Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler confirmed in a press conference today that he plans to use executive authority to ban camping adjacent to dangerous roadways and freeways citywide.
The move comes a day after Mayor Wheeler said a finding from the city’s 2021 Fatal Traffic Crash report that 70% of Portland’s fatal pedestrian collisions involved a person who lives on the street was “devastating.”
The emergency ordinance (PDF) that will be signed Friday around 3:00 pm states that it’s,
“inherently dangerous for people to camp along high crash corridors because many sites do not offer safe pedestrian crossings across what are often higher-speed traffic… it is inherently dangerous for people to camp along high crash corridors because many sites do not have a safety buffer around them, leaving it possible at some sites for a vehicle to crash into a campsite.”
The policy, which was first reported by The Oregonian Thursday, will apply to interstate freeways and on what the Portland Bureau of Transportation refers to as its High Crash Network. These are 30 streets that have a higher than average rate of deaths and injuries. The corridors reach into every part of Portland — from the northern tip of St. Johns to the southwest hills and the eastern border with Gresham — and are owned by both PBOT and the Oregon Department of Transportation.
“Stringent traffic calming measures like you describe are a possible fix, but not one that addresses the urgent and immediate safety issue of people living along high-speed crash corridors.”
— Cody Bowman, Mayor Wheeler’s office
Willamette Week reported today that Wheeler and his staff have been in discussions with ODOT for weeks about this issue. That story also outlines major pushback on the plan by a coalition of transportation and housing nonprofits including The Street Trust. That coalition has already sent a letter of opposition (PDF) to the Mayor’s office that says Wheeler’s approach isn’t backed up by any studies and that it’s being rushed without hearing from impacted communities. Instead of moving campers from the corridors, they propose other solutions like closing the High Crash Network streets to drivers and reducing the speed limit on all city-owned roads to 25 mph.
PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty issued a statement today saying she was never briefed on the plan. Wheeler disputed that claim in a press conference today saying, “The other councilors were certainly aware of the fact that I was looking at an executive order.”
Wheeler added that he’s making the move now because of additional budget resources the city has secured to address homelessness, improved partnerships with the County and other agencies, and the recent PBOT report which he said just validated the need to prioritize this action. Wheeler also said “I feel that the tide is turned,” and that he believes the public is on board with the idea.
The ordinance also includes a commitment from Multnomah County and the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) to set aside up to 100 extra shelter beds per day as an alternative to dangerous camping locations and in hopes that it discourages people from just setting up their camps in another place.
No one at today’s press conference asked why Mayor Wheeler is focusing only on the victims of these potential crashes and not the people driving cars. Since I didn’t get an invite to the event, I asked Wheeler media relations staffer Cody Bowman via email if any consideration had been given to installing protective barriers or other type of traffic calming measures in order to reduce the risk from drivers. He said the camping ban is focused on, “high-speed corridors like freeways where traffic management is less possible.” That not accurate I replied, because it will apply to the entire High Crash Network which consists of many non-freeway streets like Killingsworth, Foster, Hawthorne, Cesar Chavez, and so on.
“Stringent traffic calming measures like you describe,” Bowman added in a follow-up, “are a possible fix, but not one that addresses the urgent and immediate safety issue of people living along high-speed crash corridors.” “The Mayor is looking to save lives now, by removing folks from these dangerous areas.”
“So the Mayor does not feel that it’s possible to make immediate changes on the roadways that would calm traffic? Even with emergency authority?” I replied.
“Like I said, everything is on the table,” Bowman replied.
The camping ban would become effective immediately upon the ordinance being signed today and the State of Emergency would remain in effect through 5:00 pm February 18th, 2022.