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Q&A on ‘Vision Zero’: Three fatalities put city’s new safety promise to the test

Posted by on February 17th, 2014 at 9:14 am

BTA Alice Awards 2010-36

We asked Bicycle Transportation Alliance Director Rob
Sadowsky to discuss Vision Zero in more detail.
(Photo by J.Maus/BikePortland)

Yan Huang, 78, was crossing Division Street on Valentine’s Day with her 80-year-old husband, walking in an unmarked crosswalk from curb to rounded-off curb across five lanes of auto traffic. She never reached the other side; a man in a left-turning pickup didn’t see the couple and steered into them, killing Huang.

The next day, Saturday, a silver minivan, whose driver remains at large, left the scene of its fatal collision with a person on foot on Southeast Powell at 124th.

On Sunday, a man was killed in a car when the drunken driver he was riding with slammed into a utility pole at Northeast 102nd and Fremont.

Deaths like these make news, but they’re not new. About one in 50 Americans will die an automobile crash. What’s new is that Portland’s transportation director says the city can and will begin to do something systematic to change this.

Safety advocates are urging fast action. Early Monday morning Oregon Walks launched a #PDXVisionZero Twitter hashtag and a petition to urge the city to follow through on Director Leah Treat’s promise to move toward “Vision Zero,” the philosophy that there is no acceptable level of traffic fatality.

But is Vision Zero more than a buzzword? Are such deaths truly preventable? Is preventing them worth the cost? On Friday I asked street-safety advocate Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, to talk about this concept and what it might actually mean for Portland.

“I said, ‘This is our agenda; we’re going to want it to be your agenda.'”
— BTA Director Rob Sadowsky on Vision Zero, to incoming PBOT Director Leah Treat.

BikePortland: What do you think of city Transportation Director Leah Treat’s saying that Vision Zero will become part of city policy?

Rob Sadowsky: Great. It was one of the first things I talked to her about even before she came here. I said, “This is our agenda, we’re going to want it to be your agenda.” She’s been cautious from the beginning; it’s really exciting to see that she’s willing to put in in.

[Mayor] Charlie [Hales] had committed to it on the campaign trail, but we really hadn’t seen that vision play out in terms of implementation.

BP: The idea of Vision Zero is that every traffic death can and should be prevented before it happens. That’s more than just making efforts to make streets safer, right? Because every city does that — even as they’re building unsafe streets.

RS: We need to look at design, we need to look at level of service, we need to look at education and enforcement. We’re still making decisions based on [traffic] flow as a first priority, and Barbur is a good example.

We need to start those conversations about what that looks like with Multnomah County and other insitutions that have some control over our roads. We need to get the commissioner [of transportation] behind it; it can’t just be the bureau director.

BP: What’s a specific example you could imagine of Vision Zero in action in Portland?

RS: When the city makes decisions about temporarily adjusting traffic – around Timbers games, for example. [Former city Transportation Director] Tom Miller had this idea that you would take Burnside and bring it down to one lane near the park in order to accommodate the swells of pedestrians that are coming out of the park. The way we’ve been acting today is that flow is more important. The Vision Zero policy would say, “No, nothing is more important than the safety of those pedestrians.” The folks who are making decisions about even something like a detour or a temporary traffic management plan should be taking into account Vision Zero.

The Vision Zero policy really says, no matter what, we’re not going to tolerate a fatality. My perspective and what I think I just heard from Leah is, this is the only moral way to approach this.

SE Division and 84th, where a woman was
killed Friday morning as she walked across the street.
(Image: Google Street View.)

BP: But could you really justify spending, to pick a ridiculous number, $100 million to prevent a single death? Because my understanding is that Vision Zero would say you should. That just seems to me like a worship of death — as if preventing death is more important than all the other things in people’s lives.

RS: I think it’s a question of what you value. For me it becomes personal. When I see families impacted by traffic fatalities, it seems preventable.

I’m not sure we can prevent all fatalities. Nor am I sure that we have the political will or, I don’t know, the chutzpah, to take some of the steps on the enforcement side. We continue to tolerate people driving while intoxicated or driving while distracted and give those people their licenses back. A Vision Zero policy within the city isn’t enough. We need it within the state and we need it at the DMV.

Not all these problems are systemic, and not all of them are going to cost $100 million.

BP: So is Vision Zero basically a managerial tactic that communicates to employees what they should be prioritizing?

RS: Yeah. I always think that planners, engineers, are some of the best problem solvers. If we define the problem for engineers as, “How do you move traffic through quickly?” they will make different decisions than if we define the problem as “How do we do it without the following consequences?”

I think it can also stand the test of common reason. Can you explain it to the general public? “If we take this step, it’s going to be safer.”

Qs & As edited for clarity and brevity. The views expressed in the Qs above are my own; you can read more about Vision Zero in our archives here and here. The Oregon Walks petition is here. -MA

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Jane
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Jane

Lower speed limits and enforce the hell out of them first and foremost.

Dave
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Dave

Time to punish the whole class for the pranks of the bad kids–stop treating auto theft and vandalism as crimes until there is a year with zero pedestrian fatalities. Has any city/state/county ever tried this?

Evan Manvel
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Evan Manvel

Great interview – thanks, Michael and Rob.

And as much as I’m a fan of enforcement against dangerous speeds, I think the more sustainable approach is reshaping our streets — bollards, neckdowns, bike corrals, removing of paint, 9 foot lanes when you have lanes instead of 12 foot lanes, signal timing, etc. etc.

All the physical signals should tell a story that safely and efficiently traveling in a car means 20 mph.

Alexis
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Alexis

Michael, I wish you would stop with the strawman framing for finances around Vision Zero. The implementation of such a policy, as Rob notes, is a systemic effort around a particular goal. It refocuses the entire system on a different goal, or on a different ranking of goals.

Such efforts will cost money, but no effort that is made is directed toward preventing a singular fatality. Efforts are directed at making a system that is safe enough that no fatalities will occur. There’s no evidence that the frame you like to introduce, of expensive efforts to prevent a single fatality, would ever become reality. This is especially the case since fatalities tend to be systemic and recur in the same kinds of conditions repeatedly, as I think the crashes in East Portland demonstrate quite clearly.

Charley
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Charley

So far, it looks like Business Parking Griping is more important than Vision Zero.

http://bikeportland.org/2014/02/14/citys-top-idea-for-28th-avenue-has-shared-lane-in-one-direction-buffer-in-the-other-101442

Mike
Guest
Mike

None of these are speed issues. They’re all east portland issues both in terms of class and infrastructure issues. There are few street lamps, even fewer controlled pedestrian crossings etc(which cyclists blast through anyway).

My fellow cyclists do the same as the man blind rolling through what should have been a stop every day, the same laziness that he fell into is the same as everyone who refuses to stop and look.

For once, let’s look at east portland and start improving it. There are no rainswales, cross walks, parks, sidewalks, or hell even similar paved roads east of 82nd while north portland and inner SE have city planted trees on sidewalks with bike corrals etc.

Joe
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Joe

truly sad, until we get stronger laws in place we will hear 2 key things 1) the driver faced no charges or 2) at large aka hit n run.

wsbob
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wsbob

I hope the ‘Vision Zero’ objective produces good results. It’s at least, a commendable effort.

Re; the first collision on Valentines day, described in this story, of Yan Huang and her 80-year-old husband:

“…walking in an unmarked crosswalk from curb to rounded-off curb across five lanes of auto traffic. …” andersen/bikeportland

“…had been walking corner-to-corner – which, under Oregon law, is an unmarked crosswalk…”http://www.oregonlive.com/weather/index.ssf/2014/02/southeast_portland_crash_on_va.html#incart_river_default

Information above suggests they were diagonally crossing the intersection, which is probably rarely a good idea for the way it exposes vulnerable road users to additional vehicle traffic over that of a 90 degree crossing. What I can see in the picture accompanying the Oregonian story, is that number of lanes to be crossed diagonally, was at least six. Looks like Division here, may have bike lanes, which would be another two lanes.

Patrick
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Patrick

It also takes enforcing the speed limit as the MAXIMUM, not minimum, speed limit. I wonder why there is a supposed 7-10mph “wiggle room” above the posted speed limit? What if people going any faster than 25mph on street with that posted speed limit got a ticket? Or at the very least a warning? I live on a neighborhood “arterial” that’s treated like a residential-freeway, the speed limit is posted as 25mpg but the stats (from the city and the police) show a majority of people go between 30 – 35mph (and upwards of 60mph). When I asked for police enforcement they sent a radar but actually to me people have to go more than 10mph over the posted speed limit to get flashed. On a largely residential street?! Come on. Let’s start enforcing the posted speed limit as a maximum and see how different things could be.

GlowBoy
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GlowBoy

Here are a couple ideas that Oregon could begin implementing almost immediately to improve the safety of our streets:

1. Begin replacing all “SPEED” signs with ones that say “SPEED LIMIT“. You know, like in every other state. How can we expect people to treat the speed limit as a maximum if the signs don’t even say so?

2. Begin requiring formal driver education of all new underage drivers. You know, like in every other state. Oregon will give a teenager a driver’s license after 100 hours of “supervised” driving – and the supervisor can be any driver over 21, not even a parent. I will give Oregonians points for being less inconsiderate drivers than in other places, but I’m often astounded by the ignorance of the law that exists here.

3. Since we can’t wait for older untrained drivers to die, immediately begin a PSA campaign to teach everyone about the implied crosswalk law.

JEFF BERNARDS
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JEFF BERNARDS

Enforcement of DUII suspended licensees, hit and run? Drunk? Flee! Seems like 50% of fatalities involve alcohol. Raise the alcohol tax to fund enforcement of all driving infractions. Spineless Salem couldn’t raise the beer tax 3 cents without the beverage lobby protesting. Like studded tires, business and lobbyist run the government, not the people. Widmere was one of the loudest voices, they charge $3.50 for a pint, 3 cents would put them out of business! Really?

Kristi Finney-Dunn
Guest

I attend the Governor’s Advisory Committee on DUII once a month and it has been a real learning experience. This large group of members and liaisons who obviously care about people safety talk about many different ideas, strategies, goals around DUII and with nearly every topic there is the conversation about how to word things, how to frame it so that there is not an immediate rejection. It just has been a real shock to uninformed and novice advocate me that everything has to be so precise.

Dan
Guest
Dan

“Newton’s laws dictate that a doubling in vehicle speed results in a stopping distance four times as long and four times as much kinetic energy absorbed during an impact. Driver response times further increase stopping distances. As a result, a small increase in roadway traffic speeds results in a disproportionately large increase in pedestrian fatalities.”

“Travelling at 40 mph, the average driver who sights a pedestrian in the road 100 feet ahead will still be travelling 38 mph on impact: driving at 25 mph, the driver will have stopped before the pedestrian is struck.”

http://humantransport.org/sidewalks/SpeedKills.htm

Cora Potter
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Cora Potter

While I agree with the policy direction, what frustrates me about this interview is that Rob Sadowsky uses examples exclusively from the west side.

It does no good to have a policy direction if the people applying it aren’t actually doing the work where it’s most needed.

nuovorecord
Guest
nuovorecord

NYC has just unveiled their, or rather, the Mayor’s VZ plan. The last paragraph below represents a good strategy, I think.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/19/nyregion/de-blasio-unveils-plans-to-eliminate-traffic-deaths.html?hp&_r=0

“Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday presented a range of policing and transportation plans intended to eliminate traffic deaths in New York City, including increasing precinct-level enforcement of speeding and redesigning dozens of major street intersections and corridors each year.

Other new plans include the formation of an “enforcement squad” at the Taxi and Limousine Commission, with a focus on dangerous cabdrivers, and a potential partnership with state officials to lower the citywide speed limit to 25 miles per hour, from 30 m.p.h.

[snip]

The mayor has also expressed support for two Bloomberg administration initiatives: the expansion of “slow zones,” designated areas where the speed limit is reduced to 20 m.p.h., from 30, and the installation of more ticket-issuing speed cameras. Some cameras have been installed near schools, under a plan passed past year by the State Legislature, and the use of more would also require approval in Albany.

Street safety was considered a priority under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and traffic fatalities fell by about 30 percent during his administration. But policies like the expansion of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas were often framed, at least initially, in terms of environmental friendliness and a decreased reliance on car travel.

Many residents of car-dependent neighborhoods, as well as groups like AAA New York, were often sharply critical of the reallocation of street space under Mr. Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan.

While Mr. de Blasio has pledged to continue or expand many of his predecessor’s transportation policies — including the creation of bike lanes and the extension of the city’s fledgling bike share program beyond stretches of Manhattan and Brooklyn — his positions, now couched in Vision Zero, have thus far attracted few opponents.”

kww
Guest
kww

Powell, Division, SW Barbur – all these roads should of been built as limited access highways, along with Sandy – ie Mt Hood Hwy. It’s a double edged sword, highways promote surburbanism, but they also reduce pedestrian deaths.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

I’ve stated my suggestion for removing bad drivers from the roads before, but again, my “Vision Zero” includes zero suspended/revoked drivers driving around:
* If you get your license suspended, keep your car in the garage/driveway and DONT’ FREAKIN’ DRIVE IT!
* If you get caught driving on a suspended license, whatever car you are driving is immediately confiscated. Not impounded, confiscated and sold at auction with proceeds going toward whatever traffic safety cause the local government wants.
* If you lend your car to someone with a suspended license, don’t cry when your car gets confiscated and sold.
* If you knowingly sell a car to someone with a suspended license at the time of sale, you have to forfeit the sale price AND the car is confiscated and sold again at auction.
* If you are a car dealership and you knowingly sell a car to someone with a suspended license, you forfeit the car, the purchase price, and have your business sanctioned in additional ways (additional fines? Suspension/revocation of business license?)
* If you fraudulently use the driver’s license of someone else, or a fake DL to buy/rent a car, you forfeit any payment made for the car, the car is returned to the owner/previous owner, and standard penalties for identity fraud apply.
* If you underwrite insurance on a car with a listed driver who has a suspended license (you will know, because DMV will inform you), you will face sanctions. Alternatively, if you underwrite insurance for a car driven by someone who lives in the same household as a suspended driver, you may triple the premiums on such cars on the off chance that the suspended driver might “borrow” the car.

Treat cars driven by suspended drivers the same way we would treat guns in the hands of convicted felons.

Zaphod
Guest

Reading the vision zero text is inspiring. As a bike-based business, parent and citizen, I support this ethos/philosophy 100%