Just three weeks after Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps hired Millicent Williams to lead his transportation bureau, she was already committed to major changes to a 16-block stretch of Northwest and Southwest Broadway through downtown.
In newly leaked emails from Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Millicent Williams to PBOT staff, we learn that she wanted to address Broadway as early as August 15th, a full month before an email she sent to staff turned into a public relations crisis for the bureau and forced Williams to apologize Thursday for “moving too fast.”
Unlike her contrite tone late last week, Williams was urgent and serious in her emails from mid-August.
In an August 15th email to a select group of PBOT staff, Williams wrote: “We need to meet about Broadway… I have thoughts about what we can do to both meet our goals and to be responsive to the concerns shared by the ‘downtown’ community.” She knew some of the invitees would have timing conflicts, but she expected them to attend. “Please do what you can to adjust your calendars,” she wrote.
There was one point in that initial email Director Williams made sure to underscore: “Please note that one of the options cannot be to leave things the way that they are, so I will disabuse you of the notion that doing nothing would be sufficient,” she wrote. And then one paragraph later, “Again, doing nothing is not an option.”
We still don’t know exactly why there was so much urgency around this specific bike lane. From a PBOT traffic flow and safety data standpoint, it does not raise any flags (ironically, the current parking-protected bike lane design was installed after years of study and careful planning as a way to reduce what was one of the most high-crash streets in the city). PBOT maintenance staff have said the bike lane is hard to maintain — but there are dozens of miles of similar bike lanes throughout the city that pose equally difficult maintenance challenges. What we do know is that several hotel and business owners have complained about the bike lane recently.
PBOT staff, led by Central City Capital Program Manager Gabriel Graff, noted the urgency in Williams’ email and responded immediately. He and other PBOT staff met with Williams to brainstorm possible changes one week later. Graff then used ideas from that August 21st meeting and rounded up at least 12 high-level PBOT staff to develop a matrix of 15 potential actions (see below) the bureau could take. On August 28th, he sent Director Williams an email that included a two-page list of those actions. The matrix included a relatively (for one week’s work) detailed analysis of each option based on seven factors. Graff also included input on whether or not staff could recommend each option.
On September 6th, Williams replied to Graff and wrote, “If there are no objections, I’d like to share the deck and the potential/proposed solutions with the Commissioner’s office for their review and consideration.” Graff then wrote that he’d be happy to prepare a summary of the options. “Go for it,” Williams replied. “[Commissioner Mapps] and his team like to see background information.”
Two hours later, Graff came back with an additional five pages and the document was now named “Broadway briefing book for Commissioner Mapps.”
It’s clear from the name of the document and Williams’ emails that it was intended to be shown to Commissioner Mapps. In my interview with Mapps Thursday he said he talks with Williams several times a week, but that he hadn’t had a formal briefing on this project. “I’m waiting for the point where we sit down and talk about what our options are,” Mapps said. “And we haven’t done that yet.”
Two days after she received the briefing book from PBOT staff, Williams emailed the Broadway team again. “I realize that, in order for the Commissioner to be able to make a well-informed decision/recommendation, he (and I) will need a bit of clarity on a couple of things,” she wrote.
Based on the specific items Williams sought to clarify in that email, and on a summary of notes from the August 21st brainstorming meeting with PBOT staff, we now have a clearer understanding of the primary impetus for action on Broadway. On a slide titled, “Concerns noted in 8-21-23 staff briefing from Director Williams,” the document lists eight items:
- Concerns regarding driver confusion, hard to move about
- Drivers feeling stuck, not realizing they are waiting behind parked car in the pro-time lane
- Hotels and businesses are concerned
- Concern regarding ongoing maintenance costs, difficulty sweeping
- Concern regarding aesthetics of street, bike lane, parking signs
- Concerns from hotels regarding loss of valet space, patron and cyclist conflicts
- Consider reverting the bike facility to a traditional bike lane or moving to another street
- Commissioner requests action
Note that none of those points include negative feedback about the design from bike lane users, nor is there anything on that list about making the lane better for bicycle riders. Every single concern brought to that meeting from Directors Williams (who was likely acting on behalf of her boss, Commissioner Mapps) comes from either a political, car driver, or business owner, point of view. This is despite public statements made (only after our first story broke) by PBOT and Mapps’ office that this whole thing was spurred by “mixed feedback from people biking.”
Williams’ September 6th email to Graff sought clarity on four points, all of which had to do with satisfying concerns from business owners on Broadway:
- The platforms for the Heathman and the Vance will support the contiguous flow of all modes as they connect with (or are aligned with) the one in front of the Schnitzer. Got that. While I understand that the Benson is supportive of the platforms based on the need for an operational work-around, have we asked about whether or not their needs would be met if returned to the original curb-tight parking with loading and valet zones? Are there any other platforms planned between the Benson and the Heathman?
- Can we deconflict the signage in front of the Schnitzer? I would ask that we use the special ‘5 minute’ parking signs and/or emphasize that the spaces in front of the platform are passenger loading and unloading zones. I propose that we discourage any ‘real’ parking there. I’m fine with a complete removal of any reference to actual parking and that it be designated as a passenger loading zone for the three spaces in front of the venue.
- For the other two hotels (Heathman and Vance), can we do the same thing but allow for up to 15 minutes of parking for hotel guests who are loading and unloading. 5 minutes isn’t enough time.
- If we returned the rest of Broadway (NW Hoyt to SW Salmon) to curb tight parking with a bike lane to the left of parking, what would that do to everything else? I’ve read your report and recommended solutions. Trying to envision how the two operational constructs would fit together.
Graff offered his most detailed and pointed response to that last point. “On the plus side, this would reduce ongoing maintenance costs of the parking signs and flexposts and may win us some points with some downtown business stakeholders and the hotels,” he wrote. But, he continued, “On the downside, it would be a step backward on safety for people walking and biking. While it may feel like an odd setup for visitors to downtown, the current configuration results in less exposure for pedestrians crossing the street and better visibility for people turning across the bike lane.”
Graff’s opinion of the current Broadway design is based in large part on PBOT crash data. In a slide shared in the briefing book, PBOT shares that between 2015 and 2019, one out of every 42 bike crashes citywide happened in the one-mile stretch of Broadway that Mapps wants to change. But since PBOT changed the design (granted, traffic is down about 50% from pre-pandemic levels) crashes for all users have decreased by 42%. Crashes with people walking and bicycling are down 100% and 77% respectively.
And for his final bit of insight on the fourth option, Graff shared something that was extremely prescient:
“I would predict the politics of switching back to a traditional bike lane would be mixed but very unlikely to be a net win for the Commissioner or the Bureau. We’d get some support, but I would guess the response from safety and cycling advocates and progressive business interests would be outrage. Politically, I think it would be a challenging change for the Bureau to deliver.”
After reading his comments on September 8th, Director Williams claims she consulted with Commissioner Mapps. It’s unclear if that consultation actually happened and/or what level of detail Mapps and/or his staff were given about the Broadway plans before Williams moved forward with them. Mapps told me during our video call on September 21st that he hadn’t yet seen Williams’ set of proposals.
Mapps’ alleged ignorance about details of the Broadway plans is difficult to square with the facts. Given that he told Williams to work on the project and it had top priority in her mind, along with Williams’ statements about having Mapps’ support and Mapps’ claims that he talks regularly with her, it’s very likely Mapps has seen and reviewed a copy of this briefing book.
We also know he has heard a lot from business owners who don’t like the current design. The Portland Metro Chamber, who endorsed and donated to Mapps during his 2020 council campaign, opposed the Broadway bike lane (and related reduction of driving lanes from three to two) in 2018 on grounds that it would have “significant, unnecessary economic impacts on our downtown retail core.”
And on May 4th, during a meeting where PBOT reps, Commissioner Mapps and his staff pitched the Chamber on a new plan to raise funding for PBOT, former Chamber President and CEO of downtown commercial real estate firm Melvin Mark Companies, Jim Mark, railed against the Broadway bike lane. According to someone who was at the meeting but who has requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, Mark, unsolicited, shifted the focus of the conversation away from the revenue idea and “just went off on the bike lane.” According to our source, Mark lambasted PBOT for spending money on bike lanes and said the bike lanes are bad for business.
Then, within a just few weeks of hiring Director Williams, Mapps made it her top priority to change the bike lane to the old design.
And on the morning of September 14th, just six days after Graff’s warning that it would backfire on PBOT and would be a “step backward on safety for people walking and biking” Williams chose that option anyways and did so with what she claims was Mapps’ support.
As we reported last week, Williams emailed PBOT staff with clear marching orders: “After reviewing all of the information and consulting with the Commissioner, I would like to ask the team to do the following…” she wrote, and then shared 16 detailed steps to remove the protected lane and replace it with the old, door-zone bike lane between NW Hoyt and SW Broadway.
And in case you missed our update Friday, I received a more complete version of that initial September 14th email that included these questions which illustrate the pressure Williams felt she was under to get this done quickly:
- How long will it take for us to do the work?
- When can we start?
- How will we publicize/communicate about what we are doing?
- Is night work an option?
Another part of the email we didn’t have until Friday was the final paragraph where Williams wrote:
“I recognize that this might be a fairly bitter pill to swallow and that there might be some politically charged discussions and advocate engagement. Please allow the Commissioner and I to handle those conversations.”
While Mapps has repeatedly denied that anything had been finalized or that he had ever seen a set of options or supported any one of them, and despite public statements from his office and PBOT that “nothing is imminent” and that all talks “have been very preliminary,” his bureau director felt she had his full support to move forward with a major reconfiguration of a high-profile, downtown bike lane.
And Director Williams wasn’t the only person who was confused. Graff, PBOT’s central city project manager, was clearly under the impression that the change was to be made and that it came directly from Commissioner Mapps.
“I know there is a lot of effort and heart that has gone into recent work on Broadway and, as our director notes, this may be a ‘bitter pill to swallow,'” Graff emailed other PBOT staff on September 14th. “I am hoping to use this time to identify next steps and develop answers to the questions raised by this change… I am working on outlining a communications strategy for this new direction.”
Mapps also insisted in my interview with him Thursday that a public outreach process was always on the table. But we now know that the decision had already been made — completely devoid of transparent public comment or feedback. Not even PBOT’s own advisory committees were in the loop. And recall that Mapps said in the interview Thursday, “I feel fairly confident that they’ve done a good job of listening to people who are stakeholders in this space.”
Shortly after my interview with Mapps, where he repeatedly said he trusts Director Williams and that she’d done nothing wrong, Williams has made an apology. She even went so far as to tell members of PBOT’s budget committee, “I was not directed by the commissioner to do anything that I’ve done.” When asked for an on-the-record interview, PBOT has refused, saying Williams needs to focus on upcoming budget talks. On Friday, Commissioner Mapps cancelled a town hall meeting that was supposed to take place this evening.
Now that there’s been such an uproar, PBOT says a public process to consider changes on Broadway will be announced soon. Based on an update published to the project website last week, the option to revert the bike lane to its old, unprotected, door-zone configuration is still on the table.