A few hours ago Portland City Council unanimously passed a resolution that reads, “No loss of life is acceptable on our city streets,” a phrase that’s part of the city’s larger goal of Vision Zero.
Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick introduced the resolution by calling out naysayers: “I think there are people who assume it’s not possible, people might think accidents happen,” he said. “That is not true.”
Mayor Charlie Hales said the city’s official embrace of Vision Zero isn’t just a soundbite. “This is a serious commitment by the city to say ‘This is our goal and we meant it.'” However, despite requests from advocacy groups, the city did not amend the resolution to set a firm target date to achieve Vision Zero and they didn’t dedicate any specific funding to implement the new policy. (One amendment pursued by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance was passed. It requires the city to take specific steps to prevent racial profiling as new enforcement measures are rolled out.)
“[These deaths] are going to continue to happen as long as we have streets that allow for it.”
— Noel Mickelberry, Oregon Walks
The resolution was strongly supported not only by the mayor and members of Council, but also by PBOT staff and advocates who shared powerful testimony.
PBOT Director Leah Treat referred to traffic injuries and fatalities as “a health and social justice problem.” The bureau’s Safety and Active Transportation Division Manager Margi Bradway added that, “We need to reset how we think about traffic safety because what we’re doing now isn’t working and Portland is behind the mark.”
Bradway pointed out that while Portland is better than the national average when it comes to preventing roadway fatalities, we are still behind New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. Those cities average 3.9, 4.0, and 5.2 deaths per 100,000 people respectively while Portland averages 6.2 (the United State average overall is 11.2).
City Council says this new policy will have a wide-ranging impact on all future decisions. To help guide those decisions, Bradway shared a slide during a brief presentation that laid out Portland’s new “Vision Zero Philosophy” (emphases theirs):
- The death or serious injury of even one person is one too many.
- Human error is inevitable, thus street design must be forgiving.
- Responsibility for fatal and serious crashes rest not just on users, but on the system design.
- In roadway design, either lower speeds or separate users.
Advocates are celebrating the passage of this resolution, but they hoped the city would go even further.
Testifying through tears as she recalled recent fatalities, Oregon Walks Executive Director Noel Mickelberry told council, “[These deaths] are going to continue to happen as long as we have streets that allow for it… No one should accept this.”
Mickelberry and other advocacy groups that have formed a coalition around Vision Zero urged Council to amend the resolution to include a firm date. They want to see the city commit to achieving zero fatalities and injuries by 2025. Bicycle Transportation Alliance leader Rob Sadowsky also testified, saying that “Vision Zero policy isn’t effective unless it sets a measurable goal with a target date.”
“I don’t know what the structural improvements need to be on the Burnside Bridge that we can install in short order; but we need to be looking into that.”
— Amanda Fritz, City Commissioner
City council agrees with advocates that this policy is important, but they weren’t comfortable setting a timeline. They say a lack of funding and the potential for political fallout if they’re seen as failures makes a date commitment unwise.
Novick said he’d consider a date, but only after having “further conversations about the pros and cons.” He wants to talk to leaders who worked on Portland’s “10 Year Plan to End Homelessness” and ask them, “What happens to the discussion when you can’t meet that goal?”
Commissioner Nick Fish said he doesn’t think a target date is a good idea. Given his experience dealing with the homelessness issue (which he said people call a failure because it still exists) Fish said while the problem persists, the city has made huge strides. “We haven’t conquered homelessness,” he said, “But we’ve made a hell of a down payment.” Fish would rather set achievable goals and describe what success looks like so the city can “celebrate those wins.”
In his closing statement after voting yes on the resolution, Fish told PBOT staff that, “My concern about a timeline is I want you to have time to do it right. I don’t want people to declare failure when you make progress.”
For his part, Mayor Hales said he doesn’t want to set a timeline “until we know what resources we have to do this.”
On a similar note, Commissioner Amanda Fritz said, “We can’t set a timeline because we don’t have the funding.” “That’s heartbreaking to know there are improvements needed all over but we don’t have funding.”
Less than a year ago, Commissioner Fritz’s husband was killed in a head-on collision on Interstate 5. “It’s been very difficult for me to sit through this hearing,” she said in her closing statement. Fritz added that, as in the case of her husband, “things happen” so we need to engineer our roads in a way that protects against those things. She also, surprisingly, addressed the recent tragedy on the Burnside Bridge. “I don’t know what the structural improvements need to be on the Burnside Bridge that we can install in short order; but we need to be looking into that.”
Interestingly, both Fritz and Novick hinted that in light of this new commitment to Vision Zero, Portland might need to have a new debate about how best to balance our investments in maintenance of existing assets versus safety projects when we invest new transportation funds. “What do we as a community want to pay for?” Fritz asked rhetorically, “We know how to engineer for safe streets, it’s a matter of how we pay for it. We need to re-open the conversation about how any new money goes to maintenance versus safety.”
In the end, the official embrace of Vision Zero by the entire City of Portland (not just its transportation bureau) is an important step forward. But, as advocates made crystal clear at City Hall today, the work has just begun.
“We need to continue the urgency,” Oregon Walks’ Mickelberry implored of Council, “We know where this might happen next and what we can do to stop it. I really don’t want to be up here again two days after someone has died… Hold yourselves accountable. Our communities deserve it.”