Portland is, thankfully, a relatively safe city to get around. Even the United States in general, with our 30,000 road deaths every year, is full of hundreds of millions of people who aren’t getting physically hurt.
But the real cost of Vision 30,000 (as I saw a local transportation planner put it the other day) isn’t broken bodies. And it doesn’t have anything to do with biking in particular. It’s the fact that almost all of us spend our entire lives in a constant, low-level fear of losing our daughter, our son, our spouse, our best friend, to traffic.
How does that perfectly reasonable fear shape our lives? How does it lead us to shape theirs?
That’s the haunting argument that BikePortland reader SD made in a comment Monday, responding to another reader’s argument that the BikePortland community is hateful toward people who drive.
I can see where you are coming from tnash and can see how this article in this context looks like a way for cyclists to take revenge on motorists. But, we can also look at this in a manner that leaves cyclists out of the equation.
I feel fairly confident that the biggest danger almost every Portlander faces each day is being in proximity to motorized vehicles. We have gone to great lengths to reduce the risk and harm done by cars and trucks because of the benefits that they provide, but irresponsible use of and overuse of motorized transport continues to create a significant threat and we all live in its shadow.
I desperately want to see safer driving practices partially as a cyclist but primarily as a parent. We can measure the harm from bad driving by counting the morbid events that happen daily and focus on them as a marker of failures of our system. However, the far greater impact of irresponsible driving is more insidious. It is the fear of our children or our friends being hit by a car. It keeps us from walking, riding our bikes, or letting kids play outside and have autonomy in our neighborhoods.
Restricting active transportation weakens our neighborhoods and our communities. Many people live inside their houses or inside their cars with brief moments spent at the places they traveled to in their cars. This type of living undermines the social cohesiveness of communities. Being outside, seeing each other, talking to each other is very valuable and much harder to do when you are inside your car.
We are all very lucky that there are so many people in Portland who want to walk and bike on public streets. Although there is risk, there is also the realization that our streets are not only for cars and that a culture that normalizes irresponsible and inattentive driving is not acceptable.
With traffic, there is a risk, and there is a tendency to escalate precautions in a manner that also escalates risk. Many places in the US, the conversation about traffic safety isn’t about how it is unsafe to ride a bike, it is about how it is unsafe to drive a small fuel efficient vehicle. The argument is often made that if you are driving a small car and are hit by an SUV then you are partly responsible for the harm caused to you because you weren’t driving an SUV. It is frustrating to see this same logic applied reflexively to cyclists. Essentially, the argument is if you do anything that makes you vulnerable you are responsible for the harm done to you by others, even if the harm was caused by someone acting illegally or with malice.
This argument undermines our liberties and our quality of life and it normalizes and empowers bad actors, in this case irresponsible and inattentive drivers. Cycling safely is very important and something that we should all embrace, but it is not a solution to dealing with bad drivers and poor infrastructure. As far as I am concerned, it is a separate conversation and it is disingenuous to tout it as an antidote to the 3 left hooks and red light incident over the past 3 weeks. It is similar to blaming people who are physically or sexually assaulted for the way that they dress or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is also an argument to maintain the status quo.
There will always be vulnerable road users who may be operating legally but not perfectly on infrastructure that sometimes can be confusing. I make every effort to drive in a way that allows people not to be perfect, but still safe. I had to learn how to drive like this after moving to Portland and I was highly motivated because I cycle and I have children living in a dense urban area. The more productive safety conversations are those that imagine everything the operator of a deadly force could do to prevent harm instead of normalizing the deadly force and focusing on its victims.
If we want Portland to be the city we all know that it can be, we have to deescalate the danger that surrounds us. This doesn’t mean staying inside our houses or our cars. This means more active transportation and creating a culture of thoughtful driving, that is cooperative instead of selfish and honors the people on our roads who chose to leave their cars at home; that respects the fact that we are driving where people and their children live and play.
Fortunately for all of us in Portland, there is no going back and there are fantastic dedicated people who believe in community and quality of life. We should all be them/help them.
P.S. I would be concerned about the lack of due process in the “shaming” approach and that it could ultimately cause more problems than it solves. But, I would also love to hear suggestions on how to stop cars from speeding and running the stop signs next to my house that is on a low traffic, residential road with lots of families.
Thoughtfully and powerfully said.
Yes, we pay for good comments. We’ll be sending $5 and a little goodie bag to SD in thanks for this great one. Watch your email!
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.