There was a notable debate at the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission meeting Tuesday night on a topic near and dear to our hearts: the Portland transportation bureau’s recent decision to re-stripe Hawthorne Boulevard without bike lanes.
The 10-member PSC is the steward of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan, Climate Action Plan and Zoning Code. While it’s unusual for them to weigh in on a maintenance project like the Hawthorne Pave and Paint, member (and former city council candidate) Chris Smith feels the potential of creating bike facilities should not have been passed up.
At the meeting, Smith proposed a sending a letter to Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Chris Warner that would clarify how the decision imperils mode split goals and doesn’t align with several adopted city policies.
As we’ve detailed in great detail, when given the chance to reconfigure Hawthorne from four general lanes and a parking lane to a design what would include bike lanes, PBOT did not seize the opportunity. Instead, they chose a cross-section of three (wider) general lanes and two parking lanes. In the process of making their decision, PBOT didn’t adequately engage their own Bicycle Advisory Committee and key transit delay data remains hidden from the public.
In making his case to fellow PSC members last night, Smith acknowledged the chosen cross-section will have some advantages for safety and traffic flow. “But,” he added, “in not doing the bike lanes we are missing a huge opportunity.”
“We’ve all observed over the last decade how congested auto traffic has gotten… So anything we can do to improve the bicycle [mode] share is important”
— Chris Smith
Smith’s case rested on several pillars including adherence to the Climate Action Plan, Transportation System Plan (TSP) and Bicycle Master Plan, as well as helping bring more customers to Hawthorne Boulevard businesses.
He pointed out that Portland declared a climate emergency back in July. “If you have a situation where you can have one climate-friendly mode on the street, or you can have two climate-friendly modes on the street,” Smith said, referring to transit and bikes, “I think, you obviously want to try as hard as you can to get two climate-friendly modes.”
And Smith is worried Portland won’t meet its 25% bicycle or transit mode split goals by 2035 as outlined in the TSP because streets will become increasingly clogged with car drivers. “We’ve all observed over the last decade how congested auto traffic has gotten and that’s because our TSP strategy and mode shifting is not happening. So anything we can do to improve the bicycle share is important,” he said.
Smith also disagreed with the idea that bicycle riders are already “well-served” (Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s expression) on Hawthorne because of good conditions on side streets.
“The thing [relying only on neighborhood greenways] doesn’t do is address land-use. It doesn’t give you a way to get to your final destination. And in fact, the Bicycle Master Plan is clear that we have to provide direct access to destinations people want to go to,” Smith said. That’s also reflected in Comp Plan policy 9.19 which states, “Create conditions that make bicycling more attractive than driving for most trips of approximately three miles or less.”
Before asking his colleagues for feedback, Smith pointed out that “People who shop via bicycle have every bit as generous of wallets as people who do so in their cars, and by keeping those folks and their wallets off Hawthorne we’re doing a disservice to those merchants.”
PSC members appreciated Smith’s expertise and were somewhat persuaded by his arguments, but they were uncomfortable with a letter focused solely on Hawthorne and bike lanes.
“How do we get to achieving our climate goals in a scarce right-of-way when everyone has a lot of hopes and dreams?”
— Steph Routh, PSC member
PSC Member Steph Routh (a former executive director of nonprofit Oregon Walks) was the most persuasive voice against Smith’s letter. She said PBOT “nailed it” with their decision when it came to addressing pedestrians — the mode that sits atop the city’s transportation hierarchy pyramid (which puts driving at the bottom). She also said Hawthorne is at its core a, “maintenance problem” and worried about scope creep if the PSC was to look at every maintenance project. She acknowledged the Hawthorne debate as an important catalyst for a conversation about PBOT’s challenge in meeting the 25% bicycle mode share goal, but she feels more comfortable with a letter that mentions Hawthorne while urging PBOT Director Warner to engage the PSC on a conversation about the general lack of progress on mode shift.
“How do we get to achieving our climate goals in a scarce right-of-way when everyone has a lot of hopes and dreams?” Routh said. “How do we get there?”
Other PSC members appreciated Smith’s opinion, but ultimately agreed with Routh’s suggested path forward.
Vice Chair Ben Bortolazzo, an architect who personally prefers to take side streets while biking, said “This item is not really within our charge and this is really about the bigger picture.” PSC member Jeff Bachrach, an attorney, concurred with Bortolazzo.
PSC Chair Eli Spevak, a housing developer (Cully Green among others), agreed with Smith. Spevak expressed concerns about staying silent as PBOT goes backwards on its transportation goals. “It worries me because I wonder who else is going to raise their hand in this city when we backslide and we don’t try and take action against it?”
“Who else is going to raise their hand in this city when we backslide?”
— Eli Spevak, PSC Chair
When Spevak asked what happened when this project was brought to the Bicycle Advisory Committee, Smith said, “It was very frustrating. The Bicycle Advisory Committee really wanted to weigh into that [PBOT analysis] and work through it to see if they could apply some creativity, but at the meeting where the Bicycle Advisory Committee was expected to do that, PBOT showed up and communicated their decision without getting their input. So I think there’s a little process fail here.”
Smith also pushed back on the idea that the project falls out of PSC’s jurisdiction. The PSC played a key role in crafted the Transportation System Plan and Smith said they have every right to speak out when the goals within it are not being achieved. He also pointed out how the PSC is involved in related decisions that impact Hawthorne: “If you build a new apartment building on Hawthorne, we’re going to impose an obligation to put in the bike parking whether or not we put a bike lane in front, so I think there’s a little bit of an obligation to come back and provide the bicycle facility to make use of that parking. I think it all works together.”
At the end of the meeting, Smith agreed to re-write his letter to make it clear there are issues specifically with the Hawthorne project, but that in the end, “It’s about the broader question of when do we get to provide direct access to destinations as a necessary step to achieve our bicycle mode share goals and our climate goals.”
But Bachrach disagreed: “My problem with that is you’re presupposing a policy answer that we need to provide better [bike] access, which in turn will help serve our mode split goals. And as a Planning Commission, we haven’t had that policy discussion.”
“That’s not true!” Smith replied. “This body adopted the Bicycle Master Plan in 2010. I was on the committee we had a hearing. We recommended that one of the three key strategies is provide direct access to destinations.”
Then Bachrach backtracked, “OK at some point in time we did acknowledge it as an important policy. I’m just saying, sitting here today, I hadn’t gone back and read it…”
The final vote to re-write the letter was unanimous. The PSC meets again March 9th. I’ll share the letter as soon as it’s available.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.