There was a Pedalpalooza ride this week called World Without Cars that started at 4:00 am with one goal in mind: to ride Portland streets when there are very few cars on them. Other Portland traditions to ride on New Year’s Day and during the Super Bowl are done for the same, low-traffic-loving reason.
As mask requirements have loosened and vaccinations have surged, it feels like more Portlanders than ever are hopping in their cars.
And do you recall how surreal and serene the streets were at the height of the Covid lockdown? I certainly do. And while I knew those conditions wouldn’t last, I was hopeful we’d seize the opportunity to make sure we never went back to normal. After all, every single one of Portland’s adopted plans and values lines squarely up with a drastic decrease in driving.
But we didn’t do that. In fact, it feels like the pendulum has swung the other way. As a daily bike rider in the same neighborhood (Piedmont, near Peninsula Park in north Portland) for 17 years now, I have a sort of sixth sense for traffic patterns. And lately our streets seem busier. There’s a heaviness and stress to the experience of walking to the park and biking my son to school that has gotten worse in the past few weeks. As mask requirements have loosened and vaccinations have surged, it feels like more Portlanders than ever are hopping in their cars.
When I go to cross streets, the platoons of cars seem longer. And the queues at intersections seem bigger then they were a few months ago.
When I shared these thoughts on my personal Twitter account today (a highly unscientific source I admit), I heard similar feelings. “We blew it,” said one person. “I was shocked at how no one cried or threw a tantrum when they converted all the parking spots to outdoor seating. Clearly we missed our opportunity to claim bike and bus lanes en masse,” said another.
It’s not like we didn’t do anything.
After being harangued for months, PBOT and then-Commissioner Chloe Eudaly launched an open-streets program. Hundreds of signs went up on side streets that proclaimed “Local Traffic Only,” but those — when they weren’t simply shoved to the curb — don’t seem to have actually reduced traffic. PBOT’s highest priority during the pandemic was keeping food businesses afloat by permitting patios in the streets. Now we’re blessed with hundreds of these spaces citywide and they’ll likely stick around for a long time. That’s a good thing.
To their credit, even under extreme duress and staffing challenges, PBOT kept working. They did bus lane and bike lane projects and even managed to move carfree bridge projects forward. Those too are good things. But they weren’t nearly enough.
The low-car lifestyle nearly every Portlander adopted during those few months of lockdowns were a very rare opportunity to encourage and cement new behaviors. It was also a chance for us to have the same urgency for safe, climate-friendly mobility that we had for safe, business-friendly dining.
Don’t get me wrong: How people decide to get around is wrapped up in much more than what PBOT does or doesn’t do. We have leaders in City Hall, advocacy and community leaders, a local media that can influence narratives, and of course we have our own individual choices to consider.
Could we have been more ambitious with temporary, pop-up road diets and bike lane networks? Did we miss a perfect political moment to fundamentally alter peoples’ perceptions of street potential? Did we fight off one virus, only to allow another — the congestion and catastrophic climate and community-destroying consequences of car abuse — to re-infect us?
We can still get this right. TriMet and PBOT celebrated the completion of the new bus-only “Rose Lane” on Hawthorne/Madison today. And of course that entire stretch from Grand to SE 12th has been re-striped with a bike lane and less space for driving.
We must do more projects like that. And fast.
“I think we’re headed for traffic-pocalypse in the fall as folks go back to work in person,” one of my friends on Twitter said. “Maybe there is still time to shift how people move — no one wants to be stuck in a metal box, right?”
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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