Going Carfree

A conference in Portland says “Live Free or Drive.”

A biking event in Portland, Oregon. Image courtesy of Carfree Portland.

What if the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway had never been built? What would the sections of New York it bisects look like now? Clarence Eckerson, Jr. poses these questions in his short film, The Mt. Hood Freeway Defeat.

To answer his queries, Eckerson visits Portland, Oregon, where Robert Moses had also proposed a neighborhood-slicing freeway in the 1950s as part of a region-wide freeway network. Resident opposition successfully halted the project in the mid-1970s. The freeways slated for construction after the Mt. Hood project got nixed as well. Today, ghost ramps leading to nowhere (or, in one case, converted to a bike path) can be found throughout Portland. The most enduring legacy of the Mt. Hood defeat, however, is Portland’s exemplary light-rail system, funded in part by money diverted from the planned freeways.

This week, transit planners, policy makers, activists, and enthusiasts from around the world, Eckerson included, gather in Portland to envision not just a city but a world less dependent on the automobile at the World Carfree Network‘s annual Towards Carfree Cities conference. Organized by Carfree Portland (motto: “Live Free or Drive”), the conference opened yesterday with Depaving Day, in which a 3,000-square-foot asphalt parking lot was broken up to prepare for its conversion to a community greenspace. Participants had a chance to decorate their own piece of pet asphalt, build cairns, and play hopscotch, all with live musical accompaniment. Ultimately, the lot will include a rainwater harvesting system, an extensive garden, and a patio.

Sessions at Portland State University begin today with free public panels and talks, including a discussion on the Mt. Hood Freeway defeat as well as testimonials from carfree families, an overview of Portland’s City Repair Project —which grew out of a neighborhood initiative to turn a street intersection into a public square—and street conversion design workshops. Wednesday and Thursday include panels on pedicabs, car reduction strategies in Europe, New York’s Livable Streets movement, and city life after freeways fell in Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Portland (in addition to shelving the Mt. Hood project, the city tore down the Harbor Drive Freeway). There’s also a session on “The Battle for San Francisco,” a comprehensive look at the city’s bicycle rights and “complete streets” movements dating back to the genesis of Critical Mass in the late 1970s.

Remaining true to the ethos that a carfree city does not mean a static city, the conference will also feature several mobile workshops, including a dead freeways bicycle tour and a bicycle ‘zine reading. Auto-free entertainment abounds as well, with transit-themed films, a square dance in the street, and a performance by Portland’s mini-bike dance troupe, Sprockettes.

Although the conference is intended to spur discussion on a range of auto alternatives, panels and activities skew heavily toward the bicycle-centric. Conference coordinator Elly Blue notes a practical reason for this: “Bikes are fast and flexible, making them often the best option in sprawling New World cities that were built for cars.”

This is the first time that the event has been held in the U.S. and Blue says the timing couldn’t be better. “This conference is coming to North America at the same time as four-dollar gas,” she says. “People are already searching for solutions, ways to change their habits, and policies at a broader level. We have a tremendous opportunity here to help.”

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