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Portland steps up safety resolve following a deadly December on Division


At a city council meeting on December 21st PBOT shared their current plan to tame traffic on outer SE Division Street after a spate of fatalities.

Emotions around street safety issues ran high at the end of 2016. Not only did we have the most road fatalities (45) since 2003, but we lost six Portlanders to traffic violence in the final month alone.

When two of those six happened within just a few hours of each other and on the same, notoriously dangerous section of Southeast Division Street where three other people died last year, the pressure to do something intensified. (Now former) Mayor Charlie Hales and his four commissioners took steps to address the situation at a meeting on December 21st.

“We have a lot of streets in our city that were not designed for pedestrian and bicycle safety and were designed for automotive speed. And that’s deadly and we keep learning that lesson. This [ordinance] allows us to do a little more a little more quickly.”
— Charlie Hales, Mayor of Portland (at the time he said it on December 21st)

We dropped the thread of this story due to the holidays but it deserves to be picked back up. Before we recap what happened at the council meeting, here’s a quick refresher…

Two days after the tragedies on December 7th, bereaved family members penned a letter to City Council calling for immediate action. Almost immediately the volunteer street reform activists from BikeLoud PDX swung into action and scheduled a “Public Takeover” of the street that was more successful than anyone had expected.

And the City of Portland wasn’t far behind. Just nine days after the two fatalities they announced an ordinance that would give the transportation bureau permission to use $300,000 from the City’s contingency fund for traffic safety outreach and education efforts in the adjacent neighborhoods.

We’ve learned by watching the video of the City Council meeting on the 21st that Hales and PBOT actually swung into action much quicker than that. PBOT Active Transportation and Safety Division Manager Margi Bradway apparently picked up the phone the morning after the deaths and talked to leaders from the Division-Midway Alliance neighborhood association. Also on that day Mayor Hales set up a conference call with Bradway, her boss PBOT Director Leah Treat, PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick, members of the Portland Police Bureau, and others.

In his introduction of the Outer Division safety ordinance, Hales addressed commissioners, activists, and PBOT staff in Council chambers by saying, “Having had two of our neighbors killed in one day on one street is a terrible reminder of how much we have to do to achieve Vision Zero.” “We have a lot of streets in our city that were not designed for pedestrian and bicycle safety and were designed for automotive speed,” Hales continued, “And that’s deadly and we keep learning that lesson. This [ordinance] allows us to do a little more a little more quickly.”

Activists made it clear what they want on outer Division.
(Photo: BikeLoudPDX)

When word of the ordinance leaked out last month many activists were intially disappointed that it would pay only for education and outreach. They want one thing: more physical infrastructure to reduce driving speeds and overall auto volume. In fact, several volunteers with BikeLoud PDX and Families for Safe Streets sat in the front row at the meeting holding a sign that read, “I-N-F-R-A-S-T-R-U-C-T-U-R-E,” just to get their point across.

What they didn’t yet know was that Bradway had good news to share.

Slides from PBOT detailing their plans.

Bradway, a former environmental lawyer and high-level staffer at the Oregon Department of Transportation, told Mayor Hales and Council during a short presentation that PBOT has more in store for outer Division than just an educational campaign. (Although it’s important to note that the education and outreach campaign is a priority that came from community members — many of whom represent people who don’t speak English. Both of the people who were hit and killed while walking on December 7th were Chinese elders not born in the United States.)

The agency says in light of recent deaths they will speed up their timetable for placing speed radar cameras on Division at 156th. Initially slated for installation this coming July, they will try and have them in by the end of this month. PBOT plans to meet with County traffic court and Police Bureau reps on January 5th to see how long it will be until citations can be issued. When these cameras were installed on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway last fall the City says they reduced speeding by a whopping 93 percent.

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“That’s what Vision Zero is. It’s admitting we’re making this tradeoff: We’re either going to accept that mortality is the cost of mobility or we’re not. And if we’re not, then we need less mobility.”
— Alan Kessler, citizen activist

In addition to the cameras PBOT will install speed reader boards. Both those measures are intended to reduce speeds and lay groundwork for PBOT to make a formal request to ODOT to reduce the speed limit to 30 mph (from 35 mph). Bradway said PBOT data shows the 85th percentile speed on this stretch of Division is currently 42 mph and ODOT would scoff at any request for a 30 mph limit unless those speeds first came down.

Bradway then pointed out that PBOT already has about $7 million worth of projects lined up for outer Division and the agency is trying to “accelerate” them. Those projects are mostly related to new crosswalks and flashing beacons — three of which are slated to be built this summer.

The new 10-cent per gallon gas tax that the city started collecting on January 1st will also help on Division. In what was sort of a sleeper announcement, Bradway said a $168,000 bike lane project on Division will be bolstered by another $500,000 for “a complete traffic calming project” on the street that will include “pedestrian refuge islands, lighting, and other ways to slow the speeds down.” To accomplish this, Bradway said PBOT is considering removing parking and potentially limiting auto access on a section between SE 114th and 148th (See lead graphic).

Rosaline Hui testifying.

After Bradway’s testimony council heard from Rosaline Hui, editor of the Chinese Times. She shared how the wife of Rohgzhao Zhang, the 65-year-old man killed on December 7th while walking across Division, learned of his death. She walked to the scene after he didn’t come home and saw all the police. But she couldn’t speak to them because she doesn’t use English. “They had just been here for a year’s time,” Hui said, “To look for a better life and find opportunity for their son and grandkids to have a better life. Because of the death of Mr. Zhang, it has all vanished.”

Hui said many people in the Jade District are immigrants who don’t drive and who walk everywhere. “When we walk in the street it’s like we are walking into a tiger’s mouth, you are putting your life in danger,” she said. Hui advocated for road signs in both Chinese and Vietnamese. She also said the road is too wide and too many people are speeding.

Everyone who testified offered strong support for major changes to Division that would reconfigure lanes and make biking and walking safer.

Even Jessica Engelman, the woman who organized the “Public Takeover” event a few weeks earlier said in testimony that, “I am impressed at who showed up today and they said a lot of what I wanted to say.”

Noel Mickelberry with Oregon Walks applauded PBOT and said, “This is the most comprehensive response I have seen.”

Other activists testified in what became sort of a lesson in Vision Zero for all the commissioners. Alan Kessler said he’s frustrated that PBOT’s main response is usually just crosswalks and flashing lights. He wants more them to be more bold. “It’s frustrating to watch money drip, drip, drip away on a beacon here and a crosswalk there when we know what we need to do is reduce throughput. And that’s politically really difficult; but that’s what Vision Zero is. It’s admitting we’re making this tradeoff: We’re either going to accept that mortality is the cost of mobility or we’re not. And if we’re not, then we need less mobility.”

The ordinance passed unanimously.

Commissioner Novick said it shows, “Council is willing to do as much as we can as quickly as we can to end the carnage on outer Division.”

And Commissioner Dan Saltzman, the newly appointed PBOT leader under Mayor Ted Wheeler, shared a strong statement. “We are clearly failing at pedestrian safety and we need to do a better job. Vision Zero is great but it’s against the backdrop of record fatalities, so something clearly is not right. We need to fix it. The will in this room is here. The will on this council, and I expect on future councils, is here. We will find ways to make our environments safer for everybody who uses our roads.”

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

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