“King Boulevard has serious problems”: bikes and autos, constructive conflict and public policy, in our fair city.

This week, Larry Bingham of the Oregonian/oregonlive.com has a write-up of the Portland Development Commission’s plans for the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Gateway, and the problems that pedestrian activists foresee with the soon-coming Gateway.  Mr. Bingham has done a good job covering North and Northeast Portland for the paper/website in recent months, giving folks in N/NE a chance to be heard on various issues in our local daily paper.

The MLK Gateway project will authorize the construction of a pedestrian plaza on the island where Grand meets Hancock, as Grand curves to meet MLK Boulevard.  The plaza will sit behind a steel wall that runs along the island on its Grand Street side; on the wall will be a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Somewhat useful schematics of this hard-to-describe site are here: http://www.activerightofway.org/p/gateway-plaza-at-grand-and-hancock-missing-sidewalk & http://www.pdc.us/ura/convention_center/heritage-markers.asp

Area residents who attended Gateway project stakeholder meetings held by the Portland Development Commission have objected to the design of the plaza, which will also include a small steel wall to be placed across the narrowing strip of land that stretches into the median of MLK Boulevard.  Their objections point to the Gateway designers’ intention to direct pedestrian traffic behind the wall, instead of allowing it to flow along Grand Avenue;  also, future construction of a pedestrian crossing over MLK Boulevard will be more difficult.

One might ‘read’ the design of the Gateway as a project that prioritizes automobile traffic over all other forms of transit. Folks driving out of the Lloyd District north along the Boulevard will encounter a curved steel structure that gracefully eases them into the neighborhood, suggesting that they are entering a new neighborhood. The neighborhood itself won’t be identified directly, except by heritage markers containing neighborhood historical information; these markers will, of course, be visible to motorists only as ‘steel in the air,’ with the plaques containing historical information readable only by persons who travel into the plaza itself. These markers will eventually be joined by more towers with historical plaques along the Boulevard.

Drivers passing by will be greeted by a quote from Dr. King, inscribed onto the steel wall, “They will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The lettering will, of course, be visible to the pedestrian or bicyclist as she travels on Grand heading north, until of course she is ‘behind’ the wall.

The attitudes of those objecting to the design of the Gateway plaza site are in marked contrast to those of Peggy Lovell, who writes in a letter to the editor published in Wednesday’s Oregonian (also online here), that “I am a cyclist and a motorist. I don’t know anyone among my many cycling friends who isn’t also a motorist… [T]he sooner we can stop acting like a person is either a cyclist or a motorist, the better. In the end, though we may ride to work or ride for fun, most of us put many more miles on our car per year than on our bike.”  This is, of course, not true for me or many of the people I know – I travel almost exclusively by bicycle or foot.

Activists Bozzone and Rudwick seek to remind us (including city planners) that the folks who use different forms of transit have needs that both intersect and clash, and that all voices must be heard. In theory, the city seems to agree; Gateway project stakeholder meeting notes indicate that PDC staff are seeking to schedule a meeting that will include PDC staff, folks from the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and at least one pedestrian activist to “improve communications with the pedestrian community regarding PDC projects (current and future).”

Lovell, in contrast, seems to me to imply that there are no differences among transit users, and that planners have no valid reason to differentiate. Lovell’s privileged viewpoint (in more ways than one, she has the luxury of choosing how to travel) does not recognize that there are people who consciously choose not to drive motor vehicles (by her own account, these people are literally invisible to her), or cannot afford to do so.

If we accept her suggestion that we blind ourselves to the existence of people who are not both cyclists and motorists, we will assume that all transit planning that improves roadways for motorists will benefit everyone equally.  It is just this attitude that enables planners to shrug off the very different needs that different modes of transit require, while pretending that their solutions benefit bicyclists and other non-drivers.

As folks who are stepping and riding out into traffic every day, and as citizens of our community, we need to embrace the idea that different transit users have very different needs, and that they cannot all be met, in all situations. Conflict is at least as much a part of creating public policy as cooperation  and is to be welcomed, as long as it’s respectful.  Accordingly, we must struggle to advocate for the best possible solutions for our own transit needs, encourage transit activists to continue to advocate for us when we need representation to do so and take advantage of all public forums to press our cases.We must also press the city’s various bureaus to invite multiple perspectives to planning discussions at the earliest possible moment.

Visit these sites for more info: Active Right of Way; the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition; and the Portland Development Commission’s website for the Gateway and Heritage Markers Project.

Photos  below were taken at the Gateway site.



  1. Thank you Alan for the thoughtful analysis.

    Ped advocates are often asked why we continue to use “pedestrian” as an identifier, considering that most people don’t like to identify as such because there isn’t an associated culture that comes with it (like bicycling or transit riding). In this instance, it’s important for us to identify as pedestrians, so we can be clear that we are representing an oft-overlooked and underrepresented constituency.

    In our experience with PDC on this particular project, the early mistake was ruling out better crossings as if they were out of scope of the project. That might be easy to accept if you predominantly access the area via car, but it is completely backwards if you do not. We hope we’ve impressed upon PDC the importance of a holistic, connected approach to place making and welcome the opportunity to join other stakeholders early on in future processes.

    Looking forward to the story behind those photos someday!

  2. I would love a redo on this project. PDC: good work at keeping folks who actually have any non-motorist-centric ideas out of the process until the very end. ‘Its just 60 feet’ sure sounds like a slap in the face to me. Its just one more disconnected piece of an already treacherous pedestrian environment. Weak sauce

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