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Equity, safety, lack of density among reasons PBOT Commissioner remains ‘nervous’ about street changes

Posted by on April 17th, 2020 at 11:07 am

“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.”

City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

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.

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“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.”

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“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 jonathan@bikeportland.org.
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Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

At this point the ship has sailed on doing any street closures during the stay at home order. I think the focus should be on what kind of city do we want to live in afterwards.

We have seen how our focus on cars does not leave space for people who have been left out and exploited by capitalism. And how air pollution is deadly for people who live next to our roads with a lot of cars.

Hopefully, the federal government creates a lot of stimulus funding after this. I hope Portlanders from a broad coalition can unite to leverage that funding to change our city for the better.

Creating a city where people do not need to rely on cars makes us more resilient for the next disaster.

Toadslick
Subscriber

These comments are so frustrating! None of them are reasons for inaction.

Rather, these are reasons for an iterative approach. Any improvement is better than maintaining the status quo. Any street closed is better for the immediate neighborhood, and will help build the support for further closures throughout the city.

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

Dramatic and difficult times ,such as now, require bold and decisive leadership. Though I have previously liked her, these comments show Eudaly to be timid and risk averse when faced with hard decisions. We are in for a very hard 2 years at the least, and “wary” leadership such as this will only make things worse. Do the right thing, and the equity concerns will fall in to place.

Champs
Guest
Champs

The “70% single family” figure is a great way to lie with statistics. What other kind of housing would rightly be allowed in most of the city’s west side or on the buttes? Is it also irrelevant that 6% of city is one giant mountain rainforest park?

Ms Eudaly, we need to take our cues from Oakland, not Omaha.

Lowell
Guest
Lowell

So let’s go through the chain of logic that turns an ostensible progressive like Chloe Eudaly into a do-nothing conservative.

1. Inner Portland neighborhoods have in the past received far more attention towards providing safe means of transportation to cyclists and pedestrians.
2. Because outer Portland neighborhoods have been neglected, the people that live there have built lifestyles around driving a car.
3. Before starting any project, we must have community input to make sure we are listening to their voices.
4. When community members from inner Portland ask for improvements to make their streets safer, they are told that it is inequitable since the outer Portland neighborhoods are so far behind.
5. When government proposes doing anything in outer Portland neighborhoods, the community throws a fit because they’ve built their lifestyles around cars and that kind of change seriously disrupts it.

Matt
Guest
Matt

How on earth is this an equity issue? Outside of downtown, Portland in every neighborhood is a city of arterials where major traffic and buses go and neighborhood streets where few people need to drive unless they live there. Keep arterials and bus routes open as they are and divert traffic off of certain neighborhood streets throughout the city. They don’t need to completely close off streets – just limit driving on a given block to the few people who live on that particular block.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

How many conversations sure to spur action get killed by the magic word “equity”…

All of them.

But hey, let’s not talk about equity when the state is going to mow down a playfield for a largely minority school. Nope.

Instead let’s worry about individual streets to open to people to move around with two modes (walking and biking) that largely cost nothing.

q
Guest
q

If the City isn’t interested in making street changes now, the least it could do is take the most simple steps of things like closing streets in parks, and keeping multi-use paths open. Earlier this week Parks blocked the Willamette Greenway Trail in Willamette Park for almost two hours because a Parks crew parked across it to film a video about tree planting. They had a field the size of a football field (because it was an actual football field) 10 feet away, and no equipment or any other reason they had to block the trail. If the City isn’t going to accommodate people walking and biking better on streets, at least don’t interfere with people using walking and biking spaces.

Unfortunately the City’s answer to that can be, “City streets and Parks paths are two different Bureaus with different Commissioners, so they’re unrelated issues”.

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

“equity” is just the latest excuse for reminding us all why we must accept the status quo.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

Having lived next to Oakland most of my childhood I’d say she’s never been there. It looks pretty much like Portland, a bunch of old houses with a city on the side of it.

“As the map of Oakland illustrates, 67 percent of all residential land is zoned for single-family homes”

https://belonging.berkeley.edu/single-family-zoning-san-francisco-bay-area

I don’t think a 3% difference in density is really a reason, but rather a made-up excuse to say instead of “I don’t know”.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

Kerns is a lot more dense than Foster-Powell and we do not have a enough sidewalk space to accommodate the amount of people with social-distancing. Most places around town you’re lucky to get a full sidewalk width due to any number of unreported violations blocking the sidewalk. Right now you have to look down the block to see if anybody is coming or you’ll have to cross the street and look down that block, and if they’re both occupied then you’re waiting at the corner for them to pass.

There is not enough room in the city for all the pedestrians and the people responsible at City Hall won’t make any more room for people because they’re afraid of cars.

She complained that she almost got hit twice because people are driving more dangerously. She’s unwilling to make more space for people and less space for cars to drive dangerously because she’s afraid of cars.

Our leaders are afraid of cars.

It’s obvious who controls our government.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

I’ll believe you have equity concerns when you tell me what they are and the community agrees that they can’t be addressed.

In other words, I’ll likely never believe you.

David Hampsten
Guest

City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has made abundantly clear that if you live in inner Portland and have sidewalks, you are infinitely better off than most residents in the poorer outer parts of Portland. If you want PBOT to make improvements to your inner Portland neighborhoods, you are going to need to earnestly advocate for major ‘pop-up’ improvements for poorer parts of town first. That’s the (political) price you will need to ‘pay’ for living in the nicer more walkable parts of the city.

“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.”

Some data: Most of the city poverty, youth, immigrants, and blacks now live east of 82nd – over a third of the city population in 20% of the city area. Most poor people in EP live in shoddy woody-walkup apartment complexes near major arterial roadways often (illegally) with multiple families in each unit, not in the car-oriented single-family neighborhoods off the main drags. Poor people in EP have little or no access to public parks – and what few parks there are often have no sidewalks leading to them. While there’s more protected crossings than there used to be, most pedestrian deaths are still in EP. All stores, including groceries and mini-marts, are on main drags. Most bike infrastructure is still painted bike lanes (and you know how safe those are.) The option of walking or biking on a set of residential streets to get to the grocery on the main street simply is impossible in most of EP.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I would love to see some stats of parks by neighborhood. Looking at a Google Maps, it appears that E Portland has more parks (by number and by area) than my SE Portland neighborhood, but I don’t have access to the right tools and data to verify that. So I agree that parks may be inequitably distributed, but that distribution may not reflect the standard narrative about E Portland.

joan
Subscriber

There are certainly equity issues at play. Neighborhood greenways are concentrated in parts of town that already have more resources. If PBOT dedicates what are now very limited resources to enhancing the quality of life for folks who live near greenways, then we are exacerbating inequities.

I’d like to see PBOT experiment with lowering traffic volumes on some streets in East Portland, as a pilot. Though it would be important to avoid a situation of increased draconian traffic enforcement by local police. But a pilot in parts of town that have been neglected would be a way to address equity and see if something like this is manageable for PBOT before rolling it out on a larger scale. Would local transportation activists find this approach acceptable? Or would people be upset if it wasn’t happening in their neighborhoods?

Eudaly’s concerns are legitimate and I truly appreciate she is putting equity at the forefront of her thinking. I think folks who are dismissing Eudaly’s concerns about equity are folks who don’t generally regard equity as a goal or concern. I also suspect some of us aren’t appreciating all that’s changed for PBOT in the past month or so. Folks talking about not voting for Eudaly are forgetting that the Rose Lane Project is a truly fantastic project.

Holtz
Subscriber

I don’t really understand the equity argument against discouraging through traffic on local streets. First… I haven’t heard anyone call for streets to be totally closed to cars and trucks. Local residents would have every right to drive in and out of their homes, of course. Second, I can’t think of any part of the city that doesn’t have neighborhood grids of local streets that are designed and intended for local traffic (although many people have gotten used to cutting through them to avoid traffic jams… that aren’t an issue currently)… so the policy would benefit every part of the city. Indeed, the areas least likely to see positive changes are in the relatively wealthy west hills, where there are few street grids.

bobsteets
Guest
bobsteets

Mingus Mapps

Matt S.
Guest
Matt S.

I’m curious what roads people are concerned with the most? I walk down the Woodward Bike Blvd in SE a few days a week and have zero problems keeping my social distance, even with a stroller and two dogs. Maybe close down a lane on Division so I can ride my bike free of traffic? But why, there’s nothing open. On 82nd and Powell, huh? I suppose 60th between Division and Stark could use some widening, it seems to be a gateway to Tabor Park (which is supposed to be closed) for people on bikes.

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

She has so many misteps when whenever there are opportunities. She blew up the neighborhood association issue…she blew up the forest park issue..and now when she got one more chance, she blew up the streets issue. She has gotta go.

Cyclekrieg
That is because Commissioner Chloe Eudaly always says “equity” whenever she wants a reason to not do a thing that no one will question. Oh, you are questioning why we need to be equitable? Well clearly you are racist/sexist/whateverist and your question isn’t serious, so I don’t need to answer it. I can’t find it right now, but she made a comment about urban mountain biking to the effect it wasn’t equitable because white men seemed to be the only ones who are in advertisements for mountain biking. Seriously? That set my teeth on edge in so many ways. (Questions why she owns that North Face jacket she has on. Lots white men in their advertisements…) After that, I noticed when pressed, she plasters her answers with the word “equity”.Recommended 2