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PBOT Commissioner Eudaly: ‘Now is not the time’ to make street changes

Posted by on March 30th, 2020 at 2:17 pm

SW Broadway and Oak at 5:12 pm on Thursday March 26th.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

*Note: This article has been updated with new comments from Commissioner Eudaly. Scroll to bottom to read them.

“I’m not going to encourage anyone to leave their house unnecessarily.”
— Chloe Eudaly, Portland city commissioner

Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly says despite radical shifts in transportation needs and behaviors due to the coronavirus outbreak, she does not plan to make any temporary changes to our streets.

In a Twitter post Friday afternoon in response to our questions about the issue, the commissioner wrote, “We need to stay home, we need to flatten the curve, we need our emergency vehicles to have unobstructed routes, and now is not the time for hastily executed street changes.”

Just over two weeks ago we published an article by north Portlander Sam Balto who started a petition to limit driving access on neighborhood greenways in order to provide more safe social distancing space for people who need to go outside. Since then, several cities across the country and globe have taken action to reconfigure streets so people who aren’t inside cars have more space.

Today there’s a growing consensus among advocates and experts that this is precisely the time for street changes.

With more people working from home, avoiding transit, and looking to get fresh air for mental and physical health, sidewalks and street shoulders are bursting at the seams. Meanwhile, car traffic is at an all-time low and lanes usually crowded with drivers are sitting empty.

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Non-drivers made up a large majority of road users on North Willamette Blvd last weekend.

Commissioner Eudaly said on Friday she considered “expanding the right of way for increased public use” before Governor Kate Brown’s “stay home” order (PDF) was issued on March 23rd; but then changed her mind. “I’m not going to encourage anyone to leave their house unnecessarily,” she wrote Friday.

Regardless of the conditions of our streets, barring a much more stringent lockdown order, many Portlanders will continue to leave their homes. People need to get to the store, to work, they need fresh air, they need exercise. A lot of people will do those things without using their cars. And right now our street space is unnecessarily inequitable in how it’s divided up. That fact is likely part of the reason why the Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau decided to manage their streets differently. Last week the agency closed roads to drivers in 10 popular parks in order to create more space for people.

Beyond simply providing for more — and safer — space for walkers and mobility device users, reducing the space used by drivers could also help stop a spike in reckless driving and speeding. If there’s one truism in transportation policy, it’s that given more space to drive, people will always use it to take more risks. On Friday, the Portland Police Bureau Traffic Division issued a statement saying, “With fewer cars on the road we are noticing a serious escalation in dangerous driving behavior.”

While Eudaly doesn’t see the need for any changes, local and national experts disagree.

Gwen Shaw is an engineer at the Portland office of Toole Design. She was also one of the key leaders who organized the changes on Naito Parkway that led directly to Better Naito, a once-temporary project has since been funded and will soon be implemented by Commissioner Eudaly’s transportation bureau. Shaw will be a featured in a webinar this Thursday about “rebalancing streets for people” during the coronavirus pandemic.

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“This is the time to reset and reboot our transportation system…That means design, experiment and use cheap and quick tactical materials to close the gaps for the bicycle, transit and carpool lane networks.”
— Timothy Papandreou, Emerging Transport Advisors

“As we face unprecedented times right now,” Shaw shared with me recently, “there is more need than ever to do this.” “We’re hopeful that this webinar can be used widely by communities and agencies of all scales to provide safe places for all people to enjoy the outside world while maintaining safe physical distances.”

Timothy Papandreou spent seven years in various positions with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (including chief innovation officer and director of strategic planning and policy) before founding Emerging Transport Advisors in 2018.

In an article published Friday by Forbes, Papandreou said now is a major opportunity for cities to alter streetscapes. “This is the time to reset and reboot our transportation system and look at it from the lens of people, culture and our new reality. That means design, experiment and use cheap and quick tactical materials to close the gaps for the bicycle, transit and carpool lane networks,” he wrote. “Post-crisis when we start to recover, people will slowly come back. If you have these new networks and spaces in-place people will utilize them and new travel behaviors will stick.”

Instead of seizing an opportunity to change our streets for considerable short-term benefits that align directly with long-term planning goals, Eudaly will wait until movement restrictions are relaxed. In her tweets Friday she wrote that PBOT is prepping an online platform where people can share feedback about, “how we can better use our streets when the order is lifted.” “I hope to have some new changes ready to showcase and a blowout (if socially distanced) Sunday Parkways event for the first weekend we are free to roam.”

Further reading:
Op-Ed: Let’s Build a Network of ‘Quiet Streets’ via Streetsblog
City to test road closures, putting more space between pedestrians via Calgary Herald
COVID19 Livable Streets Response Strategies, a Google Sheet tracking national/global street changes created by Michael Lydon, a principal at Street Plans.

UPDATE, 3/31: Commissioner Eudaly responded to this story on our Facebook page last night. Here’s what she said:

I’ve traveled around the city over the weekend: Woodlawn, Arbor Lodge, University Park, St Johns, Boise, Eliot, Old Town, West End, Burnside from the river past 23rd Ave, West Hills, Central East Side, and Kerns. I’ve also been by several city parks. Nowhere did I see “sidewalks and street shoulders… bursting at the seams.” Not even close. Please tell me where this is happening in Portland—a not terribly dense city dominated by single family homes, not residential high rises.

Besides encouraging people to stay home and flatten the curve, working to stave off a mass wave of evictions, foreclosures, bankruptcies and business closures, getting critical information out to the public, and preparing my bureaus for massive budget cuts, I’ve been focused on the most serious public health and safety threat on our streets—people living on them. We considered closing streets in Old Town for camping—it proved problematic for a variety of reasons—emergency vehicle access, as well as access for housed residents and businesses. Instead we are identifying city owned property for safe sleep sites.

Resources are stretched thin. People are freaked out. Like I said, it’s not the time for hastily planned street closures (closing streets in parks is not remotely comparable to closing residential streets) with no public engagement.

I am a fan of streets for people, reclaiming public space, and creating a more equitable transportation system. The fact that I have other more urgent priorities right now doesn’t change that. As we get a clearer picture of what this crisis could look like over the next few weeks it’s possible we’ll revisit the issue. But for now, I’m focused on the most vulnerable people in our community…

I’m really disappointed in this article. You’ve all seen the flack I take over a “lack of public engagement” when we spend months doing outreach to hundreds of people. How do you think this would go over? I know advocates are gonna advocate but for god’s sake, a little credit, a little understanding, and some sense of priorities would be great right now.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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KevinianoMiddle of the Road GuyJonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)Chris IPaul G. Recent comment authors
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Kath Youell
Guest

As a long-term vocal supporter of Chloe’s, I respectfully disagree with her. I will be writing, as soon as a can wrench my laptop from my daughter’s hands.

Eli
Guest
Eli

Living in Seattle (where we have a similar lack of city leadership on opening up our unused street grid), our downtown is horrible to live in right now. I actually regret having moved here.

I’ve literally gone outside once in 2 weeks, since the sidewalks lack adequate space for social distancing — and the street folks aren’t exactly giving 6 feet of space. And, of course, downtown residents often don’t own cars — and we don’t have a connected network of bike infrastructure (like Vancouver BC) to go anywhere without one when public transit is effectively off-limits.

I haven’t seen a single emergency vehicle go by in days.

Champs
Guest
Champs

I for one will be perfectly happy to “delay” my vote for Eudaly so long as she wants to be technically correct about the definition of “denied.”

Matt
Guest
Matt

It is absolutely necessary for people to leave their houses and get outside, and she should view it as her obligation to make sure that happens as safely as possible. It’s important for mental and physical health and there isn’t an epidemiologist on the planet who would say that people should be sheltering in their homes 24/7.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

Clearly we need a chief innovation officer and director of strategic planning and policy.

David Hampsten
Guest

Portland is more conservative than I thought, almost as bad as the Oregon state legislature.

Fred
Guest
Fred

Chloe is disappointing, on so many levels. I’ll be voting for her opponent in the upcoming election – I know someone else can do better. She has proven she cannot.

Tom
Guest
Tom

The need for safe outdoor access is more than for just recreation. There are many people with progressive chronic disease that are under strict doctors order to have an exercise program. This is not just some small subset of the population. Most people die from just a few categories of progressive chronic diseases, almost all of which benefit profoundly from moderate exercise like biking and brisk walking. If you suddenly stop an existing exercise program, the health of many in this group will start to go downhill very fast, resulting in an increased burden on the health care system and a higher overall mortality rate. Not everyone has the money, space, or tolerant downstairs neighbors to setup an indoor exercise program. Outdoor exercise is absolutely critical for many of these people.

The lack of exercise together with a corresponding increase in sitting time (bad on its own), increase in stress/anxiety, combined with social isolation is almost a perfect storm to rapidly accelerate progression of chronic disease.

The hard data on the recent increased rate and degree of speeding is starting to roll in, and the resulting safety consequences need to be addressed. People need a safe space for doctor ordered exercise. By denying people a safe place to exercise and instead telling them to stay home all the time, she is condemning many people to an early death from preexisting conditions.

Josh
Guest
Josh

Well, at least she believes in induced demand.

 
Guest
 

On the contrary, I feel like now is the PERFECT time for street changes…

galavantista
Guest
galavantista

I think it’s important to think of people right now who HAVE to go out — to pick up food for their families at school sites, to get to essential service jobs, and the like. Now seems like it would be the perfect time to reallocate street space precisely for the safety and benefit of people who are out there doing hard work for others, who don’t have a choice about it, who have to dart across 5 lane stroads to make the bus for example, and would clearly benefit from safer and more balanced streets. What if we started with those streets?

karl
Guest
karl

Now is the time to clean them. There are no cars in any parking spots downtown.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

One thing this crisis has highlighted is how slow our government has worked in “non-crisis” times. Central City in Motion? Bike master plan? If these things had already been implemented you wouldn’t need to do this. We need a more efficient government that can deliver projects in a reasonable time line so when crisis like this occur we have safe places to get around in.

Keviniano
Subscriber
Keviniano

I respectfully but stridently disagree with you on this one, Jonathan. Chloe is right to send out one and only one message: Stay. Home.

Portland political leadership united and spent day after day hammering on our fence-sitting governor to do the right thing — shut down the state, give an authoritative stay-at-home order, and get the most contagious and deadly pandemic of any of our lifetimes under control. After succeeding at that, she should walk it back a bit and add an asterisk? I wouldn’t if I were her. I would stick with one message, united with all other levels of government across the whole state. Stay. Home.

I have a different theory about the main reason Parks and Rec closed the parks to cars. It wasn’t because they want to rebalance anything. It’s because they want people to Stay Home, and being able to drive into a park made it too convenient to go there.

I also very much disagree with the appeal to authority when you called the quoted people in your article experts. They are definitely NOT experts. Not in the thing that really matters right now, which the quickest and most effective way to flatten the curve. They aren’t epidemiologists, they don’t (to my knowledge) have degrees in public health, and they probably haven’t studied epidemics or pandemics enough to say with any authority what will save the most lives in this really, really extreme situation we’re in.

I do think that in places where the density and built environment doesn’t allow folks to safely get out when they need to while maintaining the 6 feet, that needs to be fixed ASAP. There are probably a few places in town that are like that, but not many.

This whole situation is really unprecedented, there’s lots of room for reasonable people to disagree, and I reserve the right to change my own mind on this as things develop. But right now I think she’s doing great. There are so many lives on the line right now, so many more than the (nevertheless appalling) 50-ish people that are getting killed on Portland street every year.

johnliu
Guest
johnliu

There is very little traffic on the roads, either cars or bikes.

Reconfiguring roads right now is the lowest possible priority.

The virus will place city revenues under financial stress, while increasing costs, all while the city tries to fund assistance programs for small businesses and individuals.

Why should the city spend extra money to have PBOT reconfigure roads and then change them back again, to meet this non existent need?

How about that $$$ going to help small business who have closed and people who have lost their jobs?

Stop taking advantage of the crisis to push an agenda. Not the time.

Dirk McGee
Guest
Dirk McGee

Who would you expect to make those changes? I hear the folks at PBOT are just trying to keep the lights on, so to speak. Are their lives and health worth risking so we can reallocate space in the ROW based on clearly skewed data? We all know why there are no cars on the road now and it seems shady at best to move things right now. Let’s wait until the changes are based solely on policy and not on a pandemic “opportunity”.

Even if citizens and advocates were given the power to make temporary changes in the ROW, should we be risking their health? These are interesting times and we must all be careful.

Maybe, as a temporary measure, more fearless cyclists could use the roadway space (fewer cars) to free up bike lanes for the interested but concerned and/or pedestrians… And we can wait until things go back to “normal” for more substantial changes.

damiene
Subscriber
damiene

For what it’s worth, I’ve been making it a point to claim the lane anyway – as a pedestrian – whenever I have to venture out for more supplies. Sometimes with a Mac wagon for grocery runs. For the most part this has been on relatively quiet neighborhood streets, but I haven’t run into any conflicts so far – cars go around me with a much wider berth than when I’m cycling. Nobody’s honked at me yet!

Scott Glazer
Guest
Scott Glazer

Keviniano
>I do think that in places where the density and built environment doesn’t allow folks to safely get out when they need to while maintaining the 6 feet, that needs to be fixed ASAP. There are probably a few places in town that are like that, but not many.

This seems wrong. I believe the typical Portland sidewalk is six feet wide. I know ours is; I just measured it. Now, imagine two people passing each other on the sidewalk. Even if each hugged the very edge, people aren’t two-dimensional, so they are closer than six feet from each other. So, every time two people pass, one needs to go into the dirt or bushes or street.

Now, in my neighborhood (NW Portland) there are a lot of residents venturing outside on foot:
– Joggers and walkers. Exercise is encouraged.
– Dog walkers. Dogs need to do their business somewhere, and large parts of Portland don’t have back yards.
– Smokers. Gross. OK. I don’t know what to say about these guys.
– People walking to work / grocery stores / restaurants for take-out. All legitimate reasons to leave the house right now.
– People with nowhere else to be, i.e., the homeless.

It’s busy out there. Even in the bad weather. For mostly legitimate reasons. And with six-feet sidewalks, that means only one person can get by.

I’m going out for a daily run and I’m spending a lot of time in the street. Safe? Probably not.

Evan
Guest
Evan

How about just following through on projects that pbot has been stalling on? Hey PBOT – can we get that Greeley Ave project finished?

Keviniano
Subscriber
Keviniano

If my example scenario is actually happening (people have to crowd at the entrance and there aren’t options not to), AND businesses, neighbors, and/or NA’s are approaching PBOT AND they being given a flat “no way”, then I also disagree with that and would want PBOT to take quick action to prioritize public safety in those areas.

The picture I’m getting and what I sense Comm. Eudaly pushing against is that there are some folks who want broad changes so they don’t need to be inconvenienced. Like maybe closing streets so folks can go running without needing to slow down or “pull out” onto a grass strip when passing someone else. Or protesting about busy streets when there are longer, alternative routes that still allow social distancing. I don’t think that kind of stuff should be a priority right now, not by a mile.

Can you give examples of the cases where people have made requests and PBOT has refused to take action? I’d be curious to know. The details matter.

Alain
Guest
Alain

Talk of waiting until returning to “normal” (automobile traffic kills 40K and injure 2 million+ each year in the U.S.), or presupposing some kind of neutral position from which to enact change, should be viewed critically. We have every right to ‘advocate’, or ‘take opportunity’. The GOP, the right, and market-based thinkers are licking their chops right now, and they are taking every opportunity. This pandemic is in many ways about shared space (land and wildlife management). It is well within our rights to make certain demands about how this space, urban space, is to be accessed and utilized. Looking out my window, I see more people on bikes, and on the sidewalks than previously and during all times of day. People will go outside, and they are. Commissioner Eudaly indeed has much in front of her to contend with, and all of it having a different sense of priorities. And given limited resources, those most in need should be helped first. That being said, how we get around and inhabit our city is open to discussion and disagreement.

matchupancakes
Subscriber
matchupancakes

Yesterday while biking along sidestreets – not a collector by anyone’s definition – for exercise a car came racing up from behind and honked several times as the narrow street did not allow enough room to pass. At the next stop sign they zipped ahead 100 yards and parked in front of a home. No emergency, just entitlement. Now is the time to create a network of closed sidestreets for people using mobility devices, jogging, and cycling to do so safely with spatial distancing.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

This is an interesting discussion. Ultimately, our transportation system belongs to us, not to Eudaly, so we should have a loud voice in how it operates. On the other hand, we may have a one-time chance to make necessary changes that would be far more difficult at other times.

I would ask proponents of moving forward now: how do we ensure the public has a voice in any decisions we make now?

And I would ask opponents: If not now, when?

q
Guest
q

One irony in all this–if an action to fight the pandemic is being considered, then people realize there’s also a long-term benefit to it afterwards, then that raises the issue of “taking advantage of the situation” and it becomes a reason why it shouldn’t be done, instead of a reason that it’s an even better thing to do.

Paul G.
Guest
Paul G.

Jonathan

I think you’re increasingly tone-deaf on this one. This is not the time to expend city resources on closing streets which, as you show in many other articles, are generally very low on traffic.

You say that “several cities worldwide” have made closures, but the average “closure” listed on the spreadsheet (outside Bogota which is an outlier) looks to be 1-3 miles as “pilots”. You list Portland Parks as a street closure for alternative transportation, but that’s misleading–their own statement says that this closure is meant to limit access and usage. It’s not about alternative transportation at all.

Pretty weak sauce. I’m with Eudaly on this one as well.