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My opinion: Protests, politics, and progress?

Posted by on June 2nd, 2015 at 2:22 pm

May was a tumultuous month for Portlanders who care about safe streets. There have been tragic losses, protests, calls for reform and the early signs of progress. For me (and I’m sure others) it was a bit of a déjà vu.

My mind keeps going back to that sad October of 2007 when we suffered the loss of two people — and very nearly a third — in less than three weeks. The sequence of events was very similar. The collisions were followed by despair and anger and then action. We flooded the streets and grassroots activists sprung up to push the dialogue. Then, only after public pressure built a strong political foundation, electeds and other power-brokers stepped-up and engaged.

For the current Portland city council, that time for engagement is long overdue. Ever since running his mayoral campaign as the anti-Sam Adams, Charlie Hales has seemed to actively avoid the “b” word (bikes) out of fear that its mere mention would rile stakeholder groups and the media. And Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick has followed suit.

“Pedestrian improvements,” no problem. “Access to transit projects,” fine. “Multimodal safety projects,” all right! But “bike” projects or “bike” anything has been avoided by our current administration like the plague. (Note how even the advisory for today’s press conference — called specifically due to bicycle collisions — doesn’t even mention the word “bike”.)

And people (besides me) have noticed. Here’s local transportation engineer Brian Davis on Twitter May 29th:

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Now we seem to have City Hall’s ear, but it took such great loss to bend it that no one is celebrating.

The oft-maligned Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is also listening. Their streets are responsible for the lions-share of human carnage and activists have been clamoring for their attention for years. Many people were downright amazed that they fast-tracked a new left-turn signal on SE 26th and Powell as a direct result of the two collisions last month. The upgrade is part of a project they have in the hopper, but they pulled it out and made it happen ASAP following public pressure to act.

I asked activist Dan Kaufman, the Cleveland High School (it’s adjacent to this deadly intersection) parent who organized the mass ride and walk that shut down 26th and Powell last month, what he thought about ODOT’s move.

He was unimpressed.

“I’m not surprised,” he said flatly, “Because we have seen responses from ODOT before when there is a fatality… That’s great; but it’s not a solution. It’s appeasing one bad area; but it’s a kind of narrow-minded approach to a systemic problem with their high-crash corridors.”

According to Kaufman, we haven’t even reached step one yet. “Step one is admitting you have a problem.” And what is Portland’s problem? “We have a transportation system that accepts the fact that people die while using it,” Kaufman says. “We can’t get to step one until we raise awareness of that, which is why we’re out there protesting.”

Kaufman is part of a wave of grassroots activism that has taken the lead in the dialogue over the past few weeks. The growth — both in numbers and maturity — of BikeLoudPDX, an all-volunteer group that earned its first wings with its work on SE Clinton, is a huge silver lining to all this tragedy. This fledgling group has all the markings of turning into a major transportation advocacy presence in Portland. Activated by the events of recent months, last week they elected new chairs and decided to file paperwork to become an official non-profit.

BikeLoudPDX will also have representation at today’s big safety meeting. I hear Alistair Corkett will be there too. If Mayor Hales, Commissioner Novick and other city and state transportation bigwigs haven’t gotten the message yet — that the demand for safe bicycling isn’t just some cause or special interest but an urgent public health and safety issue — than seeing Corkett come in on one leg should bring the point home.

I just wish it didn’t have to come this.

“A Bittersweet Bike Box” – a video I made in 2008 after Tracey Sparling was killed at SW 14th and Burnside.

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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Adam H.
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Adam H.

Great write-up, Jonathan. I think we’re all tired of being treated like second-class citizens and want equal protection on our streets. I’m hoping Hales and Novick come out of this meeting with a sense of urgency and real plans of action. More empty promises are not going to cut it.

jenkins
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jenkins

I remember the Jarolimek and Sparling deaths.

It was really sad.

Vision Zero should have been implemented 10 years ago.

The thing is is that Vision Zero is going to require way more restrictions to the car-friendly infrastructure than people are going to accept.

People are just not willing to give up their car travel expediencies. It would kind of take a miracle to bring the culture around to a Vision Zero point of view.

El Biciclero
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El Biciclero

Isn’t there some measure of risk/danger other than death/dismemberment? Couldn’t we set up temporary video surveillance at locations following a traffic control change or street reconfiguration to observe what happens? Couldn’t we do the same at locations that have received complaints before someone dies or gets maimed?

There might even be enough people who would volunteer to review the footage and count “incidents”, classifying them by type (e.g. “high-risk turn”, “disregard traffic control”, “dangerous passing”, etc.) and rating them by degree of danger (e.g., “forced other party to slow/stop” to “came within x feet/inches of other party” to “collided with other party”).

The purpose of such video would not be to catch lawbreakers, but to see what kind of behavior a particular street/signal configuration induces/allows so it could be adjusted to minimize risky behavior.

TJ
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TJ

Safer infrastructure by design is a critical aspect, but we cannot possibly implement green boxes and dividers across every door-to-door route in the metro area. At the root of all of these bike/car collisions is a transportation culture that accepts “accidents” as a community, while the individuals of the sum live in denial their behaviors will ever cause injury or death to another.

Cars are dangerous pieces of equipment.

PeeJay
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PeeJay

Thanks for writing this. This city is being let down by timid, well-meaning people who are afraid to make real change. I’m tired of it. My friends are tired of it. We get told: if you don’t like it, work for change. Well, I’ve written the emails and postcards, signed the petitions—heck, I even helped start a petition—and I’d love to drag a concrete barrier here, reprogram a traffic light there, but it’s just not quite legal to act on my own. So, the next move is the city’s to make.

Tom Hardy
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Tom Hardy

Correct TJ! I think it may take more than “Just cycling activists” to get a lot of the attention of the Politicians and the motorists. Start giving the educators ideas on things that affect their environment also. I may sound like a broken record but here goes. Beaverton and most of the rest of the townships in at least Oregon and Washington require School zone traffic speeds with in a block or so of a school, even if a school is set back from a thru street by a 100 yards or so IE: Whitford On SW Scholls Ferry, and every other school that has property near a main street.
Yet Cleveland has no school zone limits that are being used or monitored. The private schools up the street do not get any attention from motorists either. Might it be a good idea to bring them into the conversation. They can go statewide and national very quickly. They do have a very big voice!

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
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kiel johnson

It is too bad that the people who are smart enough to lead our city our also too smart to run for public office.

RH
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RH

Hales is up for re-election. To be safe, he will probably establish a ‘committee’ to research the issue….We need a real leader, not a puppet.

Terry D-M
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Terry D-M

Some of us were there… we know what was said…we will remember.

wsbob
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wsbob

People riding bikes have little clout as a mode share of road users, likely in no small part because they are such a small percentage of total road users, is so small.

The four collisions involving bikes and motor vehicles within the last two or three weeks, that got a lot of press coverage and attention, all occurred in intersections and had to do with left turns; insufficient or perhaps ill-advised left turn regulation was the big problem in all of those collisions. The flashing yellow arrow left turn signal was a factor in at least one of the collisions.

The money is always a big factor in terms of whether any improvements to road infrastructure are made. Ask yourselves whether people, other the relatively small percentage of people, the public, that ride bikes, really are interested in investing much more money into biking infrastructure, than they already are. Mayor Hales and whoever else at city hall that may actually want improvements in bike infrastructure, are going to have a very tough go against the will of the public.

Dwaine Dibbly
Guest
Dwaine Dibbly

My expectations for this Administration & Council are so low now that anything is an improvement but I’m also so angry with them that nothing will be enough. I can’t think of a single one that I’d re-elect at this point.

Ted Buehler
Guest

El Biciclero wrote:
“Isn’t there some measure of risk/danger other than death/dismemberment? ”

Ding ding ding!

rick
Guest
rick

On a good note, the new bike lanes were painted on SW Oleson Road near an ODOT highway..

Buzz
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Buzz

There was a time back in the 90s when there was some discussion with PPB regarding using officers out on bikes to do traffic ‘stings’, similar to the PBOT crosswalk enforcement actions, but this program was never implemented.

Opus the Poet
Guest

I see one problem here, the traffic signal went up doubleplus fast because 26th and Powell basically rolled a crit fail twice in a short span, but the whole street is running at -5 on save against getting hit with a car rolls. Until the entire street gets fixed they will just be moving the bodies and meat wagons from one intersection to another ad nauseum.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

If I were the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I would mandate that No Vehicle Shall Travel Faster than 20mph Within City Limits. I *might* make an exception for freeways, but then again, I might not. Below 20mph, the likelihoood of a pedestrian hit by a car dying is almost nothing (less than 2%); above 20mph, that likelihood goes up exponentially. None of this is really a question of “Gee what’s the answer?” We know the answer, but the political will is not there to make it happen.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan
Lauren
Guest
Lauren

As an workplace safety professional, I do not understand why we do not approach these with the same thought process I take to any safety problem. It starts with removing the hazard all the way down to your clothing.

1. Substitution: get everyone on bikes! yeah, that’s not going to happen. Next.
2. Engineering: Separate cars from bikes and peds. This is always more costly than any other solution. I think the 17th Ave path in SE from the transit bridge is a great example. It keeps bikes and cars moving with little interaction. Ideally, most arterial roads would have cycle tracks that would function to separate the hazard (cars) from bikes.
3. Training: everyone needs this, bikes, commercial drivers, passenger vehicles. When everyone has the same expectations, it is much easier to get around. Also, when you mess up, more training.
4. Administrative controls: This is where most of Portland’s “infrastructure” falls. Bike boxes, signs, bike lanes all hinge on the assumption that people are going to obey them and the law. If people (both bikes and cars) do not stay in the lane or pay attention, there is the potential for an accident. If I was to walk into an industrial environment with hazardous chemicals and they told me they put up signs that said “Don’t breath too deeply when working with this chemical” rather than putting in vans to remove the hazard, I would cite them immediately. We need to hold our transportation infrastructure to the same standard.
5. Personal protective equipment: Being seen as a bike rider is huge. Lights, reflective vests, and helmets are all part of a safe operation of a bike. When all the above fail, this is the last resort. Implementing helmet laws is similar to telling a diver they don’t need training, just scuba equipment to dive.

It all goes hand in hand to create a safer riding experience for everyone.