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Portland in the 1930’s: A look back at traffic safety (it wasn’t pretty)


Local historian and publisher of Cafe Unknown, Dan Haneckow, recently uncovered some interesting documents and videos about Portland’s first efforts to tame its traffic safety problems.


A clipping about a
bicycle safety survey published
by the Portland Traffic Safety
Commission in 1941.
Click to enlarge
(Thanks to Dan Haneckow)

In the 1930’s, Portland experienced a fatal traffic crash once every five and-a-half days.

I came across this, and other interesting historical documents and videos via a blog run by local historian Dan Haneckow. Dan runs Cafe Unknown, which looks into Portland’s travel history. Last Saturday he shared a story about Portland’s first efforts to improve traffic safety.

The story began back in 1937 when Portland’s Traffic Engineering Bureau was established. Haneckow reports:

“As population and vehicle ownership increased, the streets of Portland were becoming more dangerous to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. The Bureau was established to control all matters pertaining to the design and placement of traffic signs, signals and other traffic control devices.”

As Portland grew, its increasingly busy roads took a sobering toll on human life. Haneckow uncovered stats published by the Portland Traffic Safety Commission in August of 1940 that said 900 traffic deaths had occurred from 1925-1940. Streets were particularly lethal from in the 1930’s when there was a traffic death in Portland every five and a half days.

Much like today, excessive motor vehicles speeds were a major culprit of injury and death on our roads. Check out the public service announcement below published by the Portland Traffic Safety Commission in 1940:

But despite dangers, bike use was apparently on the rise. In the fall of 1941, the Portland Traffic Safety Commission considered whether or not to create an ordinance, “providing for licensing and control of bicycles”. In a clipping found by Haneckow the Commission writes that a system of licensing bicycles would,

“provide an opportunity for police or school authorities to inspect bicycles and require each bicycle to be properly equipped with lights, good brakes, and horn or bell.”

But even with a well-equipped bike, I’m not so sure I’d want to tackle chaotic Portland traffic in the ’30’s and 40’s. Check out the video below of the bustling N. Interstate and Broadway intersection in 1939 (view is from Broadway Bridge looking northeast).

At that time, it was considered the most dangerous intersection in Portland…

For more great historical intersection viewing, check out Haneckow’s YouTube page.

Also be sure to check out the full traffic safety post on his blog, Cafe Unknown.

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