When will PBOT become embarrassed enough at this national disgrace of regressive transportation to take action?
The situation at West Burnside continues to be a model of what NOT to do in transportation planning. In spite of progressive projects to add pedestrian improvements and bike lanes on SW/NW 18th and 19th, the main passageway of West Burnside continues to be a national embarrassment. Visitors to our urban models of Washington Park, the Japanese Garden, and NW 23rd retail district, might expect to see additional examples of innovative national leadership. Instead they are greeted with a dismal textbook example of regressive transportation policy. Perhaps they will see it as one more sad piece of evidence that Portland has lost its way.
This ugly, dangerous stretch of street has passages that do not even meet the requirements for disabled access under the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA). Nor is traffic flow even any kind of model of “level of service” — since buses regularly impede traffic in the outer lanes, and turning cars regularly impede traffic in the inner two lanes. The street is thus a textbook case of what not to do.
How did West Burnside become such a dreadful negative example of multi-modal transportation?
Incredibly, the sidewalks of West Burnside were not always as narrow as they are now. They were actually narrowed by PBOT in the late 1960s and early 1970s – an era of regressive car-dominated planning. Here is an oral history by Ogden Beeman, former president of the Northwest District Association and the City Club of Portland, and a pioneer of the neighborhood association system:
Then there was the narrowing-the-sidewalks project. When they widened Burnside, they narrowed the sidewalks, and then when they put this little overpass over I-405 on Everett, they did one full sidewalk and one half sidewalk. So I went to City Council and objected to narrowing the sidewalks…
We made an impassioned plea. I think we lost five-zip in City Council. The classical thing that I always remember about that was Don Bergstrom’s comments. He was City traffic engineer. I walked down to work every day since I worked downtown for the government. I walked down Everett and Burnside both. I knew those streets very, very well.
So I got up and said, “We have a great place here where people can live and walk downtown, and we can’t make it more difficult.”
In Portland, of course, you narrow a sidewalk and the cars come by and splash water on you. Burnside became almost impossible as a walking street, and then everybody shifted to Everett, on which they were narrowing the sidewalks.
I finished my impassioned plea, and Don Bergstrom got up and said, “Well, the Council should know that we did a study up there, and we found that the sidewalks were occupied about 12, 14 percent of the time. The street lanes were occupied about 85 percent, and therefore it makes sense to narrow one and widen the street.” The sidewalks are “underutilized” by 80 percent.
Those were kind of Don Quixote days. I was a lone voice. I don’t think anybody from the neighborhood, or certainly nobody in government even gave us the slightest encouragement at that time.
Have we made enough progress since those dark reactionary days? Are we slipping back into a reactionary approach to city-building, suppressing grass-roots activism — at best, losing our vision and our courage?
Read the full interview here.