Interview with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty: Vision Zero, enforcement, distracted walkers, and more

Commissioner Hardesty at city council yesterday.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty made headlines last month when she said distracted walkers are a “huge issue” and voted “no” on what was expected to be a non-controversial update to Portland’s Vision Zero program. Her vote and comments raised the ire of the commissioner in charge of that program, Chloe Eudaly.

Eudaly called Hardesty’s views, “Virtually unfounded” and said Hardesty must not have been briefed on the topic properly.

Nearly three weeks after that exchange, I spoke with Hardesty and asked about her views on Vision Zero, traffic enforcement, distracted walkers, and more.

Commissioner Hardesty wanted to set things straight from the outset. “I share the values of making our streets safe for everyone,” she said. “If I left you with the impression that that was not my goal I don’t want you to have that impression.”

“I have to be more mindful of how people hear my words… I in no way want to imply that it’s the pedestrian’s fault if they get hit by a car or a bicycle. Please help me clarify that in the biking community.”

Hardesty also raised eyebrows with her insistence that people who walk while staring into their phones are a major problem. Everyone knows being distracted is a bad idea no matter what you’re doing on the road; but bringing it up during a conversation about Vision Zero — especially at a time when fatal crashes are way above normal — is considered a major faux pas among transportation advocates (many of whom winced when she made similar comments at a candidate forum in 2018).

“Let me say that I understand that was perceived as blaming the victim,” Hardesty said when I asked her about those comments. “That in no way was the intent of that statement. One of those personal little pet peeves of mine is I see people crossing the street without looking to see if the walk signal is on and I’ve held my breath a couple times out of concern that they might be hit. But I’ve realized that in the context of me being a city commissioner I have to be more mindful of how people hear my words.”

“The pedestrian is always right,” she continued. “Let me be really clear: Anybody who is hit or injured or killed by an automobile, they are the victim of that activity. I in no way want to imply that it’s the pedestrian’s fault if they get hit by a car or a bicycle. That was not my intent at all. Please help me clarify that in the biking community.”

It turns out Hardesty has a lot of opinions not just about Vision Zero, but other transportation topics as well. And she doesn’t care if PBOT isn’t in her portfolio. “I did not run to be a commissioner that would be siloed and that would be only focused on the bureaus under my management. My community doesn’t live in silos,” she said.

Hardesty prefers speed reader boards over citations when it comes to changing driver behavior.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Hardesty had the most to say about enforcement. She has two main problems with it: First, she thinks there’s a lack of data being collected about who is getting stopped. And second, she feels like it’s a punitive tool that has potential to hurt people of color and people who live in low-income neighborhoods.

“For me, it’s not that I am opposed to enforcement, I just want to make sure that we’re using tools in a way that are building community and are not having devastating impacts on low-income communities and communities of color.”

According the PPB’s latest traffic stop data, of the 7,654 stops, 65% were white people, 18% were black or African-American, and 9.5% were hispanic or latinx. (Portland is about 73% white, 6% black, and 9% hispanic/latinx.)

Instead of tickets to speeders, Hardesty said she’d prefer to see more speed reader boards. She believes those are a better way to change behavior. She also believes it’s unfair to target enforcement in areas that have inadequate infrastructure. “If our goal is to change behavior we need to invest in the infrastructure improvements that are causing the streets in east Portland to be unsafe.”

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“I just don’t want poor people and people of color to pay for the lack of public investment that should have happened 25-plus years ago.”

Hardesty, an east Portland resident who said she’s nearly been hit by drivers while walking to the number 20 bus she takes to city hall, is grateful PBOT is finally spending money east of 82nd. But, she adds, it’s long overdue. “The reason we’re having deaths and traffic accidents in east Portland is because of the failure of the government to actually do what they promised when east Portland was annexed into the city of Portland,” she said. “So I just don’t want poor people and people of color to pay for the lack of public investment that should have happened 25-plus years ago.”

Speed cameras also raise skepticism from Hardesty. She told me her concern is that they’ll be installed primarily in neighborhoods where people of color and low-income Portlanders live. “If we assume people speed all over the city, why would we have an over-preponderance of cameras in east Portland and not have them in the southwest hills?”

To which I responded, “PBOT places the cameras on streets with a history of crashes.” (There are currently five fixed speed cameras in operation: One in southwest, two in outer southeast, and two on Marine Drive.)

“So then you have to ask the question: Why are there a high number of crashes on those streets?,” Hardesty replied. “The reason is because there’s been a lack of investment in those communities so the transportation infrastructure doesn’t exist right? So, talk about blaming the victim.”

Hardesty then compared her traffic enforcement concerns to the PPB’s Gun Enforcement Unit (renamed from Gang Enforcement Unit). “54% of the people stopped and searched were African-Americans in a city that’s 6% African-American and no one questioned that,” she said, “I came in and said how is that even possible?”

“The problem is that once you put the system in place, it’s too late to ask the questions. My goal is to make sure we’re being intentional about what system we put in place and make sure it’s equitable from the beginning. My experience with the city is that once it’s in place it’s almost impossible to shift it so it becomes a more equitable system.”

That thinking explains Hardesty’s position on the Pricing for Equitable Mobility initiative which got rolling today after a 4-0 vote at city council. Despite her concerns about how congestion pricing might impact low-income people who’ve been pushed to the edges of the city due to expensive housing, Hardesty was supportive of the initiative because racial and economic equity were baked into the process from the start.

As for her overall vision for transportation, Hardesty has a lot in common with Commissioner Eudaly. They both want major improvements to transit (Hardesty wants it to be free and run 24 hours a day) and they dream of a Portland where driving is the exception, not the rule.

We might see her in the bike lanes soon.
(Photo: City of Portland)

“I want public transit to be free. Period… If we’re ever going to impact the climate, we need to get people out of automobiles,” Hardesty said. “It’s like, boom-boom-boom right?”

While Hardesty said she has a “wonderful relationship” with Eudaly and that they are “in lockstep 90% of the time,” it’s that last 10% that has lead to icy exchanges at council meetings. The two progressive politicians mostly agree on substance; but they differ in style. “It’s about, how do we get there,” is how Hardesty put it. In a Facebook post last night (posted after our conversation), Hardesty wrote, “I am absolutely committed to working with Commissioner Eudaly and PBOT to talk through these issues. I have no doubt in my mind that our values are aligned in this fight for safer streets for everyone. I just also know that the means to the end are equally as important when it comes to these types of policies, and that in crafting policies we need to hold equity at the forefront, not as an afterthought.”

On a lighter note, I asked Hardesty if she rides a bike. She said no. And in fact, she hadn’t ridden a bike in 35 years prior to re-learning last year to take part in a group ride during her campaign for city council. “I think I’m past the demographic loop where riding a bicycle is going to work for me,” the 61-year-old said. Even so, like many of us, she’s been seduced by the beauty of bicycles. “I found a very cool bike [at a bike shop] last year I think I’m going to buy, and I think I’ll practice in my apartment complex first before I feel brave enough to take it onto the street.”

CORRECTION, 7/11 at 12:49 pm: This story originally shared traffic stop statistics from the PPB Traffic Division only. I’ve updated the story with more current stop data from a bureau-wide sampling.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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