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Protest on SE Powell slows traffic, draws big crowd

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Portlanders who want safer streets showed up in force today at the busy intersection of 26th and Powell in southeast Portland. They were spurred into action after a gruesome collision on Sunday severed a man’s leg off. Alistair Corkett was bicycling south on Powell when a man driving a truck in the opposite direction turned left. The collision sent Corkett to the hospital where he’s undergone multiple surgeries.

Corkett is a 22-year old budding bicycle racer who’s life has been forever altered — and he’s one of dozens of people who have been victims of traffic violence at this intersection. City data shows this is the most dangerous intersection on Powell between SE 7th and SE Cesar Chavez, with 73 injuries from 2004 to 2013.

At tonight’s event upwards of 100 people actively took part in the protest by biking and walking repeatedly, and legally, through the intersection. The goal was to slow down traffic and the event was strategically held during rush hour to have the most impact. At times there were dozens of walkers and bikers using the intersection at the same time. Some in the lane and filling the bike boxes, and others in the crosswalks and on the adjacent sidewalks. Many held up signs and there was a large presence of local TV and print media.

Here’s how it looked…

This was a heated exchanged that thankfully fizzled out in just a few minutes.

There was also a simultaneous protest at the unsignalized intersection of 25th and Powell where people repeatedly walked in the marked crosswalk and forced cross traffic to wait for them. While people stopped traffic, others stood on the sidewalk and called out license plate numbers of drivers who they felt drove dangerously or illegally.

While I never saw any physical contact between people or vehicles, there were several shouting matches throughout the protest. On two separate occasions a person got out of their car as arguments escalated into shouting and finger-pointing. Once at 26th, a man in a tow-truck nearly got into a fight with a bicycle rider. A large crowd gathered around but eventually cooler heads prevailed. In another incident, a woman got out of her car after people at 25th yelled at her for talking on her phone while people crossed in the crosswalk. A reporter from The Oregonian caught it on camera:

Sellwood resident Dan Kaufman organized the event. He has a son enrolled in Cleveland High School, which is adjacent to the intersection, and he’s worried about his safety. Kaufman is fed up and tired of waiting for Powell to be safer while people continue to get injured. Throughout the event Kaufman, who was there with his three sons and wife Kirsten, spoke into a mic hooked up to an amp on his trike.

“We are absolutely devastated by what happened here yesterday,” he shouted, “It was a horrible tragedy, and it happens here on Powell Boulevard, all the time.”

Kaufman has succeeded in garnering attention to his cause. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales mentioned the protest in a press statement today and tonight’s event was attended by Shelli Romero, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s interim area manager for Region 1. In an interview, Romero told me ODOT is in the early stages of development and design on a safety project that will invest $3.8 million on Powell Blvd between 20th and 34th. Romero said the project would include improved crossings, as well as ADA and transit enhancements funded by TriMet.

At 26th, Romero said ODOT wants to update the traffic signal. “We want to redo this signal so there will be not more permissive lefts — it’s going to be signalized so it will prevent the kind of accident that just happened.”

“We all agree that there are fatals and serious injuries on this corridor that need to be addressed,” Romero continued. “We’re moving forward and we’re going to get safety improvements on the ground as soon as we can… But those improvements won’t be on the ground until 2017.”

Kaufman overheard our conversation and soon he and Romero were having a spirited discussion.

Dan Kaufman and ODOT’s Shelli Romero.

“What you need to do first is put safety first and that’s not happening,” Kaufman said, “And that has historically not happened. We’ve had enough!… I talked to the vice president of the school [Cleveland High] and he’s telling me a kid just got put in the hospital 10 days ago, and a few months ago another kid got hit-and-run by a Cleveland parent if you can believe that. He’s surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Talk to anyone who has gone to Cleveland and they’ll tell you this is a disaster and it’s on your doorstep and needs to be fixed, not sometime down the road. It needs to be fixed now! 2017 isn’t soon enough and your changes will be highway-centric. I have to worry about my son every day.”

Romero replied, “We agree. And we’re working as hard as we can to get it done as fast as we can, but it’s a very complex corridor with the geometry of the roadway and the visibility and the way it curves makes it a very complicated project.”

While Romero didn’t have the answers Kaufman was looking for, the two kept things respectful and shook hands after their conversation.

And that was a large part of tonight’s event. It brought many people together to talk about road safety. Some people disagreed with each other and hashed out their differences — others supported each other and made plans to take action.

One woman held up a sign that read, “Mom Against Bikes on Road: Honk if you agree.” While you might think a sign like that would lead to a hostile reaction, I was pleased to see several people engaging her in discussion.

I also met Alyssa Hadley, a 16-year old sophomore at Cleveland High School. I asked why she came to the protest. “I don’t want to get hit!” she replied. The biggest issue? Speeding. “Cars don’t follow the speed limit and it’s not enforced,” she said.

Alyssa Hadley.

Taizz Medalia was holding up a sign that read, “ODOT, Do Your Job.” She’s a mother of two who came down for north Portland to show her support. “I can just imagine if I was that mom,” she told me, “hearing that news.” “I think when streets are safe for bicyclists they’re actually safer for everybody, including cars. I asked about her impressions of Powell after standing beside for a while. “It’s horrible, it’s absolutely dangerous. Now I know why my kids have told me this is a death trap.”

Taizz Medalia.

I also noticed another mom in the crowd. Someone who knows tragedy all too well. Kristi Finney’s son Dustin was killed by a drunk driver while bicycling on SE Division back in 2011 and she held his photo in her arms as she walked down Powell hoping to find Kaufman and learn how she could support his calls for change.

Kristi Finney.

Alistair Corkett was lucky he wasn’t killed on Sunday. His mom Julia Corkett was at tonight’s event and was smiling as she received hugs from supportive friends and took to the microphone to say a few words.

“I appreciate you all for coming out and supporting Alistair and to fix this problem that needs to be fixed.” Corkett told the crowd that Alistair is “doing well” and that while he had a “terrible thing happen to him” he’s alive and it could have been much worse.

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