested by placing signs in their store windows to voice their anger and alert commuters to the upcoming changes. These businesses tend to be part of the "old" Foster; furniture stores, yard suppliers and other companies that have been in the area for decades. Newer merchants who tend to be younger and own the coffeeshops, brewpubs, restaurants, and craft boutiques all welcome the changes and look forward to the transformation of the area to resemble more popular Portland neighborhoods. The disparity in acceptance of the Foster Road project is a clear representation of the broader chasm that is occurring throughout the City of Portland; the clash between blue-collar businesses and white-collar development.

As with many major US cities, blue-collar jobs have been disappearing from population centers and are being replaced with more service-based businesses and residential development. This has occurred at such a rapid pace in Portland that the city established several areas as Industrial Sanctuaries to keep these types of jobs in the city. However, these sanctuaries do not extend to Foster Road, and the majority of the Foster area community support the project. The Portland Bureau of Transportation worked closely with the local community during a 16-month planning process, and surveys showed an 80% approval rating among local businesses, schools, organizations and hundreds of residents. It seems that the 20% who disapproved of the project are now loudly stating their opposition, though it may not have much of an impact as the city finalizes the engineering and design phase later this year. Many of their grievances, including their claims on dramatically increasing commuting times are unsubstantiated. Estimates have shown that once the project is complete the average travel time for Foster Road car commuters would increase by only two minutes. It seems the majority of Foster Road users will take the trade-off of an additional two minutes in the car for a more livable district.

Do you think its a good idea for a city to shift its road development away from a traditional car-centric model? Are there any streets in your community where "road diets" have been implemented? Were they a success? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

Credit: Images and Maps by Kevin Gooley. Data linked to sources.