Is Sandy Boulevard the ‘worst street ever‘ or a misunderstood corridor with the potential to be great? The answer will depend on who you talk to; but there’s no question it needs work. What began as a Native American trail as the quickest way to get from the Willamette River to the Sandy River, turned into an automobile cruising hot-spot in the mid-20th century and is now a wide arterial that cuts diagonally through Portland neighborhoods leaving a trail of complicated intersections and risky decisions for bicycle riders in its wake.
But there are those with a sweet spot for Sandy. Among them is Ted Labbe, a sustainable urban planning advocate who directs the Urban Greenspaces Institute and is on the board of re-greening group Depave. On a Pedalpalooza ride down the diagonal corridor Thursday evening, Labbe encouraged cyclists to take up space on a car-centric street and ask the city for what we deserve from Sandy.
“We are the figurative sand in the gears of the automobile-dominated Sandy Blvd of today,” Labbe said as we took off from the Roseway Parkway to head southeast. “And we’re actively making it better for tomorrow.”
I was a little nervous going into this ride. As much as I can see the benefits in getting comfortable biking on Sandy, which offers a much quicker route from Portland’s Central Eastside to outer southeast than you can get on the greenways, I prefer to take the long way if it means I can relax a little.
But with Labbe and a group of other riders leading the way, I began to change my tune.
Engineer Adam Zucker, who led the ride along with Labbe, shared insights on Sandy’s stormwater gardens, which are hidden amidst the car traffic but designed to create some much-needed greenery on an otherwise barren corridor. Rain gardens are an art form Portland seems to have really nailed down – there are over 3,600 throughout the city – and once you start noticing this urban ecology that can thrive against all odds, you’ll start seeing them everywhere.
Since a jurisdictional transfer turned it over from the Oregon Department of Transportation in 2003, Sandy is controlled by the City of Portland, a fact that should make it easier to make safety-related changes in the future. But there are still roadblocks preventing that from happening as quickly as it should.
“We might have aspirations of a complete Sandy, but there’s jostling for control within the bureaus,” Labbe said.
Speaking of which, Labbe was able to nab some bureau representation for the ride – Zef Wagner with Portland Bureau of Transportation and Colleen Mitchell from the Bureau of Environmental Services. They seemed optimistic about the two departments working together.
Wagner shared updates about projects to make Sandy more accessible to people walking, biking and taking the bus along the corridor. For instance, there’s the plan in motion to improve the intersection at NE Alameda, 57th and Sandy with an eastbound driving ban and signal changes to help speed up bus service and prevent drivers from cutting through the Alameda Neighborhood Greenway. It’s a small change, but more like it could add up.
“We can make incremental improvements to the greenway network to discourage automobiles from utilizing those streets to the extent they do and make it more inviting to people biking,” Labbe said.
With so many smart, invested people putting work into making Sandy Blvd a better place to be, why is it still a scary place to walk and bike? This was a big theme of the ride: how fast should we expect to see progress on a street like Sandy? Are incremental measures enough?
We ended the ride at SE Sandy and 7th Ave, at a little triangle of street Depave is working to turn into a public plaza with green space and enhanced safety for active transportation. It’s a small strip of pavement just blocks from an interchange for a massive freeway that our state transportation department has plans to expand, surrounded by multiple high crash streets.
As we stood there among traffic whizzing by, talking about the future we want to see for this city, I noticed people looking at us. Perhaps they were amused or curious – but perhaps they were re-thinking what streets like Sandy could be.