Portland’s Livable Street Problem: the Equity Gap

This article was originally published at Blooming Rock.

Portland, Oregon is known nationally as a bikeable, walkable, livable place to call home. For many wealthier upper middle-class neighborhoods, this is true. Venture a ways outside the city core to the working class communities east of 82nd avenue and the livability reputation doesn’t ring so true.

In fact, Portland spends only 3% of its transportation dollars east of this high-volume surface highway strewn with drive-thrus and endless parking lots. So the question must be asked, whom exactly are we building livable streets for?

Perhaps it’s better to first ask what makes a street livable in the first place. Or even better, what makes it unlivable. The answer to that question is simple: cars. The higher the volume of traffic on the street, the more inhospitable and outright dangerous it is for humans. This index of harm was brilliantly illustrated by Donald Appleyard in 1970’s San Francisco.

Try using a crosswalk at the intersection of your typical surface highway. You’ll be waiting minutes before you can walk, and even then you’ll have mere seconds to cross numerous lanes. Only the most able-bodied adult is going to risk traversing this expanse on foot. Certainly no child would be safe navigating such a crosswalk alone.

So often these are the kinds of roads where the poorest Americans live – working low paying jobs, eating unhealthy junk food. Where we seldom find these unlivable conditions are in places where affluent individuals can afford expensive homes and easily walk or bike to their nearest New Seasons or Whole Foods.

Unfortunately, there’s also another well-known precedent: when a city does start spending money to improve street safety, you can be sure that new condo development for incoming urban professionals isn’t far behind. It’s a sad cycle. Divested communities often only receive an influx of street improvement cash for waves of new, wealthier residents – not for the people who already live there.

Such was the case when the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) was looking to expand the existing bike lane on North Williams avenue through the historically black Albina and Eliot neighborhoods. Albina had already lived through decades of racist displacement policies pushed by zoning code, discriminatory bank lending, and eminent domain. BikePortland.org did some vitally important reporting at the time. After several tense stakeholder meetings it was clear local residents opposed to the project weren’t hostile to the safety improvements – they were understandably wary of the new development that would follow. As reported by BikePortland, the collective sentiment among homeowners was, ‘You didn’t care about safety until you were trying to move in more white people‘.

The compromised plan arguably did little to improve the right-of-way for cyclists, yet the large-scale developments residents feared are moving full steam ahead anyway. A quiet neighborhood of two-story homes is now being invaded by an onslaught of condo towers, seemingly a new one every month. True to form, a brand new high-end grocery just opened nearby. While developers and some planners treat gentrification as an unavoidable byproduct, the truth is capital development and cycles of divestment and reinvestment are quite deliberate. They are not crafted by people looking to design better places, they are crafted by people whose chief goal is profit.

Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 2.10.37 AMPortland’s SE 136th Ave. A safe place for children to walk?

I’ve previously written about the ways communities have resisted these kinds of gentrifying cycles. Yet should they really have to? Should simply living in an affordable home on a safe street be such an unrealistic expectation for all classes of people? Certainly, the vacuum for livable streets will draw those who can most afford them, but how can we make sure that resources go to where they’re most needed to ensure the purpose of safe streets is not enriching developers, but providing equity?

This issue came to light tragically last spring when 5 year old Morgan Cook was killed by a person who ran her down with their Sport Utility Vehicle on 136th avenue. As if her death were not terrible enough, Morgan was killed just blocks from where a $1.2 million planned pedestrian improvement package was cancelled by PBOT interim director Toby Widmer who’d recently been appointed by mayor Charlie Hales. This was the same mayor Hales who was all too eager to offer NIKE Inc$80 million dollars to build a parking garage downtown.

When one of the richest corporations on Earth can get all the money it wants from city hall but we can’t afford to build sidewalks in poorer neighborhoods to prevent children from being killed by cars, we have a serious priority problem.

To make matters worse, the long-term harm to children who grow up in unwalkable neighborhoods is only just beginning to be fully understood. A recent article by Kaid Benfield raised some serious alarm bells, “Kids are allowed to do very little exploring on their own, as a result they’re missing what Michael Chabon has called “the wilderness of childhood.” ‘School sprawl‘ – placing new schools on the edges of communities where no one lives within walking distance even if that’s what they would prefer – is a significant part of the problem. The consequences, according to psychologist Peter Gray, are that without the freedom to play, they will never grow up.

That’s right. Without a safe built environment to walk, run, and play, the development of our children’s social education is being stunted. In communities with rigidly structured, yet under-funded schooling, this is just one more depressing reality for kids who already have the odds stacked against them.

While there are local organizations here who are aware of our neighborhood equity gaps, not enough is being done to solve this problem. It shouldn’t require a lethal tragedy to move city hall in the right direction. Money for road improvements shouldn’t only appear for new displacing development. East Portland shouldn’t have to wait year after year just to get basic sidewalks. If Portland is to truly earn its brand as a livable, sustainable city, we’re going to have to start working a hell of a lot harder.



  1. Maybe more people need to cultivate a habit I have developed living in a sidewalkless Vancouver neighborhood–learn to relish walking on lawns and through landscaping. If a homeowner whines, tell ’em to ask City Hall for sidewalks. I’m done with being a clay pigeon for propriety’s sake–fuck property rights, walk where it’s safe!

  2. Ouch. Portland is sort of this paradise in my imagination. It hurts me to hear that they are still afflicted by shortsighted auto-dominated infrastructure spending.

    Is it possible that gentrification happens because walkable, bikeable communities are in such high demand? People are willing to pay a premium and they drive up the cost of living once a place gets walkable?

    So should we resist the infrastructure spending because it can stimulate wealth generation in our communities?

    I rent! I don’t want the value of the place I live to go up! The landlord might up the rent!

    Keep spreading the truth Mr RebelMetropolis

    I wanted to share a few thoughts sort of vaguely related to these ideas.

    1) We can keep talking about it.

    Keep urging our political leadership to secure funding for safe infrastructure. I think the key to talking about it is appealing not just to the safety side of things, but the economic resiliency of building places scaled to people. (Check out the research of Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzi for more info). I think a lot of us lefties like to focus on global warming, well being, safety, health…. but conservatives love hearing about the fiscal side of things.

    Become familiar with how to talk about financial productivity of places. Learn how to talk to conservatives of rebuilding our communities from their point of view.

    2) Tactical DIY Urbanism

    Reimagine your own communities. It isn’t up to some other entity to modify the street, it’s up to you. Paint your own pedestrian crossing. Add your own neckdown or curb bulb out. Put some lawn chairs in front of your house, or at the bus stop. Reclaim the land stolen from pedestrians. Hell, paint your own bike lane. Do whatever you can to make your community better be it authorized or unauthorized.


    I guess our system is just wrong. People who live in a community should always be able to capitalize on the betterment of the community. People keep on talking about value capture in infrastructure investment right? Can we do value capture for human beings?

    Do ecovillages help solve these problems? They often own their living spaces in shares.

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