“I understand people see this as an amazing opportunity… but I’m nervous about the consequences and I’m questioning whether this is the right time to re-allocate resources.”
From “shared street” sign graphics people can print out at home and wholesale lane re-allocations, with each passing day another city in America unveils a plan to change how streets are used in order to create more space and safety for vulnerable people.
But Portland remains stuck.
With no detailed proposal on the table (local transportation advocacy groups haven’t drafted one) and a transportation bureau reeling from lost revenue and other management and personnel crises brought on by the coronavirus situation, our ostensibly progressive and innovative city has come up with far more excuses than plans when it comes to making adaptations to the dramatic shift in how public streets are being used.
It’s been almost three weeks since we reported Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly felt it “wasn’t the right time” to make any changes to our streets in light of the pandemic. At a meeting of the bureau’s budget advisory committee on Thursday, Eudaly shared more thoughts about the topic. They were was the most candid and detailed she’s shared on the topic so far.
At the end of the meeting, a committee member gave Eudaly an open-ended prompt to address them. The fact that Eudaly used it to bring up the open streets debate shows that it remains a top-of-mind issue for her (she didn’t talk about anything else). “There is a conversion about whether or not we should be closing streets,” Eudaly said. “I would love to hear from committee members how they feel about that.”
Eudaly then described her position. She said at the outset of the stay-at-home order issued by Governor Kate Brown on March 23rd, she and her staff “didn’t have a good picture” of what the order was going to entail and they were reluctant to encourage people to “go outside and congregate”. That’s an idea parroted by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler that’s been roundly criticized by transportation activists who point out that crowds are only likely to gather if given too few places to do it.
“It raises a lot of equity concerns about who we are closing the streets for, and why are we using a pandemic situation as the call to do that and get rid of cars?”
— Maria Hernandez, PBOT Budget Advisory Committee member
Then Eudaly shared more reasons she’s still not comfortable moving forward with the idea:
“It will require allocation of resources that are incredibly limited right now… My concern is because we know Portland drivers on a good day are prone to some recklessness — I almost got hit two times recently walking in a crosswalk with no traffic and high visibility — people aren’t very mindful out there and I’m very afraid of trying to change behavior on our streets in the middle of this crisis and people being hurt or killed.”
After sharing this rationale, Eudaly added,
“I want to convey to all of you I am a huge fan of streets for people, of really taking space away from automobiles and toward pedestrians and cyclists. I understand people see this as an amazing opportunity to do that; but I’m nervous about the consequences and I’m questioning whether this is the right time to re-allocate resources.”
Only one member of the committee spoke up. It was Maria Hernandez, an environmental justice advocate.
“It raises a lot of equity concerns about who we are closing the streets for, and why are we using a pandemic situation as the call to do that and get rid of cars?… For me, on a personal level, it does raise a lot of equity concerns. I think it’s important, but who has the ability to do that will really raise a lot of other concerns about militarization and what kind of resources we’ll be using to enforce that.”
Eudaly thanked Hernandez and said she’d forgotten to bring that up. “That’s certainly a concern of mine,” she said. Then Eudaly expanded on her thoughts around equity and shared several other reasons she’s “nervous” about moving forward with any actions at this time:
“My first thought was, ‘Great!’; but how do we do this equitably and deliver increased public space to people who need it the most? And how do we do that in east Portland when we’re talking about streets that don’t have basic pedestrian infrastructure?”
“People are calling for bicycle greenways to be closed to through traffic and that is a logical place to start. But it doesn’t deliver equitable benefit across the city, so I’m weighing those considerations as well.”
“For those of use who have yards… and who live in neighborhoods that are walkable and are not very crowded — like in my neighborhood of Kerns — I’m really not seeing overcrowding. We don’t need the streets closed the way people who are living in denser areas without the infrastructure.
“And people are throwing out a lot of examples to me. Well, we’re not Oakland. We’re not a really dense urban city with lots of high-rises or multi-family developments. We’re 70%, I think, single-family.”
“I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I’m not interested or don’t care about it. But it’s a lot more complicated than just going out there and sticking up some sawhorses or signs. I mean, we carefully consider where we put a crosswalk or speed bump, or what kind of traffic calming intervention is appropriate on each street. The idea that this would just be so easy to implement and enforce makes me very nervous for people’s safety.”
The commissioner’s comments raise a lot of issues. I won’t go into them here and now, but I wanted everyone to be aware of her perspective as we continue to discuss and debate this issue. (Note: I have a separate story coming with more on the equity issue from various advocacy leaders.)
And remember, PBOT has asked for ideas on, “How the public right-of-way could be reimagined to support social distancing after the current ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ order is lifted. You can email your thoughts to them at Active.Transportation@portlandoregon.gov.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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