Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on July 3rd, 2008 at 1:03 pm
Sunday Parkways — an event that created a six-mile, carfree loop through North Portland — was nothing short of an historic day for our city.
Has Portland ever seen such a large-scale, accessible, and free event that promoted neighborhood unity and public health with such fun and success? Thousands of people of all shapes, colors, sizes, and classes showed up to revel in their public space like never before.
In just a few hours, Sunday Parkways catapulted the idea of “carfree” from the fringes of anti-car activism and drove it right into the hearts and minds of thousands of regular, everyday Portlanders.
“It was pretty complicated to pull this off… we wanted to get it right.”
–Sunday Parkways mastermind Linda Ginenthal
So, why not do it again? And soon?
After, “Isn’t this great!?”, the first thing out of nearly everyone’s mouth during and after the event was, “So when is the next one?”
Sources tell me that the Mayor’s office received 44 phone calls after the event, and 39 of them were positive.
But unfortunately, the official line from the Office of Transportation, who are still beaming about the event’s success is, “Next year”.
They cite the a litany of excuses. Not enough money, not enough staff to pull it off, other projects to attend to, and so on.
Linda Ginenthal is the program manager in the Transportation Options division within Portland’s Office of Transportation. She’s the one who spearheaded Sunday Parkways after being inspired by a presentation about Bogota, Colombia’s “ciclovia” at a transportation conference in 2006.
In an interview last week, she told me the reason they planned just one event (versus several, like every other city is doing) had to do primarily with a lack of staff resources. The event took an immense effort to pull off because, as Ginenthal put it, they, “Wanted to get it right.”
She shared the many logistical headaches and lessons they learned;
“It was pretty complicated to pull this off… we really learned a lot about how to do the traffic control and how to match 250 volunteers with 200 different jobs in about two weeks time.”
Ginenthal also shared one of the main reasons the event worked; “the neighbors were ready.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from covering PDOT over the years is that they are masters at making (or trying to make) everyone happy.
Ginenthal and her crack Options staff heard loud and clear from Commissioner Adams’ office that this event would only get the green-light if everyone was on board.
So, they spent a year planning a six-hour event.
They sent out two separate mailers, placed door hangers on every house on the route, planted yard signs, attended hundreds of neighborhood meetings, and even met individually leaders of churches on the route.
Even now, after the event was a runaway success, Ginenthal says Options still plans to follow-up with all the neighbors to get feedback.
This staff workload issue was made even more severe due to a new wrinkle in a state-funded contract to manage Portland’s Safe Routes to Schools program. Due to a recent contractual change, the Options division will take over management of the program (it was formerly managed by Alta Planning).
Ginenthal says that this change with the management of the Safe Routes to Schools program made it hard to envision being busy with Sunday Parkways:
“Taking that on when we’re already busy up to our necks, and having everything ready [for Safe Routes] by when school starts… that was definitely on my radar in thinking about Sunday Parkways.”
Beyond the toll on human resources, Ginenthal says funding is another hurdle.
To offset costs in the future (this first one was $150,00), Ginenthal says they’re kicking around the idea of having communities put together proposals to host a Sunday Parkways event. The proposal would include information like which route they’d like to see, what neighborhood associations would support it, what vendors would come, and how much money they could pull together to make it happen.
It’s clear Ginenthal would love to do more this year, but she also knows that her current staffing levels and budget make it an unlikely prospect.
But it seems to me that it comes down to priorities and political will (sound familiar?).
Multiple Sunday Parkways events should be a permanent part of our City. And the good news is that future events would be much easier and cheaper to pull off.
A large chunk of the $150,000 spent on this first one was for marketing and promotion; something they no longer have to do due to the positive word of mouth and media coverage. I also think that with the massive success of the first one, PDOT would have no problem finding private sponsorships, donations, and grants from a variety of sources.
One Options staffer told me they’d need even more volunteers next time — close to 300. “Do you think we could get that many?”, I was asked. Most definitely. With such a great buzz from the first one, I said, they’d have to turn people away.
Also, with a successful template to work from, staff hours for future events would be much lower.
When PDOT came to Commissioner Adams’ office with the Sunday Parkways idea they were told the only way it could be done is if all stakeholders were on board. Well, as we’ve seen with the mountains of positive media coverage and little to no complaints about the event, that should no longer be an issue either.
At this point, Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, and many other cities have multiple Sunday Parkways-like events planned. So why not Portland?
It seems to be a matter of pressure. This event has proven successful beyond anyone’s expectations and the entire city wants more of them.
The decision makers in this City (all five of them) need to hear loud and clear that Sunday Parkways is not simply another annual event like Bridge Pedal or the Portland Marathon, but that it’s for everyone, and that it’s an essential part of living in Portland.