In open letter to PBOT commissioner, new bike bus coalition pushes for safer school streets

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Fresh off a year of remarkable growth, local bike bus advocates have wasted no time leading their corps into the new school year. The famous Alameda Bike Bus was bursting with bicyclists on Wednesday, the official first day of classes for Portland Public School (PPS) district.

But while over a dozen bike buses flourish across Portland, they’ll have to look somewhere besides PPS to fund bike bus organizers and other related expenses. That’s because — despite passage of a new state law that allows schools to be reimbursed for active transportation expenses (like bus buses, walking school buses, crossing guards, and so on) — PPS says they have no plans to end their current practice of spending their entire share of state school transportation funding on TriMet passes.

Undeterred, a growing coalition of bike bus advocates has taken their efforts directly to Portland City Hall and the transportation bureau.

The initial list of signees in suport of the Safer School Streets Pilot at BikeBusPDX.org.

Buoyed by growth and success over the past year-and-a-half, what started at one school in northeast Portland is now a bona fide, citywide movement. A new website launched this week at BikeBusPDX.org includes an open letter to leaders and elected officials signed by leaders of 13 bike buses (see above). The letter demands implementation of several projects aimed at making school bike commute routes safer.

The letter, sent to Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Mingus Mapps and PBOT Director Millicent Williams and cc’d to Mayor Ted Wheeler and the rest of council, calls for a “Safer School Streets Pilot” program that would “contribute to the overall sustainability and livability of our city by reducing traffic, carbon emissions, and promoting community connections.” Here’s what the pilot would include:

  1. Placing permanent diverters (concrete planters) at the locations established during PBOT’s “Slow Streets” pilot, which prioritized equity across neighborhoods (see map).
  2. Lowering the maximum threshold for Neighborhood Greenways (NG) to 500 vehicles/day rather than the current maximum of 2,000 vehicles/day (Source: Neighborhood Greenway Assessment Report).
  3. Reducing speeds on Neighborhood Greenways and Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) to 15 MPH, where feasible; placing Advisory “15 MPH / Shared Street” signs on remaining NGs/SRTS.
  4. Establishing a clear process for “School Street” permits to allow streets in front of and surrounding schools to be closed to vehicle traffic during drop-off and pick-up hours.
  5. Placing “No Turn on Red” signs at all signals intersecting Neighborhood Greenways/SRTS.
  6. Installing “curb extensions” with planters and paint on Neighborhood Greenways/SRTS to reduce crossing distances and improve sightlines for students and parents.
  7. Adding fixed speed cameras on High Crash Corridors (e.g. 82nd Ave) adjacent to schools.
  8. Funding a $75,000 grant for Portland State University’s TREC program to measure the impact of Bike Bus and Walking School buses on student’s physical activity, learning outcomes, and transportation pollution*. (*PSU tells me they have already initiated a research study that will focus on kids’ and parents’ perception of bike buses, a bike bus inventory, and more.)

“If PBOT can come up with $2.7 million for parking security, they can come up with a fraction of that to improve safety for children and families walking and biking to schools, libraries, parks and local businesses.”

– Sam Balto, Alameda Elementary School bike bus organizer

Alameda Bike Bus leader and PPS physical education teacher Sam Balto is spearheading the effort. Balto says he and other bike bus advocates had a “very productive” meeting with Commissioner Mapps last week.

“PBOT and PPS want more children and families walking and biking to school,” Balto shared in an email to BikePortland yesterday. “To do that we need to improve our city’s hardware and software.  The passing of the Bike Bus Bill this year is the software of the social infrastructure to pay for active transportation initiatives like walking school buses and bike buses.  Now we need PBOT to provide the hardware, the physical infrastructure to keep us safe from cars in the streets.”

Balto also says that if, “PBOT can come up with $2.7 million for parking security, they can come up with a fraction of that to improve safety for children and families walking and biking to schools, libraries, parks and local businesses.”

Balto used a tiny $500 grant from Metro to start his bike bus at Alameda Elementary School — an effort that increased the number of students biking to school from 1% to over one-third of students in just three months. 

“We don’t expect the [bike bus] bill to really have an impact on us.”

– Valerie Feder, Portland Public Schools

A more significant funding and infrastructure boost from City Hall via PBOT could have a dramatic, positive impact on the number of Portlanders willing to bike to school, Balto says. And the City of Portland has adopted many policies to justify action on this issue — from plans to battle climate change, to a Comprehensive Plan with a goal to “make bicycling more attractive than driving for trips of three miles or less.” In a new Safe Routes to School Strategic Plan soon to be released by PBOT, they cite survey data that showed, “families who thought their school supported walking, biking and rolling were more likely to travel by one of those modes on their commute to school.”

When it comes to the role PPS might play in expanding bike buses district-wide, they say the passage of HB 3014 (the “bike bus bill”) won’t impact their 86 schools. PPS spokesperson Valerie Feder told BikePortland that’s because they already spend their entire 5% allotment from the state’s school transportation fund on TriMet passes. “We asked for the exemption to protect our current arrangement with TriMet,” Feder shared with us. “We hope the legislature will continue to build on this policy and expand opportunities for students to use active transportation and explore more ways to fund it.”

So for now, PPS staffers who dreamed of state funding for bike buses and related activities will have to wait. That will put more onus onto parent volunteers and should add even more urgency for the City of Portland to create streets that are so safe and welcoming that riding bikes to school is simply irresistible.


— For more on bike buses in Portland, read this new story in the fall 2023 issue of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Bstedman
Bstedman
7 months ago

I was just reading about a school in Germany that was so fed up with what they call “parent taxis” endangering other kids that they decided to put up gates at the street corners around the school during school start and close times! Maybe that would be an option to make school access safer. After all a lot of traffic crashes and injuries in front of schools are caused by other parents. (As an aside, Germany has a strong emphasis on children’s independencein general and that includes children walking or biking to school starting in 1st grade.)

maxD
maxD
7 months ago

I really appreciate these reasonable requests that would make biking safer for kids and for everyone using greenways! I would add “daylighting” (keeping parked cars 20′ min behind greenway intersections) to be a useful and practical addition. In my experience biking on greenways, there are quite drivers who blow right through stop signs. Some of this may be inattentiveness, but it is exacerbated by signs being frequently blocked by large parked vehicles and PBOT’s unwillingness to paint stop bars. Even the cars that do not completely run the stop sign will roll across the crosswalk when cars are parked there. This is obviously dangerous for people jogging on sidewalks or kids riding on sidewalks. I thought PBOT had turned the corner on greenways and I hoped we start seeing more more complete treatments, but the last few years have shown a pretty miserable track record. PBOT’s latest “greenways” lack all of the basic safety features like stop signs at streets, diverters, speed bumps, etc. Where PBOT has added stop signs, it is for the BIKES (Alameda, SE 7th)! I am feeling very discouraged that PBOT has given up on greenways and creating a bike network, but this coalition gives me some hope. I hope they are successful!

paikiala
paikiala
7 months ago
Reply to  maxD

Which greenway upgrades lacked speed bumps?

maxD
maxD
7 months ago
Reply to  paikiala

Overlook Blvd, Shaver, Failing.

Paikiala
Paikiala
7 months ago
Reply to  maxD

The city doesn’t add bumps if the Greenway meets speed standards.
Here’s the map shaver and failing don’t appear on: https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2023/greenways_network_map_2023_final_web_230309.pdf

Here’s the projects page they don’t appear on either: https://www.portland.gov/transportation/pbot-projects/neighborhood-greenways

Are you sure they’re greenways, or maybe just planned? Not all planned greenways have been enhanced yet.

maxD
maxD
7 months ago
Reply to  Paikiala

PBOT painted the sharrows, but made not additional safety improvements. I think it is a reasonable assumption for a cyclist to see the symbol and assume it is a street that has been designed for improved safety for cyclists. In fact, the cross streets don’t have any stop signs, there are no parking restriction to daylight intersections, not diverters have been added- nothing to tell people driving to take care.

joan
7 months ago

I’m sure all of us here have seen lots of drivers roll through a red light to turn right when the signage clearly indicates no right on red at various intersections around town. I bet someone here also knows what would have to happen to eliminate right on red for every single intersection with a stoplight in Portland.

dw
dw
7 months ago
Reply to  joan

Doesn’t matter what the law or signs say, getting rid of right-on-red doesn’t happen without enforcement. Pragmatically – like it or not – that means PPB leadership has to be 100% on board with enforcing the law. Here’s my pitch to the pro-cop types:

1) No right-on-red means fewer collisions that officers have to respond to. In the long term, this reduces the workload of an already understaffed and spread out police force. Fewer injuries and fatalities also means less trauma for officers individually. Whether you are “thin blue line” or “ACAB”, you have to recognize that on a human level, first responders see some of the most gruesome stuff that most of us will never come close to seeing. That would put a strain on anyone’s mental health.

2) If you think that PPB has been “defunded”, issuing tickets for stuff like drivers running red lights could be a great revenue stream. When – theoretically – infrastructure, education, and enforcement changes driver behavior and culture for the better, PPB leadership can use their role in that process as leverage in city hall for funding.

3) PPB leadership following through on making it safer for kids to get to school is a slam-dunk for PR and image for the Bureau and city at large.

Scallywag
Scallywag
7 months ago

Putting kids on Tri-Met buses just sounds super sketchy. Years ago, it was not uncommon for people to be smoking weed on the bus. Back before the legalization. Tri-Met is so out of character for PDX It’s like a New York subway in a “big town” that isn’t even a city. Sure would help of Tri-Met didn’t set profits over quality as a business goal. I love public transit, I don’t like the Tri-Met business practices.

joan
7 months ago
Reply to  Scallywag

High school students in Portland have used Trimet as their transportation to school for years.

Scallywag
Scallywag
7 months ago
Reply to  joan

“It’s the way we’ve always done it”.

Mark Remy
Mark Remy
7 months ago
Reply to  Scallywag

I think that’s an unfair characterization of Joan’s comment. The way I read it, she was simply saying that students have been using Trimet for years, apparently with little drama.

Will
Will
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Remy

School just started next to me. I can confirm the kids continue using TriMet without drama.

Fred
Fred
7 months ago
Reply to  Scallywag

I have to say, Scally, you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

My kids rode Trimet buses for their entire junior-high and high-school careers, and there was never a major problem. Riding Trimet buses is practically a rite of passage for kids here.

Scallywag
Scallywag
7 months ago
Reply to  Fred

Hey bud, did you see the news recently that some 98% of surfaces on Tri-Met vehicles tested positive for meth? Their vehicles are filthy and this proves it.Tri-Met claims that they value the health and safety of their riders but they don’t. Certain not at the cost of cleaning the vehicles.

The idea that just because something was good in the past it will be good in the future is a falsehood. I don’t doubt that in the past this was a feasible way of transporting children on their own. I don’t know when it got so bad, but it’s pretty bad. Speaking as someone who recently used the service myself.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor
Reply to  Scallywag

Hi Scallywag,

I read the press release which came out yesterday. I didn’t see anything about “98% of the surfaces,” but it referred to a University of Washington study in which TriMet participated.

The study, done in June sampled surfaces and air in several MAX trains and found that

the samples showed traces of fentanyl, meth and other illegal drugs. However, the concentration of drug residue was extremely low and did not pose a public health risk.

It went on to say

Although the study showed only trace amounts of drug residue, we want to keep illegal drug use off of our transit system entirely. To this end, we’ve doubled the number of our security personnel and expanded our ability to cite and exclude problematic riders, among other security improvements.

And it called for a crackdown on public drug use, one which required the cooperation of city and state.

The full blog post is interesting, and I thought very forthright:

https://blog.trimet.org/2023/09/07/its-time-for-a-crackdown-on-public-drug-use/

This link has more detailed information:

https://news.trimet.org/2023/09/trimet-works-to-combat-drug-use-on-board-as-health-experts-determine-no-public-health-risk-from-drug-residue-detected-on-transit/?_gl=1*19nc4bo*_ga*MTk5MDg3MTcyOS4xNTgxMzc5MDQw*_ga_B1DBJM7NST*MTY5NDE4NjEyNi4xMy4xLjE2OTQxODYyOTguMC4wLjA.

Scott Kocher
7 months ago

Awesome! 15MPH should be a no-brainer on all greenways. PBOT already has greenway lawn signs with advisory 15. I presume PBOT can go to 15 under its new speed setting authority. If there is pushback on that, let me know I would love to help advocate. No passing on greenways and no passing bike buses would also make these more safe and comfortable, for everyone.

paikiala
paikiala
7 months ago
Reply to  Scott Kocher

Scott K,
You know the statutory speed limit for residential districts in Oregon is 25 mph and the ORS only allows jurisdictions to go 5 mph below statutory, so the lowest possible speed limit on neighborhood greenways is 20 mph. Why perpetuate the myth they can be posted lower?

maxD
maxD
7 months ago
Reply to  paikiala

I thought the speed limit on a “queuing” street (too narrow for 2-way car traffic) was 15mph

Paikiala
Paikiala
7 months ago
Reply to  maxD

Narrow residential roadways are 15 mph. It has to be 18 feet or less for two way traffic to meet the definition.

dw
dw
7 months ago

I work in a school in East Portland and it’s just a whole other world out there. I have tried a couple times to get a walking school bus going, but have been shut down by admin because of the sheer amount of traffic violence that happens out there and the kind of liability it opens us up to. I really hope that if the city does take this initiative seriously, they really prioritize improving the situation East of 205.

paikiala
paikiala
7 months ago

The school signs are at least $60K, just for signs, and the NO TURN ON RED at all the locations named (300+) is another $140k, so with the $75k study that’s $275k, or 10% (if you’re talking fractions) of the parking structure security. Add to that the labor to install/change signs and $50K per enforcement camera (? ten, twenty?) and the fraction starts getting close to 1/2, not tiny.

paikiala
paikiala
7 months ago
Reply to  paikiala

BTW, median refuge islands are safer for pedestrians than curb extensions.

.
.
7 months ago

I wonder if these would be good candidates for grants from the Clean Energy Fund. It’s not exactly the intended focus, but would have the same or most likely better outcomes in terms of reduction in fossil fuels. And it seems like an underutilized source of funding currently.

Fred
Fred
7 months ago

WTF?! C’mon, PPS – find some funding for bike buses! It’s the whole reason we worked so hard to get the bike-bus bill passed.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” – in this case PPS.

Michael Mann
Michael Mann
7 months ago
Reply to  Fred

The PPS money pool is finite, and the Trimet Pass system is extremely successful- and, I would add, less expensive than owning and maintaining a fleet of busses (or contracting with Students First) like all the outlying districts do. What I hear PPS saying is not that they’re resistant to financially supporting Bike Busses, but that if the legislature is going to pass the Bike Bus Bill AND expect the state’s largest district with far and away the greatest potential for increased biking and walking to school, they should pony up. And given the state revenue forecasts I’d call that a reasonable request.

paikiala
paikiala
7 months ago
Reply to  Fred

PPS has also funded traffic calming and other pedestrian enhancement projects around its schools. PBOT constructs them.
https://www.portland.gov/transportation/walking-biking-transit-safety/safe-routes/construction

Occasional Urbanist
Occasional Urbanist
7 months ago

How about we write some traffic tickets before we spend millions of dollars on concrete? If people aren’t driving responsibly in school zones, on greenways, etc, then cite them. Because the fact is, concrete isn’t going to make people pay attention – and it might cause some bad drivers to divert off of greenways and onto your street and my street that’s adjacent to a greenway. But if we can start writing tickets for people speeding through school zones, maybe, just maybe, people will start paying attention to the flashing yellow lights again?