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:
Again, none of this happens in a vacuum. It is a predictable result of an environment that has become openly hostile to cycling post-Adams.
— Brian Davis (@designingbrian) May 29, 2015
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.