(Photos © J. Maus)
Alberta Street wasn’t officially closed to cars tonight, but it sure felt that way.
For the first time ever, the City of Portland — working with neighborhood activist Magnus Johannesson, TriMet, the Police Bureau, and stakeholder groups — agreed to test the waters of discouraging car traffic on NE Alberta Street during the popular Last Thursday event so that people could walk and bike undisturbed by the dangers of passing motor vehicles.
The result was thousands of Portlanders who were able to experience the event without being squished onto the sidewalk or hassled by police for being in the street.
As crowds increased through the night, people got comfortable with the idea of roaming down the middle of the street. Once the crowds got thick enough, the street belonged to the people and very few cars even tried to drive through.
“It’s going exactly the way I was hoping it was going to happen.”
–Neighborhood activist and business owner Magnus Johannesson who hopes to eventually make Last Thursday completely carfree
I mounted a bus parked on the street between 24th and 25th streets to get some aerial views and the street was covered with people as far as I could see.
Police were on hand to make sure everything went smoothly. When a young man yelled excessively at someone in a car to go down a different street, I watched an officer approach him and explain that the confrontation was unnecessary and that his actions could “ruin this for everyone”.
The cop was right and he handled the situation perfectly. The idea tonight was not to confront people in cars (one bad confrontation would bring PR that could kill the entire effort), but rather to help coax them off Alberta without incident.
But even with massive crowds and tactful discouragement, some folks still drove down the street. For them, a volunteer crew of tall-bikers was at the ready to help ferry them along, clearing a path so they could get through undeterred. The entire night I only saw one woman in a car that seemed perturbed by the whole thing.
I talked to another woman in a car (after she flipped me off for taking her photo) who seemed to have gotten stuck in the crowds by accident and she turned off Alberta as soon as she could.
Unlike in my past recollection of the event, the Police did not hassle folks who were in the street. They seemed to be acting on orders to just stand by and let people flow out into road (as long as they weren’t carrying alcohol of course). If a car showed up, the officers would help guide it onto a side-street.
Volunteers also were assigned to encourage people in cars to turn off Alberta. They held signs that read, “Last Thursday. No Cars Please”. While I observed, the signs didn’t seem to have much impact and most of the people in cars continued on Alberta; but as the night wore on, the crowds became impassable and the people in cars wisely decided to simply turn off Alberta and take another route.
Local resident John North (he lives two blocks off Alberta) was walking his dog and he said, “I’m so happy this is finally happening… this is amazing!” North told me he’s lived there for eight years and he thinks the street should get an official street closure permit for Last Thursday. “It’s not that big a deal,” he said, and then added, “and the speed limit should be reduced to 20 mph [it’s now 30].”
Johannesson, the neighborhood activist who got in a bit of hot water with the City over his guerrilla carfree activism last month, was delighted with how the night was going. “It’s going exactly the way I was hoping it was going to happen,” he exclaimed from the seat of a pedicab at NE 24th and Alberta, “The cars and pedestrians are staying away from each other and whoever wants to be on the street is allowed to. Very smooth, I like it. We couldn’t hope for a better outcome.”
Johannesson has played a key role in making this happen. He pushed on City leaders to recognize the importance of a carfree event and he has met with them over the past few weeks to hammer out a compromise. He is working hard to prove to the City that his grassroots style and vision for the event’s future is in line with what the community wants and that he can successfully pull it off.
While the City isn’t ready yet to grant a full street closure permit (although I wouldn’t say that’s out of the question in the future), they did put it in writing that this month volunteers could “help deter non-local traffic” and suggest that they, “take an alternate route.” Along with that, TriMet agreed to re-route their buses off of Alberta Street from 7:00 to midnight.
From here, the City plans to meet and discuss how the event went. While it seemed to go well from my perspective, there could very well be some complaints to address and there are other issues to contend with — like how the vendors and business owners feel about this new-style Last Thursday.
For Johannesson, he says he’s already formed a new non-profit to help continue his carfree event momentum; now he’s looking for a few board members. If you’re interested send an email to magnus [at] urbanfocuspdx [dot] com.
Were you out there tonight? What was your experience?
UPDATE: Check out the short (:48s) video below: