For five days of the week, the recently installed protected bike lane on Naito Parkway serves as an efficient, safe route for people on bikes and scooters to travel downtown without having to navigate around cars. But every weekend, a section of the bikeway turns into a loading zone for Saturday Market vendors, and drivers take up valuable real estate inside the cozy confines of the otherwise carfree space.
When Better Naito launched this past spring, people immediately took to Twitter to voice concerns about this. The Portland Bureau of Transportation responded by pointing to an agreement that the City of Portland and the Saturday Market have had for years to allow vendors to use Naito as a loading and unloading zone during market hours. This agreement has been in place since long before the Better Naito bikeway was installed – PBOT Interim Director of Communications Hannah Schafer told BikePortland it was inked back in the 1970s, and was last re-upped in 2018.
It took years of hard work from advocates to make Better Naito a permanent part of Portland’s downtown landscape. The project started out as a seasonal, temporary pilot installation led by tactical urbanist group Better Block PDX. Once Portlanders experienced the bikeway’s benefits, they called on the city to keep it around all year.
As project leader Timur Ender wrote in a BikePortland comment when Better Naito officially launched this past May, the success of this project is a huge feat that speaks to the potential of collaboration between the City of Portland and its activists.
“Better Naito is a success story on a number of fronts: accessible government, tactical urbanism as a way of urban planning, partnerships, data, and imagination,” Ender wrote.
Interestingly, this project was able to get off the ground at the start because Better Naito were able to take advantage of a Rose Festival loading zone that closed off a portion of Naito Pkwy, “glorifying it into a premier walking and biking space.” People on bikes were okay temporarily sharing the space with cars because it was better than the alternative of having no protected bikeway at all.
“The fact that there were occasional trucks there didn’t bother us at first because the loading is what gave us the political cover to do this trial in the first place,” Ender wrote.
But now that the project is more than just a pop-up, the loading vehicles are less welcome. Cars parked in the bike lane cut the bikeway in half, making it hard for people to travel both north and southbound. While it may be technically possible to move around the vehicles, it’s unpleasant and hazardous. People open and shut their car doors and drive in and out of the bike lanes without much concern for the people biking on the path.
Vendors are allowed to park in the bike lane for 10 minutes maximum from 6-10:00 am and 5-7:00 pm Saturday, and from 6-10:00 am and 4:30-6:30 pm on Sunday. They also must display a permit in their windshield.
I went over to the market last week to check out the scene. I was there well after 10:00 am and saw many cars using the bike lanes. I spoke to a vendor who was in a hurry to get his car off Better Naito because he said the city is strict about enforcing the 10-minute limit.
Many of the cars parked in the bikeway didn’t appear to have required permits, and I saw several customers using it as a drop-off and pick-up site. When I asked a woman working in the Saturday Market help desk about this, she said there was nothing they could do about the unauthorized use.
The Saturday Market website encourages people to bike there, saying “Go Native! Bike Like a Local!” But this rings hollow when the bikeway adjacent to the market is filled with cars every Saturday.
In my opinion, this situation is a failure to use the imagination that created Better Naito in the first place. The Saturday Market is a beloved weekly institution precisely because it’s a space that prioritizes people before cars. It’s a place where people can roam through carfree plazas and browse through the fare of goods created by local craftspeople that exemplify this city’s DIY ethos and artistry. Organizers should be able to use this creative spirit to figure out how to keep its adjacent bikeway safe and clear. But until then, keep your head up and watch out for those drivers in the bike lane near the Burnside Bridge.
Update: According to Schafer, the agreement between the City of Portland and the Saturday Market has expired and they will likely be re-entering talks in the future, possibly changing the terms of the permit agreement. As of right now, that’s all the information PBOT can provide.