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Article in academic journal offers explanation for Williams project controversy

Posted by on September 26th, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Williams project meeting-11-10

New research delves into the Williams
project process and why it turned into such a controversy.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s been over two years now since the issue of racism and gentrification became part of PBOT’s North Williams Avenue traffic safety project. As the public process for that project morphed into a citywide dialogue about these volatile topics, the project transcended PBOT and became a case study that has been investigated, analyzed, and debated by people all over the country.

Now the work of two Portland State University professors has been published in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Environmental Justice. The article, Contesting Sustainability: Bikes, Race, and Politics in Portlandia, (published in the August 2013 issue) was written by Dr. Amy Lubitow, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Portland State University and Dr. Thaddeus Miller, an assistant professor at the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, College of Urban and Public Affairs, at PSU.

“The environmental justice movement can, and should, seek to politicize sustainability in ways that will open up the concept of sustainability to the range of social and economic priorities that continue to impair the health and well-being of low-income and minority communities.”
— From Contesting Sustainability: Bikes, Race, and Politics in Portlandia

Lubitow and Miller were present at many of the project’s public meetings and they interviewed many citizens, city staff, and members of the project’s stakeholder advisory committee.

Their article contends that the Williams project ended up being controversial because it was framed as having universal benefits and that city project managers and advocates failed to embrace the obvious political and racial elements that existed in the neighborhood where it would be built. Key to their argument is a characterization of the Williams project as a “sustainability” initiative and they leaned heavily on existing research about other “sustainability” efforts in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Here’s more from the introduction:

“We contend that the inability of environmental justice concerns to gain traction in discussions about the design of sustainable infrastructure is due in part to the depoliticization of sustainability projects… that is, a given problem, project, practice, or policy is framed as urgent and necessary by appealing to universal values or scientific knowledge claims related to ecological health or public health and safety.

Sustainability, in other words, rises above what are perceived as parochial concerns and is too important to be dragged through the political mud.”

Its this attempt at “sidestepping” issues like race and inequality that lead to controversy, according to Lubitow and Miller.

The City of Portland did extensive public outreach in the neighborhood at the very beginning of the project to ensure that the members of the stakeholder advisory committee reflected the neighborhood population. However, “Despite this extensive outreach,” write Lubitow and Miller, “only four of the 22 members present [before the committee was enlarged] were people of color.” They blame this disparity and the combination of “historical legacies of racism and inequality,” in the North Williams area, as the, “catalyst for community grievances around this project to emerge.”

The lesson from this project, according to the professors, is that projects like this should “encourage the politicization” of the plans from the outset and integrate “numerous voices” into the resulting changes that are considered.

Based on their research and observations, Lubitow and Miller conclude with the following argument:

“We suggest that the environmental justice movement can, and should, seek to politicize sustainability in ways that will open up the concept of sustainability to the range of social and economic priorities that continue to impair the health and well-being of low-income and minority communities… decision makers should assume that all community members have a unique vision for their local environment and that their input is a critical mechanism for truly sustainable outcomes—and for formulating a vision of sustainability that resonates with a broader set of constituents.”

My quibbles with this article are that they couch this transportation project (which has its roots as a bikeway improvement project) as a “sustainability initiative” and the people who supported it as being part of the “environmental justice movement”. I don’t fully agree that a transportation project should be characterized like this simply because it includes a bicycling component. I also noticed they referenced a quote on BikePortland as coming from a “prominent blogger” when the quote they used actually came from a citizen at a public meeting (not from me, the author of the post).

These quibbles aside, their research and general conclusions are thoughtful and powerful. Read it for yourself online.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Shyla O.

Great article! Thanks for the link, Jonathan.


This is a great article, and it helps me understand some of the negativity toward bike infrastructure.

From the conclusion: “This case illustrates that what is sustainable will be contextual and contested.”

Sustainability may be contested, but under no context is travel by a car more sustainable than travel by bike. There are absolutes in sustainability.


This reminds me a lot of what Dr. Adonia Lugo wrote about in her blog yesterday:


This is only a controversy because we’ve turned it into one, Portlandia style. N. Williams is a nightmare. I can’t imagine being a bus driver and trying to make your stops effectively (and without holding up people behind you).

This project could have been finished a year ago and avoided more accidents and acrimony, but our political will in this city is lacking.


I can tell you why it comes off as elitist and racist. Quite simply it because when you’re just making ends meat and trying to decide if you want to pay the water bill or electric bill that month cause your rent keeps getting higher from all these new neighbors, you’ve got more pressing personal issues than “sustainability”.

You want to win people over in the lower demographics, don’t talk of less pollution, or safer neighborhoods. They don’t care about the first one because they’re just trying to get by and many work jobs with exposures worse than a little car exhaust.

And “safer” neighborhoods/streets just means rents is going to rise because more affluent neighbors are going to follow. Most people scraping by know they live in a more dangerous environment, and that is why it is cheap to live there. A safer neighborhood has to be paid for, and if they can barely afford where they live now how are they going to afford the new safer block.

For many readers here the personal economics of cycling don’t apply. Once you’re making say 60k+ year the costs are of car ownership (though still a chunk of change) have fairly minimal impact when compared to your earnings. If you’re getting by on 25k a year (if even in many cases) cars are huge drain on your personal finances.

This is where the personal economic benefit of riding comes into play. Faster and cheaper than the bus in the long run (for those that don’t currently have cars), and stressing how much money they could save ditching the car, which is likely eating up at least 20% of their gross income. You tell someone that is only making 25-30k a year that they could save about 5 grand a year by ditching the car and using a bike you’ll get a better response. They might even be able to save enough to afford to stay in the new safer neighborhood.

Not everyone can talk of LEED certifications and melting ice caps. But everyone can talk about money.

And of course it doesn’t help that the city keeps throwing money at downtown/core infrastructure improvements and police actions in Ladds, while pretty much ignoring people East of 82nd, where incidentally many of those displaced from the gentrification of N/NE have gone after being economically forced out of their houses.

It’s easy to talk of saving the world when your belly is full, if your stomach is empty you just want to save yourself. And until activists get this, there will be very little movement into the lower economic demographics, which unfortunately also means a large portion of minorities as well .


“The depoliticization and routine “tunnel vision” that dominates sustainable urban planning obscures the myriad social concerns that are just as critical to community vitality and longevity.”

This seems to me to be primary takeaway from the N. Williams controversy. It’s not that bike infrastructure is not a social good, or that historically marginalized communities are automatically opposed to bike infrastructure as something that is of no benefit to them.

What Williams teaches is that just because a project is a social good, local residents support cannot be taken for granted. They must be made part of the conversation early and planners, advocates etc. have to be ready to hear that bike infrastructure may not be highest on local folks’ list of priorities for their neighborhoods, and alter their thinking and actions accordingly.

I also have a small quibble with the way the term environmental justice is used in the paper. Historically, EJ has been applied to the undue environmental burdens marginalized communities have to bear. Referring to a bike infrastructure project as an EJ issue seems to equate it with a hazardous waste landfill or chemical factory and cheapens the descriptive power of the term.

Paul g.
Paul g.

I’m heartened to see the article and the conversation here. I’d like to toss one more observation into the mix.

Portland’s “unique” or “archaic” (pick your adjective) commissioner system with at large elections has not helped and has very likely hindered our ability to address racial and economic disparities in the City. (And it may limit the generalizability of the PSU study.)

I’ll put aside the bureau management system and instead focus on elections. In a city as large and diverse as Portland, maintaining at large seats reinforces a centralization of power among the economic elite. The inner neighborhoods in Portland have long supplied most of our political leadership and campaign donations.

It is long past time that Portland recognized that the interests of communities east of 82nd or North Portland aren’t the same, and may be in direct competition with, those located in Hillsdale, Irvington, Laurelhurst, etc.

The problem is that our election system makes it extremely difficult for any representatives of those communities to hold political power or otherwise have voices at the political table.

It’s not just bike infrastructure, it’s where we focus our economic development efforts (downtown), it’s where TriMet maintains or cuts service, it’s where we repair sidewalks and pave roads and where we focus a whole litany of public efforts.

I don’t doubt the goodwill or intentions of our political leaders, but I’m also one who believes political leaders respond most to the people who helped get them elected.


This whole controversy just got my goat. The ironies abound: when PBOT tried to step in and make the community safer, some members of that community got all up in arms. So, would it be better if we left the community unsafe?

People have complained here and elsewhere about the disproportional spending on safety improvements in well-off neighborhoods as compared to poorer neighborhoods. Williams is an opportunity to right that, yet some community members would have none of it.

Another irony: the reason all the black people had come to live in that neighborhood was because of the institutional racism that forced them to live there, and didn’t allow them to buy houses other places. When these community members complained that bike lanes would bring in all the white people, I wondered if the only solution that would satisfy them would be to go back to the old days of separate real estate maps for people of color. If we only allow blacks to live in the neighborhood (and not whites), then that would sure solve the “gentrification” problem. . . of course, along the way, it would recreate a ghetto. How would that be an improvement?

These ironies led me to the following conclusion: this was regular old NIMBYism, dressed up in language of racial victimization. Many people in many neighborhoods, black and white both, don’t like to see loss of traffic or parking lanes. Those opponents will use any and all means at their disposal to oppose changes to the local traffic regime. The Williams debacle was just an example of a novel argument in a long debate over roadway design.

Of course, maybe that’s not all that was going on- as Mr. Maus pointed out, this became an open forum with lots of willing, earnest, liberal ears. The forums became a place for black people to talk about the decades of racially driven animus they’ve experienced. The fact that none of those liberal white people had anything to do with the years of injustice didn’t really matter.

Oregon Mamacita
Oregon Mamacita

“These ironies led me to the following conclusion: this was regular old NIMBYism, dressed up in language of racial victimization.”

“This became an open forum with lots of willing, earnest, liberal ears.”

What a post. You can’t deal with the fact that 94% of Portland does not commute by bike. NIMBY= someone who stands up to developers.

But I am sure that all the black people forced out of Williams can take comfort in your willing, earnest liberal ears, even though they are just
NIMBYs of color who have no valid positions.


If the point of the journal article was to state that “apolitical appeals to broadly shared values or visions of what a sustainable city ought to look like, sustainability projects can be—and perhaps should be—hotly contested.” no reason is given as to why that is a good idea.

I believe this article completely misses or intentionally ignores the fact transportation projects in Portland that involve expanding access to modes of transportation other than motor vehicles are not “easy.” They are not “shoe-ins.” They are hotly contested, opposed and often derailed by lawsuits or the threat thereof. What is the new territory covered here?

In the context of the Williams project, this journal article fails to make the case that sustainability marginalizes notions of equity, justice, and inclusion. The authors do not link the examples of segregation, red-lining, fragmentation, displacement and disinvestment to a counterpart in Williams transportation project which was focused on increased access for transportation other than the motor vehicle.

In fact, within the scope of this article, it would appear that there is no contest that the initial goals of the Williams transportation project would be a net gain for all. Where then would that leave the central premise that this – this Williams street reconfiguration notion of sustainability – can and should be hotly contested?

It’s true that the effort to get public participation resulted in a different sort of feedback than the city was seeking. I think the case could be made than any sort of outreach in that Williams neighborhood would have resulted in the same response – a request for discussion and redress of long standing issues. How this is directly related to sustainability is in no way clarified.

A request for discussion and redress of long standing issues and past wrongdoing is fair enough. Without any evidence or even statements of how the Williams street reconfiguration is related to past wrongs and how those might be tied to sustainability leads the article without any firm ground to stand on or convincing point to make.

It seems to me that this article is suggesting that past attitudes and intentions of segregation, red-lining, fragmentation, displacement and disinvestment are somehow present in the Williams transportation project *by its very nature of being on Williams.* Yet, no examples are given of how a plan to reconfigure the street was segregating, red-lining or fragmenting.

Is the point of the journal article to suggest that where people can pull together a shared vision of sustainability, it should be hotly contested? Hello climate change deniers.

I am not saying that the crimes of yesterday should be overlooked in favor of the crises of today, but it is important to keep things in context. Improving non-motor vehicle transportation options is a good way to reduce emissions which improves public health and is a benefit to all whether you’ve suffered past injustice or not. The point of hotly contesting this is not delivered by this article.


Oh where is the ghost of Major Taylor?