“I respectfully disagree with you on the topic of traffic signals and support the dialogue on speed limits.”
— A good opening line to a blog comment.
I say it a lot in private conversations, but perhaps not enough here on the Front Page: I believe the most valuable part of BikePortland isn’t the words and pictures we share, but the comments that appear below them. Since the early days, the comments are what have given this site its mojo and they’re what has given me the excitement and energy to keep on blogging.
I could write a book about all my blog comment thoughts and practices, and all the crazy/amazing things that have happened in our comments section. But today, I just want to share one that was written a few days ago by a City of Portland staffer. And not just any staffer, one of a select few Division Managers who actually run things and make important decisions about transportation policy and projects in our city. Peter Koonce is the Manager of PBOT’s Signals, Street Lighting, & ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) Division. He is not only a national leader in how to make signals work better, he also “gets it” when it comes to engaging with the public he serves (and his personal, yet work-related blog isn’t too shabby either).
On our story last week about Mayor Hales’ safety efforts, a discussion in the comments started about signals. A reader was critical of PBOT’s signal policy, saying that it favors who people who drive. Koonce, a regular BikePortland reader, replied with his perspective on the issue. Koonce used his full name (a practice I strongly recommend), said he disagreed with the reader’s view, and then made a comprehensive and respectful argument as to why.
Here’s the comment:
I respectfully disagree with you on the topic of traffic signals and support the dialogue on speed limits. There are 1,070 traffic signals in Portland and not all are designed for cars to “move faster”. A good number of them (250) are in downtown and are used to manage traffic carefully to insure speeds are safe for all users (especially pedestrians crossing right turning traffic and people on bikes sharing the lane or in a bike lane). Our policies in downtown prioritize multimodal movement and safety and have for thirty years. We have been extending that concept to recent projects like the Burnside-Couch couplet which are set up to progress all traffic at 20 miles per hour. Granted, cars can move faster then that, but our intent is to manage the traffic so the traffic signals are a positive influence on the safety of the street. This is not a one sized fits all proposition. The adjacent buildings and activity of pedestrian and bicycle travel play a significant role. What works in downtown doesn’t on 82nd Avenue.
Traffic signals aren’t a panacea for safety either. In situations with two way traffic, we can’t manage the speeds like we do in a grid of streets with nearby signals. There are a number of corridors where the signals are so distant that they do move cars faster than if they weren’t there, but any intersection treatment would have the propensity to do that.
I can’t stress enough that context is important, but there is also difficulty in changing the status quo with only a change to the traffic signals. There has to be the right context and other supportive efforts to make change happen. Just as the concepts of Missouri aren’t likely to show up in Portland any time soon, the ideas of one intersection in England would have to be used with the right context and community support.
Your later comment on lower speed limits and the resulting dialogue should be considered further in a Vision Zero type effort. Reducing speed limits, combined with effective enforcement, including working with the judicial system, would only be effective with a comprehensive focus on the problem. That’s what leadership looks like.
If there are traffic signals that you think encourage speeding, ask City staff to take a look at them. If there are streets that seem to have speed limits that are set unreasonably high, call the 503-823-SAFE hotline. The City uses good feedback to make change happen, sometimes incrementally but it all adds up.
I don’t want to get into who’s right or wrong on the specific issue, but I hope other city staffers (both in Portland and beyond), take time to read Koonce’s comment and keep in mind that you shouldn’t be afraid of blogs. Too often city staff are dismissive of blog comments as some sort of cesspool of ignorance and anger; but here on BikePortland, that couldn’t be further from the truth (sure, sometimes things get messy, but that’s just the nature of a public forum).
I am grateful for the level of quality and care people take with their comments here and I am especially thankful that influential city staff like Peter Koonce take their valuable time to defend their work, engage with us, and add to the conversation.