“PBOT will put treatments on 100 sections of neighborhood greenways by the end of next week.”
— Margaux Weeke, Office of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly
“We are officially in ‘go’ mode,” said a smiling Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Policy, Planning and Projects Group Manager Art Pearce at the outset of the Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting last night. The meeting was the first venue for PBOT to share more details about the ‘Slow Streets Safe Streets’ initiative they launched yesterday and what lies ahead.
So far the plan hasn’t been fully fleshed out; but last night’s meeting and a follow-up from Commissioner Eudaly’s office I just received this morning give us a much more detailed sense of where we’re headed.
And to be clear, despite what you might read from other media outlets, there are no plans for “promenades” and there are no plans to “close 100 miles of streets to car traffic.” The initiative announced yesterday would beef up existing neighborhood greenways by adding more diverters and signage — the same stuff we’ve done for years and that activists have pushed for all along. And the “100 miles of streets” is a big misunderstanding. Turns out PBOT plans to add new treatments to 100 sections of greenways — not miles (more on that below).
Yesterday’s announcement marked a big step forward for PBOT and commissioner-in-charge Chloe Eudaly.
Eudaly in particular has made a dramatic shift in her perspective in a very short timeframe. On April 16th, Eudaly told the PBOT Budget Advisory Committee, “I’m really not seeing overcrowding. We don’t need the streets closed.” And on April 20th, Eudaly said on an OPB radio show, “I don’t think that right now while we’re under ‘Stay at Home stay safe’ orders, that encouraging people to leave their homes and making radical changes with the way streets are used, are the best use of our time and resources.” She had also cited concerns about equity and risks from speeding drivers. But yesterday she had a much different tone, telling told KATU-TV that, “[People are] moving around their neighborhoods on foot and on bike and we need to make that easier and safer for them to do [so].”
What a difference a few weeks makes! Now PBOT and Eudaly are ready to roll. Last night PBOT’s Art Pearce said he and his staff have spent about a month tracking other cities’ responses to COVID-19. Pearce was clearly excited that he and his staff finally got the green light from the commissioner’s office to go public with their ideas. “It’s taken some time to get our feet beneath us,” he said, “now we’re ready to dive in with your help.”
So let’s dive in shall we?
We Have a Chance to Change For The Better For Good
“We don’t have to just recover to where we were. We can recover to where we want to be.”
— Nick Falbo, PBOT
Throughout the meeting Pearce and other PBOT staff hinted they see this initiative as much more than a short-term reaction to a crisis. “We’re looking for your help,” he told committee members, “to make sure we’re thinking about this comprehensively and thinking about this from the lasting impact it can be on our response as an agency and on our use of infrastructure and our streets.”
With car use and vehicle miles traveled down dramatically (as much as 60% fewer car trips in inner neighborhoods and 30% further out, according to PBOT data shared last night), PBOT is poised to seize the moment and hasten their work toward building a future where fewer people drive cars.
PBOT Senior Planner Nick Falbo has been tapped as the architect of the Slow Streets initiative. At the meeting last night he said PBOT is, “keeping our eyes on the prize about the future.” “It’s not just about what happens now… We want to emerge to a better future. We don’t have to just recover to where we were. We can recover to where we want to be,” he said.
“We have a rare moment to mobilize our bureau and enter this phase with eyes wide open; to plan for what’s happening next,” Falbo added.
Greenways Will Be Ground Zero
The most immediate work will come in the form of temporary barricades and diverters followed by more robust “hardening” of existing neighborhood greenways.
In response to our questions this morning, Eudaly’s office just released new information about how this will be rolled out. PBOT has identified 100 neighborhood greenway locations (not miles) where they’ll place temporary diversion and other treatments by the end of next week. “These are locations where greenways intersect with busy streets and have historic high traffic volumes,” Eudaly’s office says. Commissioner Eudaly will publish the list of the initial 100 neighborhood greenway sections by the end of this week (5/1).
At the meeting last night, PBOT’s Active Transportation and Safety Division Manager Catherine Ciarlo said the agency will use this opportunity to more strongly defend greenways. “As car traffic inevitably comes back up,” she said, “What type of actions do we need to take to protect the greenways to the level of functioning we’re seeing now and provide the type of social distancing space many of you said you wish there was more of.”
The current “level of functioning” Ciarlo referred to was revealed in a presentation by PBOT Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller. He shared car driver volume data on three of Portland’s most popular greenways: SE Salmon, SE Clinton, and SE Lincoln. Auto traffic volumes on those streets have gone down by 61%, 47% and 42% respectively compared to pre-pandemic levels. Ciarlo also clarified that the “hardened” versions of greenways won’t ban all drivers, but will make it harder for them to enter and will, “Remind [drivers] they are guests on these greenways.”
Eudaly’s Policy Director Jamey Duhamel (who was assigned a much more direct role in bicycling policy just before the pandemic hit) mentioned concerns with having enough maintenance staff to put up and monitor all the new barricades and signs. This is a serious issue because PBOT’s maintenance division (which in some ways – culturally and physically – often feels like a separate bureau) is still only working at half-staff. “We’re waiting to see if that’s a resource we can deploy,” Pearce said, adding that the maintenance division is trying to be fully staffed by next month. Margaux Weeke, communications director for Commissioner Eudaly’s office clarified this morning that they’re working on a “community activation strategy” to maintain the barriers and we can expect more info on that effort soon.
As for how the barricades will be installed with limited maintenance staff, Weeke says they’ve hired the same contractor that puts on Sunday Parkways to do the work.
Asked about using community volunteers to keep the barriers in place, Pearce said he’s discussed the idea with Bike Loud PDX, a local bike activism nonprofit. Another idea PBOT is mulling is some sort of “greenway stewards” program. Perhaps they can enlist the hundreds of “intersection superheroes” that have already volunteered for Sunday Parkways events?
Busy Streets/Main Streets
The pop-up biking and walking lanes and new loading and queuing zones on main streets and arterials will come later. These will be phased-in by PBOT as demand dictates and/or Governor Kate Brown lifts the ‘Stay Home’ order. Last night Pearce cited lots of uncertainty about this element of the plan, saying PBOT’s goal is to ramp up and be ready to strike when the opportunity arises. “Are we a month out? Are we six weeks out? We don’t really know,” he said.
According to Eudaly’s office these elements of the initiative will be the focus of more formal outreach. “PBOT is going to be flexible and work to identify situations where we can better support safe mobility for Portlanders,” Eudaly’s office shared with us this morning.
It’s All About the Money
While there’s justifiable excitement from PBOT and advocates about this new initiative, looming anxiety about the budget remains. Pearce said last night he’s scouring the agency’s plans for small projects that can be delayed in order to create resources to implement the Slow Streets plan. He made it clear that no funding has been made available for this yet. “I’m operating under a strong imperative to not have this create new costs,” Pearce said. Large capital projects are not on the table: “We’re going to have to be as strategic as we possible in the ways we respond to his… Big infrastructure isn’t the answer,” he said.
When I asked for clarification about funding, Eudaly’s office said since the Slow Streets effort is part of the city’s emergency COVID-19 response, it’s eligible for federal CARES Act funding.
Other Takeaways and Next Steps
PBOT has lacked a unified vision and sense of urgency for a while now. The COVID-19 pandemic might be what gets them focused and working toward all the shared goals we all care so much about. During last night’s meeting it was clear they’re asking the pandemic to do a lot of heavy lifting.
PBOT is going to try and leverage this Slow Streets effort to garner more public support and build momentum around other projects and programs. PBOT’s Ciarlo said last night the biggest barrier to greenway development isn’t engineering or funding, it’s getting public support for the changes. “We really want to seize this as a moment to help the public see these as something for everyone,” she said. Ciarlo mentioned that the pandemic has opened many peoples’ eyes to the value of the street in front of their home. “What we’re intending to do is capture that feeling and help people take what they’re experiencing now and really build on that to create some support for the more permanent installations.”
PBOT will also seize the moment to create streets that help ensure the success of their Biketown re-launch that’s on track for this summer. The new bike share system will be 100% electric and will cover a much larger service area. She also mentioned they want more Portlanders to come out of lockdown and choose “light individual transportation” options like e-scooters. If done right, this Slow Streets initiative encourage more people to bike and use scooters for many urban trips and that new non-driving traffic will build even more support for the ultimate prize: Dedicated bikeways on main streets and arterials.
This all sounds fun and exciting; but there will be opposition and many people will resist these changes. We should also be wary that for all the talk about equity and fairness to people of color and lower-income Portlanders, the issue wasn’t addressed with any substance at the meeting last night. PBOT has ignored this at the outset of “exciting” new plans in the past and I worry they’re setting up to do it again (note that Slow Streets point person Nick Falbo is same planner who ran into major opposition and questions around race and equity on the 7th/9th greenway project).
I look forward to following this closely as outreach begins. For now, PBOT says they want to hear from the public about where changes should happen first and why changes are needed. Please use the 503-823-SAFE hotline (also firstname.lastname@example.org) and the email@example.com emails to share your voice.
And stay tuned to BikePortland for more coverage.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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