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Opinion: Sticking up for Sunday Parkways

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Yes it’s a party, but it’s not
all fun and games.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Remember the flap about Sunday Parkways at City Council last week? After listening to the full audio of the meeting, I feel like it deserves a second look — not only for the policy debate but for the way the story was covered and reacted to in the local media.

To quickly recap: A standard vendor contract relating to Sunday Parkways was on the agenda and Commissioner Dan Saltzman used it as an opportunity to debate budget priorities. He said that while Sunday Parkways is a “fun” event, it’s not more important than funding street paving or biking and walking improvements. (Note: The city doesn’t think so either, that’s why the proposed budget still includes millions in paving and road projects.)

Commissioner Dan Saltzman this morning questioned whether one of Mayor Sam Adams’ pet bike programs ought to be temporarily shelved: Sunday Parkways.
— Denis Theriault, The Portland Mercury

Mayor Adams (who was present via telephone due to illness) defended the events, saying that: “I do think that this [Sunday Parkways] is a core aspect of the Bureau of Transportation’s mission.” He also, thankfully, called Saltzman out for the way he framed his opposition: “I don’t agree with framing this as a choice between pedestrian safety improvements and pavement or Sunday Parkways,” he said, “I think that is setting up a false choice.”

Saltzman ultimately voted in favor of the contract (it passed 5-0) but he made it clear that his one-man battle against Sunday Parkways wasn’t over. “I’m by no means yet signalling my support [for next year],” Saltzman warned, “there are to me more critical priorities that I’ll be looking closely at and I’m not committing that this one will have my support for future funding.”

Saltzman initially mentioned that perhaps Sunday Parkways should take a “hiatus” next year (it’s already funded for 2012); but after hearing more about the event’s budget from PBOT staff and hearing several citizens speak strongly in support of it, he backpedaled in his closing remarks. “Maybe I spoke too strongly in saying hiatus; it may need to be scaled back to fewer events or sponsors will have to step up to the plate more.”

Not surprisingly, the exchange did not go unnoticed by the local media.

Despite Saltzman’s clear backpedal, The Portland Mercury seized on his “hiatus” comment. Here’s the opening to News Editor Denis Theriault’s blog post:

“Maybe you’ve heard. Portland’s transportation bureau is facing a $16 million budget sinkhole—and maybe can’t pay for things like street and sidewalk repairs. Seizing on that lousy news, Commissioner Dan Saltzman this morning questioned whether one of Mayor Sam Adams’ pet bike programs ought to be temporarily shelved: Sunday Parkways… The program is seen as a key way of spreading the bike/pedestrian gospel.”

“Pet bike program”? Really? And to my knowledge, the event is about promoting health, parks and community connections much more than “spreading the bike/pedestrian gospel” (that ends up happening naturally, since the best way to travel on the route is by bike or on foot).

Then The Oregonian’s Beth Slovic Tweeted her story with this headline:

“Should Portland pay for Sunday Parkways or road maintenance? The mayor says that’s a false choice.”

Slovic’s story also pitted funding for the events against “cuts to street maintenance,” “road maintenance on major city streets” and the “crisis” of “road safety problems.”

The battle lines were drawn. You’re either for Sunday Parkways or paved streets. Take your pick and choose your side.

“Sunday Parkways shouldn’t get public funding when the city says it can no longer afford to pave the streets.”
— Susan Nielsen, The Oregonian

The Oregonian then doubled down with a Sunday editorial by associate editor Susan Nielsen. The headline went straight for the false dichotomy: Portland’s fun street party wins; streets lose. In the article, Nielsen refers to the event as a “giant rolling party for bicyclists and walkers” and says it’s “worth sustaining” as long as the money comes from private sponsors only.

“Sunday Parkways shouldn’t get public funding,” declared Nielsen, “when the city says it can no longer afford to pave the streets.”

Nielsen also criticized the Mayor and used this as an example of the type of leadership she says is hurting Council’s credibility with taxpayers (to me it seems like a certain type of media coverage also plays a role). She also mocked the Mayor for suggesting that Sunday Parkways was a core part of PBOT’s mission: “That’s like calling an espresso machine a piece of survival gear.”

Then, to help her readers gain even greater context, Nielsen compared funding Sunday Parkways to a police bureau “boondoggle” and a “new arts tax.”

Here are her final paragraphs:

“Throw the street party, forget the streets.

To the city auditor, it raises big questions of sustainability. Or, as she put it, “the degree to which future taxpayers must pay for current policy decisions.”…

This is the dilemma behind signature events like Sunday Parkways, which the city promotes as free.”

While this coverage serves up plenty of red meat and serves the ongoing anti-Adams and “bikes vs. cars” narrative in the local press, it unfortunately doesn’t mesh with the facts.

PBOT is by no means going to “forget the streets.” While major re-paving projects are being put on pause, the city plans still plans to spend at least $10 million in “pavement preservation” and maintenance in 2012-2013 (that’s only an 11% cut from the current fiscal year).

Also while the stories above make it seem like the central issue for Saltzman was how the Sunday Parkways money would compete with street paving/maintenance, that’s not the full story. After listening to the audio from the Council meeting, it’s clear that Saltzman actually expressed more concerns over the lack of funding for biking and walking safety projects than for street paving. Here are some of his comments:

“We get a daily page about a pedestrian being struck, often fatally. We have a crisis in pedestrian safety, not to mention bicycle safety.

There are roads that are not going to be paved, there’s a million bicycle and pedestrian safety improvement projects that are important stuff

… it’s not as high priority for me as paving streets or putting in pedestrian or safety improvements.”

Unfortunately, Saltzman’s mentions of biking and walking projects — while they were more pronounced than street paving in his actual comments — weren’t represented as such in the ensuing media coverage. Why? Because Sunday Parkways/”party for bicyclists” vs. paving is a much more enticing narrative.

Our streets win when fewer cars use them and I think most Portlanders would agree that people are more important than pavement.

The other thing all this media coverage failed to point out is that the City of Portland is likely going to pay only about $165,000 for Sunday Parkways next year — only $50,000 of which will come out of general transportation revenue that could pay for street paving. What’s more, the City will fund only about 1/3 of the total cost of the five events (which will cost about $494,000 total) — the rest will come from private sponsors, donors, and individuals.

Nielsen’s argument — that spending $165,000 on five Sunday Parkways events that are funded 2/3 by private sponsors and that last year served 107,000 citizens — is an example of “shortsightedness,” or that it means our “streets lose,” just doesn’t hold water. Our streets win when fewer cars use them and I think most Portlanders would agree that people are more important than pavement.

Beyond the spin, the Mayor is absolutely right this time. Our transportation bureau has a formal policy goal of encouraging people to get out of their cars and do more bicycling and walking (there’s an entire division of PBOT devoted to that mission). Yes it’s a rolling party, yes it’s fun, but it’s also a serious marketing initiative that serves a key role in creating the type of city we are trying to become.

Not only that, but introducing Portlanders of all ages and races to a healthier lifestyle that includes less time spent in a car is a shrewd investment that will come back to us in reduced health care costs, savings in personal income, fewer city dollars spent on road maintenance and much more.

But alas, this is how it goes in Portland these days. The Mayor tries to stick up for something other than traditional auto-centric transportation (although he could be more convincing), the media does their spin, the controversy begins, the haters fill up the comments and the airwaves, the public narrative is set, the Mayor gets more complaints that he’s catering too much to “the bicyclists” and as a result (he is a politician after all) he becomes even more timid about bike-related initiatives and projects. It’s a vicious cycle and it has hurt the ability for bicycling to take big steps forward in Portland.

Sunday Parkways — and all that it stands for — makes perfect sense not just in our City budget but in our city’s future. I hope the local pundits and press will join the party someday.