Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak praised and provoked Portland-area leaders at a forum Friday, challenging them to work together to address growing transportation dilemmas facing Portland and metropolitan regions around the country.
Rybak, a three-term mayor from 2002 to 2014, spoke with humor, humility and bluntness at a regional leadership forum at the Oregon Convention Center, kicking off Metro's 2018 update of its regional transportation plan. Attendees included state legislators, local elected officials who sit on the Metro Policy Advisory Committee and Joint Policy Advisory Commmittee on Transportation, public agency staff, transportation advocates, community members and business leaders from throughout the Portland region.
Rybak's tenure in Minneapolis was a time of great change in the city, which has 400,000 residents and co-anchors the Twin Cities metropolitan region, with a population of around 3 million.
His administration launched a comprehensive 10-year transportation plan called Access Minneapolis, identifying and completing new investments in transit, sidewalks, bikeways and updating transportation design guidelines. Rybak also played a key role in advancing several major bus and light rail projects in Minneapolis and its region. And, he slyly noted, Minneapolis briefly overtook Portland as the best bicycling city in the country according to Bicycling magazine.
But Rybak is intimately familiar with a hard truth about the country's transportation system: It's falling apart, and the consequences are real. His mayoral tenure included one of the country's most terrible transportation tragedies. The collapse of the Interstate 35W Mississippi River bridge during an evening rush hour in 2007 killed 13 people and injured 145.
Reflecting on the lessons he'd learned, Rybak had a clear warning for local leaders: Despite the Portland region's celebrated accomplishments, emerging trends and festering challenges both require rethinking how we approach transportation planning.
"All of us in the country and literally in the world count on Portland to lead," Rybak said. "And it is time, I think, for you to challenge some basic assumptions."
Here are some highlights from his address. Watch the video below.
"We cannot possibly get out of the congestion mess that we have…if we don't disrupt the system of how we build transportation."
Rybak presented a stark future for transportation in America's metropolitan regions: Jam-packed highways, unsafe streets, inequitable access to jobs and housing, crumbling and outdated roads and transit. It's an urgent situation that requires urgent action, he said.
It's possible to do something about these problems, he said, but not by using the old ways of thinking about transportation.
Repair and reimagine
"If you go into a house and the previous owners didn't fix the boiler, didn't fix the roof, didn't do multiple other things, you've got to go in there and do all the un-fun stuff. Well, guess what? Those of us in decision-making positions today are in that position. We have not invested in infrastructure in anywhere near the way that we need to."
The collapse of the Minneapolis River Bridge should have been a turning point for infrastructure spending, Rybak said. He recounted hearing from scores of federal elected officials and other leaders in the days after the tragedy, promising that they would do everything to make sure such a thing never happened again, by investing more in repairing bridges and other critical infrastructure.
Those words still haven't turned to action, he said.
"Ladies and gentleman, not one goddamn thing has changed with investment in infrastructure since people in my community died," he said, visibly upset. "And that is wrong."
But rebuilding infrastructure doesn't mean that cities and regions should stop trying to think boldly about transportation, Rybak said. In fact, he suggested quite the opposite was true – as communities repair and rebuild, they should for opportunities to do so in a way that better reflects the needs of today. That might mean rethinking what a street should look like and what function it should perform.
For his community and many other urban communities, he said, that means reassessing whether moving cars should remain the primary purpose of all transportation infrastructure.
"We need cars, there's no doubt about it. But who said that the street was only about the car?" he asked, arguing that other essential uses, including transit, safe walking and biking, pocket parks and green infrastructure ought to be part of updating streets to today's needs.
Changing options, changing opportunities
"People are now increasingly not looking at a single choice. They're looking at a family of transit options, and we need to think about that."
More and more, people approach transportation with the expectation that they might use several means to get around in one day, or even in one trip, Rybak said. Think of the person who takes transit to work, rides a bike to a midday meeting and then uses Uber or Car2Go to get home.
This new way of traveling is closely tied to changing needs and interests among different age groups, he said.
"To my parents, freedom meant a car. To my kids, it means not being dependent on a car," Rybak said. "But not being dependent on a car also increasingly means not being independent on one form of transportation."
Lest his audience think he was speaking only about young people, Rybak added that a "silver tsunami" of aging Americans also requires "a dramatic re-shifting" of transportation options, as older residents stop driving and need other ways of getting around.
Rybak also discussed the potential of self-driving cars to help auto traffic flow more smoothly while also changing the role of cars in our lives. But he also cautioned that the transition to fully autonomous vehicles could be rough – and noted major concerns about quality of life in urban communities if autonomous cars lead to many more vehicles trying to move through residential and commercial streets.
In it together
"(Transportation) is the one thing that ties us together. It's the one time we are, more than anything else, in it together. Can we challenge ourselves to make sure that common ground is really common ground?"
More than any other piece of civic infrastructure, Rybak said, a transportation network is a shared experience. And he urged leaders to think about and engage all of the region's residents when considering its future. That means making sure that everyone has a place in planning, that the system serves all residents, and that its future be tied to helping people find affordable places to live and good jobs to work.
He recounted observations from Stockholm, where like many European cities, the historic core has long been a haven only for the wealthy, while poorer residents and refugees are pushed to the geographic margins. "The core city is not a melting pot," he said.
In American cities, by contrast, a legacy of disinvestment in the urban core meant many poorer neighborhoods remained closer-in through the 20th century, nearer many job centers and transit. But as interest in urban living has grown in Portland, Minneapolis and many other cities, that historic affordability is at risk.
Rybak urged leaders to find ways to accommodate higher-income people's growing interest in living close to jobs and transit while also protecting affordability and access for people with lower incomes.
"Lock the door"
"We're only going to get out of this mess if we all work together."
Transportation problems have a habit of piling on. Congestion is getting worse, making trips unreliable and holding up freight. Streets aren't safe enough for kids, commuters or seniors. Transit systems can't keep up with demand, or leave some areas woefully underserved.
It may seem that transportation problems demand transportation projects as solutions.
But Rybak said leaders should approach transportation by seeing it as more than just moving people and goods from Point A to Point B. "We should never really be talking just about transportation," he said. "We should talk about the kind of communities we want to have."
That means leaders, advocates and others have to get beyond everyone fighting for their own share and their own projects, he said.
Diverse interests need to be willing to lay everything on the table – even "lock the door," as he put it, until a common vision can be hammered out. Big visions are what drive change, he argued, not fighting over every last penny in what he called a "culture of scarcity."
And he challenged the Portland region to step up to the moment.
"Everyone has looked to Portland for leadership, and you're doing well. But I would not say you're light years ahead of the rest of the country like you used to be," he said.
"I say that as a challenge, because no community can do this better than you," he added. "But it's going to take the people in this room and a few others, to look in the mirror and recognize the fact that you – more than anyone else in America – can solve this problem."
Rybak's concluding thoughts echoed those of Mychal Tetteh, CEO of the Community Cycling Center, who had introduced him earlier in the morning.
"I would encourage you to replace (assumptions) with empathy and curiosity," Tetteh said. "If you do so, together we may position our region to make great transportation planning and implementation that may not be possible any other way."
Following his talk, leaders did just that, talking for hours at small tables to discuss big concerns, big trends and big ideas that could be incorporated into a plan to advance a safe, reliable and affordable transportation system in the Portland region. A summary report of the discussions will be released next month.
The next regional leadership forum, on Sept. 23, will explore the topic of "Navigating our transportation funding landscape."
Watch a video of Rybak's address