Regular midday traffic at the intersection of Powell Boulevard and 82nd Avenue. Both 82nd Avenue and Powell are involved in future planning to make commuting to schools in Southeast Portland safer. Photo via Phillip Wentik.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is attempting to expand its Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program to encompass Portland high schools, in addition to kindergarten through eighth (K-8) grade serving schools, for the first time since its conception in 2005. In an interview with PBOT spokesperson Hannah Schafer, she states that the focus of SRTS has been primarily on K-8 schools simply because of funding and capacity, but “it has become clearer and clearer that [the PBOT needs] to expand that work into high schools.”

SRTS aims to protect students on their way to school whether that be walking on foot, biking, or on public transportation. However, expanding the focus to include high schools will bring deeper examination into controlling traffic that students drive in to get to school everyday. Schafer spoke about projects that will greatly improve the commutes of students in Southeast Portland, namely at Franklin High School and Cleveland High School. 

One of these projects is an overhaul project on Powell Boulevard that aims to improve the safety of students traveling to school on that street. Powell is a street that students use to access Franklin, Kellogg Middle School, Creston K-5, and Cleveland High School. PBOT will be working with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) on this project because Powell is a state highway, and is therefore the state’s responsibility. However, PBOT has specific insight into what the communities on and around Powell need. 

Schafer shares that the PBOT does outreach projects to gauge what citizens of all ages need in terms of transportational improvements. “These are conversations that we’re trying to have with Portlanders as adults, but we should be having with Portlanders of all ages at all times. And we should be thinking about these things on a regular basis,” she explains, acknowledging the fact that voices of all ages contribute to which projects the PBOT focuses on, especially when it comes to SRTS. 

The bulk of the funding for these projects and smaller projects like redesigning single crosswalks comes from Fixing Our Streets, “Portland’s locally funded street repair program.” According to the SRTS Project Planning website, 2016 Measure 26-173 passed a 10-cent gas tax and heavy vehicle use tax that all Portlanders pay at the pump, to raise the necessary money for these projects. The website also included that 56% of the money raised by Fixing Our Streets will go to street maintenance, while 44% will fund safety improvements; $8 million from the tax was pledged specifically to SRTS. Additionally, that money is split between five school districts in Portland, as well as split by high school clusters within the district to “ensure that projects [are] funded across the city,” the website states. 

Another new project coming out of SRTS is Transportation Academy, a high school program designed to educate teens on transportation concepts beyond what they have learned in driver manuals or at school. The program will cover real-world factors like sensitivity to vulnerable road users like bikers that teen drivers may not consider, as well as promote multimodal literacy, climate connections, transportation equity, civic engagement, and Safe Systems. Safe Systems is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) approach to making travel safe for all road and sidewalk users, their objectives on DOT’s website being safer people, roads, vehicles, speeds, and post-crash care. Transportation Academy is in the pilot stage, and the first implementation will be in the Parkrose school district of Portland, with PBOT and ODOT partnering to create the program, using a grant from ODOT. 

Schafer states that Transportation Academy is intended to be expanded to most, if not all, Portland high schools in the future. As it stands, there is no timeline for when the program will enter Portland Public Schools (PPS), but Schafer says that the agreement that will enable Transportation Academy’s expansion is underway and PPS is actively hiring an SRTS coordinator for the school district.  

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