First Stop helps St. Louis tap Portland's bicycling brain trust

Submitted by: Adriane Ackerman
Student Assistant, First Stop Portland

At First Stop Portland, we’re an ambitious group. We facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges about best practices between Portland's experts and leaders the world over. We promote Portland State University as a leader in the global conversation about sustainability. We help cities achieve their goals by sharing lessons from Portland, our successes and our failures.

Since our ultimate goal is successful knowledge exchange, it is particularly rewarding when a group asks us to host a hands-on, working and planning experience for them, in which the Portland model can be influential and the fruits of the exchange are tangible and immediate. This week we were afforded just such an opportunity as we facilitated a design charrette for alternative transportation leaders from St. Louis, MO, heading into the final phases of a major bike route expansion project.

Local experts from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) and the City of Portland met with a visiting bicycle path task-force from St. Louis, MO, to share lessons learned from Portland’s last 30 years of shared-use path development. The coalition working on the paths included government officials, volunteer community members, as well as representatives from Trailnet, St. Louis’ premiere organization promoting regional healthy, active living through multi-modal transportation development. Also adding to the conversation were Portland State students from our Urban and Regional Planning programs, interested in regional planning and sharing their citizen cyclist experiences.

To begin, Jennifer Allen, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Trailnet, gave an overview of St. Louis – its strengths and challenges as a city and site for community integration through sustainable transportation. She explained that, while St. Louis is much smaller than Portland with a population that fluctuates less predictably, it is comparable in its high rates of civic engagement thanks to its “little big town” feel. With three of their 28 aldermen present at the event, the engagement around transportation options was palpably clear. Jennifer also noted that in St. Louis, “...we are willing to tax ourselves for great amenities,” meaning that funding for public works is not prohibitively difficult to come by.

Jennifer Allen, Trailnet, explains development, density
and population fluctuation in St. Louis.
After the presentation, we broke into smaller working groups with the shared goals of (1) conceptualizing the most important planning components to consider in the final phases of development and (2) where the actual bike routes should be to best serve the city. This is where Portland's cycling pioneers really took the lead and shared the insight that the Missourians were seeking.

Portland and St. Louis experts, PSU students and First Stop staff
collaborate, dream and design.
Roger Geller, Bicycle Coordinator at Portland Bureau of Transportation, advised in response to delegate concerns about bringing the planning to underrepresented communities: “To inspire true community engagement, you need to tap into the community’s natural channels of communication and speak the community’s language.”

Roger Geller listens and responds to a community liaison explaining
the challenges of engaging ridership in their neighborhood.
Gerik Kransky, Advocacy Director for the BTA, reiterated this point. “The best practice is to meet them where they are,” encouraging the community liaisons from St. Louis to host their planning meetings in places accessible to the most marginalized populations.

Gerik Kransky, BTA, explains best practices in
community engagement.
While tensions around actual path placement began to run high, BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky culled his 25+ years of transportation advocacy experience to remind participants of their expressed collective goal and to encourage both long-term planning and immediate gains to be considered as factors in their path placement. “Consider the employment hubs and connect to universities.” (An observation the Portland State contingent greatly appreciated!)

Rob Sadowsky, BTA, offers reflective concepts to consider
from the 10,000ft view when planning and placing bicycle infrastructure.
As a Portlander, my proudest moment came when Roger explained that our city government works under the “expectation that we will bring ideas to the community for feedback during the design process,” and that our “robust and engaged neighborhoods and communities will help us make the decisions, together.”

First Stop connecting local leaders, the university and students
like myself to build a more robust brain trust.
It is just this sort of knowledge (dare I say wisdom?) that First Stop Portland aims to share with other cities so that engaged public participation can become as sustainable as the green infrastructure it supports. We so look forward to watching our St. Louis friends further develop their sustainable transportation infrastructure and are thrilled to have facilitated their process along the way!

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