Starting this Friday morning, the non-profit Better Block PDX, the Bureau of Transportation and its commissioner-in-charge Steve Novick will embark on perhaps the boldest experiment we’ve seen in years: the creation of public space on Naito Parkway in what are currently standard travel lanes.
For two weeks starting early this Friday morning, the four standard vehicle lanes on Naito Parkway between Southwest Salmon and Northwest Couch (about a mile) will be converted to three lanes and a 15-foot wide lane that will run in the northbound direction adjacent to Waterfront Park.
But don’t call it just a temporary protected bike lane or a sidewalk.
“I think it’s a cultural shift for PBOT. Instead of looking at streets to move people and goods as fast as possible, they’re looking at streets as public space.”
— Timur Ender, transportation policy advisor for Commissioner Steve Novick.
“This is Janette Sadik-Khan style public space. It’s ‘8-80’ for everyone,” explained Timur Ender in a phone interview yesterday where he referenced two heroes of public space: the former New York City Department of Transportation leader widely credited with that city’s inspiring urban streets renaissance, and Gil Peñalosa of 8-80 Cities who sees quality public spaces where people of all ages and incomes mingle as the cornerstone of democracy.
Ender is Novick’s transportation policy advisor who has helped spearhead the Naito project (he’s also a former volunteer with Better Block). “This pilot project shows PBOT’s efforts to use their streets in a way that fosters economic development, tourism, and public health,” Ender added. “I think it’s a cultural shift for PBOT. Instead of looking at streets to move people and goods as fast as possible, they’re looking at streets as public space.”
Ender emphasized the “streets as public space” has long been a priority for PBOT staff (see events like Sunday Parkways or programs like Street Seats), but the Naito Pilot Project takes that focus to a new level.
Ryan Hashagen with Better Block says the project builds on historical Oregonian values. “Our plan envisions a Naito that more efficiently allocates space, builds on the legacy of Governor Tom McCall, and continues a conversation started by the governor on how best to utilize our public resources and space on the waterfront.”
For Commissioner Novick and PBOT Director Leah Treat, this project is a coming-out party of sorts. They entered their positions with high hopes from change-minded transportation activists but they’ve been bottled-up by the battle over new transportation revenue.
I have a feeling both of them are looking forward to today’s press conference to announce the project which is scheduled for 1:30 pm at Salmon Street Fountain. Alongside them at that event will be the project’s other partners including the Oregon Chapter of AARP and Oregon Walks.
This project also has the support of Rose Festival organizers. According to Ender in Novick’s office, they “fully embrace” the project and have worked with vendors to minimize loading times (which have traditionally blocked the lanes on Naito) and trained their security guards to manage traffic in the temporary lanes.
PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera said his agency sees the project as a way to improve safety and make people feel more at ease on the Waterfront. “We made some observations of the pedestrian and bicycle conflicts on Naito during the recent Cinco de Mayo festival and that underscored the need for more space so people can access the festival. This is about making a more comfortable space.”
The impetus for the project was two-fold. The non-profit Better Block PDX, fresh off their successful demonstration that transformed 3rd Ave through Old Town saw Naito as a natural follow-up project. And Commissioner Novick’s office wanted a solution to the dangerous situation that develops each time the Rose Festival sets up in Waterfront Park.
Earlier this month we shared Novick’s concerns. “We are very concerned with the conditions we saw on Naito this past weekend,” he said, “Kids in strollers and seniors were within inches of 35mph traffic without any physical protection.”
As for the space itself, Better Block has received a $10,000 grant from Clif Bar and People for Bikes to help buy materials and the project was designed as a Senior Capstone Project for a group of Portland State University civil engineering students. To create the new lane, they’ll use candlestick wands and other standard materials called for by the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).
At 15-feet wide, the lane will be about 50 percent wider than the Hawthorne Bridge path and the pavement will have similar markings to help separate bikers from walkers. Bike riders going northbound will be welcome in the new lane and those riding southbound should use either the Waterfront Park path or the existing Naito bike lane. In another experiment, during the final few days of the pilot project during Fleet Week, PBOT and Better Block will make the temporary lane open to both directions of bicycle traffic.
Another way this project is taking a page out of Sadik-Khan’s book is how organizers will gather data to measure and monitor traffic and livability impacts. PBOT has already placed bluetooth traffic sensors on Naito at Clay, Salmon, Stark and Davis. The sensors are measuring the existing amount of people walking, biking, and driving on the street. Those numbers will offer a good comparison to traffic during the pilot project. There’s also a video camera at Yamhill and Better Block will do manual bicycle counts at the same locations PBOT has done their annual bicycle counts in order to compare results. Better Block volunteers plan to observe traffic behaviors and make notes of how people and their vehicles interact with each other.
Ender says data will be key in helping PBOT gauge the projects impacts. But public feedback could play an equally important role. The City, Rivera says, sees this as a “creative public involvement tool.” Instead of an open house and posterboards, they’re just putting the vision on the street and asking for the public’s feedback. They’ll monitor social media, phone calls (to 503-823-4321), and emails closely to make sure they’re hearing from the community.
They’ve created a campaign around the hashtag #BetterNaito to try and corral all the buzz.
Number-crunching will be important, but in the end, good public space is about people. “Unofficially,” Ender said, “we measure success by smiles. Are people safe? Happy? Are they having a good time?”
With so much support (even Mayor Charlies Hales is an unabashed supporter of a new lane configuration on Naito), the question on many people’s minds is: If the pilot is a success, then what?
Both Better Block, Novick’s office, and PBOT were very careful to not answer that question when I asked it yesterday. Ender replied by saying, “The City has no agenda here. It’s premature to say we have a course of action… We don’t even know if people are going to like it.”
And how will Naito’s drivers handle the decrease in space to operate in? “The public is already used to some disruption during Rose Festival,” PBOT’s Rivera said, acknowledging the hectic nature of the street during the festival. “We think it could be a little less pleasant for people driving during rush hour.”
But like many streets in the Central City, there is plenty of excess capacity that could be put to more efficient use, so major “carmageddon” isn’t likely to happen. “We wouldn’t do this if we thought the sky was going to fall,” Ender said.
— Check out PBOT’s official website for this project (will be live this afternoon) and remember to use #BetterNaito to share your thoughts when it opens to the public on Friday morning. Better Block is hosting a volunteer meeting tomorrow (5/20) at 6:00 pm at SW Naito and Ankeny. Please show up if you can help. They especially need cargo bikes for Friday’s set=up.