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As crosswalk enforcement decoy, Mayor Hales walks talk on traffic safety

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Portland Mayor Charlie Hales crossing E Burnside at 16th as a decoy in a police enforcement action this morning.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

After playing the role of decoy in a crosswalk enforcement mission this morning, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has firmly cemented safety as his top transportation priority. Under the watchful eye of about eight motorcycle officers with the Portland Police Bureau’s Traffic Division and with several TV news cameras rolling, Hales put himself in the middle of morning rush hour traffic on East Burnside at 16th.

Luckily for Hales, the intersection (a key north-south route for biking and walking traffic that’s just a few blocks from a school) was recently upgraded with crosswalk striping, median islands, and caution signage.

Prior to these improvements, people trying to cross Burnside at 16th by bike or on foot took a significant risk. This morning, not only did Hales have engineering on his side, he also enjoyed nearly perfect behavior from road users due to the gaggle of onlookers, PBOT staff, police, and news media that had gathered on the corners. There were a few stops made by the officers, but not many. And for what it’s worth, they were only issuing warnings today. One of the officers said they plan to return next week for another “enforcement mission” and they won’t be so forgiving.

This is less than half of the crowd that made this morning’s event far from a surprise.

Between crossings, I asked Hales what he thought of the new crossing treatment. “I think this reinforces that a really clear and legible crossing really does make a difference,” he said. “I think even after the show departs from this intersection, the clarity of what has been done here will help a lot.”

“It’s personal. It’s a serious community problem, and I’ve become more fervent about it than I was even six months ago.”
— Mayor Charlie Hales on traffic safety

It’s important to note how Hales has evolved — politically and personally — on the transportation issue. He ran for Mayor by promising to make road maintenance his top priority. “Transportation choices and bikes and all the other things that we’re doing might have to be deferred a bit while we catch up on maintenance,” he told KATU after winning the election in November. Hales based this in part on the huge maintenance backlog we have; but it was also a way to draw a contrast to former mayor Sam Adams. Adams was arguably the most safety-oriented transportation bureau commissioner Portland has ever had. One high-level PBOT staffer once referred to him as “our transportation safety mayor.” Adams took a political risk by spending money on traffic safety-related projects at the expense of more traditionally auto-centric paving and capacity-related projects.

Now, in light of a rash of fatal collisions, Hales talks a lot more about safety and a lot less about maintenance. In a PBOT press release about this morning’s crosswalk action, Hales stated, “Safety is the top priority of our transportation system.”

This morning during a short interview, I asked Hales about how he’s evolved on the topic of traffic safety. He pointed out that Portland has suffered from 15 traffic deaths so far this year. “We’re off to a really bad start… And a bunch of them were pedestrians.” He mentioned Morgan Maynard-Cook, the five year-old girl from east Portland that died trying to cross a street at the end of April. And then he shared that a woman killed while walking on Beaverton Hillsdale-Highway back in December, 27 year-old Mara Rosanne Forsythe-Crane, was the daughter of a personal friend.

“So it’s personal. It’s a serious community problem, and I’ve become more fervent about it than I was even six months ago.”

Hales’ change of tune on this topic has already impacted city policy. Just over a month after Morgan Maynard-Cook died, he held a press conference to announce that he would restore funding to a sidewalk project on SE 136th (funding that was yanked by Hales’ hand-picked, road maintenance-centric PBOT Director Toby Widmer).

Hales with PPB Traffic Division Captain David Hendrie (and PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera).

Asked about the policy implications of his safety focus, Hales said, “It reinforces the importance of traffic enforcement in the Police Bureau.” When it comes to the ongoing city budget negotiations, Hales said he’s “Trying to maintain a level of enforcement effort in the Traffic Division so they can be out here educating and penalizing as appropriate.”

“And obviously,” he continued, “we want to make sure PBOT continues to invest in these type of improvements systematically around the city. We’ve got hundreds of intersections that still need this kind of treatment.”

Learn more about PBOT’s traffic safety programs at their Traffic Safety Resources page. You can also read past coverage of crosswalk enforcement actions