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How Portland can make its ‘Slow Streets’ plan work

Posted by on May 7th, 2020 at 8:32 am

Let’s keep the barricades in the lane.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

This morning the Portland Bureau of Transportation has invited media to a launch of the first installation of a traffic diverter as part of their “Slow Streets Safe Streets” initiative.

In the coming days and weeks PBOT plans to place signs and barricades at 100 locations citywide. Before we embark on this exciting traffic calming and open streets experiment, I want to share a few thoughts about what we can do to make sure it’s a success.

Address equity issues
There’s a large schism happening in the active transportation world around equity. Some people are worried these pandemic-related responses do not fully acknowledge historical and current systemic racism and that they ignore the lived experiences of low-wage earners, people of color, and other vulnerable populations. They have very valid points. Others are frustrated that the word “equity” has paralyzed cities from taking actions needed to reclaim street space and create safer conditions.

It’s a complicated debate we need to have. But let’s not forget: People who are discriminated against and who don’t have built-in social or economic privileges and who are struggling under the weight of a system that has always been tilted against them should have their needs and concerns elevated first and foremost. Leaders need to be clear about what that means and how it will influence plans and actions.

PBOT needs to clarify who they’ve talked to in deciding how and where to make these changes. The agency has decided to launch this effort at NW 22nd and Flanders. That’s hardly reassuring. (Note: I’m well aware that data proves many parts of northwest Portland have lower than average median income earners and score high in equity gap analyses. My point is that perception and optics matter – especially around equity conversations. I was hoping they’d launch this somewhere like Cully or Lents.)

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Control the message
If you lined up 10 Portlanders and asked them about this effort, 9.5 of them would probably say, “PBOT is closing 100 miles of streets to cars.” That’s a shame because it’s untrue.

In the PR world we used to say “perception is reality” and because PBOT hasn’t been careful enough with their messaging, they’ve helped paint a false picture of what’s going on.

Everyone at PBOT and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office needs to erase “close” from their vocabulary for the next few weeks. There are myriad ways to talk about this effort without using that word and setting people off who are afraid something is being taken away from them. Portland isn’t closing anything, we are simply reducing access for drivers and creating more space for all other road users. The streets are open to drivers who live on them, US Mail trucks, first-responders, and so on.

Close non-greenway gaps
Because the initial batch of these temporary diverters are only going on streets in the existing neighborhood greenway network, people that live in places without them are mad. Most notably, there are no greenways in southwest Portland or in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood in southeast. It’s also clear that with only 100 locations announced, there’s no way to cover all the places that need traffic calming.

PBOT needs to make it clear that they’re aware of these gaps and share a method for closing them. They should be transparent with the criteria they’re using to choose locations and let the public know how to influence them and suggest more locations.

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Enlist a volunteer army
These new signs and barricades will only be as powerful as the maintenance behind them. With PBOT’s Maintenance Operations division still at half-staff and with other work to attend to, the way to keep these diverters erect and in place is the help of community volunteers.

The good news is PBOT has a huge email database of “intersection superheroes” and other volunteers from their Sunday Parkways events. It’s time to tap into that asset and recruit neighborhood residents to become greenway superheroes who are trained and accountable for making sure barricades are where they should be.

Put diverters in the right place
The barricades and signs won’t work if they’re too far off to the side. It will be tempting for PBOT to place them in the shoulder and shadow of parked cars or too close to corners. That would be a big mistake. If people ignore these diverters, it will endanger street users and it will open PBOT up to criticism that the program isn’t working.

Let’s learn from Bend. They initially placed signage too far off the side. Advocates spoke up and got them to re-orient them into the middle of the roadway. Essential drivers and other road users can still go around them, but they have to slow down and take account.

Hope this is helpful. Let’s make this great!

I’m off to the launch event now and will report back soon.

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

22nd and Flanders is not the Pearl. It’s even worse than the Pearl, from a diversity/equity perspective.

Momo
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Momo

You could not be more wrong about that, and Jonathan is wrong to imply that the Pearl or the NW District don’t “count” for equity. Take a look at the City of Portland’s Equity Matrix. This part of NW has much higher than citywide low-income people, and so does the Pearl District east of I-405, because both areas have a ton of subsidized affordable housing, plus some “naturally occurring” affordable studios in older buildings.

https://pdx.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=2e2252af23ed4be3a666f780cbaddfc5

Josh
Guest
Josh

No greenways in the Brooklyn neighborhood, either. Operationally, I understand why they started with greenways, but they really need to get the entire network going.

K
Guest
K

Yes, not the Pearl and while it doesn’t signal EQUITY- it’s also a pretty rational place to put up barricades.

First- you’d be surprised about the amount of affordable units in these older buildings in NW Portland so it’s probably more diverse than you’d expect. This part of the City has the highest walk and bike modes in the City, and the lowest car ownership so its streets get a lot of foot/ bike traffic. The sidewalks there are very narrow and not up to standards so there is far less space to socially distance in a pretty dense and busy district.

I lived one block from this spot for more than 4 years, and can say it would be far more difficult to socially distance and safely move around on those streets than on the greenway I now live on (or on any street I’ve lived on since being in the Alphabet district).

Toby Keith
Guest
Toby Keith

It’s like Parkrose doesn’t even exist.

CarsAreAwesome
Guest
CarsAreAwesome

Remind me why we need to “calm” traffic when car trips are at an historic low. How many bike/car/pedestrian conflicts have been reported on neighborhood streets? Have there been any injuries? How many tickets have been given for speeding on neighborhood streets? Is there any data to back up the “need” to calm theses streets? When was the last time there was a fatality related to a bike/car/pedestrian conflict on any of the Greenways getting made locals only ? Or is this all just because you want it regardless of with the rest of the city’s residents think?

Maybe a more important question; why are we encouraging people to all congregate in the same places during a pandemic?

Social Engineer
Guest
Social Engineer

And by including that little dig at the end there, you help spread the false perception that many of your own commenters believe. It would be more productive to help educate people on the truth. Thanks.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

Any income metric that relies on “median household income” without regard to how many people are living on that income is useless. The “low-income” parts of NW have a higher percentage of young, urban professionals with less than two members in the household (it’s something like 1.2 people per household).

It’s mot low-income people, its young people with good jobs and no families.

Momo
Guest
Momo

Instead of perpetuating the myths that lead to the bad optics, you could educate your readers why those optics are false.

J_R
Guest
J_R

There’s no way that I would reposition or replace diverter-barricades that were knocked down or moved by unhappy motorists. Maintaining diverter-barricades invites retaliation by motorists who are unhappy with the infringement of their God-given right to drive their cars on their streets. I’ve experienced retaliation from neighbors as a result of my testimony about safety issues in my neighborhood.

Take a look at the number of motorists who ignore “Road Closed to Through Traffic” signs in construction zones. If they can make it through, they will do so.

I predict that putting hundreds of diverter-barricades out for no apparent reason (a typical motorist’s reaction) will cause a backlash against cyclists and pedestrians as a result of this experiment. I hope I’m wrong.

Nathan
Guest
Nathan

Movement north to south just doesn’t matter it seems. Our existing “everything funnels to downtown” system might be great when you have lots of pedestrians and bike commuters going downtown in high percentages. Almost all of the installed signs are seemingly set up to discourage car traffic on the east-west streets.

The whole point of these measures is to allow for localized movement for people in their neighborhoods to feel safer walking down the middle of the road, as to give space to to others on the sidewalk.

The fact that these signs are not being put at the intersections where the greenways cross the major East-West streets is very frustrating (Hawthorne/16th, Division/28th/85th, Rodney/Alberta, Lombard/Wabash). Why would we expect drivers flying down these east-west streets without traffic (for the first time possibly ever) to slow down as they turn onto one of these neighborhood streets. These are the intersections that should definitely have larger signs placed in the middle to truly divert cars away from them.

This proposal isn’t even about grabbing the low hanging fruit, it’s about picking up the fruit that has already fallen on the ground. It’s about an incredibly inefficient municipal government that is terrified about it’s lost tax revenue and created the easiest and cheapest plan that will quiet down safe street advocates just enough that they can move onto other problems.

 
Guest
 

Nathan brings up a great point about our “everything funnels to downtown” system. To me it seems our city leaders believe that all commuters are trying to get to downtown when they’re designing our infrastructure (e.g. it’s ridiculous on MAX trying to get from one side to the other). The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of jobs are way outside of downtown, including most of the Portland area’s largest employers like Nike, Intel, Tektronix, and Boeing. Our bike and transit network completely fails anyone trying to get to these places.

Jim Lee
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Jim Lee

Over here south of Powell and east of 41st there are many flat and wide residential streets with little motor traffic.

Lots of pedestrian dads, moms, kids, dogs, plus many cyclists (accompanied by one or more of the aforementioned ), are using the streets just fine without “barricades.”

“Barricades” are not needed here. Kudos to Eudaly/PBOT for placing them only where they actually are useful.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I would like to learn more about the “equity” issues involved with this endeavor. How, for example, does closing (sorry, reducing access to) greenways “fully acknowledge historical and current systemic racism” or does it instead “ignore the lived experiences of low-wage earners, people of color, and other vulnerable populations”?

You state this connection is “very valid.” Could you, avoiding jargon, please dig a bit more into the connection between temporarily creating more space for non-motorists on the greenway network and the lived experience of, low-wage earners, people of color, and other vulnerable populations? It was your first issue, but I simply don’t understand the connection you’re drawing.

Momo
Guest
Momo

As a journalist, it is indeed your responsibility to educate readers. Instead of getting defensive about it (like saying “Sheesh” in your reply), try owning up to it and commit to doing better. Note that I’m not the only one calling you out in the comments. Also, just because you wrote an article on the topic in the past doesn’t absolve you from being consistent in later articles. Not everyone has read your entire back catalog.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Most people here are fair-minded, and want to do the right thing. I think readers will participate in a constructive conversation if you make a clear connection between closing the streets and basic fairness (who does the street closure hurt, for example?) Avoid the jargon and divisive rhetoric, and who knows… we might actually get a conversation about the merits of the topic.

If it becomes just another “Social Justice 101” lecture, I’m not sure everyone will find that helpful.

Kana O.
Guest
Kana O.

The validity of the connection: reducing the number of cars on the street through these measures might be enough for some people to feel safe walking or biking down the middle of the street but that for a person of color specifically, there is much more that needs to be done before they feel walking down the street is a good idea; for them there is more to the calculation of “is it safe?” than “are many and/or fast cars moving down a street?”.

Bob
Guest
Bob

I have really appreciated your coverage and advocacy of this issue. The “equity” lens has been interesting to me, as I used to live next to a large family of lower income, African Americans who would regularly close our “residential” street by parking two cars at each end to create access barriers, which was not permitted or sanctioned by PBOT. They would have these nice family events almost every weekend in the summers. I only mention their income and race to make the point that “equity” issues can be framed in so many different ways. These neighbors didn’t use the closed streets to ride bikes, but they had a similar purpose and vision for how they wanted to use the street.

I have been thinking about that family during social distancing, as my new, higher income, white neighbors and I have effectively been doing the same thing during social distancing, which has allowed neighborhood kids a safe space to ride bikes, play basketball, etc. (Though, we do allow cars to come through, just through a small maze of plastic slow-go-flag people and barriers purchased on Amazon.)This experience has really hit home how much space we waste for cars passing through, especially on so-called “residential” streets. It’s a shame. And, I hope it will prompt some permanent changes.

Allan Rudwick
Subscriber

@Jonathan – the reply button isn’t working properly for me

@CarsAreAwesome – while trips are at a low, speeds are not.

Tom
Guest
Tom

@CarsAreAwesome. The data is starting to roll in on this, and some lockdown states are now reporting higher total fatality counts for April vs April last year. Not just an increase in fatality rate, but higher total fatality counts even though trips are lower. Not very awesome. But we should not need to show a pile of dead and injured bodies just get safer streets though. We only need to look at the speeding. Speeding by absolute count is now higher than before the pandemic, and its not the same degree of speeding as before. The rate of so called “super speeding” is being reported to be up to 87% higher than before, with reports that speeds are now 30% higher than before.

Avoiding other peds on narrow sidewalks means frequent road crossings that can’t always be at intersections. The combination of a big jump up in pedestrian road crossings plus a big jump in speeding, super speeding, and an increase total fatality counts is not the best combination. Driving a little more cautiously on certain streets is not a big deal.

CarsAreAwesome
Guest
CarsAreAwesome

@Tom and @Allan Rudwick So, you’re suggesting that because other states are having an uptick we need to make changes here? That don’t make no sense. Poaching of African Elephants, in Africa, has been at an all-time high so we need to hire heavily armed guards to protect the elephants at the Oregon Zoo. And you still didn’t answer the question of where this speeding is actually happening because around where I live and where my shop is, two different neighborhoods, the jackwagons that are speeding are all on the big streets and not on the Greenways. Making the Greenways “Locals Only Bro” does absolutely nothing to address that issue. The streets you’re “calming” and making “safer” are already safe. The kids down the street from my shop are constantly playing in the street (which is a cut-through) and they’re doing just fine, no barriers needed.

And yes, when you want to limit the access of the dominant mode share (by a huge margin I might add) you absolutely do have to justify it. That’s part of how democracy works. Also, you never addressed the bigger question of congregating people during a pandemic. For the record, I have no issue with using right of way to allow for distancing around critical services, like grocery stores. That’s a real safety issue. But claiming non-existent safety concerns to close already quiet streets to others (and you are closing them to people who don’t live or work there) so a bunch of mostly middle to upper middle class white people can recreate surrounded by a bunch of other mostly middle to upper middle class white people is nothing but exploiting a crisis to pull off a land grab.

idlebytes
Guest
idlebytes

CarsAreAwesome
That’s part of how democracy works.Recommended 0

This made me laugh thank you. Driving your car has nothing to do with freedom or democracy. States have the right to limit access to modes of travel for public safety. The automobile is the dominant mode of travel because it’s the only option for most people and we subsidize it so heavily. Also this isn’t about your hang ups about “upper middle class white people.” They’re not-surprisingly the group with lowest percent of deaths caused by motor vehicle crashes: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/809956

damiene
Subscriber
damiene

“Everyone at PBOT and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office needs to erase “close” from their vocabulary for the next few weeks. There are myriad ways to talk about this effort without using that word and setting people off who are afraid something is being taken away from them. Portland isn’t closing anything, we are simply reducing access for drivers and creating more space for all other road users. The streets are open to drivers who live on them, US Mail trucks, first-responders, and so on.”

I would say even “reducing access for drivers” isn’t accurate. To my knowledge, no location that was previously accessible via automobile will become inaccessible via automobile – in other words, no reduction in access.

What this plan is doing is reducing automobile *convenience*.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

Hopefully they use better barricades than those wimpy wooden ones in the lead photo. As an angry driver I’d go right through that, looking in the rear view mirror with a smug smile at the flattened barricade.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

Note on the Bend improvement. Yes, they put up very large signs, but big fire trucks will have to run them over to get through. I’m betting the City will get some ‘heat’ from first responders over new signage.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

Elevating the needs of those systematically discriminated against is code for Affirmative Action. Which is a code for Reverse Discrimination. This principle has been rejected by the vast majority of the American public, has rarely worked, is offensive on its face, and unnecessarily divides our society. Level the playing field, yes, but the government cannot ever ‘make up’ for past wrongs, and should get out of that business.

JBone
Guest
JBone

Steve I agree with most of what you said, with one exception. I do think in the case of historically oppressed people, there does need to be elevation but it’s the details of that that matter. What does elevate mean (awareness, financial assistance, etc)? How long does it last (a decade, forever, etc)? What are the responsibilities of both the giving and receiving group? Many more questions that unfortunately don’t get widely discussed, even in formal “tough conversations” ( I’ve sat through many as a public employee and they are pretty nauseating these days). I used to be a bleeding heart Democrat in my youth and while I still practice “progressivism” in my personal daily life, the never ending shaming and looking in the rear view mirror instead of opportunities through the windshield has driven me away from the progressive movement. I’ve often thought, “do these folks that want society to always be acknowledging and dealing with the past go about their personal lives like that?” If they do, I think that’s a really sad, non-redemptive way to live. Learn the lesson, and move on…and quit blaming systems, there’s actually a lot of help (non-governmental) for those that need a hand up.

CarsAreAwesome
Guest
CarsAreAwesome

@idlebytes I never said driving was a right. It isn’t. What I did say is that if you want to limit the access of citizens from a public place the city needs to have a justification. That justification can be a lot of things. When the justification given are made up safety concerns backed by nothing relevant (ie stats from other states) to the issue at hand, yeah, I’m going to call BS. Your NHTSA data has nothing to do with the safety record of the Greenways.

Also, as an upper middle class white person my hang up with my peers is that they often wrap their desires in faux-moral, holier than thou trappings to hide the selfish core.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

Just an interesting anecdote from my work career. In 1972, I was passed over for a job because I was white. True story. It was a program called Model Cities in Richmond, CA, a majority black city. I was more qualified than any other applicant, but when I asked the all-black directors if I honestly had a chance to be hired, they looked at each other sheepishly, and shook their heads. It was not a big deal to me, but it indicates just how long we have been trying to ‘make things right’.