Portland’s neighborhood greenways are having a moment.
People are walking and biking and rolling on all manner of conveyances to get some exercise, find mental clarity, spend quality time with others, walk their dogs, or just get themselves from point-A to point-B. And with demand for bicycles and safe streets soaring in tandem with fears about the Covid-19 pandemic and a dearth of outdoor public spaces, Portland’s 100-mile network of traffic-calmed residential roads have become a lifeline.
The neighborhood greenway on N/NE Going Street is just one example. It has long been a star in the system and the pandemic has made it shine even brighter. Going has many things going for it. For about 2.5 miles from Vancouver Avenue to NE 42nd, the street is: flat; straight; wide enough to breathe easily on, but not too wide to feel unsafe; a connector between multiple neighborhoods and commercial districts (Williams, Alberta, 42nd); relatively devoid of stop signs or signals; and it’s not popular with drivers given several strategically placed, permanent traffic diverters.
On Sunday I spent some time observing traffic on Going. What I saw was a street that has responded beautifully to the pandemic. People of all ages and abilities were using the street in great numbers; racers and slow-pacers, parents and kids, old and young, experts and novices. They easily outnumbered people in cars. In fact I recall just a handful of cars in the 45 minutes I was out there. What’s even more amazing is that it all happened naturally, without any intervention from the City of Portland. Because Going already has low driving volumes and strong diversion in place, the Portland Bureau of Transportation didn’t need to install any Safe Streets barricades or signage on it.
There was one location near 30th were a nearby resident has erected two sets of barricades and posted green “Street for People – Cars are Guest” signs. Those signs aren’t official. They were created by a tactual urbanism group based in New York City (based on examples from The Netherlands) and distributed locally by transportation reform activist Sam Balto. Balto has been at the forefront of grassroots safe streets activism during the pandemic and he’s printed out and delivered the signs for a small fee that he donates to Verde, a local nonprofit.
I’ve often said that humans create their own infrastructure. That is to say, if there are enough people on the street (not in cars), you don’t need any special signage or infrastructure to keep them safe. As I watched the “Cars are guests” block, this view played out perfectly: A car driver moved slowly on the block, surrounded by bike riders and walkers. Either due to fear of hitting someone or being labeled a rude jerk, the driver could only go about 5 mph, so that’s what they did. The conditions on the street reinforced the desired behavior.
One last note before I share a People on Bikes gallery: While this calmed and quiet street attracts many Portlanders, from what I saw it attracts only a small slice of the Portland demographic. As you can see in the photos, nearly everyone who came by was white (2010 Census data shows this tract as 77% white, 12% black, 5% Hispanic/Latino, 3% Asian/Pacific Islander). This raises questions about who isn’t using these streets and who doesn’t feel they’re as safe and accessible as others do.
Take a closer look at who rolled by during a 20-minute period at the intersection of N Going and 17th…
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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