What started as a Portland State University capstone project has turned into a new way of moving traffic along the Portland waterfront. Gwen Shaw, who graduated from PSU in 2015 with a degree in civil engineering, describes the project, Better Naito, as a transformative part of her life journey as well as an opportunity to create a shared space in the city for pedestrians and cars alike.
“In its simplest form, Better Naito brought me into the career I have today and allowed me to meet my now-fiancé,” Shaw says, who now works as a traffic engineer.
With regards to the city and the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), Better Naito first repurposed one northbound vehicle lane into a pedestrian space on Naito Parkway in 2015.
“As years have passed, it went from a volunteer-implemented demonstration to a city-led seasonal implementation, and has now transformed into the fully constructed form that it is now,” Shaw says. “The project limits have extended further north and south than our original pop-up and it has continued the legacy of transforming this waterfront space into a place for people.”
Shaw says she was first inspired by Better Block PDX and the work they facilitated in 2014 outside Voodoo Donut to create a safer pedestrian space. “I had just taken Bike and Pedestrian Planning and was excited for my opportunity to work on a project that might actually result in something being built/put on the ground,” she says.
Consulting with Better Block PDX led to the selection of Natio Parkway as Shaw’s capstone project in 2015. The first step on the journey from concept to reality happened when Shaw saw images taken from the Cinco de Mayo festival on the Waterfront.
“The festival fence was all the way to the curb line, a mom was pushing a stroller in the bike lane, and bikes were shoved between cars in the travel lane,” she recalls. “People were walking and waiting to get into the festival and it was crowded and unsafe.”
The capstone team was inspired to plan a demonstration — and then things moved quickly.
“On a Thursday evening, I got an email saying: ‘PBOT is on board with the design, Rose Festival wants it installed for their event, and $10,000 has been secured for materials; When can you submit the Traffic Control Plan?”’ Shaw says.
Sixteen days later, Shaw and her capstone team began installing the facility at 4 a.m. The demonstration was a success and has only grown from there with a formal ribbon cutting to celebrate Better Naito as it exists today in May 2022.
“The thing that makes this project so unique is its origin story,” she says. The project also opened doors for Shaw to continue the work, first with an internship at PBOT to evaluate the incoming data, before starting a career as a traffic engineer. Meeting her fiance was a bonus project result (“our first date was on Better Naito,” she adds).
“I’ve since been at my current company for 5.5 years and loving every second,” Shaw says. “I get to do the type of stuff I fell in love with every day and bring opportunities to rethink our streets and create change to communities all around the world.”
For students seeking similar success, Shaw has some “cheesy” advice. “Have no shame in living the PSU Motto: ‘Let Knowledge Serve the City.’ Get involved and use your education and expertise to help broad community groups push for change. Be empathetic and open to listening to communities to understand how their lived experience may or may not align with what you’ve learned in school and help to bring those voices to tables that they otherwise might not have the opportunity to be at.”
Projects don’t have to have the same size or scope as Better Naito to be impactful, Shaw says. “Projects that center the people that will use them are the most rewarding to work on,” she adds.