BikePortland.org

A lack of safe street space makes distancing guidelines hard to follow

North Willamette Blvd on Sunday.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The combination of cabin fever, need to exercise (gyms are closed), nice spring weather and eagerness to enjoy streets with much less traffic than usual has led to a strange scenario in Portland: Even during a public health quarantine, many bike lanes and sidewalks are jam-packed during peak hours.

This past weekend, streets and bike paths across the city were full of people not driving cars. During my time observing streets in north Portland, the vibe was almost Sunday Parkways-like.

But here’s the rub: The vast majority of our street space is allocated to drivers, leaving just a sliver of space for everyone else. It’s always been like that. These days however it’s even more unfair, dangerous and unhealthy. Public health officials — and even Oregon’s Governor — strongly advise a six-foot distance from one another while out and about.

That’s not easy to do when you’ve only got a few feet of space to safely move around in.

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One week ago we shared the idea of north Portlander Sam Balto. He thinks some streets should have limited access for drivers so that more people can enjoy the outdoors and still practice safe social distancing.

In the past seven days that idea has caught fire. Balto’s idea spread nationally in part thanks to the article being picked up by Streetsblog USA. By Friday, the City of Philadelphia had actually implemented a temporary carfree street to make more room for walkers and rollers. By Sunday the idea was hailed by none other than legendary TV journalist Dan Rather as, “A good way to let people outside, while keeping social distancing.”

Then the dam broke further when New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor both said they planned to not only limit car use on certain streets, but to create temporary bike lanes as well.

Portland is a far cry from New York City or even Philadelphia for that matter, but given our legacy of bike-friendliness, and deeply rooted love of walking, jogging, and cycling among our population, this might be something worth considering here.

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Eastbank Esplanade on Sunday.
(Photo: Armando Zelada)

Take a closer look at those images of North Willamette Blvd or the image of the Esplanade from reader Armando Zelada. Note how people are scrunched into the narrow spaces, forced to pass at unhealthy distances. Meanwhile there’s an expanse of road space that — even without drivers present — people are afraid to use. On Willamette, this led to people jogging against traffic in bike lanes, walkers using the median, and people passing each other too closely. What would someone using a mobility device do? They would have a very hard time moving over for others. How many people using the Esplanade would use SE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd instead of they could do it safely?

There’s also the fact that when given more space, drivers tend to go faster and drive even more dangerously. If we can limit driving space, we’ll also prevent crashes that will put even more strain on hospital resources.

I’ve asked the Portland Bureau of Transportation what they think about this and I’m still waiting to hear back.

My hunch is they’re not exactly looking for more work to do. The agency is in crisis mode and I’ve heard that maintenance crews are only at half-staff in order to maintain social distancing in vehicles and offices. That means they’re only able to respond to emergencies and basic safety requests. I’ve also heard that the virus outbreak has put an indefinite pause on all capital projects, possibly pushing out all timelines by a year as the construction season gets constrained further with each passing week.

PBOT has partnered closely with the community in the past. If they want to create streets that serve us well during the pandemic, it might be time to do it again.

Further reading from The Verge: There’s no better time for cities to take space away from cars.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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