Portland’s Green Streets Day Effort focuses on having commuters leave their cars at home

As an auto mechanic, she encouraged customers to minimize that damage by maintaining their engines and inflating their tires. Now, she simply wants to get Portland-area residents out of their cars.

Published January 26, 2008 by Kennebec Journal
By JOHN RICHARDSON

Sarah Cushman has a pretty good idea of the damage cars can do to the environment.

As an auto mechanic, she encouraged customers to minimize that damage by maintaining their engines and inflating their tires. Now, she simply wants to get Portland-area residents out of their cars.

Cushman created Portland Green Streets, a Web-based effort to get as many vehicles off the roads as possible on the last Friday of each month.

Participants mark each Green Streets Day in Portland by dressing in something green and then walking, biking or riding buses to school or work. They get to enter raffles and enjoy free coffee or discounted merchandise at shops around town.

"I would love it if every resident in the Portland area had one experience leaving their car home," Cushman said.

Cushman is among a growing community of alternative-transportation activists in and around Portland. While still far outnumbered by car-bound commuters, those who walk, bike or ride the bus are more coordinated and energized than ever before.

Last year, bicycle commuters organized behind a new state law requiring drivers to make more room for bikes along the roads. This winter, walkers and bus riders in Portland have stepped up pressure on the city to force property owners to shovel their sidewalks.

Portland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee is pushing for expanded mass transit, such as new bus and train routes. And the Portland City Council is expected to adopt an ordinance next month requiring new development in the city to include parking for bicycles as well as cars.

INTEREST IS GROWING

"Interest seems to be growing exponentially," said Erik Osborn, chairman of the city's "bike-ped committee."

Many issues — increasing rates of obesity, high gasoline prices, air pollution and global warming — are getting people to rethink how they travel, Osborn said. "They're all things that cycling and walking can be part of the solution for."

Portland Green Streets (http://portlandgreenstreets.org) is a kind of year-round version of Commute Another Way Week, an annual event held in May. The goal, Cushman said, is to help people see the alternatives. "It might be slow, but it's possible to inspire." Cushman, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother, started Green Streets in September after learning about a similar effort in Massachusetts.

She now e-mails Portland Green Streets updates to 600 people, although no one knows how many participate each month. "I'll see someone wearing green and think, 'Maybe they're doing it.' "

Cushman worked as a certified auto mechanic before creating and teaching an adult education course called "Driving Softly on the Earth." She also presented the course in high schools, using her experience to explain that the way people drive and maintain their cars can help save the environment and save them money.

Cushman, who lives on Portland's East End and walks or bikes around town, said that simply not driving is the best solution. It makes her feel healthier and more connected to her neighbors and the landscape, she said.

Emma Holder is a believer, too, and spreads the word about Green Streets on her Friday morning radio program on WMPG-FM.

"It's one example of people becoming more aware of the effect they're having on the planet," Holder said. "If you can just change one thing a month, then maybe you'll say, 'That was easy, maybe I'll do it twice a month.' "