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In Portland, Livable Is More Than a Label

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By Dan Hortsch

When there’s a way, JoAnn Herrigel finds it—usually by bicycle.

For 20 years, Herrigel, 55, has commuted by bicycle to jobs in the Portland area, including a job in suburban Milwaukie seven miles from her home. These days, she rides a couple of miles to work.

Her routes have included designated “bike boulevards,” streets that are marked for shared use by bikes and autos, as well as a lane on the Morrison Bridge protected from auto traffic. In downtown Portland, she uses “green alleys,” streets that have a wide, green swath marked for bicycles.

After work, she can put her bike on a rack on a TriMet bus and pedal from her bus stop to home.

“I’m not intimidated by traffic,” Herrigel said about her commute. “I also am not aggressive.”

Her bike trip is relatively safe because officials and activists have worked for years to make Portland more livable for all ages. The city was the first in the U.S. named to the Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities by the World Health Organization. It’s also part of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.

What does an age-friendly, livable community mean? Elaine Friesen-Strang, 60, an AARP volunteer after a career in social services, lists these goals: “safe, walkable streets; age-friendly housing; transportation options; access to needed services; and meaningful involvement in those communities.”

City leaders have long acknowledged the importance of public transit, bicycling and walking, Herrigel said. The city stopped a proposed freeway and persuaded the federal government to instead put millions of dollars into a light rail system, and it turned a four-lane highway into a waterfront park.

Between 1993 and 2008, the city spent $100 million on bicycling infrastructure, according to Portlander Jeff Mapes in his book Pedaling Revolution. In 2007, a survey found that about 5 percent of the city’s commuters traveled by bicycle.

AARP Oregon is seeking volunteers to help make city streets safer. Participants will conduct “walkability audits” of neighborhoods to check on crosswalks, streetlights, visibility of signs and whether cars often speed in an area, then suggest improvements. Potential volunteers can learn more at aarp.org/or.

“Portland enjoys a unique position on livability and age-friendly issues, but there’s much work still to be done,” said Bandana Shrestha, AARP associate state director for community outreach.

New bridge, but no cars
In September, a new $135 million bridge over the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing, is scheduled to open for pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, streetcars and light rail—but not cars and trucks.

“We believe it is the first of its kind in the United States,” said Mary Fetsch, spokeswoman for the TriMet regional transit agency.

The results go beyond the practical. Bike lanes and other trails “also expand our boundaries,” Friesen-Strang said. “People who live close to bike paths are more likely to be active.”

Friesen-Strang has worked as a volunteer on Sunday Parkways events, which began in 2008. On different Sundays from May to September, the city blocks off a section of neighborhood streets to motorized traffic.

“People of all ages and abilities can walk, run and roll. It’s fun,” Friesen-Strang said. In 2014, about 108,000 people took part.

Springfield, in the Willamette Valley, has been demonstrating what can be done to make a city of about 60,000 more livable, said Niel Laudati, Springfield’s community relations manager.

The Willamalane Park and Recreation District developed a path where runners, walkers, bicyclists and people with disabilities all have access to a route along the Willamette River. Emerald Express (known as EmX) buses, serving Springfield and Eugene, run every 10 minutes during the day on weekdays, allowing people to get quickly to shops, cafes, hospitals and other services.

Almost all of these pursuits require partnerships and volunteers. In addition to AARP and the Institute on Aging at Portland State University, Friesen-Strang cited groups such as Elders in Action and the Coalition for a Livable Future.

Personal engagement provides its own reward, she said: “I know that I am helping make our community a better place.”

Dan Hortsch is a writer living in Portland.

 

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