By Lisa Caballero
BikePortland subscriber Timur Ender worked on the inside and outside to help make Better Naito a reality. The former Better Block PDX volunteer, transportation policy advisor for former City Commissioner Steve Novick, and a former PBOT project manager, is currently living in Turkey. Even so, he was so excited to see the ribbon cut on Better Naito last Friday he filled us in on the nitty-gritty of how the project came to be.
His comment is insightful and gives us a valuable look behind the scenes. Ender shares a level of candor we rarely get to share these days and we appreciate his contribution to the conversation.
Here’s what he wrote:
Better Naito is a success story on a number of fronts: it’s a success story of accessible government, tactical urbanism as a way of urban planning, partnerships, data, and imagination. As someone who helped lead this effort from the City Hall side, here is some context and history for people who weren’t around 7 years ago.
Better Naito was not on any Portland planning document at the time. The festival season had just started in 2015 and the loading permits the festival had required them to open the northbound lane for cars during rush hour. In essence, what Better Naito did was somewhat of a marketing spin, at least at first. We essentially glorified the loading zone into a premier walking and biking space. The fact that there were occasional trucks there didn’t bother us at first because the loading is what gave us the political cover to do this trial in the first place. Moreover, from a permitting perspective, instead of saying the N-bound travel lane had to be open [for cars] during rush hour, we simply changed the permit to allow continual walking/biking/loading during rush hour and overnight. This is what created a 24 hour multi purpose lane for 2 weeks during the 2015 Rose Festival.
It was a delicate dance between Better Block, Festival organizers and the City about who would apply for the permit, what type of permit, who would procure and set up traffic cones, where the $15,000 to do this pilot would come from, what the messaging would be, who would collect data, and how success would be defined.
This was very much a leap of faith and there were a number of things we didn’t know until we did it. First, we didn’t know how popular it would be from a biking perspective in terms of bike counts and network importance. I remember biking around in those early days and having my jaw drop at the number of northbound cyclists and how many people were turning on/off at Salmon, Taylor, Oak, Harvey Milk Streets. We quickly captured these numbers and had the data help tell the story of something like 1 in 3 northbound commuters in the PM peak were traveling by bike. Second, we didn’t know the traffic signals on Naito Pkwy were separate from the downtown grid, thereby making them easier to tweak in support of the Better Naito pilot project. Third, we found out that the demand and importance of southbound and northbound Naito were unequal. Specifically, Southbound Naito carried more vehicle traffic due to accessing I-5 and it was more important for emergency response due to the fire station at NW Ash and Naito. Northbound Naito didn’t have these same pressures.
We also underestimated how important the biking/walking space was for the City. It was important not just from a “big picture” multimodal/policy perspective but also from a “little picture” of achieving Parks bureau, emergency response bureaus, and transportation bureau’s goals related to safety and access for waterfront park. Having this space free from car traffic made city operations run smoother and contributed to a happier and more memorable experience for visitors, tourists, and commuters.
Better Naito was also a success in bridging the connection between grassroots tactical urbanism and the halls of power in city government. If the project didn’t go well, Better Block PDX was willing to take the heat. If it went well, the City was able to claim a victory while being somewhat more insulated from the political risks. The City also contributed its own assets and resources to make the project a success. For example, potholes were filled and PBOT staff enforced no-parking rules in the space. Parking enforcement and filling potholes are things PBOT does in the ordinary course of business but it was significant that those efforts were directed to the Better Naito pilot project. Eventually, of course, the City ended up taking on Better Naito as a summer pilot project which further institutionalized Better Naito and temporary uses of streets. The fact that public perception of Better Naito was positive and only got better is due to Better Block, Festival organizers, and the City working together on messaging, triaging issues, and putting in significant effort toward a successful pilot.
There are a lot of people to thank and I can’t name them all but shoutout to Ryan Hashagen, Gwen Shaw, Yelena Prusakova, and Ben Chaney from Better Block PDX as well as countless advocates who helped set up traffic cones at 5am, Portland Rose Festival, and city staff (too many to name but high fives all around) from Parks, Fire, Police, and Transportation bureaus as well as city hall. Initial seed funding for the project was provided by People for Bikes and Metro. It is still incredible to see that the initial $15,000 pilot project leveraged over 15 million dollars of public investment to create a high quality multimodal space on Naito Parkway between SW Lincoln Street to NW 15th Avenue (3 separate PBOT capital projects on Naito since 2015).
Next time you are in Portland’s waterfront, take a minute to reflect that people’s minds, political calculations, streets, and cities can be changed in service to more livable, equitable, and memorable places.