Re-Imagining a Safer Route to the César Chávez School with Better Block PSU

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Photos by Sam Balto

Since 2013, local transportation activist group Better Block PDX has developed partnerships with organizations across the Portland Metro area. Most notable were the connections that emerged between the communities’ needs for tactical urbanism solutions and the expertise of Portland State University (PSU) transportation students.

Over the last few years, that collaboration evolved and formalized into Better Block PSU, a pathway program that integrates tactical urbanism into the engineering and planning curriculum at PSU. Now led by PSU’s Transportation Research and Education Center, the latest project to advance through the program is Re-imagining a Safer Route to the César Chávez School: N. Willis Blvd. & N. Portsmouth Ave.

A number of teams worked with PSU Urban Planning students in the Fall of 2020, and this project from the César Chávez K-8 School community and the Community Cycling Center was chosen to move onto the second phase with the Spring 2021 PSU Civil Engineering course.

César Chávez PE teacher and project lead Sam Balto shared more about the motivation behind the project, “Not only is this intersection incredibly uninviting for the students and families walking to school, it’s just plain dangerous. A César Chávez student was recently hit by a driver in this intersection. The lighting is poor at night, and drivers on N. Portsmouth are regularly speeding and ignoring pedestrians. This is a key route to our school and something has to change.”

Sam, a self proclaimed "tactical urbanist," is most excited for his students to see firsthand how they can effect change. "Tactical urbanism is incredibly empowering and addictive. Having my students be the ones changing the built environment for themselves will be a learning experience in community action and civic engagement they will never forget."

Two community members give feedback on safety improvements they would like to see at the N. Willis Blvd and N. Portsmouth Ave intersection.

This isn’t Sam’s first time engaging with the parents and students on improving the safety and connectedness of the school’s walking routes. Over the past three years he’s been working closely with Community Cycling Center’s Safe Routes to School Coordinator William Francis who organizes Walk n’ Roll to School Days, bike clubs, and youth bike camps with César Chávez. “The North Portland neighborhood around the school is incredibly walkable, with the exception of a few problematic intersections," shared Francis. "The cumulative impact of these small hurdles creates the perception that walking to school is dangerous.”

The project team submitted their proposal to the Better Block PSU program looking for a tactical urbanism solution in the short-term, as well as to be better equipped with the technical know-how to advocate for larger, permanent changes through the city and solicit grant funding.

“In the summer of 2019 we worked with the City Repair Project and our César Chávez students and their families to paint the school’s parking lot using the students’ designs. Sam and I didn’t touch the paint. The community did it all,” shared Francis. “The parents are coming up with great ideas to improve walkability to the school, and we hope we can keep that momentum and enthusiasm going despite the impacts from COVID-19 closures.”

The school’s interest in transportation did not come to a complete standstill this summer, as Balto worked with volunteers to create an interactive “traffic garden” in an unused corner of the playground at the César Chávez School.

“We're always striving to center and empower our parents and students to support the changes they want to see. We’re their partners,” emphasized Francis. “By joining this Better Block PSU program, we want to facilitate the families’ connection to the university.”

Balto and Francis have gathered a lot of ideas from the students, parents and surrounding community on how this intersection could be improved. Many people liked the idea of a traffic circle, raised crosswalks, or curb bump-outs as potential traffic calming ideas. The community has the solutions, but the next step is removing the barriers to achieving them. 

2021 - 2022 Better Block PSU: Call for Proposals

Calling all visionaries, community groups, advocates, and city agencies! Our Better Block PSU program is ramping up for the next round of proposals. Pitch your idea for a transportation-related pop-up project that promotes bike and pedestrian safety, equity and inclusion, community building, and/or creative use of public space. If selected, you will be paired with a team of PSU Urban Planning students from April-June 2021 who will collaborate with you to develop plans to set the foundation. Successful plans may then be chosen for the PSU Civil Engineering course (Jan-Jun 2022) to develop traffic control and design documents for a meaningful pop-up event by Summer 2022. The RFP is open now: Download it here.

The Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University is home to the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation (IBPI), and other transportation programs. TREC produces research and tools for transportation decision makers, develops K-12 curriculum to expand the diversity and capacity of the workforce, and engages students and professionals through education.

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