The Portland Bureau of Transportation has new plans for Sunday Parkways – and they may be disappointing to fans of the annual open streets event. This summer marked Sunday Parkways’ return for the first time since the pandemic began, but instead of the usual five in-person events held throughout the summer, there were only two this year.
At this month’s Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, PBOT Programs Manager Renata Tirta announced there will only be three events in 2023.
Other than hesitancy about Covid transmission, one of the concerns Tirta shared whether or not they would have enough staff and volunteers to keep things running smoothly. And after the road rage incident at the final Sunday Parkways event last weekend, PBOT may face further challenges recruiting volunteers for big open streets events in the future.
In a follow-up conversation after the meeting, PBOT Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera told us the bureau wants to move toward different programming and allocate limited funds differently, which will mean fewer Sunday Parkways events and more smaller open streets festivities happening across the city.
Despite its huge success and total lack of opposition or controversy, budget issues have long plagued Sunday Parkways. Just one year after its debut, PBOT had to crowdfund to help cover costs. Then in 2010 the City Budget Office declined PBOT’s request for help paying almost half of the program’s $500,000 (five event) budget. They felt other “basic services” were more important. In 2012 former Commissioner Dan Salzman also didn’t see the value in funding Sunday Parkways over “other transportation priorities.”
And most recently, in PBOT’s FY 2021-2022 budget, the Parkways program funding (which is one of five programs in the Active Transportation & Safety Division along with Vision Zero, Safe Routes to School, Transportation Demand Management and the E-Scooter Pilot that has a total budget of just over $7 million) was cut again. PBOT had three events planned for 2022, but the budget allowed only for two.
Going forward, PBOT seems to be planning for an even more budget-constrained reality and will double-down on what they see as a more local approach to this event.
Instead of rotating routes annually, they plan to hold three events with different routes around the city and repeat them for three years in a row so people can get comfortable with the layout. This may mean people who live in parts of Portland far from the Sunday Parkways routes will decide to opt out three years in a row, but Rivera said the benefits are meant for the people who live in the communities they’ll target.
“Repetition is helpful for familiarity,” Rivera told BikePortland. “It helps neighborhoods become familiar with experiencing Sunday Parkways.”
Specifics about next year’s events — or the events PBOT is planning to fill the Sunday Parkways void — aren’t yet available. But Rivera said they’ll focus the locations on parts of Portland that have been traditionally underserved by active transportation planning, especially as the city’s bike network expands into these areas and PBOT wants to show off new projects.
“We will continue to inspire the public in those areas to embrace that infrastructure as a way to incorporate biking and walking into their everyday lives,” Rivera said.
These changes beg the question: what should Sunday Parkways do for Portland? PBOT wants the events to serve a larger purpose in our city’s transportation system and culture by encouraging people to get out into their neighborhoods and try different modes of transportation in a comfortable, carfree setting. But if they’re starved for funding, it will be hard to move the needle in that regard (a similar situation to our bike share system that has lofty goals but a lack of funding and bikes severely limits its potential).
Five Sundays a year is already a far cry from the weekly carfree “ciclovia” events in Bogotá, Colombia that inspired Portland’s first Parkways in 2008. Reducing it to three days a year widens that gap and is a step in the opposite direction from what many Portlanders dream of. “Bummer to see this program get smaller in scope instead of more ambitious over the years,” said one former Bike Advisory Committee member when we shared this news on Twitter a few weeks ago.
If PBOT doesn’t find more sponsors or city funding, maybe Portlanders will find a more DIY approach. Perhaps these changes will inspire even more community-organized events in the style of big Pedalpalooza rides or the ‘Sundays on Going’ events Bike Loud PDX has organized all summer.
Whatever happens, the future of Sunday Parkways after 14 years isn’t quite what we hoped for. On the bright side, it’s still alive and kicking (at least for now).
Portions of this story written by Jonathan Maus.