June 10, 2019 - From the June, 2019 issue

Charlie Hales, Former Mayor of Portland, on Cities' Role in Managing Urban Mobility

As both technological innovation and climate change outpace the slow and deliberative mechanisms of state and federal government, cities are increasingly taking on the task of managing disruption as it arises in communities across the country. At the recent City Age: Build the Future conference in Los Angeles, Charlie Hales—former mayor and city councilmember of Portland, OR and now Director of Urban Planning and Design at HDR—joined TPR for an exclusive interview in which he highlights the important decision-making power of cities and how they can use new technology and transportation as valuable tools for urban placemaking.

Charlie Hales

"Cities are about placemaking, and they should use transportation as a tool to create the places they want." —Charlie Hales

As past mayor of Portland, OR and now senior vice president for transit planning at HDR, do you believe the city of Portland is still positioned today as the vanguard of the global urban transportation revolution?

Charlie Hales: Portland is definitely in the transportation revolution, but I’m not sure that we are the vanguard any longer. That is not a criticism of Portland; it is a celebration of the fact that cities around the world, including Los Angeles, have begun doing amazing, wonderful, correct things to position themselves for the future. The trend today is toward more livable, sustainable cities as well as toward transportation choice, particularly through investment in public transit. Los Angeles is a poster child for major investment in a transit system—giving people the opportunity to live a transit-oriented lifestyle in what, not long ago, was a completely auto-oriented place.

My company’s hometown is in Omaha, which is pondering whether or not to build a streetcar like Portland’s. But today, they don’t need to fly to Portland to see a great example of an operating streetcar that has caused transformative development in the central city; all they have to do is get on a bus down to Kansas City. Kansas City’s streetcar is a spectacular success—now being expanded—that is re-concentrating development in the central city and opening the door to other transit projects that have been stalled in the city for decades.

How should a fixed-route streetcar system fit into a 21st century city’s transportation mix, whether the city be Portland, Kansas City, or Los Angeles?

Where streetcars have been successful, it is because they are not a transit project so much as a development focuser. If you understand that, there are places where it makes sense.

Downtown Omaha is a place that needs focus and concentration. It went from having 40,000 jobs and 20,000 parking spaces in 1965 to having 20,000 jobs and 40,000 parking spaces today. They need to focus development, get people to walk and take transit, and get rid of some of those goddamn parking spaces.

Do city policy and planning officials today view transportation investment as an economic development tool? If so, are those investment decisions being driven by public or private interests?

Transit should always be about both transportation and development. Cities are about placemaking, and they should use transportation as a tool to create the places they want.

This is what drives my concerns about ride-hailing services, autonomous vehicles, and other new technologies. We don’t want to repeat our transition from the horse to the automobile: The automobile arrived, and we surrendered. We drove giant freeways right through the heart of cities. This time around, we have to make sure—as policymakers, planners, thinkers, advocates, and Americans—that we shape the technology to the city, not the city to the technology.

Portland had a head-on collision with Uber over just this. They began operations without permits; we threatened to arrest drivers until the company complied with city regulations. It wasn’t because we’re Luddites who want to live in the past, and it wasn’t because we wanted to protect our cab industry. It was because we are in control of our city and our streets, and if we are going to call ourselves a community, everyone has to be subject to some level of regulation—whether it’s me and my family, or your company.

In a recent CityAge panel on transportation in Los Angeles, you raised the question of “authority” in the public realm in the context of how cities should address the management of new disruptive modes of transportation. Speak to the role of public authority.

Authority is a hard word for Americans, even in the “People’s Republic of Portland.” But someone has to have some authority to create what we agree that we want. If we want good development, walkable streets, and transportation choices instead of transportation chaos, somebody has to have the authority to make that happen.

Of course, we need an inclusive, democratic process leading up to decisions. But at the end of the day, somebody’s got to be able to make the decision to move forward.

This is an important thing to keep in mind now, amid all this change. It’s not because we want to slow down or stop change. It’s not because we want to live in the past. It’s because we have to create order. After all, the words “city” and “civilization” come from the same root.

Often, the challenge when a public official asserts “authority” is that it is reframed as simple opposition to technology and change. How does a public official in today’s social media-driven world handle these label/libel debates?

Being in politics has always meant being called names. It’s just that now you’re called names on social media, and they get retweeted. It is a nastier environment in terms of the criticism that get leveled at and swirls around any decisionmaker. I certainly saw and felt that in my two different chapters of public life.

I was a city commissioner for 10 years in charge of transportation and planning. This was before the social media era. I left the public sector to HDR for 10 years, and then came back for a tour of duty as mayor. While I was gone, the social media had exploded. How we communicate with one another had changed. The level of civility had gone down markedly. It’s a tougher time to make tough decisions. This is actually one of the reasons why I advocate in some cases for regional decision-making.

The first, of course, is that we live in regions—multi-jurisdictional regions. City limits mean nothing to Uber and Lyft, nor to most of our citizens. It’s important that we start operating that way. Denver’s Mobility Choice Blueprint is a good example. They got the Chamber of Commerce, the private sector, the transit agency, all the local governments, and the state—through the transportation agency—together to look at how to manage all the new technologies coming. Other regions ought to think about doing the same thing, including Portland and Los Angeles.

Let’s take a half-step backward. Could you elaborate on the role of “public authority” when disruptive technology challenges current public practices?

I think we are in danger of repeating our mistakes. Things are moving very quickly. This time, let’s make sure that we have the authority in place to manage the technology for the city instead of managing the city for the technology. I think there is considerable doubt as to which one we’re doing.

One of the problems is governance models. Denver’s Mobility Choice Blueprint, is a good example. They got themselves together as a region and figured this out. Calgary—not a liberal town—just passed the equivalent of the Oregon Land Use Mandate and said, “You will have a regional plan that will manage growth and control land use in all those little parochial jurisdictions,” because they know they need to do that.

It’s an awkward thing to bring up when regulation is being blasted every day in Washington, D.C. and when old governance models don’t necessarily work as well. But somebody needs to have the power to say yes and no when it comes to change.

Are the generations raised since 2007 on the iPhone—on personally having in their hands the power to choose their own options independent of outside authority—truly open to the exercise of public authority?

Choice is important. We have to be adroit about actually giving people choices. But working for the common good means that the choices are sometimes hard—where development is going to happen, for example. Are we going to develop the last artichoke farm, or should we replace that old arterial full of strip malls with mixed-use development on a transit line? People need the chance to make those choices. 

The word “region,” as you well know, does not appear in any federal or state constitution; thus, there is little or no governing architecture to support regional authority over planning and transportation.  How, then, are public authorities presently managing mobility their political challenges?

That’s right, and politics also change from place to place. One way or another, I believe that regions have to figure out a way to act regionally. They have, in some cases.


In Portland, the legislature created Metro, our regional government. In Calgary, the provincial legislature recently did something similar. In Salt Lake, a much more conservative place, it was a non-profit, Envision Utah, that led to the legislation and cooperation that built the Utah Transit Authority and the Wasatch Front Regional Commission. These are different models, but one way or another, much of the Northwest—Denver, Calgary, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and Salt Lake—have all figured out how to operate regionally. That’s where we need to be.

The street curb is a contentious piece of real estate that is now competitively sought after by a host of interests and users—from homeless residents to bicyclists to ride-hailing companies to stormwater infrastructure to street cleaning to pedestrians. Do our cities and regions have the tools to handle this competition?

I think there are universal principles that pertain to this problem.

When I was transportation commissioner, I said I wanted to build a European city in America. This offended some people who thought America was great. (To that, I say: Go walk around five European cities and we’ll talk some more when you get back.) But really, another way to say the same thing is: Let’s make the pedestrian the first-class passenger.

Life at street level needs to be wonderful. That is the north star, and everything should be organized around that. A million details flow from this one universal principle, both in how we design the public realm and how we design buildings—perhaps to be transparent at ground level, with awnings to protect people from rain or sun, and to feature outdoor dining.

If we keep these common-sense universal principles in mind—that we should have great life on the street, that pedestrians should be the priority, and that people should have choices—then I think we have a shot at properly organizing the potential chaos of the transportation revolution.

Some would assert that your prioritization of the pedestrian stems from a particularly Portland point of view—a city where the block size is pedestrian-oriented by plan. We’re sitting in Los Angeles today, where the block size is not at all conducive to pedestrianism. Does one point of view on this question actually fit all cities?

Bad urbanism can be repaired; it just takes time and money.

China, for example, went headlong down the superblocks and highways route. Now, Peter Calthorpe (who is now my colleague HDR) is working to help them transition to the walkable urbanism route. Closer to home, Salt Lake is a place with superblocks and giant streets originally designed for freight wagons to turn around without effort. They’ve now started systematically penetrating through those blocks, and running light-rail lines down the middle of those wide streets.

Repairing the bad work that was done before takes time, commitment, money, and willingness from the private sector to cooperate with the public sector. That willingness comes directly from how much development upside you can offer in exchange. 

Given all the easement rights and other questions of legal authority that pertain to curbs, how much authority does a city actually have to re-plan their curbs and streets?

Actually, I have often found that cities have more latent authority to do the right thing than we are habituated to using.

For example, when I was city commissioner, I got into a head-on collision with a company that wanted to build a 10-acre gated community on the Willamette River waterfront. Frankly, the city was caught with our regulatory pants down, because we hadn’t done any planning in that area. We found a pretense to say no, and then held our breath when we were taken to court. Fortunately, we won. And in the meantime, the city engineer and I sat down and drew, on a bar napkin, the street grid for what’s now called the South Waterfront.

We were able to do that because there was an old provision in the city code that said that the city engineer has the authority to designate a future street plan for areas under development. Nobody had used this provision for a long time. But it saved us.

So, my advice to cities is this: Take a careful look at your code and caselaw. You might have more authority than you think.

The California State Legislature recently debated a bill, SB 50, that would have given the state authority over land use and zoning. That bill, advanced by tech companies and large real estate owners, asserts that local government created California’s coastal housing crisis and is moving too slowly to address it. What is at stake in this debate?

I disagree with the YIMBY movement, which has a foothold in Oregon as well, despite our history of strong land use planning.

State legislatures are ill suited to making regional or local decisions. They are well suited to setting state policy to guide local decision-making in the right direction—as California has proven.

California’s transition from level of service calculations and to vehicle miles traveled was great state policy. It was an example of the state doing its job well: setting the rules of the game. But the California Legislature can’t manage the details of Los Angeles and every little town in California. Nor can the Oregon Legislature manage both Portland and La Pine.

Gideon Tucker once wrote, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” No community’s local control or destiny is safe while the state legislature thinks they can plan cities. That is wrong-headed, and I am totally in opposition to it.

Lastly, now that you’re back in the private sector, share a bit about what HDR does.

HDR is a big architecture and engineering firm. We are quiet about it; we have that Midwestern modesty, which I love. It compels us to under-promise and overdeliver, and be absolutely of integrity. That comes from the culture in the leadership. We are also employee-owned, and that creates a wonderful environment where we all win.

Now, particularly with the acquisition of Calthorpe Associates (now HDR Calthorpe), we are a full spectrum of people and capabilities. We turn ideas into broad community plans, then turn those plans into specific projects, and then manage those projects’ construction to completion.

The other thing I love about HDR is that we were wise enough to hire a bunch of smart young people whom I learn from frequently, as well as from others.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.