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With passage of action plan, Portland now has roadmap to zero traffic deaths


PBOT Director Leah Treat presenting the action plan at City Council yesterday.

PBOT Director Leah Treat presenting the action plan at City Council yesterday.

21 of the 32 actions outlined in the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Vision Zero Action Plan should be completed within two years and all of them should be done by 2021.

Those are the marching orders given to PBOT from City Council after four commissioners (Mayor Charlie Hales was in Mexico at a climate change conference) voted unanimously yesterday to pass the plan (PDF), a 35-page document developed over six months of task force meetings, data-crunching, and public outreach.

The vote comes six months after City Council passed the Vision Zero resolution that says, “No loss of life is acceptable on our city streets.”

The plan of actions to reach a goal of zero fatalities by 2025 (just nine years from now) are broken down into five categories: street design, impairment, speed, dangerous behaviors, and engagement and accountability. They include things like: breaking ground on new capital projects on high crash corridors, increasing police training, gaining local authority to set speed limits, expanding the red light safety camera program, and more.

“If someone is repeatedly putting someone else at risk, why the hell are they still driving a car?!”
— Nick Fish, City Commissioner

Before hearing presentations from PBOT staff and public testimony, outgoing PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick said, “We know this work won’t hapen overnight.” Novick warned that the success of this initiative depends on partnerships with other agencies and organizations and funds to implement the plan. He also referenced the grim reality of the “particularly deadly” statistical trend of 2016. “We’re swimming against the current,” he said, “And the fact that we’re part of a national trend [of increased traffic deaths] is no comfort to the parents of children, siblings, and friends that we’ve lost.”

PBOT Director Leah Treat, who has made Vision Zero a priority since her first months on the job (in 2014 she said, “Every death on our roadways is a failure of government”), told City Council that the plan is the result of an “unprecedented level of collaboration” among sister agencies and stakeholders. Treat also said equity was the guiding principle of the Action Plan. She assured Council that traffic enforcement would not lead to racial profiling and that low-income and underserved neighborhoods would get priority when it comes to safety project investments.

In a good sign for the work ahead, all four commissioners on hand at yesterday’s hearing were engaged with the topic.

Commissioner Nick Fish said he and his colleagues are forced to make hard decisions come budget time, so he challenged PBOT Director Treat to tell them what the single highest priority is. “I would recommend to council that our investments focus on road diets and re-engineering roadways,” Treat responded, “That will have the most impact on slowing people down.”

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We have a lot of work to do by 2025.
(From p. 6 of the PBOT Vision Zero Action Plan (PDF))

Enforcement was on nearly everyone’s mind yesterday — despite the fact that the City’s Vision Zero Task Force recommended de-emphasizing it due to concerns of how it can disproportionately impact people of color (a topic that wasn’t talked about yesterday).

Fish said he was shocked to learn that 56 percent of all fatal crashes involve drugs or alcohol. He asked whether Council should support new laws to address it. PBOT Director Treat warned against that, saying the alcoholism and drug addiction problems in our society are on such a large scale they should be dealt with by social service agencies. Fish expressed outright frustration about repeat offenders with dozens of DUIs and violations who continue to drive and crash into other roads users. “If someone is repeatedly putting someone else at risk,” he said, “Why the hell are they still driving a car?!” Treat answered by saying the police are simply out of room in jails and are “forced to do triage.” “They let repeat offenders back out onto our streets,” she said, “Until they cause harm to others.”

Commissioner Novick said if he was re-elected he would have tried to raise the price of alcohol in hopes of making it less popular.

“I think it’s terrible someone can get their license in Oregon and drive for 60-70 years without ever having to get an education about all the new laws.”— Steve Todd, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge

Despite voting to adopt a plan that specifically de-emphasizes enforcement and having a bureau director who feels enforcement isn’t the silver bullet to solving safety problems, Commissioner Saltzman said he prefers, “Hardcore enforcement.” “We’ve become complacement and we are desensitized to the fact that people have 34 prior violations yet we still support people’s right to drive because they ‘have to get to work’… We can’t afford to do that… I think we need strong enforcement and more overtime patrols.”

Saltzman also asked whether the city could ticket people caught using cell phones on speed radar camera photos. PBOT Division Manager Margi Bradway said they see quite a few people talking on phones in those images but they don’t have the authority to cite them for it.

Steve Todd, a Multnomah County Circuit Judge who has worked with the City on traffic safety issues for many years, said in testimony that he feels laws and police enforcement are not enough. “We need other solutions,” he said. “New laws aren’t going to work if they are hard to enforce and if no one knows about them. I think it’s terrible someone can get their license in Oregon and drive for 60-70 years without ever having to get an education about all the new laws.”

(Note: The Action Plan includes directives aimed at improving road user education including: Action D.4, “Increase access and expand referrals to traffic schools and other forms of traffic safety education for all road users”; and Action D.6, “Support legislation to increase funding for and access to driver education, frequency of testing, and inclusion of urban transportation safety in test materials.”)

Several community members testified in support of the plan (there was only one critic of it at the hearing, a man named Terry Parker who is well-known for his vehemently anti-bike opinions).

BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky said in order for Vision Zero to succeed, PBOT needs stronger commitments from Multnomah County and the Oregon Department of Transportation (neither of whom were at the hearing yesterday). He also said PBOT needs to “take back some streets” from ODOT like Powell, Barbur, 82nd and Columbia, “so we can truly make a difference.”

“If I’m a pedestrian who’s jaywalking, I’m just as culpable as the person who might hit me.”
— Amanda Fritz, City Commissioner

Two well-known transportation reform activists, Doug Klotz and Soren Impey said the City’s plan lacks teeth and doesn’t go nearly far enough. Another activist, Corey Poole, said he fears it will just sit on a shelf.

Klotz criticized the plan for being too vague and not having any funding attached to it. The plan also, “doesn’t represent a major shift in the city’s priorities,” he said. “I fear some of these goals may not be met because other factors besides safety will be given equal or greater weight. I hope I’m wrong.” Impey also criticized the plan’s lack of detail and funding and said, “It reminds me of the bike plan.” “I don’t believe this plan is anywhere near bold enough,” he added. Poole, who represents skateboarders, said “We need this to be more than a report on a shelf and we need to be willing to put human lives ahead of parking spaces and a slightly faster commute time.”

Before casting her “yes” vote, Commissioner Amanda Fritz (who admitted she has been caught on one of the city’s new red light cameras) referenced a letter of testimony from Bike Loud PDX where she took issue with their request for less enforcement on bikers and walkers and for the city to stop suggesting that dark clothing makes vulnerable users responsible for crashes. “If I’m a pedestrian who’s jaywalking, I’m just as culpable as the person who might hit me,” Fritz said. “The fact is we’re all responsible.” When it comes to allegations that mentioning dark clothing is victim-blaming, Fritz said, “Actually, it’s my responsibility as a pedestrian to wear something bright or carry a flashlight in my pocket… It’s a matter of life and death.”*

Fritz also introduced an amendment to clarify that a portion of funds raised from a recently passed marijuana tax (estimated to be $3 million a year) would be spent on road safety projects as part of the City’s Vision Zero effort. The amendment passed. She also wanted to make sure the plan ordinance passed as an emergency so that work could begin immediately.

Yesterday’s hearing made it clear there’s broad support for PBOT’s Vision Zero efforts. It’ll take all that and a lot more if we want to reach zero deaths by 2025.

(*Note: Because many people have asked about her comments. Here’s the full context, which you can also watch in this video:

I wanted to address a few of the issues Bike Loud Portland sent in a very informative letter, and I’m happy to say I agree with everything on the front page. Then they started talking about supporting infractions most likely to result in injury or death. They said because people walking or cycling rarely result in injury or death the draft Vision Zero Action Plan should contain language that de-emphasizes infractions by vulnerable traffic that do not pose risk to others. The thing is, if I’m a pedestrian and jaywalking and not crossing where I should be crossing, or not waiting for the light, I’m just as culpable as the person who might hit me.

Before I got on the Council I was yelled at by a police officer for jaywalking downtown. He stopped me and we had a nice conversation. I said, ‘Why? There’s nothing coming,’ and he said, ‘There’s children who might be watching you or there might be blind people who might sense you moving. It might be safe for you, but it’s not safe for them.’ Having had that conversation I almost never jaywalk anymore.

Again, it’s just embracing the fact that we’re all responsible. Again, Bike Loud PDX said that people walking or biking should not be blamed because they were wearing supposedly inapproproate or dark clothing. No, actually, it’s my responsibility as a pedestrian to wear something bright or carry a falshlight in my pocket so I don’t have to remember it’s there and I can turn it on when I get off the bus. So it’s all of us. There’s nobody who’s immune to this. It’s a matter of life and death, literally.

I know that this particular hearing is going to continue to be kind of like the holocaust victims reading in that it’s immensely painful to be thinking about traffic crashes and deaths and yet it’s absolutely essential that we continue to do so.”

Download the Vision Zero Action Plan here (PDF) .

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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