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Portland transportation bureau vows to be “more inclusive and anti-racist”

“We acknowledge that our institution has contributed immensely to the historic pain and burden you bear.”
— Chris Warner, PBOT Director

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

In a lengthy blog post published last night, Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Chris Warner acknowledged his agency’s role in inequitable infrastructure impacts and vowed to become an “anti-racist organization.”

“For too many, the spaces where people should feel free to use and traverse with ease,” Warner wrote, “unfortunately, feel unsafe.” “I want our Black colleagues, stakeholders, customers, friends, partners, and community leaders to know that we stand in solidarity and will take action,” he continued. “We will not remain silent on issues of social justice and human rights. We acknowledge that our institution has contributed immensely to the historic pain and burden you bear.”

For 14 consecutive nights, thousands have taken to our streets demanding an end to police brutality and justice for George Floyd and long list of Black people killed at the hands of police officers.

Warner endorsed the right of those protestors to assemble and march in the right-of-way, affirming the answer to the popular protest chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!”.

“Ultimately, city infrastructure belongs to the people of Portland… We support our community’s use of city infrastructure for peaceful protest and organizing.”

But lofty words and more committees does not equal action.

Was there any meat in Warner’s 1,237-word statement? Here’s all I could find:

“We will accelerate our efforts to both reconcile our past and current actions and set a new path forward.”

“I will be working with the PBOT Equity and Inclusion program and members of the Directors Team to put us on the path to becoming a more inclusive and anti-racist organization.”

“We will elevate the needs and support the safety of our Black colleagues.”

“We will invest in anti-hate work and collaborate with community organizations to better understand and respond to the concerns elevated by the Black community.”

“We will reevaluate the way that we prioritize and do our work.”

Warner said PBOT will soon demonstrate their commitment to Black, indigenous and people of color and is seeking input from the community. Their work will focus on four areas:

— Workforce Support and Accountability;
— Transportation Policy Intervention;
— Supporting and Empowering Black Portland;
— Reimagining the Right-of-Way Using a Racial Equity Framework.

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Talking about racial equity is nothing new for PBOT. In 2016 they launched a five-year “Racial Equity Plan” (PDF). In the introduction to the 24-page plan, former agency director Leah Treat called it, “a bold and audacious vision for what an equitable transportation system in Portland can be.”

Cover of PBOT’s 2017 Racial Equity Plan.

Warner didn’t mention the Racial Equity Plan in his blog post. And both Treat and the manager of the plan are no longer at PBOT. Treat left for a job in the private sector in May 2018 and Zan Gibbs, PBOT’s former Equity and Inclusion Program Manager, left two months later to become Chief Equity Officer for the City of San Antonio.

A lot of work remains undone.

PBOT has a big role to play in destroying the racist policies and practices that influence Portland transportation planning.

An essay published in The New Yorker Wednesday made a persuasive argument that, “transportation issues are social-justice issues”:

“Black Lives Matter is a moral crusade about freedom of movement and who is at liberty to go where… The mobility of black people is additionally restricted by a system that construes their mere presence in many public spaces as trespassing, a de-facto crime, punishable by imprisonment or even death.”

PBOT has to get this right. Like always, they know how to say the right things. Whether they actually do them is up us. We must hold them accountable.

Warner said he wants feedback on how they can do better. His email address is chris.warner@portlandoregon.gov. You can also contact PBOT’s Equity and Inclusion Program at PBOTEquityTeam@portlandoregon.gov.

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