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Six-year-old PDX tradition now has ongoing city funds

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Seven-year-old Thalen Abadia and his dad, Teos, were among 12,000 residents who participated in the citys Sunday Parkways festivities on Mothers Day. Most Portlanders are familiar with Sunday Parkways, the six-year-old city tradition of shutting down auto traffic in a neighborhood so residents can play in the streets on foot, by bike and other active means.

This year, for the first time since the program’s inception in 2008, Sunday Parkways has been written into the city’s budget as an ongoing event, rather than being supported with continuing “one-time” money.

The series of five Sunday Parkways this year will cost a total of $475,000. The city foots the bill for just under a third of that, $150,000 ($100,000 coming from the general fund, another $50,000 from the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s outreach funds for alternative transportation).

The rest of Sunday Parkways is covered by sponsorships, led by Kaiser Permanente, as well as vendor fees and individual donations.

So Sunday Parkways is here to stay.

What does that mean for the city?

For Linda Ginenthal, the Portland Bureau of Transportation program manager who helped create Sunday Parkways, it’s a dream come true.

“Portland has Forest Park, a huge amount of land devoted to parks,” she says. “But we’ve got this enormous amount of real estate here with our roads that we open up to play once a month on a Sunday. It’s a linear park. That’s what we’re creating, a linear park.”

Take last Sunday, for example. The city launched the first of a five-event Sunday Parkways season in East Portland on a sun-kissed Mother’s Day, attracting an estimated 12,000 participants.

Neighbors of all ages, races, shapes and sizes hopped on bikes, skateboards, skates or used their feet to meander along a seven-mile route connecting Lents Park, Bloomington Park, Ed Benedict and Glenwood parks, Foster Floodplain Natural Area, Gilbert Heights School, and the Springwater Corridor.

Portland Parks & Recreation led a zumba class at Ed Benedict Park, and food vendors and bands kept families entertained for a carnival-like atmosphere.

For the first time, the city partnered with AARP of Oregon, which put 20 volunteers on the route to help guide neighbors and participants. And as they do every year, the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services gave out plastic fish hats for people’s helmets along the Foster Floodplain Natural Area, to create the effect of schools of fish swimming upstream along Southeast Bush Street.

Those who come out for Sunday Parkways aren’t the usual suspects when it comes to Portland’s bicycling community. They aren’t the hardcore 100-mile (aka “century”) riders. They aren’t naked bike riders, or hipsters, or bike commuters, or anyone else who’d even consider themselves a cyclist in any fashion.

That’s by design, says Ginenthal, who reaches out to everyday folks, including low-income residents, church and immigrant communities.

“We get a huge number of people who don’t ride much at all, or dust off their bicycle, drag it out of their garage and go ride with their kids,” Ginenthal says. Surveys have shown a larger number of women than men participate, which she says is ideal because the city knows just 32 percent of bike commuters are women.

As the city decides how to plan for the future of Sunday Parkways, she says, it will continue to use parkways not just to promote healthy living, but also as an organizing tool for groups to connect with one another.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - East Portland residents enjoy cruising along the Interstate 205 overpass and at Lents Park during Sunday Parkways kickoff event last week.

Throwing a party

Since 2008, Sunday Parkways has included a total of 20 events, attracting more than 100,000 participants.

It’s become so popular that it’s helped spawn similar programs in almost every major U.S. city, and still other cities keep calling, asking how Portland has done it..

The idea actually came from an unlikely place: Bogota, Columbia.

There and in other mostly Latin American cities, “they close down the streets every Sunday for a number of hours to get people to play in the streets,” says Ginenthal, who rides each Sunday Parkway route on her trusty electric bike.

“They have huge boulevards — one side is where the very wealthy live, one side is the poor. (Organizers) wanted to get people to come out and get people to play in streets together, get to know your neighbors.”

Ginenthal had heard of the tradition, called “Ciclovía” (meaning “bike path” in Spanish), at a walk and bike conference she attended in 2006, with a couple of her parks colleagues.

They’d heard that cycling advocates in Chicago were trying to get their own Ciclovía off the ground but weren’t able to.

“We thought we’re going to do it, and we’re going to beat Chicago,” Ginenthal says.

So she approached staff at then-Mayor Sam Adams’ office, who said, as she recalls: “If the neighbors aren’t going to kill you, we’ll back you 100 percent. But make sure the neighbors know what this is and feel OK about it.”

Ginenthal and her team did reach out to neighbors, who sounded excited.

So they planned the first Sunday Parkways event on June 22, 2008, which turned out to be a drizzly morning. She hoped to see at least 7,500 people turn out, but was bowled over when twice that number showed up.

“You throw a party and you’re not sure anybody’s going to come,” Ginenthal says. “It was phenomenal ... beyond our wildest expectations.”

It was a no-brainer to continue. “We’ve done a very good job of building all this infrastructure, highlighted places for people to ride, but people don’t know about them,” Ginenthal says. “This is how we can show them off.”

Few complaints

The logistics of Sunday Parkways are impressive.

The program has attracted an army of 1,200 volunteers that help organize everything at the street level. Hundreds of organizations and businesses promote the events or participate in some way as well. Volunteers are posted at each intersection and in the parks to count the number of participants for 10 minutes at each mile.

City officials do the math to get the crowd estimate. Before each event, the city sends fliers to each household in the affected area, advising how to get in and out of their homes during the five-hour traffic shut-down.

They’re given a phone number to call with questions or concerns.

Ginenthal says it’s a rarity to get a complaint.

“Maybe a handful” have complained in the six years of the program.

The first year there was a bit of pushback in some of the neighborhoods by residents who didn’t know what it was all about, she recalls — until they saw it in action.

“Most events you have to register, engage with the organizers,” she says. “Here you can literally just walk out your door.”

The next four Sunday Parkways events include: June 23 in Northeast Portland; July 28 in North Portland; Aug. 25 in Southeast Portland; and Sept. 29 in Southwest Portland. For a map, volunteer info or other details, visit or call 503-823-7599.

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