This research project was supported through the American Sociological Association’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline
Cycling -- Oregon -- Portland, Cycling -- Safety measures, Bicycles -- Oregon -- Portland -- Safety measures, Traffic safety, Sustainable development -- Oregon -- Portland
The North Williams Traffic Safety Operations Project, overseen by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), was proposed in 2010. With an initial budget of $370,000, the project was designed to reduce conflict between buses, bicycles and motor vehicles on North Williams Avenue and improve the overall safety and accessibility of the street. As is common practice, PBOT’s first step in this project was to organize a stakeholder advisory committee (SAC) of interested business owners, neighborhood association representatives, residents, and key stakeholders living or working along North Williams Avenue who would be tasked with advising the city on the project. However, despite an extensive outreach effort, when the initial SAC convened in early 2011, of the 22 members on the committee, only four were people of color. This lack of diverse representation, when coupled with historical legacies of racism and inequality that characterized the African American experience in the North Williams area, served as a catalyst for community grievances around this project to emerge.
During the Spring of 2011, it became evident that there was a highly motivated contingent of cyclists who, emphasizing safety and access, were pressing for improvements in cycling infrastructure on North Williams. These plans included the reduction of automobile traffic to one lane along its entire length. As it became clear that the potential alterations to the street could be extensive, a number of community members expressed concern to PBOT about the project’s goals and the relatively small number of non-white SAC members engaged in decision-making. Many felt that the SAC was not representative enough of the historically black neighborhood. Tensions emerged regarding the historical legacies of racism and inequitable development in North Portland, the composition of the SAC, and the design of the street. This controversy received local and national media attention.
The PBOT project management for the North Williams project decided that the SAC process should be slowed down and efforts should be made to include additional minority members of the local community during the Summer of 2011. The SAC and PBOT project management team made a concerted effort to enable the African American community members to voice their ideas about the planning process at a community meeting in mid-June. At this meeting, the contentiousness of the project and the public outreach efforts became fully evident. There were three key issues of community concern that emerged at this meeting: (1) inadequacies of the public outreach process; (2) historical grievances related to city planning policies and practices; and, (3) a sense of “us versus them” divisiveness between cycling advocates and African American community members in attendance. Some SAC members reported their feeling that their perceived exclusion from the planning process was compounded by historical practices that had previously marginalized blacks in the North Portland area.
As this counter-narrative of injustice and exclusion emerged from African-American community members, efforts were made by PBOT and initial SAC members to expand the SAC. Additional participation was sought through extended outreach efforts that included more active recruitment at public meetings, open houses, and local churches. By late summer 2011, the SAC had been expanded to include a more diverse group of people, with 27 members, twelve of whom were people of color.
For many SAC members, PBOT’s decision to slow down the decision-making process, expand the SAC, and appoint a prominent community member as chair of the committee were all seen as positive developments. PBOT’s efforts to acknowledge historical grievances and build new relationships was a first step in generating trust between community members and the city, as well as among residents themselves. The creation of a guiding statement allowed the committee to acknowledge past grievances while developing a set of criteria for moving forward, while the development of “project outcomes” (which clarified the SAC’s priorities) gave the whole committee an agreed upon set of criteria by which to judge potential changes to the street. In addition to these important personnel issues, the introduction of innovative 3-D animations illustrating different design options enabled the SAC process to move forward.
The SAC committee’s final recommendations stress the importance of considering not only the need to solve issues relevant to bicycle traffic but to include addressing pedestrian safety and the overall speed of traffic on North Williams avenue. The final report and final recommendations can be found on the PBOT website. The thirteen recommendations offered by the SAC are included in the appendix of the above report, and stress the importance of considering not only the need to solve issues relevant to bicycle traffic but to include addressing pedestrian safety and the overall speed of traffic on North Williams avenue.
When asked what practices they would encourage PBOT to improve upon in the future, SAC members emphasized the need for creative outreach efforts. Appropriate forms of outreach must also be combined with more flexibility in the times and days that public meetings are set. Furthermore, the city must take extreme care to ensure that all stakeholders are represented from the start of a project, and that the city must actively facilitate the opportunity for all perspectives to participate equally in decision-making. Along with this, planners and city staff must make efforts to understand the social context of each Portland neighborhood. Specific efforts must be made to bring an historical perspective into decision-making, particularly when issues of racism or classism have contributed to persistent structural inequalities.
Broadly speaking, the North Williams project demonstrates that issues of transportation and safety are not limited to mere changes in infrastructure, but may include discussions of race, history, and ongoing social injustices. City decision-makers must take care to recognize these issues and their ongoing impact on community members.
Lubitow, Amy and Miller, Thaddeus R., "Contesting the North Williams Traffic Operations and Safety Project" (2013). Urban Studies and Planning Faculty Publications and Presentations. 101.