Opinion: Better Naito success shows change is still possible

Opinion: Better Naito success shows change is still possible

People literally sacrificed themselves to make Better Naito a reality.
(Photo: Kiel Johnson)

By Kiel Johnson, owner and founder of Go By Bike, a bike shop and bike valet service located under the Portland Aerial Tram.

“Council continues the legacy of Governor McCall by taking another tiny sliver of our car dominated urban landscape and giving it back to the people.”

On October 7th Portland City Council approved a radical transformation of Naito Parkway, one of our most important streets. This change will make our city healthier, richer, more accessible, and more resilient to climate change. Naito will permanently go from four car lanes to mostly three, while allowing for a low impact vehicle lane for bicycles, scooters, and other ways of moving oneself that create joy.

With their “yes” votes, Portland City Council showed that the government combined with determined activism does work and can create systemic change. The news will not generate any front page stories, but for those eager to see that we can still do things together, it is worth noting and learning how we got here.

Seventy years ago most U.S. cities made a deal with the devil: They let centralized federal planning build freeways right through the heart of our cities. We traded social capital for automotive capital and with these new government built monuments to a carbon intensive economy, we became locked into a system where moving around took health and quality of life away for far too many.

Cherry trees are a much nicer fit don’t you think?

As any good Portland tour guide will tell you, in 1974 our Republican governor was one of the first leaders to realize our mistake and do something about it. Tom McCall removed Harbor Drive and replaced it with the Waterfront Park after a group of activists began holding picnics between the highway lanes. For anyone who has been to Portland since 1974, it would be impossible to imagine our city without this park. It is where we gather to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, drink beer, listen to music, and where over 75,000 people once gathered to watch our first Black President speak.


But adjacent to Waterfront Park, Naito was left as a four car lane tribute to the past. With any good design you have to continue to adapt to the needs of the present. With their vote, council continues the legacy of Governor McCall by taking another tiny sliver of our car-dominated urban landscape and giving it back to the people.

Much like the push to transform Harbor Drive in the 1970s, this yes vote started with a group of activists making radical demands of their government. In 2015, a handful of young activists convinced the city to open the street up to people for two weeks in June. By the following year it was all summer, and as people got used to the new configuration it became all year. Now these changes will be fixed in cement.

For the past two years, hundreds of activists have staged an annual “human-protected bike lane” on Naito asking the city to make these changes permanent. Luckily they found a receptive ear from City Commissioner in charge of transportation – Chloe Eudaly. Commissioner Eudaly has taken the torch and led the charge to realize the vision through Better Naito Forever. These changes won’t expire at the end of each year and the cement separation will make it so a human wall is no longer necessary. As with the removal of Harbor Drive our success with Better Naito shows that a few determined activists combined with political leadership can change our lives for the better.

And this remains true: If enough people push hard enough, long enough, things start to change.

— Kiel Johnson, @Go_By_Bike
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