Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, with its plethora of artsy thrift shops, cafes and bars, may be one of the first streets to come to mind when you think of quintessential Portland. Hawthorne is always buzzing with activity and people walking up and down the street, perhaps enjoying a cup of coffee from Grand Central Bakery, lugging bags of books to sell at the Hawthorne Powell’s outpost or simply grabbing groceries at Safeway, Fred Meyer or New Seasons.
But for the amount of foot traffic Hawthorne gets, navigating it while walking, biking or rolling isn’t always a breeze, and its safety problems have had deadly consequences. In 2016, 15-year-old Fallon Smart was killed by a reckless driver while crossing Hawthorne at 43rd ave. At the time, there was no dedicated crossing at that intersection or anywhere nearby. After Smart was killed, the Portland Bureau of Transportation installed a crossing at that intersection – but advocates said more was needed to avoid another tragedy.
PBOT’s big response came in the form of the ‘Pave and Paint’ project they debuted last fall on Hawthorne from 23rd to 50th avenues. In addition to a full repaving, the project brought new crossing treatments with increased signage and visibility measures to the street, as well as a reduction in the number of lanes and reduced speed limit (to 20 miles per hour).
While significant, the project was a letdown for many who wanted PBOT to go even further and add dedicated bike lanes.
But how successful are the treatments PBOT did make? I went over to Hawthorne yesterday to ask people what they think of the new streetscape almost a year after it was completed.
Though opinions differed, the general consensus was that the new Hawthorne is better than the old one – but it could be a lot better. The first person I talked to, Emily (and her dog Owen), was heading into Safeway at Hawthorne and 28th. Emily has lived in the area for several years, and she said she avoids walking on Hawthorne except when she has to.
“Cars don’t stop,” Emily told me. “People will see me standing [at a crosswalk], but like three cars will pass by before anyone stops for me.”
Sarah, who was walking while pushing her young child in a stroller further east on Hawthorne near 36th, told me she likes the median treatments at the crosswalks, which give people crossing a chance to safely rest and look both ways before crossing the street. But that’s only if people driving actually stop for her – and that’s not a given.
“Most people just don’t want to stop,” Sarah said. “I don’t want to push [my son] out in front of me. It doesn’t really feel super safe. But it’s an improvement.”
Though I watched and waited for a while, I didn’t see very many people biking on Hawthorne. This isn’t unusual – it’s often a very unpleasant experience to even cross the street by bike, let alone attempt to ride any substantial distance on it. I did spot one person biking on the sidewalk: Zach, who works nearby and bikes this street often. He spoke highly of the Hawthorne bike lane concept, and said he’d recently been hit by someone driving a car on the easternmost part of the street, injuring his leg.
“Bike lanes would’ve helped, 100%,” Zach told me.
Finally, I chatted with Sierra, who works as a nanny in the neighborhood and was crossing Hawthorne with two babies in a stroller. Sierra said she walks around the neighborhood with the kids every day, and she would like to see more designated crossings on the street.
“As a driver, It’s annoying [to have all these crosswalks],” Sierra said. “But as a walker, I need it.”
Up until a few weeks ago, I lived one block south of Hawthorne on Cesar Chavez Blvd, and I echo the thoughts of people I talked to today. Over time, I grew more confident when dealing with the people driving who didn’t want to stop for me – but the most I had to protect (other than myself) while crossing Hawthorne is ice cream from Fred Meyer, not kids in a stroller.
You shouldn’t have to be a seasoned traveler to feel empowered enough to use your right-of-way at a crossing on a street like Hawthorne. It should be a no-brainer that people driving will stop. Unfortunately, that’s not the case – even at intersections with medians and very visible signs. And especially after PBOT redesigned the street with a specific focus on pedestrian safety.
Just ask 38-year old Portlander Nicole Funke. Just two weeks ago, she was walking across Hawthorne at 38th and was hit by a driver. “The driver took PBOT’s fancy new zebra crossing as a suggestion, I guess,” she posted to Twitter from the hospital while forcing a smile behind a mask and neck brace.
Hawthorne is a street for strolling. Someone living nearby can get the majority of their needs met in less than a 10 minute walk, and yet people driving cars still feel entitled to dominate the road. And if this street, located in a walkable (and wealthy) part of Portland, still has these kinds of problems, where’s the hope for improving big arterials in east Portland like 82nd or 122nd Ave?
That’s the question I asked myself as I watched people navigate Hawthorne.
What do you think of the changes on Hawthorne? How do you think we can further improve this street for people walking and biking?
Taylor has been BikePortland’s staff writer since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org