My opinion on Charlie Hales’ ‘approach to active transportation’

My opinion on Charlie Hales’ ‘approach to active transportation’

charlie hales bike sticker

(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Last month, a who’s-who from local active transportation planning and advocacy circles gathered around a table at the Charlie Hales for Mayor campaign headquarters on the central eastside. Hales called the meeting to have a “lively discussion” about walking, bicycling and transit. He asked questions. He took notes. Last night, Hales turned some of what he heard during that discussion into a blog post on the topic titled, Active Transportation for Portland today and tomorrow .

In the blog post, Hales wrote that we need to “further our progression” with active transportation because Portland’s progress so far has, “helped our economy, health, fitness, air, congestion and worldwide reputation.”

With less than two months before election day, the blog post gives voters a window into how Hales — a former City of Portland Commissioner of Transportation who many credit with kickstarting our now legendary bike network — would handle the bureau if he were elected. Below I’ll share excerpts from his post and offer my opinion on what it might mean.

Here’s how Hales frames his approach:

“In recent months, community, business, transportation leaders and Portlanders from across the city have told me that they do not feel safe walking and bicycling, that transit needs and opportunities have not been completely met, and that those that drive – for freight delivery or access to jobs and services – are concerned that they might hurt someone. It’s important that we find solutions that maintain traffic flow for drivers and businesses while making our roads safe for those on foot, bike and public transit.”

“Maintain traffic flow for drivers” is going to be a hard promise to keep in a compact city that must absorb millions of new residents in the coming decade. Also, as we’ve seen with many recent projects, maintaining existing auto “traffic flow” is often directly counter to “making our roads safe” for people not in cars. It’s also unfortunate that he tied “those that drive” with “freight delivery” and “access to jobs and services” when all of those things apply equally to people who bike.

Hales then goes on to say he will work to make our transportation system, “safe and convenient for all users.” Again, this feels like nothing but safe politics to me. I don’t think we’ll ever make the imperative changes to our existing, car-centric transportation system unless we begin an honest and respectful conversation about our need to make driving single-occupancy cars less convenient.

On a more personal note, Hales makes a pledge to “engage in safe behavior”:

“When I drive, I will drive the speed limit; behave cautiously around our most vulnerable users; and stop for people trying to cross our streets on foot. When bicycling, I will stop for red lights, yield to pedestrians, use our network of bikeways, and smile and wave at motorists who behave courteously toward me. I will also ask all city employees to make a similar commitment. In short, under my leadership, Portland will not tolerate a single avoidable fatality, but rather we will work diligently to prevent crashes, reduce their severity and increase physical activity.”

“When bicycling, I will stop for red lights, yield to pedestrians, use our network of bikeways, and smile and wave at motorists who behave courteously toward me.”

I found the “use our network of bikeways” comment interesting. It’s the latest sign that in Portland, as our network of neighborhood greenways gains attention, it will be considered bad form for people on bicycles to use commercial main streets and arterials when a low-stress bike street is nearby.

Also of note is that Hales said by investing in “bicycle and pedestrian safety… Our arterials will work better for all users.” That seems to me like someone who will continue to encourage people to not ride on major roads — like Sandy, Division, Hawthorne, and so on — as one solution to “maintain traffic flow for drivers and businesses.”

“As your Mayor, I will insist on the safest transportation policies, street designs and programs,” Hales added. Now that’s a statement I can’t wait to hold him too if he’s elected!

On the topic of funding, Hales said “we can’t afford not to complete our streets and bikeways.” To pay for these projects, Hales said he’d explore “new and flexible standards and funding opportunities.” That’s pretty vague; but I look forward to hearing more about it.

Hales’ post also mentioned his support of equity, completing our big “off-road trail network” projects, and continued support of Safe Routes to Schools, Sunday Parkways, and so on.

Charlie Hales at Sunday Parkways

The final paragraph contained the most specific policy pledge of all. Hales said he plans to “explore options with the Oregon DMV to revise our education standards to make our roads safer.” He also mentioned something that he brought up at the roundtable last month — that he feels Portland’s “innovative” infrastructure like bike boxes and bike-only traffic signals are confusing to visitors. To combat that confusion, he said he likes the idea of rental car companies passing out an informational brochure to their customers.

It’s good to see a mayoral candidate take time to address active transportation. But overall, especially given Hales’ hands-on experience leading the transportation bureau back in the 1990s, I wasn’t impressed by this blog post. To me, it seemed to lack specifics and it’s clearly an attempt to appeal to everyone while not taking any risks to change the existing status quo. I remain very skeptical that we can continue to “maintain traffic flow for drivers” while still building a system that will feel safe enough to bicycle on for the “interested but concerned”.

Also of note is that Hales — who is tied so closely to streetcar and light rail that he’s been given the nickname “Choo Choo Charlie” — left out rail transit except for a few passing mentions. This could be because he feels it doesn’t play as large of a role in active transpotation as biking and walking do (I agree with that), or it could be because he knows streetcar tracks are a hot-button issue for many bicycle advocates.

At the roundtable discussion, Hales asked us what we thought about “how we’re doing with the streetcar and bicycling issue.” I didn’t hold back at all and expressed my grave concerns about how the new streetcar line has made bicycling worse in Portland and that streetcar planners must have a financial and legal obligation to improve bicycling in future projects. Another independent bicycle advocate at the event backed up my concerns, saying she feels the new eastside streetcar will have a negative impact on bicycling. It will be interesting to see how Hales integrates his deep support for rail with his promises to improve bicycling.

As for reaction to Hales’ blog post, BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky tweeted that he was glad to see Hales “come out and strongly support our key issues including vision zero.” Mia Birk, the former City of Portland bike coordinator who worked under Hales, who organized the active transportation roundtable, and who is an active supporter of his campaign, tweeted, “Wow! One awesome statement on active transportation.”

What do you think?

— To learn more about Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith, mark your calendar for the Portland Mercury’s Mayoral Inquisition event on Tuesday September 18th (I’ll be one of several inquisitors).

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