What does the Portland Business Alliance think about Better Naito; the city’s reconfiguration of Naito Parkway to include a two-way protected bike lane and sidewalk? It depends on who you ask. Or more precisely, it depends on which of their positions will face more public scrutiny.
The PBA, Portland’s most well-established business lobby group with over 1,800 member companies, has issued two official statements on Better Naito. One came in the form of an op-ed from PBA Board of Directors Chair Jim Mark published in the Portland Tribune on Tuesday; the other came from PBA President and CEO Sandra McDonough in the form of a letter dated May 9th and addressed to Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman. I obtained that letter (PDF) via a public records request along with 12 other emails sent to Saltzman’s office regarding Better Naito over the past month.
“We do not support its implementation generally and this summer in particular.”
— Sandra McDonough, PBA President & CEO
The differences in tone and substance between the two PBA statements is striking and illustrates why the organization is struggling to maintain relevance in our growing and changing city.
On Tuesday, Mark (CEO of Melvin Mark Companies, a commercial real estate firm) wrote an op-ed in the Portland Tribune titled, What happens when the ‘City that Works’ can’t get to work?. It was standard fare from an organization who still (in 2017!) thinks free-flowing auto access is the goal of a city that “works”. But while I was ready to cringe at the piece (given the PBA’s legacy of opposition to the City of Portland’s attempts to upgrade biking and walking access downtown), I came away thinking it was actually pretty soft on Better Naito. And in one key way, he (unintentionally perhaps?) even endorsed the need for less driving and more use of other modes.
Here’s an excerpt:
“… there are downsides when multiple construction projects happen at once. Top of that list is increased traffic congestion, and right now Portlanders are being squeezed to a breaking point. As more people and jobs are added to the city, congestion will increase unless there are shifts to other modes of travel. Portland has developed a well-deserved reputation as a multimodal city. With its light rail system, pioneering the return of urban streetcars, extensive network of bikeways and a well-known pedestrian friendly downtown, people far and wide come to learn from Portland’s experience.
But a vibrant economy and a high quality of life for all depend on an efficient multimodal transportation that works for all system users; that includes alternative modes of transportation as well as vehicles and freight trucks. It means everyone who uses the system must have a voice in how any proposed changes may — or may not — work for them, their businesses, families and employees. And it means it is imperative for the city to listen to everyone affected, including those who provide good jobs and keep the economy moving through vehicles and freight trucks.
That’s why the return of the “Better Naito” project, which has closed one northbound auto lane of Naito Boulevard for a bicycle and pedestrian path, is so puzzling — especially given the significant amount of construction activity and road closures in the central city this year. The traffic impacts are resulting in business delays and reports of complaints from employees.
Bicycling for example, is a great alternative, and one we support, that will work for some. However, it is a less realistic option for many including thousands of people for whom that is not an option because of proximity, health, parenting obligations or a host of other individual circumstances.
When implementing important changes to Portland’s transportation system, city leaders must take a more balanced approach and open up public input processes so the needs of individuals are met along with the city’s goals to keep Portland economically vibrant.”
Mark unfortunately equates “those who provide good jobs and keep the economy moving” with people who drive — which is insulting, makes no sense, and yet is a very a common way to insinuate that people who don’t use cars as being the opposite. (Also note that he wrongly assumes that only people in cars are the ones trying to “get to work.”) Despite his best attempt to not appear as if he is anti-bike, Mark can’t resist presenting auto and truck drivers as a separate class of people who are unfairly victimized when a street is significantly altered to improve access for bicycle users and walkers.
Overall though, Mark’s only major beef with the project seems to be that PBOT could have done more robust public outreach.
Then there’s Sandra McDonough’s letter. She didn’t mince words. She directly questioned PBOT’s values and said Better Naito is an example of decisions they’ve made, “that significantly impact the mobility of the many to benefit the few.” McDonough cited transportation surveys conducted by the PBA to make her case that most Portlanders are against better biking and walking infrastructure.
Here’s an excerpt:
When it comes to Better Naito, McDonough makes her position clear: “We do not support its implementation generally and this summer in particular.” “Naito is one glaring example,” she writes, “of projects that seem designed to inhibit mobility for the vast majority of system users.”
She writes that if PBOT wants to improve safety for festival-goers, they could just “close” the lane only during festivals or create an area in the park (not on Naito itself) for people to stand in line.
McDonough is a big fan of her own statistics, but only when they support her narrative. What about the traffic analysis gathered by The Oregonian last year that found the average, peak-hour increase in travel time for northbound Naito was less than two minutes? “It is inconsistent with what we hear from road users,” she wrote. Even the PBA’s own annual business census found that less than half of people who commute to downtown drive alone.
And while McDonough and Mark try to create an illusion of mass complaints about the project, the truth is much different. As we reported last summer, there was strikingly little opposition to Better Naito — even from people who drove on it.
And it’s those same “road users” that McDonough says are victimized by Better Naito because they aren’t “lucky enough” to live downtown or in the inner eastside and have no other choice than to drive: “It does nothing for the thousands of people for whom that is not an option because of proximity, health, parenting obligations, or a host of other individual circumstances.”
McDonough’s comments reveal clear blind-spots. Is she not aware of the high volume traffic that speeds through our city 24/7/365 on major freeways where only those lucky enough to own a car are allowed? Invoking health, income status, and land-use impacts to support driving and criticize a project that vastly improves cycling and walking is mind-boggling.
Fortunately, McDonough’s perspective on transportation isn’t shared by City Hall these days. In his response to McDonough, Commissioner Saltzman strongly supported not just Better Naito, but cycling in general:
“I don’t discount that delays on Naito have been exacerbated by the levels of road, transit and bridge work this season which have increased congestion throughout the Central City…
But I haven’t lost sight of the bigger picture and all the ways Portland has been a victim of its own success in terms of population growth, job growth and tourism. I understand the increased pressure to our roads and the funding challenges to accommodate that pressure. Balancing the growing demands on our transportation infrastructure is not easy and it is not a task that my office nor the staff at PBOT take lightly.
Looking at cities across the country facing similar challenges, it’s clear that there are no silver bullets. And while it might not always be apparent driving Naito at rush hour, Portland’s investments in active transportation are paying off tremendously. According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, the growth in people biking to work in Portland is outpacing all other modes of transportation. Of the 54,673 new commuters we added from 2000-2014, biking accounted for the majority of those new commute trips. Of course, more people are driving to work as well but we must remember how much more congested our Central City would be if we had not laid this groundwork.
I also understand that it is the decades of public-private partnerships that have made our thriving downtown — with new industries, jobs, and residents — possible. In addition to your letter, we have heard from dozens of business on or near Naito who have expressed their overwhelming gratitude for what Better Naito provides them and their staff to make them feel safe commuting to/from work…”
Perhaps what we’re seeing with these competing statements from the PBA are cracks in their conservative armor. They’re likely feeling heat from the more progressive vision presented by the rising Business for a Better Portland — a group created in large part because the PBA is so out-of-touch.
And it’s worth noting that McDonough is on her way out the door. The Oregonian reported last month that she’ll leave the organization in August. “Portland is changing,” McDonough told The Oregonian, “so the PBA and its leadership will need to adapt.”