Dear Commissioner Hardesty,
As new Commissioner-in-Charge of PBOT, it seems like you have good intentions for transportation in Portland. You gave an inspiring speech at the virtual 82nd Ave rally last week. You’ve declared yourself a huge fan of car-free streets. And in a 2019 interview, you said that “if we’re ever going to impact the climate, we need to get people out of automobiles.”
Which is why the way you’ve responded to Seth Smart’s plea for a safer Hawthorne is puzzling to me, as many of the claims you make are simply untrue. I’d like to address them here.
You say that:
“this year alone, six pedestrians have been killed on city streets. To date, we are thankful no people on bicycles have been killed.”
It’s great that no one has died yet while biking on Hawthorne (or any other streets this year). But we still know that it’s unsafe to bike on Hawthorne (partly as evidenced by the amount of people biking on the sidewalk—a dangerous problem in its own right) and that the street’s design fails to include any safe accommodation for people on bikes. With the opportunity this project provides, don’t we make it safer to bike on Hawthorne before someone dies?
We know it's unsafe to bike on Hawthorne.
You say that:
“it’s important to remember this is not a total redesign of Hawthorne because PBOT doesn’t have the funds for that. However, these are important public safety investments that will make our streets safer.”
The Pave and Paint Project’s budget is over $600,000 (it might be more; this is just the last estimate I heard). Last year, PBOT paid a $395,000 settlement—more than half the cost of the Pave and Paint Project--to the Smart family because Hawthorne's design was found to be negligent. With a deadly center turn lane and no bike infrastructure on Hawthorne, at least several people are likely to be killed or maimed on the street in the coming years, and additional settlements will need to be paid. Alternative 3b—the safer design that Fallon’s father, street safety advocates, nearly 3,000 neighbors and over 100 businesses are asking for—will likely save PBOT money.
Additionally, PBOT has given no indication that Alternative 3b would cost more money than Alternative 2—and there’s no reason to believe that it would, since both designs are simply a different arrangement of paint on the ground. Why wouldn’t we choose the arrangement of paint that is safer for people walking and biking?
You say that:
"by providing a center turn lane, we can lessen the chance that pedestrians will be hit by turning cars, one of the leading causes of serious injuries and fatalities to people walking.”
But PBOT is not installing a center turn lane east of Chavez—where Fallon Smart was killed—because a center turn lane already exists there. This center turn lane has existed for decades, and has done nothing but cause physical harm to people crossing the street by allowing people to drive faster.
You say that:
“islands, better lighting and crosswalks make it easier and safer for people walking to cross the street by giving them a refuge from traffic and by making them more visible to drivers.”
It’s true that islands will make Hawthorne safer to cross. Better lighting is great, too. But Fallon Smart was killed in broad daylight, so better lighting would have done nothing to save her life.
And since making pedestrians visible to drivers at intersections is crucial for safety, Alternative 3b is a vastly better design, since it eliminates parking spaces at intersections, which dramatically improves sightlines.
Meanwhile, Alternative 2 essentially doesn’t remove any parking at intersections, so pedestrians will still need to stick their necks out to peer around 7-foot-tall trucks parked right up to the corner of intersections:
You say that:
“had bike lanes been installed, the pedestrian islands would have had to be significantly smaller and thus would have provided less protection.”
First of all, Fallon was not killed in the center turn lane because there was a narrow pedestrian island—she was killed because there was no pedestrian island at all.
But more importantly, to say that she would have been “provided less protection” if bike lanes had been installed is patently false. If bike lanes had been installed, there would have been no center turn lane, so the person who murdered her would not have been physically able to speed around the stopped cars in the center turn lane. That’s why Alternative 3b is a much safer design.
According to PBOT, Alternative 2 provides “8- to 10-foot” refuge islands, while Alternative 3b provides 6-foot refuge islands. There’s no doubt that an 8-foot island would provide more comfort and protection than a 6-foot one—but how much more? Is that two feet of concrete so important for pedestrian safety that it’s worth sacrificing safety for people biking and scootering entirely? Is that two feet of concrete so important for pedestrian safety that it’s worth continuing to encourage people to bike and scooter on the sidewalk for years to come—at the expense of pedestrian safety?
You say that:
“the project will reduce the current lanes from two in each direction to one in each direction plus the center turn lane."
Again, this is incorrect; there is no planned lane reduction for Hawthorne east of Chavez, which is the segment Fallon’s father is asking you to make safer. A lane reduction here from three lanes (currently) to two lanes (Alternative 3b) would slow drivers down, reduce crossing distances, and make it physically impossible for drivers to use the center turn lane to swerve around other drivers who are stopped for pedestrians in unmarked crosswalks, which is how Fallon was killed. Even with the “high priority” median islands PBOT says it plans to build (none of which are east of Chavez), there would still be many intersections without them. Narrowing the street to two travel lanes will automatically make every intersection safer.
You say that:
“this has multiple safety benefits for pedestrians. First pedestrians only have to cross one lane of traffic at time. If bike lanes were installed, pedestrians would have to cross two lanes of traffic, a motor vehicle lane and a bike lane. The second benefit will come from the lower speeds that will result from fewer travel lanes."
It’s disingenuous and factually incorrect to equate crossing a bike lane to crossing a car lane. Bikes usually weigh less than fifty pounds and top out at 20mph, while cars and trucks weigh thousands of pounds and routinely gain speeds triple that. People on bikes are heavily incentivized to not crash into people since it would put them at serious risk of personal injury—unlike drivers, who are enshrouded in thousands of pounds of steel and can speed directly into crowds of people and walk away without a scratch. And thousands of people are killed by cars every year, while almost none are killed by bikes.
Finally, Alternative 2 does not reduce the amount of travel lanes east of Cesar Chavez—and widens the travel lanes west of Chavez. Wider travel lanes are shown to increase speeding. How exactly will this design prevent speeding?
Lastly, you say that:
“the adopted design preserves space for future improvements for pedestrians, including wider sidewalks and curb extensions. Hawthorne is a Major City Walkway and thus the potential for future improvements is a significant factor to consider.”
As you mentioned, the Pave and Paint Project does not involve any permanent construction that would prevent widening sidewalks or building more curb extensions in the future. Since it’s only paint, Alternative 3b preserves space for wider sidewalks and curb extensions just as much as Alternative 2—and keeps pedestrians and active transportation users safer while the neighborhood awaits a more extensive capital reconstruction that is likely no less than a decade away.
In order for Portland to make progress on our transportation goals, micromobility safety cannot be an afterthought. Providing people safe, attractive alternatives to driving is the only way to lure people out of their cars, which is the only way to solve the vicious cycle of increasing congestion, carbon emissions, and vehicular violence we find ourselves in.
Continuing to relegate bikes and scooters to side streets will not cut it; studies show that a complete network of high-quality protected micromobility lanes on commercial and arterial streets is the single best way to create the mode shift necessary to achieve our safety and climate goals.
According to our 2030 Bicycle Plan, bicycling:
The plan goes into much more detail about why each of these is true, but the point is: This isn’t just about catering to “the biking community”—it’s about creating a safer, healthier, more climate-friendly, more economically friendly, more equitable, more fun, and more liveable city.
The stated purpose of the Pave and Paint Project is to “take advantage of a near-term opportunity.” Why wouldn’t we seize this opportunity to move the needle on achieving these benefits?
For the sake of Portland’s future, please reconsider.