Transit activists form human ‘bike lane’ to demand safety on Powell Boulevard after bicyclist’s death

Nearly 200 transit activists formed a human bike lane along one of Portland’s busiest intersections Wednesday afternoon to demand safety upgrades to a street where a semi truck struck and killed cyclist and Portland chef Sarah Pliner the week before.

The protesters called for immediate changes to the handling of Powell Boulevard, a major arterial that runs through Southeast Portland to Gresham. The road has become one of the city’s most dangerous, particularly for cyclists and pedestrians.

It’s also right outside Cleveland High School, and crowds of students cross the street every day for lunch or to get to and from school.

Some passing drivers waved and gave thumbs up to the people dressed in bright green, who held up handmade signs mourning Pliner’s death, and stood in front of the cars at red lights. Others honked and sped through the intersection, revved their engines or yelled at the line of protesters.

André Lightsey-Walker of the cycling, transit and pedestrian advocacy group The Street Trust said the goal of the “human bike box” was to create protected lane for cyclists that the city and state have failed to provide.

“We believe that’s the type of infrastructure that could have prevented (Pliner’s) death,” Lightsey-Walker said.

Amelia Harris, a cyclist who came to the protest, said she hopes the state and the city will take swift action to make the road safer. But if not, she said, drivers need to take responsibility.

“I think drivers have yet to get the hint,” she said. “We all deserve to get home at night safe and sound.”

Activists have called for safety improvements to the road for pedestrians and cyclists, which is owned and maintained for much of its length by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Days after the crash, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty echoed those demands, asking the state transportation agency to begin seriously working toward transferring ownership of the full road to the city’s transportation bureau, which Hardesty oversees. The state already plans to transfer a portion of the road, between Southeast 99th Avenue and Southeast 174th Avenue, to city purview.

The city in April took ownership of another dangerous road, Southeast 82nd Avenue, from the state. The move was celebrated by transportation advocates and residents of that area, who have complained that the state neglected to make the road safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

On Monday, state transportation department Director Kris Strickler said he planned to make upgrades to “quickly transform” the road. He noted that moving freight and cars through the city as quickly as possible should no longer be the road’s main function, and instead the focus should be on safety.

Strickler said his agency, along with local transportation and public safety agencies, will hold a community forum at Cleveland High School on Oct. 20 to discuss changes to the road.

— Jayati Ramakrishnan;

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