Monday, August 26, 2019

Sunday Parkways: acquiescing to reality rather than changing it.

Once again, BikePortland,org has released a lovely report on the "success" of Sunday Parkways.

Oh, how I wish I could embrace this report as the complete story.
Alas, there are other factors at work here.
I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but here goes:

1. This is my twelfth year of volunteering at Sunday Parkways as a Mobile Mechanic. I have hung in there since the beginning. And I have been glad to do it. I haven’t always been needed, but when I was needed, I was there and read to help repair or adjust someone’s bicycle, roller skate or even a wheelchair so folks could get back to enjoying the Parkways experience.

2. In the early years of Parkways, the most complicated or high-speed intersections along each route were managed by Portland Police, with support from professional flaggers. Volunteers were asked to manage residential intersections so that people could get home while the route was open. From the beginning, there was and has ALWAYS been some pushback from local residents trying to get in our out  of their neighborhoods. In the early years it was a rarer occurrence, and usually solved with a smile and a wave as those behind the wheel waited patiently for volunteers to move a barricade or escort them slowly and safely off the route.

3. As Portland grew in size, our roads were filled with more cars and our streets became more built up with retail businesses, condos and high-end apartments. Of course, the streets became more crowded at Parkways. At the same time, this evolution was taking place, PBOT was having increasing difficulty recruiting enough volunteers to help manage the comings and goings along the route. This has been especially prevalent in the last three or four years. At the same time, the City’s budget for Parkways has shrunk, forcing PBOT to beg for money from participants each year, all year long. Finally, a couple years ago the Portland Police Bureau withdrew their on-street presence from parkways, citing budgetary constraints.

The combination of these realities has meant that Parkways hasn’t been able to keep pace with Portland’s growth. In at least two instances, routes have had to be changed or shortened to avoid potential skirmishes with homeless people camping along part of a route where physical assaults and robberies have happened. (This point is being made for folks who wonder why none of the Parkways routes utilize much of the Springwater Corridor or the I-205 bike-ped path anymore.)

4. Over the last four Parkways seasons, this has translated into my personal experience of being yelled at, harassed and even physically threatened by angry car drivers who encountered road closures due to Parkways and were outraged at not being to go where they wanted at that moment. In two cases I had motorists actually DRIVE their cars TOWARDS me in a menacing manner.
One threatened to run me down if I didn’t get out of his way.
The other made a similar threat if I tried to take a picture of his license plate.

I was rattled, and completely unable to enjoy my Parkways experience after each of these incidents.
Still, I kept signing up for shifts as a Mobile Mechanic, continuing to believe in the vision of Sunday Parkways and wanting to do my part to support it. This may have been a mistake on my part.

Yesterday, while I initialed my name on the volunteer roster to check in as a Mobile Mechanic for what would be my last Parkways event of the season, I was handed a bright pink slip of paper. Printed in large letters on one side was the sentence “May I help you?”
I was told by the volunteer coordinator that I needed to acquaint myself with this in case I hadn’t seen the online training.
On the other side were instructions explaining how to help drivers off the closed route and how to diffuse a potentially threatening situation where an angry car driver was concerned.
The instructions state that helping Car drivers get off the route safely, AND to keep parkways participants safe from car-drivers along the route, was Job #1 for EVERY volunteer.
And apparently, this is now the stated policy for every volunteer at Parkways from here on out, regardless of one's assigned shift duties.

At this point, I realized that I was being corralled into becoming, like it or not, another “Mobile Intersection Superhero” and that, in effect, I was being asked to place myself in harm’s way to protect Parkways participants. In short, I was being asked to do the job of Flaggers and Police.

I walked away, sat at a table, and thought carefully about my choices.

I could place myself in harm’s way voluntarily, and accept the changed nature of both Portland AND the event; or I could decide that it was time to stop volunteering. After some discussion with my sister, who was there to ride the route with me for company and conversation,  and after taking a few deep breaths, I took off my mechanic vest and volunteer shirt, put on another ordinary t-shirt, and rode away. With two other mechanics on duty I would not be missed in that role. And because I did not appreciate the way I was being corralled into becoming a volunteer traffic cop, I decided I was done.

If this is the future direction of PBOT’s management of Sunday Parkways, it is highly unlikely that I will sign up to volunteer again.

I can hear what some of my younger, stronger, more daring bicycle community friends might say to me:

— “For crying out loud, grow a spine. Take a self-defense course or something.”
(I’ve taken two. They’ve given me good tools but have not changed my essential personality. I tend to avoid physical conflict rather than embrace it, and I refuse to feel ashamed of that.)

— “You ought to buy a Go-Pro [camera] and mount it on your bike, and use it EVERY time you ride. That’s the world we live in now.”
(WRONG. The world we live in now is placing ALL of the responsibility for bicyclists’ safety on individual cyclists, and taking it completely off legislators, traffic planners and law enforcement. I refuse to play along with this line of reasoning. My taxes help pay for the roads and I expect some of that money to be used to support people who walk and ride bikes, not only people who drive cars.)

— “Everybody has to do their part.”
(Agreed. I’ve been doing my part for twelve years. My part has been changed with inadequate training and support, and I don’t need to buy into what feels just a little bit like bait-and-switch.)

The photos taken of yesterday’s event show shiny, happy people riding their bikes, scooters and roller skates on streets closed to motorized vehicles. But were those roads really and truly closed?
I doubt it.
The final instruction on my pink sheet reads:
— LET THEM WIN - Safer to stop [participants and move them through
— DON’T ARGUE - Once angry, they won’t be happy. Just tell them you’re there to help.”

The only “training” is an online course with Power-point pages and statements made in outline format. There is no meaningful training provided for how a volunteer is supposed to diffuse an angry and potentially threatening situation.

At the bottom of my sheet was a phone number to call to report incidents:
— Drivers who yell and threaten
— Drivers who hit or bypass barricades
— Drivers who drive dangerously
— "Please text short details of incidents to [phone #]"

I don’t see this as a terribly effective way to create real change on the ground, especially when all other signs point towards letting cars and car culture win. In a city designed for cars, is there really any other way to handle all of this? I doubt it. And I just can’t put my health and safety on the line for it anymore.

I don’t think real change is impossible. But we do need to change the way Parkways is managed and executed in order to keep it safe for anyone not behind the wheel of a car. To do that, we need to think bigger, the way Bogota, Colombia did when they created the first Ciclovia:

— Create a budget string for the event. Divert car infrastructure monies into it if necessary.
— Bring back police and more professional flaggers at every event.
— If you need additional Route Monitors, put them in special uniforms, train them properly, authorize them to act on behalf of PBOT, and PAY them to place themselves in harm’s way.
— Statewide — hell, nationwide! — bring bicycle/pedestrian safety into the school curriculum, and make every student pass a bicycle and pedestrian safety course BEFORE they are allowed to study for a driving learner’s permit.
— Raise the learner’s permit age to 17, and raise the driving age to 18. In every state.
-- Reduce and eventually eliminate subsidies for private car ownership and divert those monies into public transit, and increased lift services for seniors.

I recognize that these are pipe dreams.
I recognize that in America we already lost the car-versus-bicycle wars a very long time ago, before I was even born.
But I cannot let go of my vision of rebellion against car culture. Especially when cities try to organize some kind of “safe streets” initiative but end up kowtowing to the automotive and petroleum industries over and over again.
Sunday Parkways still cannot exist without cars and trucks. And that right there says something about how the City of Portland is trying to convince folks to get out their cars, while at the same time refusing to fight the industries that they rely on for the staging of these monthly events.
While my politics are far from perfect, I know that you can't have both ways in equal measure without something beginning to slip.

Sunday Parkways cannot simultaneously serve as a meaningful vision for a car-reduced future AND as a pop-up diversion for those who embrace car culture the other 360 days a year. Based on my experience I would consider it less visionary and more diversionary these days.

I have a vision that one day, cars and trucks will become so expensive to own and operate that perhaps we won’t need a Sunday Parkways anymore.
And yes, I know that’s ridiculous.
I know that, in order for me to survive as part of a modernized human race, my politics cannot be pure;  because I, too, depend on cars and trucks and a landscape that favors them for many of the things I need to survive.
But I still hold to that vision, and I won’t apologize for it.
And in whatever way I can, I will continue to chip away at the car culture, even if in the end it means shortening my own lifespan too.
Ride on, friends.
Ride and stroll and support public transit and take the quieter paths whenever you can.


MrMerz said...

I did this Parkways ride and went into it wondering how it would work going through downtown.
I enjoyed other Parkways rides this summer, but this one was way too complicated for the available resources to manage safely or well. I missed a couple of turnoffs, got caught up in some confused car/bike interactions, but came through sound if not safe.
Given it all, I support the Parkways program but don't think I would do this version through the densest Portland traffic in the future unless there was a significant increase in investment to really make the point that at each intersection bikes were coming through and hostile drivers would not tolerated by PPD.
I will ride them in the future, will support the concept, will ride much of this route routinely on my own, this route with the hordes, not so much.
How does one become a roving mechanic for future Parkways rides?

bikelovejones said...

Hi MrMerz -- becoming a volunteer for parkways is easy. PBOT will open an online volunteer form in advance of the next event (it should be open now for September).
Simply go there and scroll through the positions still available.
For Mobile Mechanic, you need to know how to fix a flat and do minor adjustments on brakes, first-year shop mechanic's apprentice stuff. Anything bigger than that and you should refer them to the nearest park on the route, where they should find a mechanic booth equpiied to handler bigger things. Bring tire repair tools, patch kit, a pump and a mini-tool.

The only pre-requisite as far as I know is for ride-along medics, who must show some kind of certification at check-in to be approved.
Good luck!