Portland Plans To Close, Modify Streets For Social Distancing

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
April 28, 2020 10:05 p.m.

Following the lead of cities such as Oakland, Seattle and Denver, Portland announced Tuesday it’s making plans to close and modify city streets so people have room to maintain social distancing once the stay-at-home order ends and the Rose City reopens.

Portland's plan was announced in a press release Tuesday by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the city's transportation bureau. It came after weeks of pressure from pedestrian and bicycle advocates, notably local media outlet BikePortland, who wanted to see the city devote less street space to cars.


City officials had contended that opening up its streets would simply cause people to cluster on city blocks instead of crowding parks. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler had tweeted his concern that a closed street would just be a more attractive one. Eudaly told OPB's "Think Out Loud" she worried making radical changes to streets was not the best use of the city's time or resources during a pandemic.

But after mulling the proposal for over a month and with Gov. Kate Brown signaling she’s starting to think about reopening, the city has changed its tune.

“Now that a few weeks have passed and we see people are coming out anyway, it’s time to adjust,” Eudaly said.


The proposal is focused on how to reconfigure city streets so that Portlanders can safely return to them. Eudaly said the original plan had been for the initiative to coincide with Brown's plan to reopen the state. But after noticing more and more Portlanders walking their dogs, pushing strollers and jogging down the middle of the street to avoid close contacts with others, she decided to start early.

Eudaly emphasized the plan is not about shutting down streets entirely. The release breaks down the proposal - officially called the "Slow Streets Safe Streets initiative" - into three parts. The first step involves placing warning signs and barricades on the city's 100-mile network of quiet residential streets, known as neighborhood greenways. The barriers would prevent cars from cutting through and would reserve the streets for the exclusive use of pedestrians and bicyclists. Eudaly's office says the transportation bureau will likely get started on that next week. The current plan, according to Eudaly, is to place about a hundred of these barriers at key intersections throughout the network.

The second part of the proposed plan calls for building temporary sidewalks in busy areas where the walkways are narrow or nonexistent in order to provide more space for pedestrians. The city also wants to install walking and biking lanes “to encourage local trips on foot or by bike,” according to the release.

And the third prong of the plan would dedicate roadway in business districts for customers to line up outside without getting too close to one another. The release also mentioned new loading zones for cars making pickups and deliveries. With indoor dining unlikely in the immediate future, Eudaly said she envisioned the initiative could also spearhead the creation of extra dining space outside like what can be seen on Mississippi Avenue and on Alberta.

“This is really looking forward to recovery,” said John Brady, a spokesperson for the transportation bureau, about the initiative. “For example, if restaurants are opening or there’s more takeout, then you’re going to need more space for people.”

The initiative comes at a time when the bureau is seeing its revenue stream dry up. The bureau relies on money from gas taxes and parking revenue, both of which have dropped dramatically during the pandemic. While Eudaly said she did not know offhand how much the initiative would cost, though she said it would likely be "low" with costs focused on the barriers and the labor.

More details of the plan - like where exactly these treatments will be done - will be hammered out in the next few weeks. Portlanders are invited to make suggestions by calling 503-823-SAFE  or emailing active.transportation@Portlandoregon.gov. The bureau also said it will be holding “a series of digital meetings with community, business, and neighborhood groups” to discuss the plans in the coming weeks.