The Real People’s Crossing

Tilikum Crossing is Portland’s next big thing. So what’s coming to New York?
Image Courtesy Roger

It’s time for some straight talk: I’m sick of hearing about Portland, Oregon.

As a bearded lefty Brooklynite who rides a bike, bakes his own bread and has a vat of homebrew vinegar aging in his apartment, you might assume that I feel a certain affinity for that quaint little burg in the Pacific Northwest. But on my last trip there, I couldn’t wait to come home to New York City.

I don’t mean to bash Portland. (Did you know its population is roughly equivalent to the number of New Yorkers who take a cab each day?) And I certainly don’t want to suggest that my urge to flee was the fault of my hosts. My friends at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance were generous and kind and as welcoming as a safe-streets advocate could hope. The local congressman, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who’s often called a “bicycle evangelist,” even took time out of his busy schedule to show me around. That, in fact, is where the trouble started.

After a breakfast filled with shoptalk —about his effort to raise the federal gas tax, T.A.’s work on Vision Zero, New York’s new mayor, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and even Portlandia (“I thought it was a documentary!” Rep. Blumenauer told me with a smile), we headed down to the banks of the Willamette River, where the city is building the nation’s largest car-free bridge, the Tilikum Crossing.

“This is the next big thing,” the congressman told me.

The “People’s Crossing,” as boosters have taken to calling it, accommodates trains, streetcars, buses, bikes and pedestrians. It’s a monument to Portland’s transportation priorities. And standing in its shadow with the congressman who helped make it a reality, all I could think about was how more Brooklynites live on both sides of Atlantic Avenue than Portlandians on either side of that river. The same is true of Queens Boulevard and Westchester Avenue and 125th Street and a handful of other big New York City thoroughfares that can be every bit as harrowing to cross as a swollen waterway.

Size comparisons aside, what Congressman Blumenauer and the city of Portland are trying to do is connect people. That’s the right idea, and car-free infrastructure is certainly a fine way of making that happen. In New York City, however, we’re not about to build a bike bridge over Houston Street. Instead, we’re going to have to use New York ingenuity to make what we’ve got work even better to connect people. That’s our next big thing.

So what is the best way to improve what we have? It’s not simply the subway system. With the dismal status of state support, it will be a challenge to keep the service we have. Nor is it just more buses or ferries or driverless cars or even bikes. The best way to connect New Yorkers is by transforming our city’s 650 miles of big arterial streets. Today, 90 percent of our avenues and boulevards are indistinguishable from big streets in any other U.S. city. There are lots of wide car lanes that encourage fast driving, and on-street parking spots that add a layer of complexity and danger. In the densest and most pedestrian-rich city in the country, these streets should reflect how New Yorkers actually travel. That means real bus lanes, bike lanes and plenty of pedestrian space.

Two centuries ago, when Portland was in short pants and Lewis and Clark were still tired from their expedition, New York was busy laying down a street grid that reflected how people moved: by foot, on horses and aboard ships. Seventy-five years later, we started building bridges. Then came tunnels for the subway and elevated train tracks and land reclamation for highway projects until almost every inch of the city was spoken for and filled with people going places. That’s where we are now, so a nice new bridge seems about as likely as a good price for the one that connects City Hall to Brooklyn.

That’s why our next big thing needs to make the most of what we have. It has to balance Robert Moses’s roads with Simeon De Witt’s street grid and Citi Bike’s stations. It needs to connect car-free commuters with new job centers in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, and it needs to make sure that everyone can get around safely and speedily and with the sort of status that New Yorkers deserve.

That’s our people’s crossing, and it’s not just some bridge over some river in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a whole new way of thinking about transportation in the greatest city in the world.


Paul Steely White
Executive Director