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The Bizarre Story of PBOT and a Transportation Ideology that Failed
PDX.Real digs into a street-level scandal
Editor’s note: The following piece ran on Portland’s leading pirate media website, PDX.Real on Substack. They’re best known for their daily Instagram and X posts which have unnerved traditional media and progressive politicians in equal measure. We hope you’ll subscribe.
Portland likes its bikes. It likes its walkability. Its cars? If you are judging by the transportation projects PBOT has invested in to improve Portland streets…not so much.
Outer SE Division has always been a sore subject for transportation planners in the city of Portland. It is a “high-crash corridor” that claimed the lives of 20 people in a dozen year period prior to the project lauded as a fix for the dangers of this thoroughfare, and it was named, rather predictably, the “Outer Division Safety Project.” The idea was to build transportation infrastructure between SE 80th Avenue and SE 174th that would eliminate crashes and deaths along one of the most traveled east to west corridors.
The City of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) funded the project through various programs and was also part of the $175 TriMet Division Transit Project. The city commissioner leading the bureau at the time of the development of the project, Jo Ann Hardesty, decided that the contract for the construction would be granted to a black-owned construction company. The contract was awarded to Raimore Construction and Hardesty’s friend, Jeffrey Moreland. TriMet later gave Moreland their TriMet Legacy Award for his company’s work on the construction of the project.
The Outer Division Safety Project is technically, a road diet. A road diet is transportation infrastructure that discourages driving and places higher importance on bike paths and pedestrian walkways. The road diet is an ideological construct borrowed from Europe and how Europeans use roads, and some of these countries have found it to be successful. Road diets aren’t original to Portland, but Portland and its transportation bureau are definitely swayed by their supposed merits.
The project design included a planned raised median between the west and eastbound lanes that covered over 90 blocks, which in theory would greatly reduce the most dangerous of all turns: the left turn. It added nearly a dozen traffic signals, added widened and protected bike lanes in each direction protected by metal poles, added dedicated bus lanes in certain areas, and added “accessible” corner ramps at certain intersections. It also added dedicated signals for bikes and pedestrians, which eliminated drivers’ abilities to do such things as making right turns when a light is red.
Buy-in from Residents and Businesses Along the Corridor?
As many Portlanders probably already know, Division Street between 80th and 174th is almost entirely commercial businesses, with a considerable amount of these businesses being minority and immigrant-owned, with the majority of those being from the Asian, Slavic, and Latino communities. As far these projects go, it is customary that the city reach out to these businesses for input or even approval. That was not the case here.
Fatima Magomadova, a Slavic immigrant who owns the Roman Russian Market on 110th and Division, said that she never received a call or a letter from PBOT regarding the project, nor does she know one business owner in her community along the corridor ever receiving any kind of communication from the city. When Fatima pressed PBOT over the slight, an official claimed that they had sent letters, but also claimed that “your community rarely responds to such communication.”
Another business owner, DJ Guild, who owns a couple of properties along the corridor, said that he was contacted by the city just prior to its construction. When he met with two individuals, “it was obvious that they weren’t looking for input or suggestions, and that, in fact, the construction had already been signed off on by the city. I also figured out pretty quickly that the two individuals who I was meeting with weren’t from PBOT at all, but rather, from a PR firm hired by PBOT, using my tax money to ‘sell’ me the project and influence me to be excited by it. Needless to say, I wasn’t excited about it, especially the way they were being dishonest.”
The Issues with the Project Construction
As soon as the project was completed, the difficulties began. The problem with not allowing left turns is that drivers DO like to turn left, especially when they are turning into a business they want to conduct business with. The construction would allow eventual left turns, but at an intersection three to four blocks past where the driver wanted to turn. Some of the turns were constructed as one-way, which means that often drivers would drive the wrong way in the turn lane, potentially causing head-on collisions. Not all signaled intersections allowed a U-turn due to extended curbs that jutted too far into the opposite lanes, meaning vehicles would often end up going over the curbs in order to turn around. Finally, due to the design of the new bike lanes, crucial street parking was removed or eliminated in front of businesses.
The safety that the city promised on Division Street didn’t materialize. PBOT’s chief traffic engineer, Wendy Cawley, claimed that Division would see a 47% decrease in all crash types. Of course, this random number was supposedly based on projections and studies. In truth, they had zero metrics to show that this was going to be the case. There have been two pedestrian fatalities in 2023 since the installation of the “Outer Division Safety Project,” one on January 6th and the other May 24th.
Immediately, it became apparent that none of what PBOT promised was true. Businesses reported crashes that they had never previously seen on the road, such as cars doing rollovers after hitting medians. Fatima, the owner of the Russian market, regularly videotaped wrecks and dangerous driving, including TriMet buses and semis driving over the medians. In one afternoon when I personally drove the road to test the experience, we saw several dangerous maneuvers that nearly caused serious accidents. In one instance, I clocked how long it took me to turn around in order to reach my desired turn and it took nearly five minutes to complete it.
Portland’s Vision Zero program, yet another Hardesty concoction that was based on the national program of the same name, sought to “completely eliminate traffic fatalities and all traffic violence,” and included the political concepts of “traffic violence” and “transportation equity.” The term traffic violence is a loaded one, to say the least. The dictionary definition of violence is “behavior involving force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” Violence has intention to it. Although there are certainly cases where people have used vehicles as a weapon with intention to maim others, the vast majority of vehicle crashes and fatalities are accidents, usually caused by some type of human error whether it occurs due to driver error or bicyclist or pedestrian error. It’s obvious that the program’s perspective was: drivers are not only always at fault in traffic crashes, but since cars are bad objects driven by bad people, that these accidents are always intentional.
Needless to say, this ideology is failing. And just like the programs that are meant to “completely end gun violence” or to “completely end racism,” the results seem to make the things they intend to eliminate worse. Human beings are fallible. The only thing consistent about human behavior is that it is inconsistent. No one’s a perfect driver. No one completely pays attention when he or she is walking down the street. Human error and frailty are going to make sure that traffic crashes and fatalities are always going to happen, no matter how much shaming comes from public officials and ideologues, and no matter how much social engineering is attempted by those who mean well but seem to have zero understanding of how human beings actually work.
The statistics speak for themselves. Since Vision Zero began three years ago, traffic accidents and fatalities have increased substantially: 61 fatalities were reported in 2021, 63 were reported in 2022, and by the end of July, 44 traffic fatalities had been reported thus far in 2023, which would project to 75 for the year. The preceding three years prior to Vision Zero (-18’, ‘19, ‘20) averaged 45 per year. The numbers in 2023 are looking to double 2018’s total of 35. A Multnomah County report stated that traffic deaths are currently “a significant public health threat.” The question is, will the new “solutions” double the fatalities in another three years?
I will return to Fatima Magomadova, the owner of the Russian market. Armed with photos, videos, and stories of shocking traffic accidents and issues, she started showing up regularly at city hall. She testified before the commissioners over a half-dozen times. She reported that not only was Division not safer, but that her business had suffered lost revenue since the installation of the project. Other businesses have testified as well: for example, A-1 Hawk says they have experienced a 30% reduction in business.
One member of the Slavic community took matters into his own hands. This business owner got tired of both customers and supply trucks having substantial issues pulling into his business. One night, in an appropriate act of civil disobedience, this business owner removed a section of the median with a jackhammer.
There was an immediate reaction to this, but it wasn’t from the city. Strangely, a representative from Raimore Construction showed up and told the business owner that the city was going charge him with a crime. This was a lie. An individual from the city did show up and simply discussed the issues he was having and no further communication or action from the city occurred. A week or so later, the construction company came back and filled in the median. The city, rather hilariously, installed cameras around a nearby intersection pointed at the business.
With pressure seeming mounting by the day, Commissioner Mapps scheduled a meeting at Fatima’s store with members of his staff in tow.
As politicians generally do, Mapps told the room full of concerned citizens and business owners that he would look into the issues the community presented to him. Shortly after this meeting, he hired a new PBOT director, Millicent Williams. Several weeks later, PDX Real had a positive meeting with Mapps regarding the issues around Portland’s Road Diets, and particularly the abomination that outer SE Division had become.
Mapps acknowledged that PBOT had been taken over by ideology in the years leading up to him taking over the bureau and that most of the ideology resided within the design division of the bureau. He told us Williams had cut her teeth “on the maintenance side” of the bureau and that she would bring a much more pragmatic approach to the bureau. At that time, he recommended we meet with her so we could talk to her directly about her perspectives and plans.
We scheduled a meeting with Williams and brought Fatima and DJ with us. Director Williams seemed to be a reasonable, dedicated, and very capable individual who acknowledged the issues with many of the road diets and the lack of foresight many of the PBOT designs had in considering the totality of the effects on the community. She said that she was a driver, a pedestrian, and a bike rider in the city, and had actually toured the street doing all three. She seemed concerned about the loss of business and the obvious danger posed by the construction. We left the hour-long meeting feeling that we had at least been heard.
Something we also learned was that the bureau actually had finished only a fraction of the work, and that, instead, much of the work has been contracted out to consultants and contractors. Williams told us that PBOT simply had too many projects to do the work in-house, which was a considerable surprise to those at the meeting.
Since that meeting, PBOT quietly announced some changes…
One of the changes is a turn into the Roman Russian Market, but this is only a start. The Russian market is only one of dozens of businesses being negatively affected by the road diet. We shall see what happens going forward.