Opinion: We can fight ‘street takeovers’ with hostile infrastructure

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Who can blame people for wanting to meet friends, show off their cool cars,
create content for social networks and let off steam?

Street racing, drifting and “takeovers” are ramping up for the summer. Last Sunday night, hundreds of people and cars took over sections of streets across the city to show off their drifting and street racing skills.

According to the Portland Police Bureau, groups took over seven different locations between 8 p.m. Sunday night and 1 a.m. Monday morning. They must have known this was happening because they conducted a law enforcement mission that resulted in seven arrests, seven vehicles being towed and the recovery of a firearm.

The biggest takeover was on NE 13th and Multnomah where PPB says over 200 people took part.

We have already seen this film.

Last summer, the issue became so big that the Portland City Council considered a crackdown. And a few months before, I had shared concerns about how an aggressive police response might cause more harm than good. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have happened yet, and (so far) the police have been able to resolve the issue without escalation or tragic consequences.

While the police play mole and barely make a dent in the issue (while also creating even more excitement and drama for the street racers, which probably makes it more appealing to some of them), the takeovers persist. If Sunday night’s action is any indication, their popularity may even be on the rise.

And who can blame these people for wanting to meet friends, show off their cars, create content for social media accounts and let off steam? In many ways they are similar to the large group bike rides that take place daily as part of Pedalpalooza. It’s all part of a similar human desire for cultural expression, adrenaline, social connection, etc.

But these street takeovers are very different in important ways. They have caused many fatal collisions, they release toxic emissions into the air and waterways and they endanger innocent people. We must do more to prevent them. While we believe these events are for willing participants, we need to consider the ripple effects. People don’t stop this type of reckless driving when they leave a large gathering. I’ve seen reckless burnouts and speeding happen many times, and we all know dangerous driving behavior is rampant in Portland today.

Perhaps one answer is to deploy simple traffic-calming tools.

Anti-drift infrastructure. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The Portland Bureau of Transportation has already installed many of these small yellow and black striped rubber curbs throughout the city. This is part of a “left-turn calming” effort to improve safety and prevent injury and death to other road users. A carefully placed and mountable sidewalk could effectively prevent someone from doing burnouts and drifting around an intersection. I’m sure engineers and planners could find other clever ways to do this if a sidewalk isn’t feasible.

Preventing activities through infrastructure design is old hat for government agencies. Together with private landlords, they have become creative and effective in installing hostile infrastructure on sidewalks to prevent people from pitching tents and sleeping in the public right-of-way. They also decided that there are places where skateboarding is not allowed and they installed tiny bumps on the sidewalks and benches to prevent “squealing” and other stuff.

We should apply a similar approach to intersections.

Cleverly placed pieces of physical infrastructure could safely and effectively prevent many of these dangerous activities while simultaneously improving overall road safety. This could also be an opportunity for the PBOT and the Portland Police Bureau to collaborate on a project that doesn’t focus on law enforcement, but allows the two agencies to solve a problem together.

We need more of that from our city.

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