Carfree momentum from City Hall?

[Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on Friday 10/10 but has been re-posted after a server outage.]

My ride with Commissioner Randy Leonard

Commissioner Leonard on his ride
home from City Hall in
May 2007.
(Photo © J. Maus)

According to an article by Amy Ruiz in this week’s Portland Mercury, Commissioner Randy Leonard is “intrigued” by carfree public spaces — something he saw during a recent trip to Copenhagen.

Ruiz reports that during the question and answer session of a forum sponsored by the Oregon Environmental Council on October 1st, Leonard brought up carfree spaces in response to a question about congestion pricing.

From the Mercury:

“Joking that his answer was “going to get me in trouble,” Leonard made a bold announcement: After visiting Copenhagen earlier this year, he has been “quietly looking at those cities” that have created public spaces by eliminating auto traffic on certain streets. While it’s not a congestion toll, Leonard’s “intrigued” by cities that have “opened up parts of their city to just pedestrians… and [I] would like to actually look at doing something toward that end in the next four years.””

PSU Pres. Wim Wievel's first day-5.jpg

PSU President Wim Wiewel (L)
and mayor-elect Sam Adams
at the South Park Blocks.

Ruiz reports that Leonard is eyeing the South Park Blocks (around Portland State University) as a possible carfree area but that it’s all just talk at this point.

However, given the current and future make-up of City Council, and an Amsterdam native at the helm of PSU, I think a carfree South Park Blocks might be a real possibility.

The growing impact of Copenhagen and Amsterdam (another place with a people-first urban planning perspective) on Portland’s thinking about roadway engineering is worth noting.

In addition to Leonard, Transportation Commissioner and mayor-elect Sam Adams, (whom Leonard has sided with on issues like the re-use of the Sauvie Island Bridge as a bike and pedestrian-only crossing over the 405 freeway) took a trip to Amsterdam back in 2005 (that trip included Adams’ chief of staff Tom Miller and PDOT’s bike coordinator Roger Geller).

Adams also sent the City of Portland’s head traffic engineer, Rob Burchfield, on a fact-finding mission to Copenhagen and Amsterdam that concludes this week.

Blessing of the Bikes-13.jpg

Mayor-elect Sam Adams
Tour de Ladd-8.jpg

Commissioner Nick Fish

If Leonard and Adams are serious about seeking more carfree public spaces downtown, it shouldn’t be too hard to find one more council member to agree with them (thus having a majority). Commissioner Dan Saltzman is head of the Parks bureau (and his chief of staff is an avid bike rider), Commissioner Nick Fish has recently taken to biking, and the final Council seat will be filled by either Amanda Fritz (a nurse, and what could be more healthy that carfree spaces!?), or Charles Lewis, a regular bike commuter who swapped two car parking spaces for bike parking in front of his non-profit business.

2008 has been a banner carfree year in Portland. In June, we hosted a very successful International Carfree Cities Conference, we had our first major carfree street event with Sunday Parkways and more recently, the Last Thursday event on Alberta Street has gone 100% non-motorized. I have a feeling that in 2009, things will only get better for Portland’s carfree possibilities.

(For more on Commissioner Randy Leonard, read about when I joined him for his bike commute home back in May 2007.)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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15 years ago

It sure is wonderful to read the makeup of Portland’s future city council and know that Maus likely has a photo of each of them with a bicycle. It speaks volumes to the organized efforts of BTA, the bikeportland community, and the city’s ethic in general that our city council is accountable to our interest in nonmotorized transit.

15 years ago

I like that we’re thinking big, and thinking positively! 🙂

Todd Boulanger
15 years ago

Hola from the WALK21 conference in Barcelona.

This is great news of what may be happening next.

How about a carfree West Ankeney street? Do not forget these small precar streets that could be rehumanized much more quickly as a pilot.

(PS There are sooo many bikes on the streets of Barcelona now due to the public Bicing bikes and the cost of oil vs. 2 years ago.)

15 years ago

Would love to see more carfree spaces in this city. Even temporary events like the Alberta festival and the Sunday Parkways are great to experience regularly. However, I don’t think we should be so pre-occupied with one place, like the south park blocks, that we spend millions of dollars there at the expense of repaving neighborhood streets or other more critical transportation needs in the city. That said, I’ve been wanting to see the streets on south park blocks become a major (carfree) bicycle and pedestrian spine for the downtown for some time, with separate signals for crossing all those east-west streets like Burnside, Jefferson, Salmon, etc.. I’d support spending $$ for improved connectivity like that. As for carfree “gathering” spaces that don’t necessarily improve connectivity, perhaps that should come out of the parks budget instead of transportation??

15 years ago

Has anyone been in Austin, Texas, on a weekend night? Sixth Street, where the bars are, is carfree Thursday through Sunday nights. Students are bused in from various large apartment complexes around town. It’s an attraction in itself.

What if parts of Oldtown/Chinatown were carfree Friday or Saturday nights?

15 years ago

I’m from Austin and well remember how nice it was when they blocked cars from Sixth St. As Old Town revives, it may start seeing lots more pedestrian traffic, which would make a carfree street helpful. (They already have Everett (is it?) set up as a designated festival street or something, meaning it’s easy to close off for events.) Right now, though, I’d agree that Trendy Third, W Ankeny and Alberta seem to have higher volumes of ped activity. Actually, the city s hould have some numbers on that, and on hot spots for pedestrian/car encounters — anyone know?

I love the idea of the park blocks — north and south — being bike-only routes. I ride them all the time anyway, and of course with PSU students , faculty and staff on bikes all the time, it’s an excellent way to make both biking and walking safer. Plenty of bikers use the actual park walkway instead of the streets, sometimes dodging around pedestrians, and I bet that source of potential conflict would decrease if the streets were car free.

Just think how calming and walkable it’d be to not have cars cruising that area, which includes so many pedestrian destinations (art museum, PSU, performing arts center, historical society, lots of restaurants, churches (which host a lot of performances too), lots of apts. and condos, Safeway, library, farmers market…. And remember there’s a shiny new bike corral at Park and Salmon. It wouldn’t be like Central Park but car-free park blocks would bring a little welcome strip of calm to the center of the city.

Do you think it’d be a good idea to also extend the car ban to the north park blocks?

It would also compensate for the loss of bikable lanes nearby to streetcars. I’m a big supporter of streetcars, but it’s true that the tracks can be hazardous to bikers, especially those who aren’t familiar with how to ride them. And now, we have streetcar tracks along 10th, 11th, 5th and 6th south of Burnside, which makes having a bike-only north-south path between them even more helpful to both cars (drivers probably wouldn’t encounter as many bikes on the adjacent streets) and bikes.

I’ve also wondered if, as an alternative, maybe we should take cars off 10th and 11th and leave them for bikes and streetcars only (bikes in one lane, streetcars in the other), which would mean the streetcars wouldn’t get stuck behind autos and could run more efficiently.

15 years ago

Boulder and Burlington, VT both have wonderful pedestrian shopping districts downtown. It needs lots of small shops- not malls- to work. Eugene’s failed because it ended up feeling like an outdoor shopping mall, not an eclectic business district. Boulder and Burlington are each just 1 street closed for several blocks (maybe 8-10?). Doesn’t mess up traffic too much and allows those who must drive relatively easy access.

Every time I go to either city, I look forward to simply strolling along the streets, shopping or not, just enjoying the sights of people out walking, listening to music, looking at the artwork, sampling food from the carts.

Bill Stites
15 years ago

Wasn’t it less than a year ago that they added a whole bunch of car-parking on the South Park blocks?
What a disappointment that was.

Hope that momentum can be reversed …