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Oregon Walks ED Ashton Simpson on Hawthorne, ‘aggressive’ bike culture, and more

Posted by on February 16th, 2021 at 4:23 pm

Oregon Walks Executive Director Ashton Simpson.

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.

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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.”

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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 jonathan@bikeportland.org
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newbiker
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newbiker

I couldn’t agree more about the aggressive bike culture in Portland. I tried commuting by bike a few years back and on top of being terrified about getting hit by a car and overwhelmed by navigating the roadway, I was yelled at twice on my first day by white men in spandex, saying that I was in the wrong lane or stopped at the wrong place. I was also stared at for presumably wearing a dress and sandals and just felt this overwhelming discomfort from the bikers surrounding me. I didn’t feel welcomed or safe, all I felt was hostile energy towards a girl in a dress with little knowledge about how to bike here. And I don’t get their logic – safety as a biker comes in numbers: the more bikers, the more likely the city is to build facilities and the more protection from vehicles (look at the numbers in places like Paris and Amsterdam, for example). Yet this aggressive culture continues. It’s not logical and it’s simply not nice. Why does every biker have to conform to the look?

Mike Quigley
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Mike Quigley

Saw one of these “Chads” berating an old lady for not getting out of his way fast enough: “Move it, grandma!” Attitude problems everywhere.

cmh89
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cmh89

Just because someone is on a bike, that doesn’t make them a bike advocate or even mean they see themselves as part of a larger community.

I’ve seen and personally been used to draft by roadies while biking on N Williams. I’ve met mountain bikers were adamant that bikes shouldn’t be allowed on the roads. For some people, a bike is totally recreation. They spend most of their time in their car just like everyone else.

You’re never going to get rid of jerks, but if the worst of your problems is folks pointing out that you should wear a helmet, that’s not that bad sounding to me.

Of course, like everything, part of it is infrastructure. On a street like N Williams, far too little space for too many bikes is going to cause problems

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Infrastructure really is the root cause of the problem. Because we don’t have “8-80” type infrastructure, the people who do end up using it regularly are the “strong and confident” type. Our infrastructure self-selects for more aggressive personalities, in a sense.

SERider
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SERider

That also argues we need different types of bike infrastructure for different types of riders (i.e. sticking all riders with vastly different skills and speeds into the same shared facilities can lead to major problems).

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

Do you have evidence for this statement? People of all types of skills and speeds ride the same facilities in cycletracks all over cities around the world.

SERider
Guest
SERider

You’ve never seen conflicts on the Springwater?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Conflicts exist, yes. I’m not aware of any deaths, however. Once we’ve solved the problem of people getting murdered by motor vehicle drivers, then we can talk about “separate but equal” bike infrastructure for the various groups of cyclists.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

It’s not just murder; far more violent crime of all varieties is committed by vehicle drivers than people who don’t drive vehicles.

Incidentally, the number of murderers who use their vehicle to murder is very low.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Most police in most cities rarely investigate the use of automobiles for murder, mostly because it never crosses their minds to do so, but after several cases in my community in NC, our police now regularly investigate the relationship between the person(s) hit and the driver. They’ve made several arrests in the past 3 years of such cases, usually a spouse or relative attempting to kill another (and often succeeding), or else a drug dealer getting rid of a bad customer.

soren
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soren

The Springwater is a a pedestrian and equestrian trail. People riding bikes are policy-wise guests on this facility. It’s a testament to the complete lack of committment to dedicated cycling infra in our community that this facility has become dominated by FREDs and MAMILs (at the expense of people walking or using assisted-mobility devices).

soren
Guest
soren

The Springwater trail was planned as a railroad trail PARK and was intended to be a multi-use recreational facility with dedicated equestrian facilities. Although people cycling were considered to be one of many use cases, they were explicitly meant to signal, slow-down, and yield to people walking, hiking, jogging, running and to people with disabilities. A mode that is explicitly intended to yield its priority is functioning as a *guest*, according to my opinion.

https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=oscdl_planning

Nadia Maxim
Guest
Nadia Maxim

That just sounds like semantics to me.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

Soren is right. It is, legally, a sidewalk. We’ve been over this.

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

Dear goodness gracious. Please. As if it’s a surprise to you or anyone that people would take to wheels to traverse two points is somehow not the preferred mode…

Love how someone says “let’s spend millions on putting down concrete but write some obscure policy to make tires the last class to use it…but hey, let’s prioritize all those minorities who ride horses!

So basically, you are saying the springwater from day one was a classist and probably racist setup…nice.

That’s cool…Ill use it for what it is. A people powered superhighway not for cars.

X
Guest
X

Huh. I know that guy, the helmet guy. One day I left my helmet behind, and this dude passed close against traffic (all bikes as it happens) to give me a hard time about the helmet thing.

People who aren’t your actual parent should shut up about helmets. You work in an emergency room? Bless you. Any thoughts about car crashes?

Anna
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Anna

This kind of thing fuels me to be, like, aggressively feminine (I wear dresses every day of my life, don’t even own a pair of pants, and I don’t wear any sort of spandex or other bikey or athletic gear) and to confidently take up space, take the lane, and ride as leisurely as I want. It helps that I have two decades of cycling experience in Portland, so I AM a pretty confident cyclist already. I like to hope that other women will see me riding in normal clothes and doing my thing on a vintage 10-speed and realize they can do it too, and they don’t have to go out and buy a fancy bike and a bunch of spandex first.

Jay Dedd
Guest
Jay Dedd

In the interest of context, say more about “wrong lane.” Is that to the extent of, say, coming at riders head-on due to being on the wrong side of the road (or bridge)? That _would_ tend to draw yelling from the endangered, regardless of perceived gender, skin color or clothing choice.

Nadia Maxim
Guest
Nadia Maxim

Sorry to hear that. Dresses and sandals are very cool! I’ve only been in Portland a few years. I haven’t had any issues biking from other cyclists despite not looking very cool or even hipster with my biking regalia. I did get screamed at once by some crazy bearded dude with one of those bikes with a big plexiglass windbreak while driving and trying to carefully ease out and cross a street with a bike lane. The Portland silliness of parking right up to the corners made sight lines very limited. It was pretty scary as he cursed at me while circling around my car and getting right up to my window on both sides. Freaked me out. I love biking but if I wasn’t into it I could see how that interaction could really engender some animosity towards cyclists from non-biking citizens.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

The only appropriate action for Metro leadership after the SW Corridor lost at the ballot box would be for them all to resign. Trying to pass an expensive, uneeded, pet project for affluent white people by using poor infrastructure in east county which is far more diverse and working class is quite frankly gross.

Put just the east county projects to a vote next year, they’ll get funded in a heart beat.

Talking about”fine tuning” in central city is exactly right. Metro/Portland will spend millions on the central city and do a few token projects out in east county and call it equity.

rick
Guest
rick

There are people in some poverty who aren’t white who live or work along that planned SW route.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

Sure, and a MAX line to downtown probably isn’t going to do much for them. Instead of building a vanity project to connect downtown to one of the most expensive suburbs in the metro, why not invest that money in their community? Considering SW metro rejected the ballot measure, it doesn’t seem like it’s a top priority for them.

Poor people in the Portland metro have to drive.

soren
Guest
soren

And some of those people would have been gentrified out of their neighborhoods due to the aggressive mixed-use ($$$$) real estate development ($$$$$) championed by market urbanists/YIMBYs (a demographic that overlaps with white upwardly-mobile cycling aficionados). There is a reason that many marginalized and lower-income folk don’t want to see their neighborhood transformed by the crypto-plutocratic visions of Portland “progressives”.

Nadia Maxim
Guest
Nadia Maxim

I think a “critical mass” is done with enough poorly planned overly ambitious additional Metro tax measures. Just say no to additional taxes for projects regardless if they are east side or west side or north side or southside.

bjorn
Guest
bjorn

I don’t agree with everything that he said, but I’m 100% on board with the idea that everyone needs to stop judging how other folks ride a bike and helmet shaming is the worst of it. It is not illegal, nor should it be, and it has absolutely no impact on anyone else except for the person who is deciding if they will wear a helmet or not, and frankly the science isn’t even that clear on if getting everyone to wear one makes cycling safer or not. I was wearing a ski hat the other day and didn’t realize I didn’t have my helmet on for the first 10 miles or so until someone decided they needed to go out of their way to point it out to me. As I told them, keep it to your damn self.

Jim Labbe
Subscriber
Jim Labbe

Great interview. I agree with a lot of his points especially about aggressive bike culture which seems bent on outdoing the aggressive car culture as if that is a solution. Different mode of transport; same aggressive male, often white, energy. And while driving a car is always clearly more deadly, the agro biker still isn’t helping and put more vulnerable users (pedestrians) at risk. It is something we need to cleaned up if we want humane streets and a caring community.

Nadia Maxim
Guest
Nadia Maxim

Ashton is upset Metro 26-218 transportation measure didn’t pass? The voter’s rejection of this opaque, never sun setting tax boondoggle was one of the few fiscally responsible things local voters have done in recent years, Good job Portland Metro voters! You do know how to say “Enough is enough!”

If you want to refresh your memory of the negatives of the measure here is a link to Willamette Weekly’s vote NO endorsement.

https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/10/14/wws-november-2020-endorsements-local-measures/

Willamette Weekly says vote NO. 26-218
First, although Metro says, accurately, that climate change is an existential threat, its own figures show that this measure does virtually nothing to reduce carbon emissions. And critics say the highway improvements it includes would in fact encourage people to drive more.

Nobody knows whether the prepandemic commuting and traffic patterns upon which this measure was based will return after COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror. The measure was crafted on the assumption that workers will still head downtown each morning, but that is less than certain. So the measure proposes enormous expenditures for an environmental gain that is at best minimal and at worst illusory.

Second, economic literature is clear: Payroll taxes stifle job creation. That’s exactly the opposite of what Portland needs to rebound from economic catastrophe. Proponents have presented a grossly inflated number of jobs they claim the measure would create—37,500—while failing to note the jobs would come over 20 years, not now.

Third, Metro’s vague taxing policy raises issues of fairness. For instance, Providence Health & Services, a nonprofit that employs 18,000 in the region, would pay the tax, while Oregon Health & Science University, a nonprofit public corporation that employs about the same number, apparently would not. The failure of Metro to be careful and transparent about who would pay this tax will only exacerbate existing resentment—not just from business against government, but from anybody unlucky or unlawyered enough not to find a loophole.

Last but not least, we’re deeply troubled by the lack of a sunset provision for this measure.

Typically, money measures—such as those on the November ballot for Portland Parks & Recreation, the Multnomah County Library, and Portland Public Schools—have finite durations. This tax never ends, even after all the projects on Metro’s list are finished. It’s a vote for whatever Metro wants to build next, forever. Vote no.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

What, nothing about his bike? What kind is it, what pressure is he running?

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

Are there seriously white dudes who question black men on wearing/not wearing a helmet? Wow…..just wow….

Champs
Guest
Champs

I’m pretty late to this article but it’s nice to hear from an advocate who looks and thinks a bit more like me.

Has replacing striped lanes with protection actually increased safety or mode share? All I see is more road debris and human conflict. Think about all the time and money spent on making things seem different but not materially better.

What would anyone do differently if the city center were solid platinum? I still wouldn’t take my 8-80 family there. The bridges and/or hills (depending on where you live) are still bad and the logistics are a mess. I’m taking them to a park/library/business in my own community where it won’t be such a pain.

What are our values? All across town, one New Seasons pops up while while food deserts grow. Buildings full of $2000 apartments sit empty while people sleep on the street. It is one thing to say you believe in the basics but another to show it.

Local government may not be able to fix those problems on its own but it, it is the sole authority over this one. Why not at least try to build from the bottom up for a change?