The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is not only tasked with managing how people get around the city, it also oversees how commercial goods and services flow through Portland. With a new plan, PBOT envisions a greener, safer future for urban freight movement in Portland.
Last week, the Portland City Council adopted the 2040 Freight plan, embracing PBOT's vision for future urban freight movement. The plan dictates the city’s urban freight strategy, policies, and objectives over the next 20 years.
To increase safety and efficiency while reducing carbon emissions, transportation planners are exploring everything from e-bikes as cargo carriers, improved freight train crossing, and potentially carving out new, dedicated lanes for buses and trucks. The freight plan lays out the agency's long-range project goals and aims to ensure efficient, safe and sustainable transport of goods in Portland.
Though the word “freight” might conjure up imagery of large shipping vessels set for the open sea (and that does represent a chunk of Portland’s freight industry, thanks to the Columbia-Willamette river system and the city’s robust trade relationship with East Asia), most Portlanders experience the freight industry in more mundane ways. Anytime you buy dinner ingredients from Fred Meyer, order cat food delivery from Amazon Prime, or eat out at a restaurant, you’re engaging with urban freight.
Likewise, anyone who travels on Portland’s streets—whether by car, bus, bike, or on foot—has to share space with cargo-carrying vehicles traveling within or through the city. That’s where PBOT’s freight plan comes in.
The transportation bureau's current freight plan was adopted in 2006. With the 2040 plan, PBOT wants to signal a new era for Portland’s freight system and change the way commercial vehicles get around the city. Planners will need to take stock of what’s not working right now, and craft strategies to enable a safer, more environmentally-conscious future for freight.
The trouble with trucks
While goods are also transported in and out of Portland via rivers, the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads, and on planes through PDX’s air freight hub, trucking reigns supreme as the predominant mode of cargo transportation in the region. Much of the 2040 Freight plan examines how those trucks have had adverse impacts on Portland’s population as the city has grown to become one of the leading trade regions in the country.
One negative byproduct of heavy truck traffic is increased wear and tear on Portland’s pavement: an especially pertinent issue as PBOT suffers from a worsening financial crisis leading the bureau to consider major cuts to its road repair budget.
“Heavy trucks put more stress on roads and infrastructure…this deterioration of the pavement can compromise road safety, in particular for smaller vehicles and cyclists,” the plan states.
Additionally, cargo-hauling trucks on city streets can be dangerous for Portland’s road users, especially people walking and biking. According to the 2040 Freight Plan, “traffic crashes involving trucks have increased over the past twenty years, and more sharply since 2010 as e-commerce has grown.”
The plan points out that even if freight crashes occur less often than crashes involving standard passenger vehicles, it’s important to address perceived safety as well.
“Many people don’t feel comfortable walking across a street with heavy freight traffic, or riding a bicycle next to trucks,” the plan states. “Improving the built environment to reduce truck-involved crashes should include solutions to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, which would increase safety while increasing the number of people traveling on foot and bicycle.”
The plan also points to the community impact of “insufficient and inadequate space for safe loading/unloading and parking operations,” which forces heavy vehicles to “end up parking in unauthorized areas, blocking intersections, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, or congesting local streets.”
In order to address on-street safety issues, the plan proposes near-term “geometric improvements” in industrial areas including near the Brooklyn Yard, the Central Eastside Industrial District, and the Columbia Corridor. Such treatments could include truck-only or ‘bus and freight’ lanes, and turning radius improvements.
The plan also calls for safer pedestrian and bike crossing on industrial roads, with added traffic signals or grade-separated crosswalks, and a physical separation of bike and pedestrian areas. This suggestion is notable because the majority of bike lanes in Portland aren’t physically separated, even though the city’s bicycle plan calls for it and studies show bikeway separation leads to increased ridership.
Another problem with trucks: Diesel emissions from trucking create unhealthy air quality for Portland residents—especially people who live near freeways and priority truck streets—and they’re also a major contributor to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Data shows commercial diesel truck emissions pump a disproportionate amount of carbon into the atmosphere, compared to vehicles using regular gasoline.
At a July 12 City Council meeting, Portland resident Lynn Felton testified on behalf of the Argay Terrace Neighborhood Association and Parkrose-Argay Opportunity Coalitions, asking city commissioners to consider the impact of truck freight in outer Northeast Portland.
Felton said people in the Argay Terrace and Parkrose neighborhoods are concerned about how the planned Prologis Freight Warehouse, set to take over the old Kmart site on Northeast Sandy Blvd and 122nd Avenue, will affect residents of an area already blighted by poor air quality from nearby industrial activity. The old K-Mart lot was the site of a recent fire that billowed smoke across Northeast Portland, further cementing toxic air concerns.
“We all know the movement of goods is fundamental to a healthy, growing economy…[and] the world of freight is changing very fast. Clients expect goods to appear faster than ever before,” Felton said. “But…building a potential 24/7 freight warehouse in a residential neighborhood—15 feet from where Portlanders live and a block from the playing fields at Parkrose High School— is wrong.”
According to the 2040 Freight Plan’s Diesel Pollution chart, the Argay Terrace and Parkrose neighborhoods are both among the areas in Portland most impacted by diesel particulate matter. Prologis warehouse opponents have also mentioned potential negative street safety effects stemming from heavy truck traffic on their neighborhood streets.
The plan doesn’t specifically address the proposed Prologis warehouse. But it does mention the balance planners must weigh when deciding whether or not to build new shipping distribution centers, and where.
PBOT planners noted the increase in online shopping and demand for quick delivery has “led to an increase of warehouse, distribution center, and fulfillment center development closer to the urban area.” Those facilities must be near key freight transportation routes and their location also depends on zoning regulations and land availability.
Freight facilities can “bring economic opportunities” to local communities, but also come with increased traffic conflicts and environmental risks. To mitigate air quality impacts from trucks, the city is exploring creating its own air quality program, or collaborating more with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority to combat the impacts of diesel and industrial emissions.
In an effort to reduce the number of semi trucks traversing city roads, city planners are looking to cargo bikes and other micro-delivery devices. PBOT planners make the case that in certain circumstances, last-mile urban deliveries can be done by people using much smaller and more eco-friendly vehicles, which would reduce wear and tear on the roads, improve safety, and reduce diesel emissions.
The plan suggests PBOT research first and last mile delivery improvement strategies, including a commercial cargo bike pilot program. Cargo bike deliverers would likely have a home base at a micro-delivery hub, where goods are transferred from larger freight trucks to bikes, similar to the model used by Portland-based B-Line Delivery.
Such work will get a trial run in PBOT's upcoming Zero-Emission Delivery Zone pilot project, which will require users of three truck loading zones in downtown Portland to utilize emissions-free vehicles, like electric trucks, cars or cargo bikes.
Freight train fiasco
Then there’s the trains. Freight trains only carry a small portion of the region’s goods, compared to trucks, but most Portlanders have seen increased train backups and delays, particularly in the Central Eastside. Residents and business owners have been vocal about the negative effects of street-level railroad crossings in their neighborhoods.
PBOT is currently studying ways to reduce the impacts of Central Eastside railroad crossings, likely with grade separation for trains and people traveling on the street. The freight plan also points to track relocation projects as a potential solution for traffic congestion caused by trains.
The 2040 Freight plan also addresses another train problem: seismic resiliency. Many of Portland's railroad facilities weren’t built to withstand a major earthquake, which would lead to massive property damage in the case of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. An earthquake would have a particularly devastating impact in North Portland, which is home to several at-risk railroad crossings and the train tunnel through the Portsmouth neighborhood, all of which are likely to be severely damaged in a seismic event.
“Liquefaction or shaking could compromise the current ingress/egress routes (a series of non- seismic resilient bridges) that are essential to the flow of people and goods, such as medical care and supplies," the plan states. "Thus, ensuring emergency access to this part of Portland during a crisis is vital to improving transportation equity."
The freight plan prioritizes replacing the Burgard Street Viaduct in St. Johns to make it resilient, and including pedestrian and bicycle facilities at North Columbia Boulevard over the Union Pacific railroad bridge. The plan recognizes all railroad bridges in the seismically-sensitive North Portland need to be replaced.
Plan implementation: Urban freight’s future
While some of the projects bookmarked in the 2040 Freight plan have secured funding from state and federal sources already, many of PBOT's urban freight goals are currently unfunded. The plan separates projects into "priority actions," which are recommended for implementation in the next one to five years, or six to 10 years, and "opportunity" actions to be implemented within 20 years.
Given PBOT’s ongoing funding crisis, there’s no guarantee every project or goal in the plan will be implemented. Other PBOT modal plans, like the bicycle and pedestrian master plans, have been on the books for years without full implementation. And since PBOT can also only handle what's under the city's jurisdiction, it doesn't have control over every problem impacting freight movement in the city.
Portland transportation advocate David Stein, who served on the 2040 Freight Committee, spoke to this concern at the July 12 City Council meeting.
"I encourage you to provide the funding to PBOT and implement this and other plans that we say are important," Stein said. "We have a lot of plans...We need to prioritize this, and prioritizing means more than just platitudes. It means money."