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How Portland can make its ‘Slow Streets’ plan work


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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