Taking greenway activism door-to-door in northeast Portland

My door-knocking partner, Kate Johnson.
(Photo: Kiel Johnson)

This post is written by Kiel Johnson, a local business owner, transportation activist, and northeast Portland resident.

Over the next few weeks, in their downtown offices, city staff will determine the route for the Lloyd to Woodlawn Neighborhood Greenway using a combination of personal egos, local political winds, community feedback, and hopefully, reason. Whenever the city wants to make it a little harder to drive a car somewhere they are always faced with passionate opposition. Trying to do it in inner northeast Portland, an area that has undergone rapid gentrification and change, is even more difficult.

I recently moved to NE 7th so this process has gotten a lot closer to home. Over the next weeks I am going to share my attempt to navigate this complexity and advocate for the route greenway route to be on NE 7th. Our society has wronged a lot of groups and as a white male I have benefited from a lot of those policies. Is it possible to address this privilege while also advocating for something that will be a big change for a lot of people? My approach is to include as many people and viewpoints as possible and make sure everyone is heard, even if I disagree with them.

A recent article in the Skanner News, a newspaper that has been vital to advancing the role of African Americans in the press, led with the line, “You’ve heard that Northeast 7th Avenue might get shut down but where do you air your opinion about it?” For anyone who engaged in the Williams planning process that line was a big red flag.


Kiel Johnson.

My biggest takeaway from the Williams process and the Skanner article is there is a tremendous disconnect among people living in the same community and no easy answers for how to connect them. Everyone in the neighborhood will not suddenly tear down their fence, start sharing their butter, and do away with private property. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Seven years ago I was at a community forum for the Williams redesign sitting across from an older man who had spent his entire life in the neighborhood. He asked me why people on bikes couldn’t just use the sidewalk? It is extremely hard to come to agreement on something as complicated as road infrastructure when road infrastructure is your starting point. So instead we started talking about what foods we both liked and the conversation ended not with some new designs for Williams but with me inviting him and his wife over for a salmon dinner.

We agreed we could like each other.

Too often we talk about “community” and the need for “engagement” as if they are things that the Mayor or some bureaucrat in an office is supposed to provide for us. Nothing could be further from the truth. My biggest takeaway from the Williams process and the Skanner article is there is a tremendous disconnect among people living in the same community and no easy answers for how to connect them. Everyone in the neighborhood will not suddenly tear down their fence, start sharing their butter, and do away with private property. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

I hope to advocate for the NE 7th greenway route in a way that draws on the lessons I learned from the Williams project. I am not on any neighborhood associations and as a new neighbor do not have many connections to other people on 7th . I’m starting at zero. I welcome you to comment below on your thoughts on how we should approach advocating for things in our neighborhood and hopefully you are able to draw some inspiration from my experience. I do not claim to know the correct way to do this; all I know is that I need to do something. Hopefully, I learn some lessons along the way to share.

The first thing that needs to be done is to go out and talk to people. Over this past weekend I knocked on over 100 doors up and down 7th inviting people to an ice cream social to talk about NE 7th. I’ll share that experience with you soon.

There is a lot of pressure at city-sponsored open houses to get your point across. I want to provide people with a low-stress space to just talk with their neighbors about how these changes would affect them. I figure, even if no one shows up for ice cream I will have had some great conversations. It’s not as easy for my generation that grew up online to go out and talk to my neighbors.

Things are about to get interesting, stay tuned.

— Kiel Johnson, @go_by_bike

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David Hampsten
4 years ago

Kudos to the both of you on your efforts!

Unlike the advocates working on SWIM, E-PIMP, and CC’imp who look for the easiest and safest places to ride, you are helping to find the paths of least political resistance.

If you keep in mind that an overwhelming majority of Portland residents never ride a bicycle (at least 60%, maybe as high as 75%) and at least 70% of bicycle owners in Portland ride only for recreation (and not very often either), you might want to consider representing yourselves to your neighbors not as bicycle advocates, but rather as neighbors trying to make your neighborhood streets safer for all users.

You might consider asking your neighbors how they use their street on a daily basis AND how they like to use their street. Do they primarily get up early every morning to drive 40 miles to their job in Hillsboro or Camas? To they go take the dog for a walk every morning and evening? Do they work at home? Go walk to the nearest cafe? What improvements would they like to see to make their walks more pleasant (or safer)?

From there you can more easily lead a conservation towards “traffic calming”, but try try try your best to avoid the terms “traffic calming”, “bicycle greenways”, “Donald Trump”, “gentrification” and other loaded provoking terms. Focus on street lighting, benches, safer crossings, getting all drivers to obey the law, etc.

I’d also strongly urge you to contact and work with your neighborhood association(s). They might even help you!

What you are doing is perfectly legal, but be prepared for some neighbors calling the police.

Good Luck! Let us know what you discover!

Amy Wren
Amy Wren
4 years ago

I 2nd everything that David said.

Figure out why they personally would want this, less car traffic so kids feel safer playing outside, less noise from fewer cars, feeling safer in their neighborhood due to less speeding. If you can get them talking and thinking about how this would be a good thing for them personally you have them on their side.

Don’t start talking first, let them talk. Everyone has issues with cars in this city and let them complain even if you disagree with what they are saying. It will help keep the dialog going and help folks not shut down the conversation and dig into a position. But! It looks like you already know that.

Matthew in PDX
Matthew in PDX
4 years ago

I agree with David and Amy. I live in the Portsmouth neighborhood, and one of my go to riding streets is N Houghton, I don’t think it’s a greenway, but it has traffic calming measures and it has bicycle chevrons marked in the street. There is a public housing development along this street and one of the things I like about it is that every afternoon as I am riding home, there are kids from the housing development playing basketball in the street using one of those portable hoops. I don’t think that the parents of those kids would be happy with them playing in the street if it wasn’t a de facto or actual greenway.

I'll Show Up
I'll Show Up
4 years ago
Reply to  Matthew in PDX

Houghton is definitely a neighborhood greenway. I use it to ride from Portsmouth to St Johns through that little path they built that gets you to the trail on the south side of the cut. It’s a highlight to see those kids play! Check out neighborhoodgreenways.com.

4 years ago

Thanks for your efforts, Kiel! I loved your article.

4 years ago

Some contention is unavoidable, so anyone who tries to reduce it deserves thanks.

Often, the City doesn’t help things. I hate going to meeting when the moderator says, “Each side will get their say. Let’s start with some comments from the neighbors, and then the bike people” as if you have to be one or the other. Lots of times, people are new to meetings, and get the idea that that’s how it works.

Worst ever was when a bike/pedestrian group advocate and I (along with other neighbors) were all telling the PBOT moderator that we didn’t want sidewalks. He said, “I’m sorry but you’re not both going to be able to get your way”. “But we want the same thing!”

David Hampsten
4 years ago
Reply to  q

Yeah, this whole “us versus them” dichotomy increasingly bugs me as I get older. I’m as guilty of perpetuating it as any other city planner in my younger days. For most transportation planners and engineers, everyone can and must be divided into distinct mode groups: 7% bike to work, 12% use transit, 60% drive alone in their cars, etc. The idea that someone might walk from their house to the car, then drive alone a few blocks to pick up a colleague, then carpool to a park-and-ride, then take light rail into town, catch a bus at the Rose Quarter, then use either a BikeTown bike or Bird Scooter to near their office, then walk in, take an elevator, then walk to their desk, is altogether too much to categorize and plan for. Yet many of us do this every day.

We all, all of us, have to share our environment with each other. There is no us. We is them.

John Liu
John Liu
4 years ago

Good on you for tackling this!

The majority of your neighbors may drive rather than ride, and may care about street parking more than about bike lanes. But most people are concerned about speeding cut-through traffic and that they and their kids can safely get to school, cross streets, get to the park, etc. Find common ground and work with it.

Consider getting involved with the neighborhood association. Find out if your NA has taken or may take a position on the greenway. For example, the Woodlawn NA website has this note from the 7/11 meeting: “Can we write a letter? Do we need one? [name] commented that the neighborhood association already wrote a letter of support for the greenway, and we don’t have enough information to know if we want to advocate for one route or the other. We don’t feel a letter is needed at this time.” That NA might welcome thoughtful involvement from residents who have the information. I don’t know if you live in Woodlawn, that’s just an example.

4 years ago

Great job. One of the more disappointing aspects of this conversation is the people who are fine watching NE 7th turn into a car sewer to the detriment of their neighbors who live on 7th over the possibility that there may be a few more cars driving on their street.