About 70 people threaded their way through the Northeast Portland neighborhood of Cully for a short walk one April evening. They took off from Harvey Scott Elementary School, making short stops along the way.
The large crowd included parents with children, school staff, city and state transportation officials, as well as volunteers and organizers with Oregon Walks, a walking safety advocacy group that hosted this gathering.
“I just wanted to take a second to talk a little bit about the conditions of the roads that we’re seeing and walking [on] right now,” said Inna Levin, volunteer and outreach coordinator at Oregon Walks, as she stopped at an intersection along NE 66th Avenue.
“So obviously, this road is not paved,” she continued. “There are a lot of enormous potholes, which are hard to walk on.”
The goal of the walk was to get feedback from families about which streets need fixes and improvements.
And families were eager to share what it’s like to walk around these pothole-riddled, gravel streets.
“I had to buy a stroller with thicker tires,” called out one mother in Spanish. She pointed out not all parents have the means to buy more expensive strollers.
“I always use this street,” said Wendy Yah Canul, a Cully resident who has two children, including a 12-year-old daughter who attends Harvey Scott.
Yah Canul said 66th Avenue is her safe route to drop off and pick up her daughter from school, even if she gets muddy, even if her stroller gets stuck along the way, or if it’s dark and rainy, she said.
“But as it is, this is the shortest route to school where we feel the safest, because we’re away from the heavy traffic,” Yah Canul said during the walk. “We still want the road to get fixed and would like some street lights.”
Sometimes cars do zip along fast down these quieter side streets without sidewalks.
“We have to tell our kids, ‘Find a side! Go left! Go right!’” said Kristina Blanton, whose son is in first grade at Harvey Scott. “My older son bikes a lot and just having to be aware of that fast-moving traffic all the time – it’s kind of scary.”
Learning about street needs
This walk was part of developing the Healthy Travel Options to School Plan, a partnership among Oregon Walks, Portland Public Schools, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program.
It’s also one of 15 walks that the group will have hosted by the end of May, with support from Metro’s Regional Travel Options program.
These groups are taking extra steps to learn about the unique needs of each school community within Portland, such as hosting open houses and developing a Safe Routes to School app.
Families can use the app to map out safe routes to walk or bike to school as well as share feedback about barriers they have along the way.
All of this feedback will help inform how Portland leaders should invest to fix roads around schools.
“Our walks are meant to be the face-to-face portion of that [partnership],” said Noel Mickelberry, executive director of Oregon Walks. “This is the first time where we’re actually influencing an existing pool of money that needs to be prioritized, which is really exciting because that means the feedback we’re getting is actually going to create change.”
Regional program to bring more people together
As is most often the case, the need for street improvements outweighs the pool of money available to fix them.
Federal dollars are available for Safe Routes to School programs in the state through the Oregon Department of Transportation. But that money only reaches a handful of school districts in the state, including those in the Portland Bureau of Transportation's citywide program.
The Metro Council and Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation reserved $1.5 million in federal transportation dollars to set up a regional Safe Routes to School education and encouragement program.
The funding will support the program over two years, beginning in 2019.
Creating a regional program in the greater Portland area “will help to address the needs and reach as many of the students and school districts as we can,” said Kari Schlosshauer, Pacific Northwest regional policy manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.
“Sometimes, one of the things that the Safe Routes to School program does well is bring people together,” Schlosshauer said. The movement helps “getting the schools to talk to the cities and the counties, and getting the cities and counties to talk to the schools, because historically there has not been a lot of conversation.”
At least 70 schools across the Portland metro area have taken advantage of a tool the national program offers to create action plans. The action plans evaluate what pieces are missing in a community in order to have safer ways to get to schools.
“It’s a tool we’ve really embraced at the county,” said Kate McQuillan, transportation planner with the Multnomah County Transportation Division, which is responsible for many roads in east Multnomah County. "East County", as it's casually known, includes Fairview, Wood Village, Troutdale and Gresham.
Two schools in the Reynolds School District, Troutdale and Sweetbriar elementary schools, have action plans. McQuillan said the plans have helped transportation officials identify which streets to improve.
“The value of these plans is that they live on,” McQuillan said. “We developed them that long ago and we are still referencing them every year when we put together our budgets and our lists.”
McQuillan loves the walking and biking audits that are part of creating action plans. She and her colleagues walked at a slow pace with principals, teachers and students, and took inventory.
“It helps a community assess the infrastructure, you know: Is it good or not?” McQuillan said. “It's everything from: Is there vegetation blocking the view of the driveway? Is there a stop sign needed here? Do we need a full crossing here? It runs the gamut.”
McQuillan said it’s difficult for the county to keep track of conditions on all of the hundreds of miles of roads it owns.
“We don’t know what the conditions are on every single foot. We rely on the public to tell us,” McQuillan said. “The community buy-in and expression of need is critical.”
Even when streets are safer, and when kids know how to walk and bike, their safety often depends on the choices of people driving near schools. In the next installment, we’ll take a look at the role enforcing the rules of the road plays in making streets safer for kids walking and biking to school.
Take the next step
Conduct your own walking and biking audit, using these tools called "assessments" by the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Live in Portland? Map out safe routes to walk and bike using this new app.
Find out if any of the remaining school walks hosted by Oregon Walks this month is happening at your child’s school, and volunteer.