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Jo Ann Hardesty is Portland’s new transportation commissioner

Posted by on December 28th, 2020 at 1:20 pm

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty at a protest in downtown Portland on July 17th, 2020.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Two days before Christmas Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler played City Council Santa by handing out new bureau assignments. The recipient of the Portland Bureau of Transportation was Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

“When we look at these issues through a public health lens, we see that traffic enforcement does not improve outcomes.”
— Jo Ann Hardesty

The move puts the 63-year-old former state representative, NAACP president, and Portland’s first Black woman city council member in charge of Portland’s streets — and the 900-plus employee agency that manages and maintains them. In addition to our streets, PBOT also manages a bike and e-scooter share system, regulation of ride-hailing firms Uber and Lyft, our Vision Zero plan, and more.

While Hardesty doesn’t come to the job with transportation policy experience, many of her values and leadership experiences line up well with the direction PBOT is headed. Hardesty also takes over from her biggest ally on council, outgoing Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. Like Eudaly, Hardesty is likely to firmly adopt the idea of “transportation justice” which aims to right past wrongs of city policies that have left too many Portlanders – especially people of color and people with disabilities — behind. Hardesty has also been council’s most ardent supporter of police reform and has made her concerns about police traffic enforcement known on several occasions since coming to City Hall in 2018.

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Hardesty, a Navy veteran, modeled a Biketown design that honored military veterans.

(Photo: Biketown/City of Portland)

Following the announcement of bureau assignments last week, PBOT shared a statement on Twitter that said, “[Hardesty’s] dedication to building a more equitable Portland and bringing new voices to city government will help us to accelerate our own commitments to transportation justice and to ensure that our transportation system serves the needs of all our fellow Portlanders.”

Another issue where Hardesty aligns with existing PBOT policy is on transit. PBOT’s Enhanced Transit Corridors plan launched in 2018 and laid the groundwork for the Rose Lane Project, one of Eudaly’s signature accomplishments. In an interview with BikePortland last year, Hardesty said, “I want public transit to be free. Period… If we’re ever going to impact the climate, we need to get people out of automobiles.”

Now Hardesty finds herself in a position to push TriMet in that direction at a time when the transit agency is looking for a new general manager. Hardesty could support demands from the Getting There Together Coalition for a more transparent hiring process.

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A flyer for Hardesty’s Rethink Portland initiative.

Hardesty will also find agreement at PBOT and within local transportation activism circles with her desire move away from using armed police officers to enforce traffic laws. This is an issue Eudaly already started working on and something Hardesty could make significant progress on as PBOT Commissioner. As part of her Rethink Portland initiative launched in October, Hardesty hosted a panel about community safety that featured Dr. Jonathan Jay from the Boston University School of Public Health. When I asked Hardesty to explain how her proposal to eliminate $18 million from the Portland Police Bureau budget would impact traffic enforcement, she cited Dr. Jay’s work. “What we know from public health experts such as Dr. Jon Jay from Boston University is when we look at these issues through a public health lens, we see that traffic enforcement does not improve outcomes; technology and infrastructure upgrades do. I am more than happy to look at reinvestments that can be made to infrastructure to build systems that can truly keep Portlanders safe.”

Some of those infrastructure investments could come via Vision Zero. Interestingly, Hardesty voted against Vision Zero when it came to City Council in June 2019. She said PBOT focused too much on individual behaviors when the system itself isn’t a level playing field. “I continue to have the concern that we are over-criminalizing one segment of our community and using them as the reason why people are dying rather than the poor conditions of our roads,” Hardesty said before voting “no” on a two-year update of PBOT’s Vision Zero Plan. “The lack of lighting, the lack of sidewalks in many places. I think it all works together.”

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The debate over enforcement is likely to grow louder during Hardesty’s tenure. Another place where Hardesty is likely to amplify an existing PBOT position is on the I-5 Rose Quarter project.

“We believe Hardesty understands who projects are built by and for, where they are built, when they are built, and why they are built are just as important as what projects the City is building.”
— Ashton Simpson, Oregon Walks

Many transportation reform activists in Portland support Eudaly’s opposition to ODOT’s plan to spend an estimated $800 million on more lanes and surface street changes through the Rose Quarter. Hardesty is likely to share that stance. She told No More Freeways in April 2018 that she strongly opposes the project and that, “expanding I-5 should be an absolute last resort to addressing crashes and congestions.” And Hardesty is likely to be very skeptical of ODOT’s second try to replace the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. In 2013 we covered an anti-Columbia River Crossing project event where she (as board president of Coalition for a Livable Future) said, “We the people get to decide what a livable community looks like, and that ain’t it.”

Hardesty’s past as a community organizer, politician and racial justice activist are being seen as a big plus by local transportation advocates.

Asked to comment on her future as PBOT commissioner last week, newly-named Oregon Walks Executive Director Ashton Simpson told us, “Transportation is not a side issue in America’s struggle for civil rights… Transportation is about economic mobility and we believe Hardesty understands who projects are built by and for, where they are built, when they are built, and why they are built are just as important as what projects the City is building.”

And Street Trust Board President Kimberlee Stafford said, “With traffic violence surging in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has exacerbated inequality, our streets need to be safer for all people who use them. We know from Commissioner Hardesty’s decades of experience that she will help PBOT to embrace a more holistic view of community safety and push the intersections of race, class, and gender into the forefront of just policy making.”

New bureau assignments become effective January 1st, 2021.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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Matt D
Guest
Matt D

Why not go a step further with traffic enforcement by designing roads that intrinsically make drivers driver slower and more carefully?

Ed
Guest
Ed

The interesting (and often frustrating) aspect of Portland’s form of government is that people run for office and get elected because they want to tackle specific issues, and then they get assigned bureaus that are largely outside of those issues. You never know how invested they will becomes in the bureaus. In Hardesty’s case, I am hopeful that she can marry the things she’s passionate about – police enforcement reform and improving equitable outcomes – with some changes to how PBOT approaches its policies and investments. As citizen advocates, we should be thinking about the levers that both advance our issues and that can excite a commissioner enough to bring about change.

Zach
Guest
Zach

If there’s one principle that should guide Commissioner Hardesty’s tenure, it’s that the cheapest, fastest, and most effective way—by far—to both restore communities AND make streets safer—is to make them car-free.

Pedestrianize main streets, quick-build public plazas everywhere, and watch the magic happen.

Steve Hash
Guest
Steve Hash

Red light and Speed cameras ASAP, please.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

I continue to have the concern that we are over-criminalizing one segment of our community and using them as the reason why people are dying rather than the poor conditions of our roads.

I presume Hardesty is referring here to dangerous drivers. While I agree that better roads would improve safety, it is not unreasonable to focus at least some attention on those who choose to drive dangerously. In the same manner that a lone person carrying an envelope of cash to the bank attracts robbery, wide open roads attract speeding and illegal passing. But that doesn’t mean that the robber/driver is not to blame for their actions, and if they hurt someone while committing their acts, they are still responsible, no matter how tempting the environment made it to commit them.

So I agree that armored trucks and well engineered roadways will help prevent robbery/dangerous driving, but those engaged in those activities are criminalizing themselves. We will never eliminate opportunities for robbery/dangerous driving, so there will always rely to some degree on individuals to follow the laws we have in place to protect more vulnerable members of society, and if they choose to ignore those laws, there needs to be some repercussions.

Perpetrator-deresponsibilizing is as pernicious as victim-blaming, but it needs a catchier name.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Move all downtown PBOT staff and offices to 122nd and Division ASAP.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

I expect ride share companies to be treated poorly.

Albert_st
Guest
Albert_st

This is the same JoAnn that calls the POLICE on a lyft driver? Defund the police – unless they are trying to protect you???

Jeremy Myers
Guest
Jeremy Myers

They need to stop putting radicals in charge of transportation. Hardesty (and Eudaly) are directly responsible for more traffic deaths. because of Hardesty, we have far far less (down to 10 from 36) motorcycle cops, and she is great at blocking things, but almost never actually coming up with solutions. THought I appreciate her stance on social justice, she is a terrible commissioner as her main line of thought is how can I stop something by calling it racist. She is not a solution maker.

Pdx77
Guest
Pdx77

So let me get this right, joann hardesty lies about Portland police and the use of enforcement which she publicly had to admit she did, then she calls 911 because she was rude and being asked to get out of the lyft driver’s car and that too was reported and now shes handed a lead position with transportation?
I dont get it. Reward someone with more responsibilities that abuses her position already. I originally voted for her too but she turned out to be a terrible choice.

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

I honestly believe anyone who has a real problem with hardesty,it is simply because a)she is a she and b) because she is black. Plus, she embraced her heritage. Which really drives some of the white folks crazy.

Had she made mistakes? Yes. But if she was a he and she was white, that would be overlooked. For those in this thread who are so against her, examine your true motives. Imagine her as a him and white…and truly ask yourself… “Would I be upset that she is charge of (wait for it) pothole repair and striping?

She is polarizing but as a white guy, I realize that part of that is she is different than me in both physical makeup, life story and family life. I admit (and some will judge me for it) this has gotten under my skin in a weird way in the past without me knowing it. I realize that now…and recognize it and disavow it. It’s wrong.

You know what? I should be excited for her and Portland, not worried. Look fellow white people, you still have a very white mayor. So, you are stil safe in the burbs and the condos. (This is an attempt at humor).

So simmer down pot roast and chill. You had your run white guys in pbot, time to let go and let others lead. You’ll be fine.

If this comment gets approved and left up, I’ll be proud. And if we can get an article on what odor did to minorities in order to ram i5 through, even more proud.