NOTE: Since posting this story I have learned more from PBOT. Please see the extended note at the end of the post. — Jonathan
In an ongoing effort to make Sunday Parkways as efficient and cost-effective as possible, the Portland Bureau of Transportation will unveil a new traffic plan at their southeast event this Sunday.
Under the new plan, modeled after open streets events in other cities like Bogota, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, PBOT will use fewer uniformed police officers and more citizen volunteers to control traffic at intersections. This reduced police presence will save PBOT thousands of dollars while freeing up police resources for higher priority assignments.
PBOT’s Sunday Parkways Manager Linda Ginenthal shared in an interview this morning that they’re looking to be “more creative” with their traffic control.
When Sunday Parkways first started in 2008 the events cost about $150,000 each. For the past several years however, as the city has found efficiencies in how they deliver the events, the current budget for each one is about $85,000 — with about $8,000 of that going to pay for police. Using fewer police, Ginenthal says, is likely to save the city another several thousand dollars.
Will the new plan still keep Parkways participants safe?
Typically the event requires about 20 police officers and 25 certified traffic flaggers taken from PBOT’s maintenance bureau. These trained employees are used at multi-lane and other complicated intersections. The new plan will cut the number of officers to around five and will require about 30-40 additional volunteers in their place. PBOT will also increase the number of certified flaggers at certain intersections.
Here’s how the new plan will work at two signalized intersections* where PBOT will use volunteers instead of police officers (taken directly from an email by Ginenthal):
When the light is red along the Sunday Parkways route, volunteers wearing bright gloves [I hear they’ll be pink] will hold caution tape across the street keeping participants from crossing. This allows traffic to flow across the route with the green light.
When the light turns green along the route, volunteers will move the ribbon out of the way for happy riders, walker s and skaters to continue along the route.
It’s what’s known as a “soft-closed intersection” as seen in the video below (from the 8-80 Cities Open Streets Healthiest Practice Toolkit). (Note that citizen volunteers will not be holding up cross-traffic against the signal. Oregon law dictates that only uniformed police officers have that power.)
Ginenthal says this technique has been used successfully in “dozens and dozens of cities.”
“We already ask a lot of our Traffic Division officers for other things like Vision Zero work. And we think that’s a better use of that resource than having them stand at intersections.”
— Linda Ginenthal, PBOT
While the move will save the city money, that wasn’t the only motivation for the change. “We already ask a lot of our Traffic Division officers for other things like Vision Zero work,” Ginenthal said. “And we think that’s a better use of that resource than having them stand at intersections. And we want our flaggers doing paving and street maintenance work, so finding creative ways to do our traffic control just makes sense.”
The caveat with the new plan is that it requires even more volunteers — which event organizers say is already one of the most difficult aspects of Sunday Parkways. The 180 or so volunteer shifts each event takes is “our heaviest lift,” Ginenthal said.
Using fewer police and city staff could be key to expanding Sunday Parkways in the future in order to satisfy the public demand for more frequent and/or larger events. But Ginenthal warns that, “We can’t expand anything unless we have more volunteers. And they are tough to get.”
There’s one other aspect of this change that bodes well for Sunday Parkways: At its core the event is about community-building. And, while it’s a constant battle to find enough volunteers, having even more of the event run by the public — instead of police and city staff — is much more in line with the values of the event and will make our city stronger in the end.
If you’ve ever considered volunteering for Sunday Parkways, now would be a perfect time to do it. You can pick your intersection, sign-up for a shift, and learn more about volunteering on the City’s website.
*NOTE: After seeing reader reactions to this story, I too began to wonder more about the impetus for the new traffic plan. I was initially told by PBOT that this was their idea and that it was simply a way to cut costs and be more “creative” with traffic control. A PPB spokesperson also said it was a PBOT plan. However, after making more inquiries after the post was published I have since been told that the plan emanated first from the PPB. Traffic Division Capt. Kelli Sheffer approached PBOT about it due to extremely low staffing levels. There are a lot of events in August and many Traffic Division officers want to be on vacation like everyone else. I get that. That makes sense. The low staff levels at Traffic Division are a huge issue that have implications far beyond Sunday Parkways (like, how will they fully embrace Vision Zero work if they don’t have the capacity?). So, just to clarify, this new traffic plan is being done as a test to see how/if PBOT can do a Sunday Parkways with a reduced police presence because the Police Bureau voiced concerns to them about the amount of officer resources it requires. A PBOT spokesperson now tells me that they will watch this pilot closely to see how it works and that it’s not likely to become standard operating procedure. If anything, it might be standard procedure for each August event from now on, given how strained the PPB at this time of the year. — Jonathan