Read the email PBOT director sent staff to heal Broadway wounds

A big part of the Broadway bike lane scandal is how it all impacts rank-and-file Portland Bureau of Transportation staff. If what’s been happening makes your blood boil, imagine if you were a dedicated PBOT employee who is eager and able to carry out all the lofty plans and goals the agency works toward every day.

The self-inflicted wound carried out by their own leadership, hit the agency when it was already at a very low point. They’re facing a budget crisis, record traffic deaths, a steep drop in bike commuting (but I predict neighborhood traffic is way up!), leadership turnovers, uncertainty about charter reform, vast amounts of (frequently unwarranted) criticism from all corners of the city, and so on.

Having their own director, Millicent Williams, make the decisions she’s made since getting the job just two months ago, has been another gut-punch. But Director Williams wants to make things right — at least that’s what her contrite tone at Thursday evening’s PBOT Bureau Budget Advisory Committee expressed.

Right before that meeting, she sent an email to all PBOT staff. I’ve pasted the email (minus a few bits about specific projects that I’ve already covered) below:

Dear PBOTers,

This has been a hard week. I want to apologize to all of you, both in how I’ve communicated with you this week and the mistakes I made involving the Broadway bike lane downtown. I moved too fast on something and it cost us trust. I’ve heard directly how demoralizing the last two weeks have been for many of you, especially how this issue — and the public’s understandable reaction — has had a very real impact on you and the work you do every day to make our streets safer. For that, I am truly sorry.

For staff who feel out of the loop or are playing catch-up with news reports, we are talking about my decision to modify sections of the new parking-protected bike lane along Broadway downtown. Regarding my initial request for changes, I’ve heard your pushback and the public’s and have learned a great deal about how to avoid such quick decisions in the future. 

Bottom line: we’re slowing down and evaluating the path forward.

It’s been over a year since we completed this project. This was what’s known as a Quick Build which, as the name implies, is cost-effective, but doesn’t always result in the best product. We continue to hear concerns from hotels and business owners and recognize we need to do something that will both keep people safe in the bike lane and make the bike lane and the entire street function better. Of note, we’ve gotten feedback not only from adjacent businesses but from our own street cleaning crews who find the current design hard to maneuver their equipment around. 

In evaluating all options, we will consider investing more in this corridor to make it function the way our upcoming SW Fourth Avenue Improvement Project will.  

Moving forward 

In addition to this update, I want to reiterate how committed I am to the bureau’s goals around safety, climate, and mode-share and to working alongside you to build the safest network possible in our city. At the end of the day, I’m humbled by and immensely proud of the expertise and professionalism PBOT staff display every day. You help us stay true to our goals, and for that I am grateful. I will continue to listen to your guidance. In times like this, we’ll slow down. In others, we’ll try a different tack. Regardless, we’ll do this work together.

I own this most recent misstep. My sincere apology to the staff most impacted, both professionally and personally, as I know you were led to this work (as was I) to make a positive impact in our community.

Keep doing what you’re doing.

My door remains open for your feedback. Please talk to me if you have questions or concerns you would like addressed. This conversation will continue in our upcoming All-staff Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3.

Sincerely, 

Millicent Williams (she/her)
Director

If you’re wanting to hear from Director Williams directly, I’ve requested an interview with her. So far, PBOT says they are shifting to next week’s budget talks and she won’t be available until after that. We’ll see what happens.

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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Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen
8 months ago

We continue to hear concerns from hotels and business owners and recognize we need to do something that will both keep people safe in the bike lane and make the bike lane and the entire street function better. Of note, we’ve gotten feedback not only from adjacent businesses but from our own street cleaning crews who find the current design hard to maneuver their equipment around.” Could it be more clear that for PBOT leadership (both Millicent Williams and Misguided Mapps) the greatest imperative is speeding engines of capitalist profits, over the safety of Portlanders? Knowing the well-being of Portlanders means less than the convenience of a tourist rushing to check into a hotel, or the ease of a cleaning crew, is galling. Especially since tourists don’t live here, so PBOT does not work for the, and “street cleaning crews” seem incapable of clearing broken glass from the wide-open pavement of most Portland streets and sidewalks.

Hotrodder
Hotrodder
8 months ago
Reply to  Lois Leveen

I wish more emphasis was being placed on this red-herring that director Williams decided to point to as a valid excuse. I ride a lot, mostly in North, NE and SE and there is not one single mup or bike path in Portland where I don’t have to run my thumb over my tires after running over broken glass or some other completely unavoidable detritus that litters every single bike space in this city. It’s at the point that in the winter I have to reinforce the right hand thumb of my glove with an extra layer after wearing through the fabric because I have to use my hand to clean off my tires.
The idea that the street in front of the Benson or the Heathman isn’t being cleaned properly is a pathetic kick in the ass to those of us who depend on the bike lanes to move around.

cct
cct
8 months ago
Reply to  Hotrodder

Here’s an idea – prioritize cleaning what was a major infrastructure project, perhaps with a piece of equipment dedictaed to task of cleaning similar facilities? That is, if that;s REALLY the problem.

PBOT: “We’ve tried nothin’ and we’re all outta ideas!”

socially engineered
socially engineered
8 months ago
Reply to  cct

If only the city owned a piece of equipment specifically designed for that purpose! https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/471821

Fred
Fred
8 months ago
Reply to  Hotrodder

I agree that the most galling thing about this situation is PBOT putting the convenience of hotel guests ahead of the safety of cyclists, which goes against everything they say they value.

Would PBOT ever dare to tell motorists that their safety is less important than someone’s convenience? No, PBOT wouldn’t dare do that.

Fred
Fred
8 months ago

I like to imagine the conversation that took place between Mapps and Williams, which probably started with Mapps saying:

“Look, Millicent – I know we talked about taking down the protected bike lane on Broadway, but I was talking hypotheticals and you ran with them and now look at the mess we’re in. You’re new so I need you to take the fall here. Get me your drafts of apology letters so I can review them.”

Steve Cheseborough (Contributor)
Chezz
8 months ago
Reply to  Fred

Nah. It’s pretty clear that Mapps knew all about it and had approved it.

cc_rider
cc_rider
8 months ago

Why is someone in such a important and well-paid role needing to learn basic communication strategies? Like, her whole entire job is supposed to be thinking strategically and leveraging relationships, and she somehow didn’t know unilaterally ripping out a bike lane would be a massive blow to morale for her staff?

She wasn’t qualified before she was hired and she certainly isn’t qualified now. I’m guessing most of her staff can see the writing on the wall. She’s going to serve the PBA first at the expense of safety for everyone else.

There are hundreds of miles of road in Portland more dangerous than this. The fact that she’s spending time on this particular route is damning.

surly ogre
surly ogre
8 months ago

who helped her write this message? “In times like this, we’ll slow down. In others, we’ll try a different tack. ”
In times like this we’ll slow down—> so this will happen again???
In others, we’ll try a different tack—> next time we’ll be even more secretive ???
Regardless —> Without attention to warnings or indications of bad consequences
We’ll do this work together —> next time someone else will take the fall

surly ogre
surly ogre
8 months ago
Reply to  surly ogre

OR:
Regardless –> In spite of the pile of poop I just made and stepped in.
We’ll do this work together –> I am not resigning and you will all need to expect/anticipate that I will do do other poopy things.

robert wallis
robert wallis
8 months ago

I do not know enough about the City to weigh in on this issue, but one thing for sure – emails by pretty much all government staff are written to be read by the public. If an issue has the least chance of being controversial, information is spread verbally. Public agency emails tend to be written at least partly for purposes of public relations and protection from potential litigation. I do not suggest that this practice does not make sense, but only that one should not take emails too seriously.

dw
dw
8 months ago

It’s not that she “made a decision too quickly”, it’s that she made a dumb decision. We all wish PBOT moved a little quicker sometimes.

Why not put down some of those plastic bike lane/bus platform things they have on Hawthorne? That would be a great “quick-build” solution that could improve comfort and accessibility for hotel guests being dropped off while also maintaining safety for people on bikes.

socially engineered
socially engineered
8 months ago
Reply to  dw

That would work fine in my opinion. I’m sure the hotel owners would find something new to complain about then, maybe saying plastic platforms look too cheap for their fancy guests to walk on. In that case they should pay for permanent curb extensions themselves, much like Adidas did with the protected cycletrack and bus platform on a portion of N Greeley Ave.

qqq
qqq
8 months ago
Reply to  dw

I agree that seems like a good quick solution.

It seems like the model for a long-term solution is sitting on Broadway a few yards from the Heathman, in front of the Schnitzer–a concrete island about 5′ deep, by however many car lengths (2 or 3?) is needed. But instead of raising the bike lane the whole length of the island, I’d only raise it for about 8′ or so mid-island, right in front of the Heathman front doors. Then I’d add a metal railing to separate people on the island from the bike lane, running the length of the island except for a break of 8′ or so at the raised bike-lane crossing. That way, people crossing the bike lane are concentrated at one defined crossing, and people and luggage can’t spill onto the bike lane.

If the hotel wanted to pay for them, there could be planters at each end of the island, and the railing separating the island from the bike lane could be swanked up. The whole thing function well for hotel loading and for biking through, would separate bike traffic from hotel guests except at the defined crossing, eliminate the need for curb ramps, and look 10x nicer than what has ever existed at the hotel’s front doors. It could be beautiful, and give the hotel entry much more visual prominence.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
8 months ago

When Sue Kiel was the PBOT director over a decade ago, she too nearly screwed up in much the same way. The issue back then was a tree ordinance the city council passed. She and her staff wrote a scathing memo to be shortly released but showed it to the TBAC first, to get them to sign on. Her main complaint was that PBOT wasn’t consulted and would have to bear the costs of cleaning sewers, picking up leaves, etc. The problem was, PBOT was in fact actually consulted, according to several TBAC members there, who had to explain it all to Sue Kiel and her clueless PBOT staff. PBOT had even sent an excellent planner to all the meetings, but when he reported to his supervisor, well, she would pass on part of his report to the next level, but by the time it got to the director’s staff, it had to pass through 7 levels of bureaucracy, so it never actually got to Sue Kiel’s ears at all, nor to any of her immediate staff. And the reverse happened too, since there was no reaction from the top, the PBOT representative just assumed the people at the top didn’t care…

I’m sure by now, over ten years later, PBOT is much more responsive to the staff on the ground.

Yeah, right…

Kiel Johnson / Go By Bike
8 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I think it is spelled Sue Keil

socially engineered
socially engineered
8 months ago

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and I won’t be surprised if agency morale and public trust in PBOT continue to erode—regardless of any platitudes about learning, commitment, etc. Sadly I expect Mapps will mostly escape blame for his role in this debacle.

Watts
Watts
8 months ago

“I expect Mapps will mostly escape blame”

Of course he will. This is not an issue that many Portlanders care much about. Do you think more than 1% are even aware of this story?

Bjorn
Bjorn
8 months ago

Either she lied to staff and the public in which case she should resign or mapps lied. This isn’t a oops, it is much more serious than that and just taking a mulligan is not enough, especially given her history of fraud on the job.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
8 months ago

On the other hand…

Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to re-design Broadway as a pedestrian-only street with no through-traffic at all, a Dutch-style street where both car drivers and bicyclists are “guests” who can pass through, but only at pedestrian speeds? Add hydraulic bollards every block or so, so cars can go through only on selected blocks in front of hotels, but otherwise must turn off onto side streets? Ban on-street parking and allow for sidewalk and mid-street seating, parklets and art/sculpture, just like in Europe?

socially engineered
socially engineered
8 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Given that it’s the closest thing downtown Portland has to a “main street”, IMO a more useful option would be high-capacity & frequent transit (trams &/or buses) running the length of Broadway and connecting to a future SW transit corridor, plus expanded bike & ped facilities. But I’d honestly be happy with *anything* that reduces car traffic volumes in the central city, whether that be closing certain streets to through traffic, getting rid of on-street parking, or banning cars entirely from downtown.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
8 months ago

Broadway might be a good route for a future subway (or maybe the Park Blocks), but the main bus and MAX transit streets are already on nearby parallel SW 6th & SW 5th Avenues. If you have a truly pedestrian street, you really don’t want any public transit on it at all, let alone police cars, fire trucks, tourist buses, and so on. Maybe allow for pedicabs and delivery cargo bikes, but pedestrians really need to dominate the space, like in Antwerp.

https://www.google.com/maps/@51.2211186,4.4014286,3a,75y,90h,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sWUhChKtZvXGaH-SbcEACaw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?entry=ttu

qqq
qqq
8 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Much as I like pedestrian-only streets, your example shows why Broadway would be a poor choice for one. It’s about double (or more) the width of the example–way too wide for the amount of people who’d be using it. Streets more on the scale of SW Park or SW 9th would work much better.

Broadway also runs parallel to the Park Blocks, and is just one block over. I’d rather see either the Park Blocks reinforced as a pedestrian area by closing Park or 9th to vehicles, or creating a pedestrian street somewhere several blocks from the park blocks, so it doesn’t dissipate the pedestrian energy of the Park Blocks.

https://www.google.com/maps/@45.5175281,-122.6806128,3a,65.6y,204.03h,91.06t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sClc7r8cnFIqMuC0p9G0wdA!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?entry=ttu

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
8 months ago
Reply to  qqq

Any street that gets fully pedestrianized is a political process, first and foremost. Yeah, they’ll do studies, NEPA, and all that fun stuff, but ultimately if Council wants it, it will move forward.

Whatever street is chosen to be fully pedestrianized has to be close enough to public transit to be convenient, and yet allow for the full street to be utilized for pedestrian activities and businesses. I’m not sure the Park Blocks really fits that – the Parks & Rec Bureau doesn’t have a good historical record on allowing for commercial activities on parks properties – and transit is much further away.

The other issue is you have a political opportunity on Broadway right now, whereas the last political opportunity to fully pedestrianize the Parks Blocks was long ago, and it failed.

I used the Antwerp example because it was convenient, but there are many throughout the world, including in the USA, some even on streets far wider than Broadway.

qqq
qqq
8 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I disagree with almost all of that.

There’s NO “political opportunity on Broadway right now” to pedestrianize it. The opposite is true. Mapps and PBOT are trying to make it MORE vehicle-centric, and they have support for that. I don’t think there’s ever been a worse time to propose removing vehicles from it.

If there was an attempt to pedestrianize the Parks Blocks long ago that failed, that doesn’t mean it can never happen again, it just meant it didn’t happen then. That still puts it ahead of Broadway, which has never even been considered for being made car-free, as far as I know.

You’re right that Parks doesn’t want commercial activity on the South Park Blocks, but that’s irrelevant. The sections of Park and 9th that people have talked about most for pedestrianizing are the several blocks in between the South and North Parks Blocks. They are commercially zoned, and not owned by Parks.

Plus, there are also some good arguments in favor of removing cars from those streets along the South Park Blocks despite it being almost commercial-free. The recent South Parks master planning, as I recall, didn’t propose making those two streets car-free along the South Parks Blocks, but it did call for some paving reduction and parking removal.

You say transit “is much further away” from the Parks Blocks than from Broadway. It’s actually only one block further away for N/S transit, and the same distance for E/W transit.

I’m sure there are wide streets elsewhere in the world that have been made car-free, but there are many more that aren’t wide. And I don’t see anyone in Portland who would seriously propose putting Broadway–one of downtown’s busiest vehicle streets–ahead of the many streets that carry far less traffic.

eawriste
eawriste
8 months ago
Reply to  qqq

qqq’s concept also aligns with the Green Loop plan, which has mostly stalled under Hales and Wheeler. But there is already a long history for pedestrianizing the Park Blocks. This concept aligns with the Post Office Blocks redevelopment as well and fits into the currently pedestrianized sections near PSU. It may only take a few weekends where those pedestrianized sections get small expansions on weekends, for example to show the public of their worth.

Dusty Reske
Dusty Reske
8 months ago

I’m happy to see Williams “making nice” and (at least claiming to be) re-redirecting her/Mapps take on Broadway. I’m cynical about politicians, but I like this acknowledgment of the limitations of her “real” power and that she can’t operate freely in a vacuum. This, with the Rose City Golf Course walk-back, is way better than her digging in and blowing off criticism.

Bob Jones
Bob Jones
8 months ago

These bike lanes are poorly thought out. Glad it was cancelled