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Janette Sadik-Khan Brings 'Streetfight' To Portland

Janette Sadik-Khan is the former transportation commissioner for New York City.

Janette Sadik-Khan is the former transportation commissioner for New York City.

Stephen Mallon/NYC Department of Transportation

As New York City transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan was the muscle behind Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to create a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly city. Now she’s bringing her passion for safer streets and a wider variety of transportation options to the rest of the world.  

She came to Oregon this week to talk about her new book, “Streetfight: Handbook For An Urban Revolution,” and talk to Portland-area leaders about the future of transportation and land use. And she had a pretty powerful host, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who has his own strong opinions about what the Portland region needs to make our streets safer and smarter. They stopped by the OPB studios to chat about the future of American cities. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Q&A With Janette Sadik-Khan And Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Anna Griffin: Janette, the title of your book is “Streetfight,” and in it you note that “Bikes and the people who ride them elicit more passions than any other way of getting around.” That’s certainly true in Portland. But why?

Janette Sadik-Khan: It’s funny. When you think about it, our streets have been designed for cars. For the last 50 years, that’s been the expectation. So designing in different modes of transport is changing the status quo. Increasingly, we see that we need to bring more balance and diversity to our streets.

People want many choices. Yet anytime you take back a parking space from someone, it’s like taking back their first-born child. Change to this status quo elicits a backlash.

AG: Congressman, in Portland in particular there seems to be this sense — in places like the North Williams corridor — that bike lanes are a late-stage sign of gentrification, something only for the white upper middle class. How do you get past that?

Earl Blumenauer: Part of what is important is to make sure that we have more access for everybody, that it’s not just middle-aged white guys in lycra with really expensive bikes. It’s great to work, for example, with the Community Cycling Center, to be able to get bikes in the hand of low-income children. Enabling folks to understand the power of the bike, it it’s the cheapest most effective way to have access. Giving those facilities to North Portland is actually a sign that the city taking them seriously.

AG: Janette, in your book, you say several a lot of nice things about Oregon and our system for planning land use. Can you talk a bit about what we’ve gotten right? And as you’ve been in town this week, have you seen things we’ve gotten wrong?

JSK: Portland really led the way, certainly starting with  urban growth boundaries in the 1970s. Setting the table about how to accommodate growth was way ahead of its time. Other cities are just catching up with that long-range vision Portland established in the 1970s. Getting that right has made a huge difference.  

It’s important to recognize that cities constantly change. You have to keep up, you have to try new things. Trying new things, expanding in a quicker period of time would be really important to do here. You’re seeing cities like Los Angeles and Houston and Austin that are doubling down and building miles and miles of protected bike lanes and making it much more affordable and efficient and easy for people to get around. For Portland, it’s doing much more, much more quickly.

AG: A follow up to that: Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury and former Metro regional council president David Bragdon both sounded what essentially amounted to warnings about Portland and the broader region. Kafoury fears that if we don’t get a handle on housing prices, Portland will be a victim of its own success. Bragdon said Portland is falling behind other cities because we haven’t figured out a sustainable way to fund transportation improvements. How do we get our momentum back?

EB: The funding issue in part on the federal level, we haven’t kept pace with our responsibilities to the region. It frustrates me that Congress is holding back. We as a region need to be willing to step forward. Look at our neighbors in Seattle. With all their problems … they still approved almost a billion dollars in expansion for street car, for transit, for bicycle and pedestrian activities. We haven’t come forward with a bolder iteration of where we go next, and we are being passed by other cities.  

… There’s no substitute for being able to be there for the big picture in the long term. Portlanders are going to have an opportunity to vote on increasing the gas tax. We may well have a proposal for transit in the region within the next two to four years. We’re involved with an experiment now in changing the way we collect transportation revenues in Oregon from a cents-per-gallon system to something that deals with distance travelled. There are lots of these things that we are working on that we need to bring to fruition.

AG: What’s the worst case scenario? What happens if we fail?

JSK: We’ve got incredible growth that is happening in cities, and that’s a great thing. Half the world’s population now lives in urban areas. That number is going to increase. But we are courting urban disaster if we have all these people sprawl out beyond city limits. The streets in the United States are sick. We’ve got 33,000 people dying on our roads every year. We’re not going to be able to just double deck our roads and expect we’re going to be able to build our way out of this congestion and incredible drag on the economy.  

We have to change our design of our cities. If we don’t do that, we’re going to get into big trouble. If city residents don’t have an option but to drive everywhere, our cities don’t have a chance to survive.

EB: If we don’t get it right in the Portland metropolitan area region, we’re going to be increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots.

Janette Sadik-Khan Earl Blumenauer Portland Oregon transportation

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