Crossing Brighton Avenue at Bolton Street near the Rosemont neighborhood, Emma Scudder took her usual lengthy pause as she watched cars whiz by the crosswalk.
“About 15 to 20 cars will have to go by before they even consider stopping,” she said.
Scudder makes this particular crossing multiple times a day, often on a bike. The vice chair of the Portland Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PBPAC), Scudder was on foot when she spoke to the Phoenix, but cycling is her preferred mode of transportation.
The PBPAC, an ad hoc advocacy committee composed of local residents, recently submitted a list of 2023 priorities to the city’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee for review. They advocate for a plan to eliminate road fatalities, cap speed limits on city-controlled streets at 20 m.p.h. and make infrastructure improvements for students who walk or bike to school.
As Portland’s population has grown and neighborhoods expanded, it’s created an ever-increasing flow of cars in and out of the city. That’s intensified the need for diverse modes of transportation. But as more Portlanders turn to biking or walking, the elevated flow of automotive traffic has made some areas of the city less safe, primarily off-peninsula.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 2021 marked the most pedestrian deaths nationwide for a single year in over four decades — an average of 20 deaths a day. On Dec. 15, a hit-and-run at the Portland intersection of Brighton Avenue and Taft Avenue left a pedestrian with serious injuries.
As the PBPAC hopes for their policy proposals to come under review, Scudder implores city officials and those in policy-making positions to “come on out and stand at the crosswalk that I cross every day and experience what that’s like.”
Another important piece of the puzzle, according to PBPAC Chair Winston Lumpkins IV, is the reinstatement of a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, a city position that existed in different forms between 2010 and 2017.
“Many city employees’ sole purpose is to facilitate the movement of cars,” Lumpkins IV said, “it would be nice to have one who is just there to make sure everything is safe for bicycles and pedestrians.”
That position was once funded mostly by federal grants, but was taken on fully by the city in 2013. By 2016, the role was a part-time project position, before it was completely removed from the budget in 2017.
According to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin, the position was cut to keep the tax rate increase within the council’s guidance. There currently isn’t a city position for just bicycle and pedestrian transportation, but bicycle and pedestrian initiatives are central to Bruce Hyman’s role as city transportation planner, Grondin said. Before his current role, Hyman was the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for a few years.
Is it safe to bike in Portland? In some areas, yes; but others not as much. Lumpkins IV said there’s a direct correlation between traffic, speed and safety. When there’s not enough space for a biker on the shoulder, for example, Lumpkins IV said, drivers get frustrated — and rightly so — that bikers are in the road. That’s a rattling situation as a biker, he explained.
“It becomes this stressful, hellish thing,” he said.
Aaron Rosenblum, a librarian at the Portland Public Library, commutes by bicycle almost every day from Riverton. He used to go through Morrill’s Corner (where Forest Avenue and Allen Avenue meet), but now adds extra distance and time to his journey to avoid it.
“I’ve been bike-commuting for a long time,” Rosenblum said, “but Morrill’s Corner specifically is one of probably the worst intersections that I’ve ever commuted through — and I’ve lived and rode in New York City, and Montreal.”
Rosenblum is comfortable around traffic, but he worries about safety for students commuting by bike to and from school.
“I want kids to be able to bicycle really safely,” he said. “I used to ride my bike to school when I was a kid — but boy do I not want them to face the same danger I do.”
Other efforts besides the PBPAC suggest interest in expanding bike and pedestrian travel in Portland is on the rise. The Portland Bike Party, a gathering of bikers for recreational monthly rides, is one manifestation. It started in April 2021 with roughly 15 participants. Last summer, the group reached a height of roughly 300 riders, and boasts a committed group of 100 or so that even show up on fall and winter nights.
Scudder sees the Bike Party as another example of Portland’s biking community coming out in force, bringing visibility to the need for changes in the city’s transportation landscape.
“I want to keep the pressure on those who have the power to make improvements,” Scudder said. “It needs to happen faster [rather] than slower.”