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City engaged in battle against speeding epidemic

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PBOT has asked the state for a trial of new speed limit zones they say would reduce collisions.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Of all the ingredients that make up a dangerous roadway environment, most pundits and policymakers agree that speeding is one of the biggest threats. At a meeting of transportation advocates hosted by Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick earlier this month, the scourge of speed was a constant thread through the discussion.

“If you can eliminate speeding, you can reduce a lot of the carnage on the roads.”
— Roger Geller, PBOT

“One of big things we’ve learned from Europe is speed kills,” PBOT’s bike coordinator Roger Geller said as Hales took notes, “If you can eliminate speeding, you can reduce a lot of the carnage on the roads.”

Oregon Walks Executive Director Noel Mickelberry had perhaps the most repeated quote of the day when she said, “I’d like to see speed framed the same way that drunk driving and seatbelts have been framed in the past.”

At the press conference that followed, Commissioner Novick underscored the speeding issue by making a direct appeal to Portlanders. “I think that we, as drivers, need to think of slowing down as an investment in our community safety and ask ourselves: ‘Am I willing to extend my commute by two minutes or five minutes today in order to make it safer for kids to walk to school — or for anyone walking or bicycling in the same space?'”

The talk is there; but words alone will not make people slow down. While groups working on Vision Zero are scheming about a public marketing campaign and Mayor Hales has said he’ll have city workers sign a “Travel With Care” safety pledge, PBOT is waging their battle against speed on two other fronts: the use of fixed photo radar cameras and an attempt to wrest some control of local speed limits away from the state.

If both or either of the these efforts are successful they could have a major impact on traffic safety.

Here’s the latest on where things stand…


House Bill 2621 – Fixed photo radar cameras on high crash corridors
House Bill 2621 is a major legislative priority for the city this session. If it passes, it would allow PBOT to install a total of 20 cameras on “high crash corridors” (streets with an above average rate of collisions) over the next three years. If all goes according to plan, official state estimates reckon the new cameras will result in 274,000 additional citations between 2015 and 2018. That could lead to a potentially significant change in road user behavior (not to mention a much-needed revenue stream).

“It is very much alive… We are very hopeful about passage.”
— Leah Treat, PBOT director on HB 2621

Will it pass? On paper, it looks like HB 2621 is on life support; but supporters remain optimistic.

In an email this morning, PBOT Director Leah Treat wrote, “It is very much alive and the bill is working its way through the process, which is fluid right now. We are very hopeful about passage.”

But will it run out of time? The session is only expected to last another two weeks (June 26th is the targeted session end date) and HB 2621 has still not even been heard by the Senate. It passed the House Transportation Committee in April but was referred to the Ways and Means Committee (due to it having a financial impact) and just last week it was moved to the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Safety. Sources say it will pass out of that committee any day now and that support exists from both parties in both chambers. The (legislative) clock is ticking.

More local authority to set speed limits
Right now, the Oregon Department of Transportation holds all the cards when it comes to setting speed limits — even on streets that are managed and owned by cities. PBOT can request changes on a case-by-case basis; but they want broader authority. The City already notched a victory on this front in 2011 when they won the legal right to set speed limits at 20 miles per hour on residential streets where bicycling and walking are prioritized (a.k.a. neighborhood greenways).

Now PBOT wants to go a few steps further. Back in March, former City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield wrote ODOT with an official request to do a two-year trial of an “Alternative Speed Zoning test.” The impetus for the trial was explicitly described as a way to help PBOT “achieve Vision Zero goals.”

Currently, when ODOT’s Speed Zone Review Panel gets a request to change a speed limit, ODOT engineers do an investigation to determine if it’s “safe and reasonable” to make the change. It’s not surprising that ODOT engineers might have a different idea about what’s “safe and reasonable” than PBOT engineers do.

In his letter (PDF), Burchfield put it this way:

“Based on our preliminary investigations regarding international practice for the elimination of fatal and serious injury crash events, consideration of all users of the public rights of way should be considered when determining the safe operational speed of a roadway. In most cases, pedestrians and cyclists will be the most vulnerable user, while occupants of motor vehicles will be the least vulnerable.”

He then gave two examples of new speed zones PBOT would like to establish:

  • Streets designed for people cycling, with bike lanes, that do not provide buffered space from motor vehicle traffic should not be posted higher than 30 mph, and
  • Streets where people walking, biking, and driving share the same space, should not be posted greater than 20 mph.

To go along with these changes, PBOT also wants to collect data, work with the Police Bureau to do random enforcement of the new speed limits, and produce a report showing how the changes have affected roadway safety.

With Burchfield no longer at PBOT (he left back in March), this effort to set new speed limits has been handed over to Margi Bradway, PBOT’s Active Transportation Division manager. For this effort to succeed, Bradway needs to not only convince ODOT of its merits, she’ll also need to find funding in the budget to ramp up enforcement. PBOT can’t rely on cameras alone to handle all the rampant speeding.

We’ll know more about this effort next week when PBOT is scheduled to make a presentation in front of the Speed Zone Review Panel in Salem.

Stay tuned. I’ve been openly critical of PBOT and Mayor Hales for being all talk and no action when it comes to Vision Zero and I’m eager to change my tune.