BikePortland

Opinion: Commissioner Eudaly should act now to make streets more virus-resistant


The City of Portland could easily add temporary striping or barriers to the outside lanes on 122nd Avenue through Gateway to calm traffic and relieve demands on sidewalk space.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The way we use our streets has changed dramatically in the past few weeks. Unfortunately the streets themselves haven’t changed at all.

Instead of enacting simple and proven measures to improve conditions, PBOT and Commissioner Eudaly are keeping the status quo and hiding from reality.

In a lengthy update just published by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s transportation bureau, the agency lists many things they’re doing in response to the crisis. However none of them address the most pressing mobility issue we face right now: Portlanders don’t have enough space to maintain a healthy social distance while outdoors.

People are afraid to use transit and are turning to bikes instead. Parks and trails and other outdoor facilities have been closed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Many people are working from home and are riding and walking in their neighborhoods with their kids. People are flocking to the sidewalks and streets like never before. As The Oregonian reported today, this creates a situation where, “Making the mandatory six feet of social distance – required by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown at all public spaces – an extremely difficult task.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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West Burnside on Friday evening at 7:00 pm.

NE Tillamook near Rose City Golf Course.

With car use at all-time lows, we have a tremendous amount of excess road capacity. Our streets represent thousands of acres of public space that could be put to emergency use to ensure healthy mobility for all Portlanders — from the central city to the eastern city limits.

But instead of enacting simple and proven measures to seize this opportunity and improve conditions, PBOT and Commissioner Eudaly are keeping the status quo and hiding from reality.

As if to simply wish the problem away, in the headline of their message today, PBOT writes, “Governor’s order to restrict travel only to essential trips is mandatory.”

Not only does the Governor’s order lack enforcement, it includes exceptions for, “Outdoor activities like walking your dog, jogging, or biking in your neighborhood.” And the City of Portland’s own website says it’s OK to, “Exercise outside (hiking, biking) only if you can be 6 feet apart from others.” Commissioner Eudaly herself contradicted this guidance when she shared a link to accessible nature trails on her Facebook page last week with the message, “Getting out in nature, while safely social distancing, is essential for everyone.”

“Getting out in nature” is very difficult for many Portlanders right now. It’s also discouraged by park agencies. For many people, the closest to nature they can get right now is the street in front of their home or apartment. We should make it safer for them to do so.

PBOT has a Portland In The Streets program that does things like block parties and other street closures. What better time than to call them into action?

Our streets are a lifeline right now, providing a vital mental and physical boost to many Portlanders. But they’re either too dangerous or too crowded because car drivers hold most of the space hostage. While some might think the nearly-empty streets are already safe for bikers and walkers, most people have such a deeply ingrained fear of drivers that even empty streets are stressful.

Also in the mix of this issue is the fact that dangerous driving and speeding is way up. Why? Because our streets are so out of balance some drivers feel it’s a good time to go fast and take chances. All the more reason to re-claim unused space.

Data from Google shows big drop in traffic, except for residential. Perhaps another sign we should create temporary “local access only” closures on neighborhood greenways?

We don’t need more hopes and prayers from PBOT leaders. We need direct actions to break the grip drivers have on our streets. We need temporary lane reconfigurations that reduce access for drivers and increase access for people on foot, bike, and those using mobility devices. We need “shared street” signage in strategic places. We need to consider driving bans on certain streets. We need “Healthy Street, Healthy Portland” yard signs.

Many other cities around the country and globe have taken steps to create healthier streets during the pandemic. Portland needs to follow suit. We should not force people who want or need to ride a bicycle to choose between a deadly virus in a crowded area or a deadly collision on a street.

With the proper tone (somber and serious), framing (it’s a critical step to ensure public health and safety), and implementation (lean on community help, use existing plans and route analyses), I know we can do this.

PBOT thinks so too, they just don’t want to do it right now.

At the end of their statement today, PBOT wrote “We’ve started to develop ideas for how streets, sidewalks and other parts of the public right-of-way could be reimagined to support social distancing after the current ‘Stay Home. Save Lives’ order is lifted.” They’re asking for ideas at Active.Transportation@portlandoregon.gov.

It’s great that Commissioner Eudaly and PBOT are open to changes. But their reluctance to take steps now is a huge missed opportunity.

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