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Commissioner Hardesty wants more carfree streets in downtown Portland

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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