Ashton Simpson took over as leader of the nonprofit Oregon Walks back in January. Before that, the Russell neighborhood resident and active volunteer for transportation issues ran for statewide office.
I reached out to him last week to get his perspective on the debate around the Hawthorne Boulevard paving project. Our chat went longer than expected.
Below is a slightly edited version of our conversation:
Any thoughts on the Hawthorne decision?
“I wasn’t involved in it at all. Outside of what was released yesterday [Tuesday, February 9th], I didn’t even know that project was happening. I’m still trying to get wrap my head around the organization and all the things that go along with it. But I did talk to someone on our Plans and Projects Committee and her and I both agree that what they proposed now is better than what is out there today. Granted, it was a big loss for a bike lane on that road, especially for those who live in that community. I wish that could have been added on. But at the same time, we had limited space requirements and they’re trying to fit a lot of stuff in there.
Everybody didn’t get what they wanted, and that’s how things work. But those who have the least access and who are the most vulnerable got spotlighted. And I think that’s something we should highlight.
I’m excited to see more curb ramps. I think we made the right call by taking care of those with a disability. Outside of that, if we want to do full standard bike lanes, then come out to Centennial, come out to Russell, come out to Fairview [neighborhoods in east Portland], come out to streets where it’s wide enough to put in the typical bike lanes… because I will not ride my bike in East Portland [because it’s too dangerous].
I think about somebody who lives off of Hawthorne and they decide they want to get up and bike to work. There may be some discomfort here and there in terms of, like a straight and direct route, but at least they’re going to get there! Out of a scale of one to 10, to bike to work from Hawthorne.. I give that a nine.
… The total win for me is when we don’t have any cars on the road. Like if Hawthorne was strictly for buses and bikes and walking. But until we get people out of single occupancy vehicles, we’ve got a long way to go. That’s why we have to start giving folks more options to move around the city and make the infrastructure available to them to do that — particularly in communities where it doesn’t exist.”
Wider lanes encourage people to go faster, which has direct impact on people crossing the street. Do you have any feelings about the fact that PBOT decided to widen the lanes on Hawthorne from nine to 11 and 12 feet?
“I don’t agree with widening lanes or adding lanes… We have to change our behaviors and widening lanes does not encourage changing behaviors. It encourages the same speeding, auto-centric driving behavior. It doesn’t help. So no, I don’t agree with widening the lane. Now if we’re talking about that dedicated bus lane for the Rose Lane [project], absolutely. But for individual occupancy? No, not at all. Especially down Hawthorne… Now, what to do with that space? I mean, if it were up to me I would widen out the walkway, because again, as it currently stands, Hawthorne sidewalks are overcrowded in that section.”
So if PBOT put together an advisory panel to look at a new vision for Hawthorne Blvd and they had $500 million from the Biden Administration to do whatever folks agreed to. Would you be excited about that? What would that look like to you? Or would you say, ‘Hold on a second, we need better infrastructure in east Portland first’?
“First I would say, are we hitting our equity lens? Now, once we apply our equity lens, and we see where that project falls in line with that framing… then yes. If Hawthorne qualifies to get upgraded then absolutely.
But I think that, again, I’m tired of seeing fine-tuning down close or near city center and moving towards city center and I will continue to beat on the drum — and I know you are probably tired of hearing it — but, at least start the gold standard project in an area where they don’t exist yet.”
I’ve never heard that “fine-tuning” phrase in this context before. I like that.
“We continue to fine-tune the city center and you know, it ripples outward. But then the the fine-tuning eventually stops and nothing else happens. One thing that burns me right now is losing the Metro measure. Yes, it was not perfect. But and however, it would, in 10 years have helped improve this community. Because the majority of the corridors were east of 82nd where we have serious crash issues and fatality issues, constantly. So now that it loses, we we are at where square what? Square negative one.”
What are your feelings about transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty?
“I think she’ll do great. I think she just needs to get up to speed. She’s going to continue to advocate for the little people who have been left out and those who historically have been disinvested in. I hate that she’s coming in and Irene [Marion] is leaving. That would have been great to have them together. PBOT has some awesome folks. I think the world of [PBOT Deputy Director] Millicent [Williams]. She’s an amazing leader… I think we’re going to be okay. We’re in good hands. The only issue I have is that learning curve.”
What do you think about bike advocacy in Portland right now? I think there’s this sense among some people that it’s full of white men like me who sort of have this my-way-or-the-highway kind of approach. Do you have any feelings about that? When you hear “bike advocacy” what comes to mind?
“I wish they would advocate for everybody, not just the dominant culture. Go take a look at our Walk the Talk Talk the Walk series. We just did one at the beginning of the month and it was around biking while black in Portland. I encourage you to go watch it on YouTube.
Honestly, I don’t feel too comfortable biking in the city center because there’s a whole culture that has been crafted for years by white men. And it’s a very aggressive culture, and it’s a culture that needs to change. They need to understand that they are not the only folks in the city that like to bike. Make space. I guess it just falls back to what we all should have learned growing up as children. You know, get along with others, provide space for everyone. Share, share, share. share.”
Are you talking about ‘aggressive’ in terms of that vibe from people who pass you rudely? Or who hassle you for looking or riding a certain way?
“Yeah, like the ‘Where’s your helmet!?’ guy. Don’t question me! And if somebody questions me, I let them know. I let them have it. Because I’m a veteran. And it’s like, you are enjoying this freedom because people sacrifice. I was one of them. So you know, there also needs to be this culture of respect, general basic respect for another human being. I don’t know how you teach that to folks.
I’m glad that there are people out here that are willing and ready to do the work. Outstanding. Now stand up, speak out, speak truth to power and empower those communities that you are learning to get behind. Empower them!
Black History Month is a month I believe should empower our community. I’m from Houston where Black History Month is a month of celebration. We have the black rodeo and cowboys come out we have the parade. I mean, it is just this capstone of Black greatness. And we’re all there to celebrate. And I get out to Portland. And it was very strange to see that, you know, Black folks are afraid to walk. And I was like, walking is the only thing we really have on the most basic level. So I thought, how can we as Oregon Walks empower folks? We’ve launched the We Walk Black walking initiative. And what we do is we provide routes and let folks go on self-guided walks… So again, this is our way of empowering our community to get out and walk and not just talk about it and highlight it but give them safe spaces and options to be able to engage in physical activity. We all know the detriments of COVID and how it’s impacting health — particularly mental and physical health in the Black community.”
Those walks are a great idea. If anybody shows up to one on a bike, send them my way and tell them to check out BikePortland! And can we help put together a bike route for you?
“I started with walking because that’s the easiest. But yeah, eventually we are going to get to black biking affinity groups like Black Girls Do Bike. We’re going to get there. Right now we just need folks to just get up and at least walk.”
Thanks again for the conversation Ashton. Keep in touch.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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