Last week, Oakland's mayor banned cars from 74 miles of city streets in order to give residents more room to walk and bike while staying 6 feet apart during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Portland transportation officials won't be following suit anytime soon.
They fear creating boulevards for walking and biking will turn streets into social destinations, stretch city staffing beyond capacity, lead to other unintended consequences—which social-justice advocates warn would include more people of color being stopped by police.
"If we close streets, we risk creating destinations where people would gather," Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman John Brady tells WW. "This is exactly what we must avoid."
On April 10, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf launched a program called "Oakland Slow Streets," treating the decline of car traffic during COVID-19 as a way to relieve pressure on overcrowded parks.
To some Portland bicycle and walking advocates, this looked like an elegant solution to several problems: Portland's own jammed greenspaces, and speeding drivers racing down empty roads.
"As the city of Portland continues to ponder what—if anything—they'll do to adapt streets to the COVID-19 outbreak, Oakland residents are already enjoying the fruits of their city's decision," wrote Jonathan Maus on BikePortland.
But Mayor Ted Wheeler had already greeted the idea with skepticism in a Twitter forum April 9, citing PBOT's advice that closing streets could turn them into block parties at a time when Oregonians are being urged to stay home. "This is exactly the opposite of what we want to do," he wrote.
The mayor's office is now deferring questions about street closures to PBOT and the city's transportation commissioner, Chloe Eudaly.
Brady, the PBOT spokesman, left open the possibility that the bureau could close neighborhood greenways—100 miles of streets where bikes and pedestrians get priority—after heath officials ease Oregon's stay-home order.
"While we are not closing streets today," Brady writes, "PBOT is actively working toward strengthening our Neighborhood Greenway network to support social distancing in the future when the stay-at-home order has been lifted."
Update, 12:15 pm Tuesday, April 14: City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly says before closing streets, she wants to make sure Portland drivers slow down.
"People are driving 30 percent faster than they were before COVID-19," Eudaly says. "That is a terrifying statistic, which is why I instructed PBOT to immediately develop strategies for slowing drivers down on these roads.
"I am open to creative, thoughtful uses of our right of way and I plan to champion many more car-free streets in the future," she says, "but right now safety, the safety of vulnerable Portlanders, and essential services need to come first."
Brady also offered several rationales for not immediately closing streets, including the strain it would create on PBOT and the Portland Police Bureau to patrol the new boulevards.
Both Oakland and Portland cite racial and economic justice as reasons for making opposite decisions. Schaaf said closing streets would allow poor people of color more equal access to the outdoors without having to risk crowded city parks.
Portland's argument is more oblique. Brady responds that transportation justice activists report little demand for closed streets from people of color, and that banning cars could create more obstacles for low-income Portlanders trying to drive to work. Brady says the transportation bureau prefers to focus its limited resourcs on "basic needs," like helping Portland Public Schools distribute personal computers to students for distance learning.
While not explicitly mentioning it, PBOT sent links to arguments by several activist groups that closed streets would be patrolled by police—and they don't want to increase the encounters people of color have with officers. (Brady later clarified that the transportation bureau does not endorse those arguments.)
"Policing is not a tool for healing our divided communities, and official street closures usually involve police," says a report by the social justice group Untokening, sent as a reference by Brady. "These are not a solution for equitable street safety in communities of color."
Brady and Wheeler both say the city will keep studying the matter. Meanwhile, Brady says, the decrease of car traffic has resulted in many Portlanders walking in the street anyway.
City officials say that's great.
"There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that Portlanders are already using their neighborhood streets to socially distance," Brady tells WW. "People are walking, biking and running in the street to make room for their neighbors on the sidewalk. Unlike other cities, Portland has planned and invested for years to create a network that makes it easier and safer to share the streets in this way."
This post has been updated with Eudaly's comments and to clarify PBOT's stance on policing and social justice.