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Commissioner Hardesty wants more carfree streets in downtown Portland

Posted by on January 12th, 2021 at 7:42 pm

SW Harvey Milk at 13th back in July.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Commissioner Hardesty
(Photo: City of Portland)

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has been in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation for only about a week but she’s already got the ball rolling on a few priorities. Hardesty’s Policy Director Derek Bradley popped into the monthly meeting of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee Tuesday to share some of her “first blush thoughts” on goals for the bureau.

The first priority Bradley shared (much to the surprise of BAC members, who weren’t warned beforehand about the remarks) is that Commissioner Hardesty is interested in creating carfree streets downtown. To be precise, “Exploring, identifying and executing on closing some roadways permanently to car traffic,” is how Bradley put it.

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Bradley said carfree streets are one of Hardesty’s top priorities and added that their office has already reached out to PBOT to research the issue and develop materials to help seed the conversations to come. Specifically, they’ve asked PBOT staff to determine which locations would be most viable to prohibit driving. It’s the first step to what will be a future outreach process that will gauge the feedback and interest of Portland business leaders, community groups, and other advisory councils.

Believe it or not, this street through Director Park is currently open to driving. It doesn’t have to be.

We’ve been pushing for more humane, safe, quiet and healthy spaces downtown for many years — ever since Portland hosted the Towards Carfree Cities Conference in 2008. In August 2019, amid a spate of traffic fatalities, I published an opinion piece right here on the front page calling for our leaders to unlock Portland’s potential by reducing the amount of cars downtown. Here’s an excerpt:

While those who work at PBOT and City Hall struggle to make progress on Vision Zero goals, they might want to take a look out their office windows. There are simply too many cars and too many people who use them irresponsibly. Want fewer people to die? Want to unlock the vast potential of our streets? Want people to be healthier, wealthier and happier? If so, we must have a laser focus on reducing the amount of cars on the road. It’s not enough to make incremental progress for bicycling, walking, and transit. As long as driving is perceived as being cheaper, easier, and safer, too many people will choose to do it too often.

In 2019 San Francisco banned driving on a 2.2-mile stretch of a major downtown thoroughfare, yet despite Portland’s progressive transportation reputation, we have a precious little amount of carfree space. A one-block stretch of SW Montgomery on the Portland State University campus most recently became carfree. There’s also the one-block stretch of SW Ankeny.

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We don’t know exactly why this is such a big priority for Commissioner Hardesty (yet), but it should come as no surprise. In 2018 we shared how her campaign website included a page on “Climate Justice” that stated, “I believe in a Portland where you can get where you need to go without using a car.” Hardesty is also a huge supporter of free and reliable transit service. Downtown is very well-served by transit, which makes not using a car much more feasible. In 2009, Portland Planning Commissioner and Metro council candidate Chris Smith shared his belief that the presence of buses, MAX light rail lines, streetcars, bike share and electric scooters all work together to create a, “Useful framework to look at supporting a dramatic reduction in auto reliance in the Central City.”

This is an auspicious moment to have this conversation, given how the demand on public space is at an all-time high due to social distancing requirements brought on by the Covid-19 crisis. Many downtown Portland streets that are good candidates for going carfree are already half-way there thanks to PBOT’s Healthy Business permit program which has allowed dining plazas in the right-of-way.

There are several low-hanging fruit locations that have been discussed in the past: NW 13th (north of Burnside), the transit mall on 5th and 6th, SW Harvey Milk (between 10th and 13th), the Park Blocks, and Director Park.

Hardesty, 61, counts herself among the many Portlanders who are too afraid of cars to ride on our streets. Remove cars and she’d be more likely to give it a try. In a 2019 interview she told me she was contemplating buying a new bike. “I think I’ll practice in my apartment complex first before I feel brave enough to take it onto the street,” she said.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Keith
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Keith

Let’s not forget the option of simply reducing the amount of street width dedicated to cars that are either being driven or parked. Eliminating cars often has related vehicular access (and political) issues for residents and businesses. Your photo of Stark/Harvey Milk reminds me of how the closing of one block of Stark may be more symbolic than actually making a real difference. Limiting and not eliminating vehicle dominance on selected streets may often be a more practical option. Going back to Stark (and Oak), I think of how helpful it was to remove 1 of 2 travel lanes for cars on Stark and Oak between 12th and Naito. When the choice is a block or two car free or many blocks with a protected bike lane, I’ll go for the latter every time.

I’m sure many motorists thought at the time the world would end when the Stark/Oak car lanes went away, but here we are years later, and no problem. Driving is a reality, and I think an emphasis on sharing and coexisting will take us further than ped/bike v. car fights. We generally have enough of us v. them mentality going on already.

In addition, we should be looking for the next “Better Naito” projects where we apply temporary measures, see how they work, fine-tune, and ultimately implement as permanent solutions. With the lower Covid-related traffic volumes probably remaining for much of this year, it’s a perfect opportunity to try the next generation of Better Naito projects across the city.

Christian Samuel
Guest
Christian Samuel

Could be cool. But have to comment on one intriguing statement in the article:

“Hardesty, 61, counts herself among the many Portlanders who are too afraid of cars to ride on our streets.” I agree there are lots of people in this camp.

I don’t see how making a few blocks here and there car free is going to make one feel safer to ride bikes around town. Protected or even semi-protected bike lanes yes, car free plazas not so much.

I'll pass you
Guest
I'll pass you

“Portlanders have been ClAmORiNG for”… Goes on to quote themselves lmao.

Fred
Guest
Fred

The problem I have with car-free streets is that every car-free street immediately becomes a pedestrian-priority street. Try riding your bike quickly in any car-free setting – think of the car-free streets on the PSU campus – and immediately you will come into conflict with pedestrians, who give you the stink-eye and even yell at you. And you as a cyclist have to dodge the peds. Parents with small children see these car-free streets as great places to let the kiddies roam, so we cyclists are then playing Pac-Man, having to avoid little kids randomly pinging in our direction. In fact, on the PSU campus there are now many car-free streets designated as “pedestrian only” and you’re supposed to dismount your bike and walk.

I much prefer a bike lane on a regularly trafficked street for moving on a bike quickly and efficiently. Car-free streets are really not safe for cyclists b/c the cyclists are not safe from the pedestrians.

SilkySlim
Guest
SilkySlim

Downtown sure, but hit me up with some eastside carfree streets!

I think a simple model to follow would be SE 26th and Clinton. For those that haven’t been by, basically one block between 25th and 26th no longer lets cars through. Instead, there is double-ish wide bike lane running between extended seating/pedestrian/bike parking areas.

This seems win win win to me. It is already a greenway street with diverters, so this is just a slightly more dramatic one. Obviously it helps limits car traffic up and down Clinton a bit. Makes that even more of a destination block to gather (let’s just pretend covid is going away, so I can make it through the day…). A very approachable bike destination for the non-fearless crowd.

joan
Subscriber

This is fantastic news, and I look forward to Commissioner Hardesty’s leadership on this!

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

This is great news! And the time is right as many retailers, bars and restaurants owners have turned a 180 on what is more valuable to their success: on street vehicle storage or vitality (humans eating & shopping and physically moving in the street).

There are great many long established models for commercial streets* with lite / limited (balanced) motor vehicle access for deliveries etc. *’Winkelerven” concept for living shopping streets like Woonerven but for commercial zones.

ELIZABETH TOMMANEY
Guest
ELIZABETH TOMMANEY

I hope they plan then to lisence and tax bike riders as they do cars and people. Bikes should be lisenced as a car is and be able to contribute to the up keep of roads and by ways and also be held accountable for not following the rules of the road.

Hotrodder
Guest
Hotrodder

Who’s ridden carfree Tabor lately? Tried to do a few laps this morning. Wall-to-wall peds, strollers and dogs, 4, 5, wide, some dogs leashed, some aren’t, and very little in the way of self-awareness. Between covid and the massive onslaught of the newly arrived, cycling in and around this town is getting harder and harder to do.

As to Commissioner Hardesty’s suggestion to create more carfree plazas, picture the Saturday market at PSU. There’s no reason to think carfree plazas downtown are going to be any different, as in no place for a bicycle.

I agree with the posters recommending the removal of parked cars on busy streets or on greenways.
I’m way comfortable riding with cars.
I’m way not comfortable riding in the door zone.

It’s no wonder gravel riding is so popular.

Bob Steets
Guest
Bob Steets

More room for tents too.

Win win.

JR
Guest
JR

While we remain in this antiquated system of commissioner-in-charge form of government, this is great news. Downtown has WAY too much space dedicated for cars -both parking and movement. If the work-from-home situation continues in any substantial form, this could be an easier pill to swallow for the PBA who are even more antiquated than the commissioner form of government we’re living with. Downtown would be an amazing place with truly pedestrianized streets like our European counterparts.

jennifer delgado
Guest
jennifer delgado

Unbelievable! Clean up the mess you guys created, you know all the crime. Really a car was just stopped at the light, and got shot?. This is everyday! Enough some one do their job!!!!

qqq
Guest
qqq

The two photos in the article both seem like great locations for eliminating vehicles. The top one on Harvey Milk would make a great plaza given its location and restaurant uses on both sides. The Director Park one would allow direct access to the park/plaza from the adjacent building without crossing a street, which is a real flaw with Pioneer Square, Keller Fountain, and the Park Blocks.

I see the value in closing streets primarily being creation of plazas that people come to to be in an “outdoor room” vs. being a linear route used for walking or biking transportation. Others’ ideas of reducing vehicle lanes (but not eliminating all of them) to create more room for walking and biking seem better for that. It’s not one vs. the other. They serve different purposes (place vs. route) and both are needed.

Steve
Guest
Steve

Maybe if bikes had to be registered and licensed to pay the expense of line delineation and upkeep. Automobiles pay gasoline tax to finance the upkeep of the roads being used, Cyclists need to pay their fair share.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

Like the pedestrian block of Ankeny, it still feels weird to me to have the sidewalk in between the tables and the cafes…servers crossing paths with pedestrians. I’ve been on many streets and plazas with sidewalk cafes but Portland is the only place I’ve seen it this way.

Michael Andersen
Subscriber

Thanks for this reporting, Jonathan.

Here’s a fairly good study on success & failure of carfree commercial streets. Seems like they multiply existing foot traffic, but can’t lure foot traffic from scratch.
https://s3.amazonaws.com/sitesusa/wp-content/uploads/sites/1061/2016/06/Fresno-attachment-3-americanpedmallexperiment-003.pdf

Helpful:
major tourist destination like Vegas or New Orleans
beach
university
short blocks
urban area under 100k population

Of those, our downtown is 1/5, or 2/5 if you include the PSU area.

Based on this, I’m dubious of the idea that this is a good response in the short term to the near-evacuation of downtown by office employers. This seems like a good thing to try once the buildings fill up again … but first, they need to. Until that happens, we might be setting this great idea up for failure and the discrediting of similar projects in the future.

I am really depressed about the future of downtown for the first several years post-COVID. The teleworking boom is good in lots of ways, but it’s going to devastate downtown retail until a bunch of those empty offices can be converted to residences or something. I was recently speaking to one of the city’s top planners; he said he thinks it’ll be about 10 years until the central city returns to anything like its pre-pandemic level of activity. I think that might be optimistic. We should probably all be adjusting to this situation.

I wonder though if this might be more likely to succeed *outside* downtown, in a neighborhood – say NW 21st/23rd? – that has lots of existing homes full of telecommuters who’ll soon be very eager to go out to lunch.

I could also imagine something near PSU once students are back. Or maybe we’re just talking about one of the little spots like SW Ankeny & Broadway that should have never been open to cars at all.

Dan Fleming
Guest
Dan Fleming

Let me b polite. Recall Hardesty for the good of the city please recall Hardesty thank you

Dave
Guest
Dave

Isn’t this the same ***deleted by moderator*** who just recently made news when her rideshare driver wouldn’t tolerate her horrible garbage attitude and entitlement? Why do you people keep voting in walking dumpster fires?

John
Guest
John

I wish Portland luck in doing this. In under a year, I retire, and we’re moving to Europe where car-free living is so much easier, and where we don’t need to deal with stubborness and misinformation on this topic. No sense in trying to explain it anymore to U.S. Americans who wouldn’t understand no matter how clear you tried to make it.