Showdown looms for major bike parking policy update

Hot off the presses.

Portland has adopted goals to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent (Climate Action Plan), make 70 percent of trips by something other than driving alone (Comprehensive Plan), and reach a 25 percent cycling usage rate (Transportation System Plan) by 2035.

To reach these goals we must have ample, accessible, and secure bicycle parking available citywide. And it was with these goals in mind that the City of Portland embarked on their Bicycle Parking Code Update project in 2016. Our existing code hasn’t had a wholesale update since 1996 when about 200,000 fewer people lived here and our official bicycle commute mode split was a measly 1.2 percent (it’s at around 7 percent today).

But the city’s proposals have run up against concerns from real estate developers and our local chamber of commerce. Companies and organizations that construct housing and office buildings worry they’ll lose money if they devote too much space to bicycle parking. Precious square footage in Portland’s hot real estate market can be put to more valuable use, they argue, as retail space or more housing units. The Portland Business Alliance echoes those concerns and says current bicycling rates are so low they don’t even merit the need for more bike parking.

“As for the cost of doing this…I’m equally interested in the cost of not doing this.”
— Chris Smith, Portland Planning and Sustainability Commissioner

At the heart of the code update is an increase in the number of long (employee) and short-term (visitor) spaces new buildings will be required to have. The new policy brings the minimum amount of spaces for a residential building to 1.5 per unit (up from 1) and 1 space per 1,800 square feet for office buildings in the central city (there are two geographic tiers based on different cycling mode split expectations).

Several proposals didn’t make it into the final draft of changes. A requirement for electrical outlets to charge e-bikes was passed over after staff realized it fit better in the building code instead of the zoning code and there’s also a chance it could be included in an upcoming city effort to improve EV charging. You can see a one-page summary of the proposed changes here (PDF).

The most contentious aspects of the city’s proposal have to do with “in-unit” requirements and affordable housing.

The current code allows developers to put all the required bike parking inside the dwelling unit. During their outreach process, PBOT learned that some builders would simply stick a cheap hook next to bed or in a crowded corner to meet the requirement. And some residents complained about losing their damage deposits after bringing wet, greasy bikes into rooms.



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With support from the 2030 Bike Plan, which recommended prohibiting in-unit residential bike parking altogether, PBOT initially proposed that none of the required, long-term parking could be provided within a unit. But according to the proposed draft, PBOT staff “heard loud and clear from the development community” that this policy was untenable. If developers are forced to use square footage outside units for bike parking they say they’ll lose money that could otherwise be earned from having more retail or residential space.

PBOT and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability conducted a “Bicycle Parking Spatial and Economic Study” (in a memo you can find on page 64 of this PDF) that found the proposed bike parking requirement scenarios could result in a decrease in net operating income of between 1 and 4 percent.

So they’ve come to a compromise. The current proposal states that 20 percent of the long-term parking can be providing inside dwelling units (if certain standards for quality and access are met). “This proposal moves toward the Bicycle Plan policy goal,” states the draft proposal, “while still responding to the concerns from the development community.”

Then affordable housing advocates and companies got wind of the proposal. They worried that the mandate for 80 percent of long-term parking to be outside the unit would result in fewer housing units being built and — because of the more stringent regulations they work under — could even jeopardize entire projects.

“While there’s a recognition of the need to provide affordable transportation options for residents, there were concerns on how to balance these objectives with the overwhelming need for affordable housing.”
— Liz Hormann, PBOT

PBOT project manager Liz Hormann presented the proposal at the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission meeting yesterday. “While there’s a recognition of the need to provide affordable transportation options for residents,” she said, “there were concerns on how to balance these objectives with the overwhelming need for affordable housing.”

PBOT has reacted to that need by carving out an exemption. The latest proposal says up to 50 percent of the spaces in an affordable housing development can be in-unit. And for sites with 10 units or less, all of the required long-term spaces can be inside the unit.

This backpedal has raised eyebrows of several PSC members. Commissioner Chris Smith sees a clear line between quality bike parking and our mode share goals. “It’s not sufficient to just build bikeways, we also have to have end-of-trip facilities,” he said during yesterday’s meeting. He called the current in-unit bike parking policy a “strange artifact of our code” that we should have axed in the 1990s. Smith thinks in-unit bike parking doesn’t encourage cycling and he wants city policy to strongly discourage developers from providing it. “What we’re doing is reducing our requirements by 20 percent and saying you only have to build 80 percent of what’s needed to reach our goals,” he said.

In response to PBOT economic analysis, Smith said, “As for the cost of doing this…I’m equally interested in the cost of not doing this.”

Comment on the Proposed Draft

  • Click the “Testify” button on the Map App
  • Send snail mail to Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission, Bicycle Parking Testimony, 1900 SW 4th Ave., Ste. 7100 Portland, OR 97201
  • Attend public hearing 1/22/19, 5:00 pm at 1900 SW 4th Ave., Suite 2500 (2nd Floor)

Official project website.

Smith also thinks an exemption for affordable housing is the wrong way to go. “I think what we’re doing there is just providing substandard bicycle parking for the households that need access to affordable transportation most. That’s the single thing in this proposal that troubles me the most.”

And he has support among the PSC. Three other commissioners echoed his concerns. PSC Chair Katherine Schultz said the affordable housing exemption is, “Curious and unfortunate.” “I get we’re trying to balance all these competing goals, but it absolutely seems of all places that’s where we need to accommodate bikes.”

Portland Business Alliance President and CEO Andrew Hoan disagrees. In a letter sent to PBOT and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in October, he cited Portland’s recent cycling plateau. “While we agree more can be done to encourage this mode of transportation… imposing rigid requirements around rack design, placement and security are not an effective answer to the problem,” he wrote. Here’s more from Hoan’s letter:

“… ground floor bicycle parking requirements can cool nearby retail activity as they are now competing uses for limited ground floor space. Our other concern with this proposed update is with the level of detail in the code change, the square footage that it would needlessly consume in buildings, and specific requirements developers are being asked to adhere to. The current proposal would require portions of buildings be used for unused bicycle parking stalls that would be better utilized for needed housing and/or retail and associated employment. While we recognize that transportation costs are, on average, the second highest cost for households in our area, this proposal also has the potential to negatively impact affordable housing, assisted living and retail developments. Low-income communities are the most reliant on their personal vehicles; monthly mass transit passes are not affordable for many Portlanders. Housing and mixed use developers must have as much rentable or saleable space as possible in order to make their projects pencil out financially – if not, housing costs will increase and housing supply will not meet demand. At a time when our city is experiencing a housing emergency, this proposal seems to run counter to efforts to make living here more affordable.”

Schultz and the rest of the PSC is likely to hear more from developers and business interests when the Bike Parking Code Update is back in front of them for a public hearing on January 22nd.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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