Ashton Simpson leads Oregon Walks, a non-profit organization that is advocating for everyone’s right to roam, a right that is too often obscured by political dithering and a reluctance to listen directly to those impacted by unequal access to mobility.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Simpson: Ashton Simpson
Cohen: You’re in for a treat today. Ashton Simpson brings so much of his own experience, personality, and dare I say impatience to his role as executive director of Oregon Walks that you can’t help but root for the transformational change that he’s trying to make happen, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Jensen: Our guest today is Ashton Simpson, executive director of Oregon Walks. Ashton is a community organizer, former U.S. Air Force civil engineering technician, and a graduate of Portland State University’s community development undergraduate program.
Cohen: Welcome to The Movement, Ashton.
Simpson: Thank you for having me today, Josh and L’erin. It’s good to be here this morning.
Jensen: Well, we’re excited to have you, Ashton. Let’s just jump right into some questions, I guess. You recently joined Oregon Walks as executive director in January of this year. Can you tell us about the organization and the work that you all are doing over there?
Simpson: Absolutely. So Oregon Walks, formerly known as the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, started back in 1991, 30 years this year, believe it or not, and it was a group of concerned citizens, volunteers who had a real inkling about active transportation and cycling. And it evolved over the years. My predecessor, Steph Routh, actually rebranded the organization from the WPC to Oregon Walks, and I’m also standing on the shoulders of Noel Mickelberry and Jess Thompson as well.
And we’re an organization that advocates for everybody’s right to roam. And what does that mean? That means you should be able to walk in any environment, any condition and get to your destination safely, completed trips. And right now our work is really, really focused in on a particular community here in East Portland that has really, really been disinvested in over—[SIGHS]—a few decades. And so you have crumbling road infrastructure, but you also have lack of sidewalks and crossings and lighting that was never installed, so we also experience the highest rates of pedestrian crashes east of 82nd Avenue, which is the beginning boundary of disinvestment to East Portland.
Cohen: Wow. The organization—I mean, first of all, the rebranding, spot on. I mean, I want to dig into this, everybody’s right to roam. I mean, that’s just such a nice way to frame that. And for us what we see every week when we’re talking to folks is that this right to roam is not something that everyone has equal access to. And Charles Brown who we’ve had on the podcast back in “Episode 073,” I believe, talks about arrest mobility and how some folks don’t have access to mobility as we may take it for granted. So this right to roam is critical. How do you actually kind of make that a reality? Like, what are some of the tactics that you’re using to give everyone that right to roam?
Simpson: Absolutely. So our work is really engaged in that way into two buckets. We have policy, which, you know, I’m going to the legislature and advocating for certain measures or I’m working with any of our government agencies from Portland Bureau of Transportation, to Metro, to ODOT, our state transportation agency, to do the top-level things, the policy issues that we know will benefit our communities. But on the flip side, the community engagement; this is the piece that I love the most because you can’t have a complete community without people. And you have to be able to take care of people.
So what we do, we have a partnership with Metro to promote regional travel options within the Portland Metro Area, and we work with residents from apartment buildings or for example, a great example, we work with REACH CDC. It’s a community development corporation here in town that does affordable and mixed-income housing as well as human solutions. They do the same work. But we work with those entities to provide safe spaces for the community members to get out and walk or go find somewhere where they can get out and enjoy nature and just be able to get around.
Now, as things pick up and things progress in terms of creating the scenery and the environment we want to see, you know, Oregon Walks has really taken up the adjacent issues. And when I say that I mean we face this problem in East Portland. Right now we have a lot of gun violence. I was in a safety forum about a week ago, and I had to literally had to listen to one of our community members that I know very well say, “I’m not walking outside of my house because people are running us over with cars, and now I’m afraid of getting shot.” And from a moral standpoint I can’t promote walking in this community until it’s safe for everybody, but that’s just one piece, the public safety piece.
But then there’s the housing and the economic development and the access to parks and access to schools, the safe routes to school, really. Those are all issues that Oregon Walks can pick up, but I think that we have to frame it around we need our government to built out 15- to 20-minute communities so that folks do not have to be dependent on automobiles or they can have access to all of the things that they need within their community if they so choose within a 15- to 20-miinute walk. It’s just common sense.
I had the opportunity to not only live abroad but live in South Korea. I’ve also lived in Italy. And that was how things were done. I mean, I could tell you, when I lived in Italy, it was a joy. Even though I was, you know, in the military I still got time to go walk from my home to the weekly market. Could you imagine just being able to walk? Like, we have all these farmers markets here in town, which are great, but they don’t have any farmers markets in our community. Right? And that speaks to a lot that’s happening here. You know, Portland is the city that is like, “Yes, we’re progressive.” We are all about DEI work and this and that. But when you look at what people do—I love James Baldwin’s quote, “You can tell me all the things, but I see what you do.” And that’s where I’m at, where the hang-up is for me is, like, holding this city accountable to take care of the residents and which live here too that have been displaced.
That’s the biggest question too, is like, when I’m engaging with these government agencies, you know, I believe it’s their job to prevent displacement. So, you know, we have a lot of advocates in this space that are like, “We need bike lanes and crosswalks” and things like that, and I say, “Okay, that’s great. And we need programs in place so that we aren’t displacing the displaced already.” I’ve had an opportunity to work with those residents closely, and that is a real fear of theirs.
They fear the infrastructure coming in, because they know that when that comes in property values tend to rise, the private developers come in, and they oftentimes get pushed out. Now, the problem is you’re in East Portland; there is nowhere to push them to. This is it. This is the edge of the city. So our government, from our HUD to our state and local jurisdictions, have to do more to keep people in place as they bring in that infrastructure that is needed. Because that’s been this issue—right—out of fear of displacement, not put in the necessary improvements, or do we put them in and keep people in place? That’s the big questions.
Jensen: Wow, so you really got on your community-organizer hat over there. I want to talk a little bit more about that actually. So you came to this role with a background as a community organizer, and how did you get involved with community organizing, and how does that help you in this role? I mean, you’ve explained some of it already, but I’d like to hear a little bit more.
Simpson: So this is a fun fact that nobody knows. I’ve only been in the community-organizing space, I want to say, three years. I actually started off as a troop. I retired out of the military, I went to PSU, got my degree, and I couldn’t find work in the nonprofit or community-organizing space. So I ended up falling back on my construction career. I was a project engineer at Colas Construction, the largest Black general contracting firm on the West Coast.
That was fun because, you know, the mission of Colas was around building affordable housing for our community. Like, Andrew Colas purposefully went after those type of projects to help our community, and I was thankful because that fell in line with what I believe in in terms of community. But then I had the opportunity about 2018 to join the Rosewood Initiative, and that is a nonprofit on 162nd and Stark, deep on the edge of East Portland. And this is how I got the opportunity to work with residents and understand some of their fears around reimagining their community, because I was tasked with doing that.
So my role at the Rosewood Initiative was as a community asset director. And so I worked with an architecture firm, Portland State University masters in urban regional planning students, and a real estate—they’re called ECONorthwest, and what they do is marketing feasibility for those types of projects. And I worked with all three entities to create the Rosewood equitable neighborhood development plan. And that’s when, you know, you really get into the meat of what people want to see in terms of reimagining their communities; that’s what really drives me around the 15- to 20-minute communities, because I’ve heard those who are in need right now, our most vulnerable constituents, tell me, “This is what we want. This is how my life can be supported. This is how my quality of life can be upgraded, if we had these things in our community.”
So that’s how I got into the organizing game, and it was a bit bumpy because I was coming from a place where, you know, it was really hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait. I have a very militant, corporate-type mind, and I—you know, within a nonprofit space, I’m not used to waiting. [LAUGHS] Right? Because I think that, you know, when people are in need, who the hell wants to wait? Right? We want to see some urgency in terms of making our lives better. And that’s what I really sensed as I came into this space of nonprofit, was that the urgency needs to be there to bring in the resources and infrastructure to these communities because every day somebody is losing their lives. There’s one intersection maybe a mile and a half away from my home now that we lost three people in a three-year time period. And it’s slated for an improvement, programmed out and everything, but we don’t see a jackhammer; we don’t see any work being done to improve those facilities.
Cohen: I was talking to somebody the other day, and I don’t remember who it was or what the context was, so
L’erin, you’ll have to tell me if it was on the podcast here. I can’t remember, but it was about the balance between data and storytelling.
Cohen: And, you know, we have to have the data—right—because the data is what people need to see, you know, and to have as, like, this kind of business mindset of, like, “What does the data say? What does the data say? And what are the trends like?” and so forth. So, like, data is important. Right? I don’t want to minimize that. But, but, but the example you just gave is that you don’t see those stories underneath that data. And those crash victims and their families are not in that data. Yes, they’re in the data, but, like, their stories and that pain and that loss of income and that loss of family, all that is gone and gone forever, and you never see that in data.
Simpson: And you’re right about that, Josh. So one of the things that I do push on our elected leaders to do is come out here, put boots on the ground, come see what’s happening. Like, you can’t just work downtown and look at slideshows and, like you said, facts and figures and data and make an informed choice; you actually have to show up. That’s the whole world of community development. Right? That’s the rule number one; you show up, you shut up, and you listen. And I don’t see that oftentimes from our—a lot of our elected leaders.
Now, that’s not to say some of them are not doing that, because we do. You know, Commissioner Vega Pederson, Commissioner Hardesty. You know, we have folks within—they live in our district; they know; they’re advocating for us every day; they are boots on the ground because they live here. But you talk about adding others from the city council and bringing them here to understand the plight that’s happening to our most vulnerable communities and they couldn’t tell you; they couldn’t show you where a problem intersection is. They couldn’t tell you where the gaps in sidewalks are or the gaps in lighting. [SIGHS]
It’s just frustrating, Josh. It really is. And honestly I think that we have to get to a point where we are electing better leaders, folks that are going to really truly bring forth the change and be progressive about it. Until then we’re going to always be stuck in the status quo cycle.
Jensen: Well, that’s certainly what we’re here for on The Movement podcast, to find out who those leaders are and how we make that change, so I like that point; elect better leaders.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, I agree. And I think there’s a lot of things that need to be done, but I think you’re right. The more we can have folks who are closer to the potential problems, whatever they may be, in positions to bring about the solutions, I think, the better off we’re going to be.
Jensen: Absolutely. So, I’m curious, Ashton. When you think about your career so far, what have been some of the biggest wins you’ve had related to equitable access to mobility? And, I guess, what’s the lesson our audience could pull from that experience?
Simpson: So right now I wouldn’t count it as a win, but I count it as a step in the right direction—right—because we actually faced a lot of losses. And I can tell you last year we put a lot of weight behind our regional transportation package that was on the ballot, and it did not pass. And that ballot measure would have dramatically changed the landscape in East Portland. It had all the programmatic pieces to it that you wanted around displacement. It looked at six of the 13 high-crash corridors within the city on our side of town to look at and road reorganize and place-make and do all those things. It failed.
So I learned a lesson from that. And the lesson was we needed to engage people more. We needed to engage folks all the way up until it was time to tally votes. Right now I don’t have any big wins because I don’t consider a win until I see budget lines and I see people at work. You don’t win until you actually see the things changing. So in April we lost two individuals, Stephen Looser and Anthony Tolliver on 82nd, that road that I mentioned before, Wygant and Alberta. Now, if you were from the area, you’d know that Wygant and Alberta, only 200 feet roughly separate the two intersections. So you lost two people in two weeks in an about-200-foot span, and that was hard.
We were like, “This is it. Enough is enough,” because, you know, for 20, 25, almost 30 years folks have been advocating to get this road, which is an orphan highway owned by the state, transferred to the local jurisdiction, which is PBOT or Portland Bureau of Transportation. And we held a rally on May 7th after the killings, after they were murdered—well, or struck, because somebody did strike Mr. Tolliver and they fled the scene.
Simpson: So that’s why I use that language, because that’s what that was. But we held a rally May 7th. We had three demands; permanent speed reduction to 30 miles an hour—at the time that road was, you know, 40 miles, and, you know, we had clocked folks going as fast as 60 on that road that cuts through an urban community, by the way. Our second demand was to fully fund that road to bring it to compliance, and at this moment it’s $185 million; and then once brought to compliance, transferred over to PBOT.
So a few weeks ago PBOT, ODOT, and our legislature came to terms. The legislature requested 80 million, which we are still advocating Ways and Means to fully fund that amount, because if it doesn’t the deal falls apart. So the legislature put forth 80 million or promised 80 million, because they did a press release. The state transportation department said they would put up 70, and PBOT said they would put up 35. And the road transferred January 2022. So six months we’re looking at seeing that road in the hands of local jurisdiction and working with community to see and reimagine how this road should work for the community and begin breaking up that uneven development.
But, like I said, it’s a work in progress. You have to stay on it. We have a toolkit where we are emailing our legislatures. We are encouraging folks to sign up on this link; tell them how you feel about it; send it to them. The more we can flood them and let them know how serious we are, the better chances this deal can go through. But if one party falls out—guess what—that deal falls through and there is another broken promise to the residents of East Portland.
Cohen: You know, what that recalls to mind for me in a truly unfortunate way is one of our first podcast guests was a bicycle advocate in San Francisco named Matt Brezina, and the title of that episode is “We Shouldn’t Have A Human Sacrifice For Every Block of Protected Bike Lane.”
Cohen: And when I’m hearing you tell this story, what I’m thinking is, “Man, I’m so excited that there is progress being made here and it looks like you might have a fully funded deal here.” The flipside is, “Holy smokes. Two people had to give their lives for that to happen.” How many people have to die? Right?
Simpson: You know, Josh? I fume and get angry about the same thing, and then I look at our elected leaders and I ask the same question. I say, “Are you going to continue to play politics with our constituents’ and residents’ lives? Period. Do what’s right.” Sometimes you have to take the moral ground and do what’s right. It’s not about money tied up here, money tied up here. That’s why you’re the government. And I’ve worked at the highest levels of government within the military, and I understand the military is a little bit different than the civilian side of things, but you’re still the controlling entity for all these facilities. Fix it.
Jensen: Wow. That’s deep.
Cohen: You know, it is, and then at the same time it’s just so dang simple. That’s what’s so maddening about it. Right?
Simpson: It’s very maddening. And, you know, to that point, people—every day even as we’re talking now there’s probably a near miss. Right? There’s all these things going on because as things pick up, as we hopefully come out of the pandemic—you know, hopefully the delta variant does not peak its head strongly over the summer—people are driving erratically in this community. And it’s—the roads are set up so that they can do that. We have these five-lane roads that cut through urban scenery where there is no bike lanes, no crossings, no sidewalks, and then you have these high, jacked-up trucks that are just flying. You have cars that are just flying in 35-mile-an-hour zones going at least 55, 60. It’s scary.
I won’t allow my son to get out and bike without me being present, because even on our street, it’s a quiet and calm residential area, but people have begun to just zip through. And that’s scary. We also have that on our collectors, which serve a lot of our seniors, serve a lot of our youth in terms of getting to school, because I see grandparents and parents walking their kids to school or church or wherever on these roads constantly. But I also see the lack of sidewalks; I see a lot of goat paths; I see cars zipping up and down the road not making space for the pedestrians. And I think that, like, it’s a design issue, but also we have to change behavior. We can’t have folks just willy-nilly driving up and down the roads and putting people at risk. That can’t be, because, like you said, one life lost is too many.
Cohen: I’m thinking a lot on this episode here as we’re talking here. It’s just the conversation I had last week with somebody online was—he had made a note. I maybe had posted on Twitter, I guess, what it was. Tom Flood—he’s on Twitter –out of Hamilton, Ontario. And what he said was that the whole reason we have to have crossing guards at schools is because we can’t trust the folks who are operating their vehicles to do it in a safe way and not kill innocent kids. Like, if you stop to think about that, that’s mindboggling. Right? Like, we have to pay crossing guards to do that because we can’t count on people to voluntarily ensure that they’re not going to murder some poor child. Like, what is going on? That’s bananas.
Simpson: I mean, that’s facts. And that’s infuriating. I mean, and even think about the wonky policy schools have set up. So there is a school district here, Centennial, that has a rule that they don’t bus students within a half-mile of said school. There is a complex, apartment complex, low-income, right off of 162nd that serves a lot of kids, but they don’t have a safe route to school, but the apartment complex is within a quarter mile of the school. So I’ve literally gone out on a safe-route-to-school tour with them during inclement weather, and you can’t see a damn thing. And you also have commercial vehicles, construction trucks, rock quarry trucks zipping up and down this two-lane road with no sidewalks. Now, if you sent a six- to seven-year-old down that way, how do you think they gonna get to school safely?
Simpson: I mean, that’s facts; that person was right. But I also think a lot of the onus falls on our government agencies. This is a design issue. Again, everybody pays a tax; everybody deserves to have the same safe facilities as other parts of the city. Now, again, we don’t own any of those facilities or infrastructure. We don’t have any equipment; we don’t have any contracting methods or means, but our agencies do. Do your job.
Jensen: There’s a lot of work to be done, it’s clear. And, again, this is why we do this podcast every week to discuss where some of those issue lie and try to figure out solutions and who are the people that need to be involved in order to make this happen. So, I guess, my question for you then is who are some of the people that you think are getting it right, who are doing the good work? So, I guess, like, who inspires you and why?
Simpson: Well, I’m never inspired by an individual. I learned that lesson a long time ago. I’m inspired by transformational change and creating a better quality of life for folks. Now, in the space of who to work with, you know, I can honestly say that our bureau of transportation has been doing an outstanding job the past four, five years, first under the guidance and leadership of Steve Novick and then Chloe Eudaly and now under Commissioner Hardesty. Their whole goal and push is around equity, equity, equity, equity, and they are really, really getting involved. I mean, I really praise the staff at PBOT because they really do try to come through the clutch and figure out ways to help this community.
But they—I understand their plight too. They’re at a $6 billion maintenance backlog. There is not a whole lot they can do without some really federal intervention, but they’re on the right track. Yeah, I would say that’s where I’m at. Because I don’t like to be inspired by people, because people are flawed. I’m flawed. I hope nobody is inspired by me, because—guess what—one day I may say something that somebody may not like and it’s all out of the window; the fairy tale is gone. I want them to really look at what’s in front of them. That should inspire you to have something better, to see something better, to feel something better. So I don’t put my faith in people because people really do tend to disappoint.
Cohen: Hmm. You know, that $6 billion number you just threw out there kind of took me a little bit by surprise, and then I was like, “Well, how many people live in Portland?” You know, and it’s 645,000 people, so that’s only $10—less than $10 per man, woman, and child living in Portland right now to at least get up to the state of kind of good repair, if you will, you know, let alone addressing some of the real disinvestment that may have been. But, again, like, that number sounds really big until you say, “Look; if we just break this down and say as an organization, as a community, how do we want to allocate our resources?” I mean, 10 bucks a person to kind of get everything up to a state of good repair? That’s not crazy.
Cohen: That’s not bananas. Like, that can be done.
Simpson: Well, I can only control what I can control, so with that I do sit on a committee, the Fixing Our Streets Oversight Committee. So back in the Spring 2016 election we passed a measure to collect a 10-cent dime tax on gas within the city limits of Portland. And that 10-cent will be put towards safety and maintenance projects. So far, I want to say, about five of those projects have come to our community and brought in some safe infrastructure. However, it’s only a spot treatment.
Simpson: I akin it to, like, if you have a glass of water and you drop a drip of ink in there. What will that do? That’s where we are in terms of, like, needing the infrastructure. Now, we are getting better. We have project lists; we did take a dip in revenue because people weren’t driving last year, but as things pick up we plan on seeing more of those pedestrian-safety projects coming to light, especially with crossings, lighting. And our PBOT staff, at least on the maintenance side of things and the engineering, they have come up with some really, really cost-effective ways of putting in curb bumpouts and without having to do all the survey work and all that good stuff. So they keep us up to speed on that, but, again, there isn’t enough money. But, like you said, that’s 10 bucks per head; some folks can afford that. I’ve worked with folks who do struggle financially. We have a lot of people here, a lot of rich folks that don’t really do their part.
Cohen: To be clear, I am not advocating that $10 a person needs to be $10 for each person. I meant that even if the rich need to pay for 10 or 20 or 30, they could do it. Going back to what you said earlier, with that James Baldwin quote, I mean, again, to me that’s what it all comes down to. Right? You can tell me all of these things, but, again, I see what you’re doing. And in the end it’s like we either put the money there or we don’t. You either put the boots on the ground and listen to the community or you don’t. And, you know, to me that’s where it all comes down to.
This has been a really, really great conversation. I’m so excited by the work you’re doing there at Oregon Walks and excited to see what the future holds. Clearly you have the passion there for these issues. And can’t wait to hopefully have less of these needless deaths to fire some of our elected officials to act, and maybe we can, again, inspire more folks to step up to the plate of making those decisions themselves as well. So that would be great. So thank you so much for taking the time today.
Jensen: Thanks, Ashton.
Simpson: Thank you so much, Josh and L’erin. I really appreciate you. And I would love to come back and give you an update on 82nd if everything goes through as planned.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.