Amid bustling, after-work traffic on Naito Parkway last night, dozens of Portlanders came together to send a message: The protected lanes known as Better Naito should stay.
The lanes are slated to be removed this weekend and aren’t scheduled to return until the start of festival season next spring.
That means people like Chris Mommsen and his young daughter Ginny won’t have a safe route to go north-south through this part of downtown. Mommsen works on SW 2nd and uses Better Naito to get between Ginny’s daycare and errands in the Pearl District. What will he do when it comes out? “There aren’t a lot of good options,” he told me. “I think they should leave it in. We need more space oriented to bikes.”
Serenity Ebert rides a trike that she uses as a mobility device. For her, having a safe and direct route through downtown is crucial. “I’d love to see Better Naito stay all year round because I don’t feel safe riding on Naito without the lane,” she shared with me. Asked what she’d do when it’s taken out, she had trouble describing a good option.
“For us it’s not just about Better Naito, it’s about all the access improvements being proposed as part of Central City in Motion.”
— Jillian Detweiler, The Street Trust
Even though a last-minute change in policy is a long-shot (more on that later), advocates for the lanes were upbeat and optimistic. The event was organized by The Street Trust. Their Executive Director Jillian Detweiler said she didn’t want the Better Naito season to end without a public action. Speaking into a megaphone from atop a park bench at Salmon Springs Fountain, Detweiler told the crowd that, “We want to tell the City of Portland that we need safe and convenient bike facilities downtown and in the central city all year long. For us it’s not just about Better Naito, it’s about all the access improvements being proposed as part of Central City in Motion.”
Central City in Motion is the Bureau of Transportation’s effort to prioritize a list of projects that will redesign streets so they work better for biking, walking, and transit. Better Naito is on the current list of potential projects and will likely be a frontrunner for early implementation.
While planning last night’s event, Detweiler reached out to the leaders of Bike Loud PDX to make sure it was a collaborative action. Bike Loud was formed just a few years ago to be a more grassroots and aggressive (louder) voice for cycling access in Portland (a role The Street Trust used to occupy), so it’s noteworthy to see the groups working together. (Detweiler shared via email this morning that, “We have not discussed a relationship going forward, but I think this was a good model.”)
Bike Loud Co-chair Catie Gould also spoke at the event. She was part of 100 people who formed a human-protected bike lane to protest Better Naito’s removal last year and she expressed some frustration that it was being removed once again. “A few things are different from last year that should give you optimism,” she said. “We have a new transportation commissioner in Chloe Eudaly and we’re hoping PBOT will get strong political leadership.”
Gould also mentioned the Central City in Motion projects (which weren’t on the table last year). “At a time we’re poised to invest tens of millions of dollars into making protected, separated bike infrastructure downtown,” she said, “it makes it even harder to justify why we’re spending money to take out such an obvious and simple solution.” Gould also made the point that we don’t lack the technical skills to create protected lanes on Naito, what we lack is the political will.
The good news is there are signs that Portland’s political will around these type of projects is growing. The bad news is, there doesn’t appear to be enough of it to save Better Naito this year.
That was the sentiment shared by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s Chief of Staff Marshall Runkel, who stopped by the rally on his bike ride home. New to the PBOT commissioner role, Runkel is still learning about the issues and he spent much of his time at last night’s event talking with Bike Loud Co-chair Emily Guise. During my conversation with him, Runkel seemed very supportive of the project, but he was candid about its chances of staying in through the winter.
“We just don’t have the resources or time to do a last-minute save this year,” Runkel said. He was referring to political capital, not funding resources. Right now Eudaly is in a pitched battle over tenants rights and Runkel said the time and effort it would take to handle another potential controversial issue like reversing course on Better Naito, just isn’t feasible right now.
But Runkel said it’s definitely possible in 2019. “We’ll plan to dig-in… It’s possible [it could stay in for good] next year.”
For advocates like Gould, the marching orders are clear: build political support over the winter. “We have a transformational change coming to our transportation system. This is great time to have a conversation about what we want,” she told the crowd, “But it doesn’t happen without strong advocates.”
After the rally, we rode up and down Naito as a group and made our way to the second (of two) Central City in Motion open houses held at OMSI. At this point, PBOT is looking for final bits of feedback about which of the 18 proposed projects have the most potential to be “transformative”. In an exercise where open house attendees used dots to show votes, the Naito project (#17) ranked highest.
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