Are Car-Free Bridges the Future?

On Portland’s newest bridge, there’s just one rule: no cars allowed. Other cities may follow the progressive city’s lead.
December 2016
The Tilikum Crossing was built for trains, buses, cyclists and pedestrians only. (Flickr/Atomic Taco)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

From a distance, it’s beautiful -- white spears with delicate white strands holding up an arched roadway across the Willamette River. It’s only when you get closer that it hits you: no cars. There are buses, trains, cyclists and walkers, but no cars and no trucks. This is a big new bridge across a major river in a major American city, and cars were left off the invitation list. It’s probably the first of its kind in a century.

The Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Ore., is in a city and state that have been at the forefront of ambitious planning efforts for decades. Since at least 1973, when the state’s landmark growth boundary law was passed, Portland has made itself a denser, more urban city within a state that strongly prioritizes protecting both the environment and agriculture.

The bridge, which opened in 2015 (and whose name means “people” in the local Chinook language), fits into this agenda. Will other cities copy Portland? Will it work on its own terms? Before we can answer that, we need to understand better why Portland built it.

First, it wasn’t actually Portland that built it, but TriMet, the regional transit agency formed back in 1969. When you look at Portland, what you see is a state, region and city that have been innovative in government bureaucracy and institutions, which has allowed it to be creative and forward-thinking in policy and planning. TriMet, although regional in scope, is a state agency that answers to a board appointed by the governor.

So why do a bridge without car traffic? Planners told me this allowed them to pursue several priorities more directly. “For years the political calculus was that you had to get car and truck drivers on board to get political leaders to buy into projects for trains, bikers and so forth,” says Ethan Seltzer, a professor at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. “Tilikum says, ‘Not so fast. We can do transit projects on their own merits.’”

Those merits were, first, that the transit system needed another crossing over the Willamette River. Another crossing allowed TriMet to construct more of a network of lines; before Tilikum, all the transit lines went over one old bridge to the north.

A second reason is earthquakes. Tilikum is the only bridge in the region built to modern seismic standards. If a big one hits, it may be the only one left standing.

And third, the bridge fits with and encourages the redevelopment of the east and west banks of the river, which are old industrial brownfield areas. The western side has already bloomed with tall condominiums, and the Oregon Health and Science University has many of its buildings on the west bank. The eastern redevelopment area has the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

These are all good reasons, but a bridge without cars has other advantages too. By building the bridge only for transit, the current roads, which are limited in capacity, will get very little new traffic. And you can move a lot more people across a bridge on trains, bikes, buses and foot than you can by putting them into individual cars. This means you can put more businesses and homes in an area, with fewer parking lots and roads.

“A bridge should be about moving people,” says Veronica O. Davis, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Transportation Policy Committee. “To some extent, we’ve been using the wrong metrics,” she says, referring to her profession’s previous, longstanding inclination to look first at handling cars when judging bridge or road utility and efficiency. Davis says she expects other cities to follow Portland’s lead, either with new bridges or by retrofitting older ones for more transit.

That may be. But when I visited the new bridge recently, I couldn’t help but notice some missed opportunities. Viewed up close, it loses much of its grace. There’s  too much cold, hard concrete. I know it may be sacrilegious to say, but I wonder if TriMet should have spent more money on it. The final price tag, $135 million, seems remarkably low. Could TriMet have built a lighter, airier bridge with more innovative materials and more skilled workmanship? Infrastructure should be built for the ages.

And the redevelopment at the ends of the bridge so far seems better in theory than in practice. On the western side, the lanes of the Tilikum quickly meet a tangle of highways and freeways. I saw few opportunities for creating inviting, vibrant spaces. The South Waterfront area of tall condos looked more like a part of Houston or Dallas, yet another example of the difficulty of building any new version of a walkable, urban area even in a place as progressive as Portland.

Give it time, planners told me.

Whatever happens, once again Portland and Oregon are setting a direction that others might follow. In a few decades, Portland has gone from a sleepy, faded industrial city of parking lots to a place people move to for its lifestyle of biking, transit and artisanal breweries. It’s got a booming economy and soaring real estate prices. The Tilikum fits into all of this. Time will tell if it fits in well.