BikePortland

What happened to Zach Katz and the $13,000 he raised to sue PBOT over Hawthorne decision?


Screenshot of GoFundMe created by Zach Katz.

People who donated to a GoFundMe campaign back in April to raise funds for a lawsuit against the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) about a now-scrapped bike lane plan on Hawthorne Blvd have finally received an update — albeit a vague one — about where their money is going.

“A lawsuit is crucial for compelling PBOT to consistently, reliably prioritize safety rather than letting emotions and business associations dictate a continuation of the status quo.”
— Zach Katz

Zach Katz, the rabble-rousing cycling advocate who started the GoFundMe campaign, has long had high hopes for a more bikeable Hawthorne. Katz says he started sketching out what this updated Hawthorne Blvd would look like while in the sky somewhere between Amsterdam in Portland, flying back from a trip to the Dutch bike haven in early 2020. When he got back to Portland, he hit the ground running trying to convince PBOT to update the street with bike lanes.

But despite Katz’s efforts — which included creating a group called Healthier Hawthorne with the sole purpose of cultivating enthusiasm for protected bike lanes and gathering the signatures of more than 2,500 other bike advocates — PBOT decided against including bike lanes in their ‘Pave and Paint’ plan to update the stretch of Hawthorne between 24th and 50th avenues.

Shortly after the city made that announcement in February 2021, Katz wrote a very extensive blog post analyzing the city’s decision report for this project line by line. According to Katz, PBOT’s reasons for forgoing the bike lane were woefully inadequate. Some of the explanations in the decision report cite equity and climate issues as a reason the stretch of Hawthorne between would be better off without a bike lane, saying that transit times for Hawthorne bus riders would be negatively impacted if there was a designated space for people to ride their bikes.

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Katz’s blog post asserts that PBOT “fabricated the truth” to explain its ultimate decision for Hawthorne Blvd. Most notably, Katz states that the city’s racial equity and climate justice claims are unsupported by facts and actually run “orthogonal to data-supported equity and climate-friendly urban planning best practices” and “justify a street design that data shows will decrease safely…and maintain current inequitable and anti-climate outcomes.”

The legal case against PBOT focuses on this point. Katz says that without a bike lane, the ‘Pave and Paint’ project doesn’t comply with already-adopted policies like the Bicycle Plan for 2030, the Climate Action Plan and the Transportation System Plan.

Other people, including then-Portland Planning and Sustainability Commissioner Chris Smith, have corroborated this concern. At a PSC meeting in February, Smith said Portland is “missing a huge opportunity” by not implementing a bike lane, and said he is concerned it will prohibit the city from reaching its climate goals.

Katz’s GoFundMe has raised more than $13,000 of its $25,000 goal. But at this point, the situation is up in the air. And as of June, Katz is now an expat — he left Portland to move to Amsterdam, but says there is nothing more he can do about the lawsuit but wait for a lawyer to take the case.

“The way I see it, a lawsuit is crucial for compelling PBOT to consistently, reliably prioritize safety rather than letting emotions and business associations dictate a continuation of the status quo,” Katz told me in an interview Wednesday.

When Katz heard we were writing this story, he updated his GoFundMe page for the first time in five months. In that update, Katz wrote that the “money still exists and is in safekeeping” and there is a lawyer involved, but he can’t say anything more for confidentiality reasons. He also ensures donors that if the lawsuit falls through, he’ll issue everyone full refunds.

Katz says he’s been inspired by the more aggressive tactics that Dutch citizens took in the 1970s to make cities in the Netherlands suited for bikes before cars.

“I kind of see a lawsuit as the Portland equivalent of that,” Katz says. “If nobody’s going to be out in the streets burning cars, [we can] get aggressive with the law.”

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