Slaughter the Freeways: A Radical Livable Streets Movement

This article was originally published on Mismanaging Perception.

Where Are the Slayers of the Mt. Hood Freeway Today?

In the 1960s in Portland, Oregon the proposed Mt Hood Freeway was a done deal. By 1972 the plan for the freeway had perished. In 1967 the city proposed making the Harbor Drive highway even wider. Several years later that highway was ripped from the earth and replaced with a public park. Shortly after, planners were preparing to construct the city’s largest elevated parking garage in the center of downtown. Today, Pioneer Courthouse square stands in its place, a cultural epicenter of civic engagement and the site of hundreds of acts of radical speech and civil disobedience.

The story of Portland’s transit history is inextricably linked to a history of radical social activism. That history is scarcely known today at a time when a new onslaught of disastrous transportation projects hang on the horizon, threatening the future livability of our region.

Where did these activists of the 60s and 70s go? Did they forget to teach future generations what they’d learned in their fight? Or did they try, only to fail to keep pace with the influx of young urbanites eager to enjoy the fruits of their labor, yet ignorant of how and why Portland had been transformed into a place worth caring about? Will efforts to halt freeway expansions via I-84 and the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) fail because few people are aware of their consequences? These are the questions that keep me up at night, I’m not kidding.

Rendering of the $4 billion proposed Columbia River Crossing freeway expansion.

The defeat of the Mt Hood Freeway wasn’t only the blocking of a single unwanted, community-dividing mega-highway, it was an act of neighborhood insurrection that completely shocked Portland’s freeway future – the highway drawing board was virtually wiped clean. No longer was the idea for a SE 20th avenue expressway anything more that an embarrassing joke. Never again could somebody promote with any seriousness the plan to turn NE Prescott & Going Street into the Prescott Freeway/Going Expressway – highways that were all a “done deal” according to the city/state-approved plans designed by freeway fetishist Robert Moses.


Map showing built freeways in red, unbuilt expressways in green.

When the Environmental Protection Act was passed, citizens who were horrified with the prospect of concrete spanning 8 lanes corroding the air with carbon monoxide suddenly had a weapon of retaliation; they could sue the bastards in court. Never had anything like this been possible or attempted. The citizens and activists of SouthEast Portland fought back hard and won. Quite literally, they saved our city and, by example, showed others how to save theirs. Their victory offers us a lesson plan all Portlanders should learn.

Across the Willamette there was another battle being fought. The city was pondering whether to expand the highway along the riverfront known as Harbor drive from four lanes to six. Portland Development Commissioner Ira Keller had told the people not to worry about it, that there was nothing they could do. The people went out and organized anyway. They formed a loose-knit group called Riverfront for People, and on a rainy August day in 1969 hundreds of people rallied in support of completely removing Harbor drive and replacing it with what is now Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

This too, was something unprecedented. While occurring during the height of the anti-war and civil rights movements, a mass mobilization in support of fewer highways and grander public spaces was something that hadn’t been thought possible, and this act was just the beginning. After headlines caught the attention of the greater public and political representatives, subsequent rallies and swarms of citizens clogging city hall for a marathon ceremony of public testimony against Harbor drive made it clear to city council – they’d better come up with a new plan for Portland’s west waterfront or risk losing their jobs. A committee was formed that included Oregon DOT, and after several years the plan to abolish Harbor Drive was put into action.

Harbor Drive highway aerial from above Hawthorne bridge.

These dramatic, game-changing sagas made it clear that the people of Portland were moving in a new direction away from auto-centric design and obsessive car culture. It wasn’t long until the plan for a virtual high-rise parking garage was scrapped in favor of a public square, and about the same time a comprehensive plan for revitalizing downtown by way of renewed light rail service and prioritized public transit was adopted – a plan that to this day is held up as proof that this style of re-urbanizing is a success, that cities need streets, not roads, and that positive social connections thrive when humans are valued more than cars.

But this history of events is known by only the most entrenched urban planners and transit wonks who tend to travel in tight circles. How do we catapult stories of livable street victories outside the bubble of transit-oriented-development into the public discourse where they are so desperately needed? As LimeWire creator and livable streets philanthropist Mark Gorton so often states, “We can’t expect to change things without first educating the public on why the changes are needed.”

Gorton has been an admiral in the battle for safe streets for years. Featured in numerous Streetfilms videos, his main narrative contends the most dangerous thing about autos isn’t their emissions, it’s that they are totally incompatible with human beings. Cars are deadly when in motion – pedestrians and cyclists are run down, maimed, and killed by the thousands each year. Cars degrade the mental health of their drivers, causing the same kind of isolation-induced sociopathic behavior found in prisoners confined for long periods of time.

Streets that used to belong to people simply cannot be used in the same ways anymore. “Kids used to play in the streets” reminds Gorton, “Now children under 13 can’t even cross the street. Kids used to just play, now we have play-dates.” As a resident of New York City, Gorton’s vocal criticisms haven’t fallen on deaf ears; Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYC transit commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan are winning the war on congested streets, cutting through the throngs of nay-saying car-lovers with a renaissance of street repurposing, new public squares, and enough separated bike lanes to impress Earl Blumenauer.

So where does that leave Portland today?

Sadly, we’ve found ourselves on a plateau. After pushing the livable streets envelope for decades, the city known as North America’s cycling capital has stagnated. Even with a mayor and city council eager to expand Portland’s bicycle mode share to a heroic 25% by 2030, the big money automobile interests like the Portland Business Alliance, CRC backers Bank of America, and anti-light rail right-wing lobbyists Americans for Prosperity have been spending big bucks pushing a car-only agenda, and their efforts have had a chilling effect on new multi-modal projects sought by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and our city government. Plans to revamp N. Williams ave to allow more bike traffic ended with a mess of a design that simply moves the bike lane while doing nothing to reduce car capacity. Plans to extend streetcar service to Lake Oswego were crucified by pro-car corporate media. Recently, PBOT was moving forward to add a downtown bike lane on SW 12th ave until the Portland Business Alliance penned an op-ed complaining that “..the need or justification for a cycle-track should be in question…12th Avenue is not an obvious choice.” PBOT has since shelved the plan indefinitely.

Rendering of what SE Division St would have looked like had the Mt Hood Freeway been constructed.

So where is the push-back to the push-back? Where are the groups whose purpose is to refute the automobile-knows-best mindset of the 1950s that still persists even today? Who is out there providing the grassroots political support to push officials towards the type of projects and policy that will restore Portland’s title as Urbanist National Champion?

Local group Active Right of Way (AROW) who are “a community of advocates, activists, and professionals dedicated to safe, equitable, responsible use of the public right of way” have recently become more known for criticizing Portland’s streetcar, creating a interactive map where users can mark where they’ve crashed their bikes into tracks (but nowhere on the page are there instructions for how cyclists can safely navigate said tracks). The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), “a non-profit organization working to promote cycling and improve bicycling conditions”, has recently been battered with criticisms that range from failing to oppose the CRC, to adopting a ‘helmets-only’ approach in their media campaigns (a tactic that the European Cycling Federation views as antithetical to getting more people riding). When the Portland Business Alliance came out swinging against bike lanes downtown, BTA advocate Gerik Kransky’s for-the-record response was a tepid, “I respect their position, they have some valid points, but I’m disappointed that there seems to be a reflexive opposition…”

While nonprofit transit groups undoubtedly have good intentions, their vision is often focused narrowly and their messaging lacks assertiveness. We can’t expect the public to get engaged in these issues with language that reads like a brochure. Change cannot wait for the next legislative session, it cannot sit in a holding pattern for when the stars align twenty years from now. True change does not come from politicians and bureaucratic organizations, it comes from the people, and it needs to come now.

Cars have mutated our way of life. Main streets are boarded up while laborers struggle to survive working full time next to nearest highway off-ramp Walmart/Target/drive-thru. Mom and Pop stores offering American made goods are gone. You can’t walk to a corner store to buy groceries anymore, and good luck finding effective public transportation if you live anywhere near a cul-de-sac subdivision. You can’t get anywhere in suburbia without an automobile.

We have a looming crisis on our hands as the ‘Greatest Generation’ that was raised on the car is approaching post-retirement where their age and health may make owning a drivers license an impossibility. Imagine tens of millions of Americans forced into permanent house arrest because the nearest store is too far for them to reach. This level of bad urban planning is a social crime, and we cannot communicate enough the need for a revolt against this auto-centric prison we’ve built.

Setting goals that won’t be reached for decades isn’t good enough. Putting our faith in politically correct advocacy groups isn’t achieving the necessary results. Allowing the automotive industry to dictate how we use our land and how we interact in our streets is a practice that needs to end. It is time to view urban planning and transit activism the same way we look at wars, at poverty, at global warming. It’s time to start getting pissed off. It’s time to stop worrying about image and reputation and start calling cities built for cars what they truly are: INSANE.

Sit-in pic-nik protesting the expansion of Harbor Drive.

The I-5 freeway that has devastated Portland’s east riverfront and our air quality for 50 years is an abomination and we all know it. We must frame the narrative in these terms. All the logical facts and well-researched studies have not jolted public outrage. No more exploratory studies about diverting traffic – tear that thing down and tear it down now! No more reports about whether the CRC is tall enough or whether tolls will adequately provide funding – kill that damn bridge! When enough people start getting pissed off and making noise, others start to notice – the issue becomes larger, it can no longer be ignored. This is how we build momentum, this is how we reach critical mass.

We need a radical livable streets movement. We need to be aggressive. We must conjure the activist ghosts of the 1960s and start occupying highways and freeways to draw scrutiny to these outdated, destructive transportation monstrosities. We need to demand – not ask for – but demand streets that are safe, that are breathable, that are walkable and bikeable, that foster positive social interaction – and we will start by killing the planned Columbia River Crossing and by demolishing the detestable Interstate-5 freeway and the Marquam bridge. We must build a city for the 21st century, and we will start today.

Where are the slayers of the Mt. Hood Freeway?
They are right here, and they are us.

See you in the streets.