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2017 Year-in-review: More driving, more dying

Posted by on January 18th, 2018 at 1:12 pm

Traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

This story is by Joe Cortright. It first appeared on City Observatory.

Four days before Christmas, on a Wednesday morning just after dawn, Elizabeth Meyers was crossing Sandy Boulevard in Portland, near 78th Avenue, just about a block from her neighborhood library. She was struck and killed, becoming Portland’s 50th traffic fatality of 2017.

If we’re serious about Vision Zero, we ought to be doing more to design places where people can easily live while driving less, and where people can walk without regularly confronting speeding automobiles.
— Joe Cortright, City Observatory

Vision Zero, a bold road-safety campaign with its origins in Scandinavia has been sweeping through the US for the past decades, prompting all kinds of tough-talking, goal-setting traffic safety campaigns. And admirably, Vision Zero is designed to be a results-oriented, no-nonsense, and data-driven effort. Fair enough.

But judge by the grisly traffic statistics of 2017, we’re failing. Almost everywhere you look, traffic injuries and crashes are increasing. The final national numbers aren’t in, but the trend is clearly toward higher road deaths. To focus on Portland for a moment, where Elizabeth Meyers was killed, the 50 traffic deaths recorded in 2017 were the highest number in two decades. After years of declines, traffic deaths in Portland have spiked in the past three years:

After averaging 31 traffic deaths per year between 2005 and 2014, traffic deaths have jumped 60% over the past three years.

There’s a lot of finger-pointing about distracted driving (and red herrings, like distracted pedestrians), but there’s a simpler explanation for what’s at work here. Americans are driving more, and as a result, more people are dying on the roads. As the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute’s Todd Litman noted, international comparisons make it clear that miles driven are an significant and independent risk factor that’s much higher in the US than in other developed countries. As Litman puts it:

…don’t blame high traffic death rates on inadequate traffic safety efforts, blame them on higher per capita vehicle travel, and therefore automobile-dependent transportation planning and sprawl-inducing development policies; those are the true culprits.

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The effects are big enough to show up in mortality statistics: American children are twice as likely to die in automobile crashes as are children in other advanced countries, which is a major contributor to the higher child mortality rate in the US.

After more than a decade of moderation in driving (motivated largely by high gas prices), driving in the US started increasing again when oil prices collapsed in 2014. Data from the US Department of Transportation trace a clear uptick in driving in the past three years.

The result, inevitably has been increased carnage on the highways.

There’s some good news out of the Oregon Legislature in the past year. The legislature gave the city permission to set lower speed limits on city streets, and the city has just authorized a new speed limit of 20 miles per hour that will apply to many of the city’s residential neighborhoods.

As important as this move is–excessive speed is a key contributor to fatalities–it does nothing to address the conditions that led to the death of Elizabeth Meyers. Sandy Boulevard is a multi-lane arterial street, the kind that the region’s safety analysis has determined to be the deadliest part of the roadway system. The city has been working on pedestrian improvements, and efforts to reduce speeding and red-light running. But in the area just east of where Meyers died, a section of roadway controlled by the Oregon Department of Transportation, the state agency rejected city efforts to lower posted speeds:

In response to a community request to reduce the posted 35 MPH speed on the east end of NE Sandy Blvd, traffic speed counts were taken east of 85th Avenue in early 2014 as part of the High Crash Corridor evaluation. 85th percentile speeds were 40.3 MPH. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) reviews and makes decisions on posted speed reduction requests. ODOT will not consider speed reductions that are 10 MPH or more below the 85th percentile speed. Therefore, ODOT would not approve a speed reduction on outer NE Sandy Blvd near 85th Ave.

(City of Portland, Bureau of Transportation, NE Sandy Blvd High Crash Corridor Safety Plan, 2014, page 5)

The grisly trend indicated by the traffic death data of the past three years tells us that as hard as we’re trying to achieve Vision Zero, we’re not trying hard enough. The biggest risk factor is just the sheer amount of driving we do, and with the boost to driving in recent years from lower fuel prices, it was predictable that deaths would increase. If we’re serious about Vision Zero, we ought to be doing more to design places where people can easily live while driving less, and where people can walk without regularly confronting speeding automobiles.

We clearly have a lot of work to do.

— Joe Cortright, City Observatory

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Shoupian
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Shoupian

Joe, thanks for posting this article. There is a cognitive dissonance in most people on the issue of traffic safety and mobility. Most people would agree (at least I hope) that as a society we should reduce traffic fatalities and injuries as much as possible and no one thinks it’d be a good trade-off under any circumstances for themselves to be killed or injured on the road. Yet, most people also consider mobility, especially auto-mobility as a right, and oppose any safety program that would impede speed and convenience in order to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities.

The most disappointing fact is that our elected officials and public agency leaders understand this contradiction very well. But driving is still very easy and cheap in Portland, and our elected officials and transportation bureau are leading the charge to induce even more driving by supporting the I-5 Freeway Expansion. Based on the data and trends in your article, this is a $450 million project that goes directly against the City’s Vision Zero goal.

soren
Guest
soren

The increase in driving in Portland is probably not only about lower fuel cost. The cost of housing and the lack of tenant protections is displacing many who walk, bike, or bus. Anecdotally, I know multiple people who previously lived a largely car-free lifestyle in the inner city who are now car-dependent because they were forced to move to the periphery or outside of Portland

More on how housing stress is likely decreasing transit mode share in the Portland area:

http://www.wweek.com/news/city/2017/11/18/trimet-blames-economic-displacement-for-portland-area-decline-in-bus-riders/

As Portland increasingly becomes an exclusive playground for rentiers and the rich it will also increasingly become a car-centric city.

igor
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igor

I’m not following the math on Sandy. If the 85th percentile speed was 40.5, then wouldn’t ODOT allow the speed to be lowered by up to 9.9mpg (i.e. 30.6 mph)?

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

Maybe more enforcement isn’t the answer and we need a culture change, but it isn’t going to happen by itself. IMO, here’s what needs to happen, I’m sure y’all will have additions to this list:

-Motor vehicle advertising on TV and in print needs to be banned or severely restricted; at a minimum, advertisements depicting dangerous driving behavior need to be eliminated (remember ‘Truth in Advertising’?).

-Gas taxes need to be increased exponentially, and used to cover both the direct and indirect/external costs of excessive motor vehicle use, including environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel consumption, and funding of infrastructure for transit, walking and cycling. Making ‘cyclists pay there own way’ is complete BS when not a single motorist pays their own way.

-Congestion pricing needs to be implemented immediately on all major local ‘freeways’.

-A weight limit needs to be placed on personal vehicles sold for use or operated in urban environments, so that the most dangerous large trucks and SUVs are prohibited from operating in these environments.

bikeninja
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bikeninja

Good News ( for cyclists and pedestrians anyway). U.S. crude oil inventories are being drawn down steeply in the last 6 weeks, leading to predicted price increases for gasoline in the coming months.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-oil-eia/u-s-crude-stocks-drop-led-by-record-outflow-from-cushing-hub-eia-idUSKBN1F728N

Doug Hecker
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Doug Hecker

Much like the city wants greenways to be “bike highways” so should streets like Sandy and Foster be reserved for people who drive into the city from the outer reaches. I imagine most of the people on this board are white males who are used to changing most things once they are force to move to east portland, much like myself. The bus services and bike facilities will not and do not get the same attention as the 20’s. It seems like we are only focused on transportation but I would argue that it goes much deeper. People get pushed out of their place for various reasons and they simply can’t drop their vehicles and begin to ride their bike around town or take a 75 minute bus ride. It simply doesn’t work that way. People have lives and they must go on. The strong white presence on this blog will find many hurdles when reaching out to people who aren’t white if the entire reasons as to why people drive isn’t understood. The great white hope hasn’t always turned out well. There’s plenty of examples of you would like for me to provide them. And yes, I bike daily. It’s easy to have tunnel vision, I get it.

just one skip remount
Guest
just one skip remount

We slacked on keeping our awesome places close in. People who can afford to drive and park swooped in on the ideal real estate that allowed those convenient, care free bike rides.
We are now on the fringes of town and that clip on fender and rain jacket isnt enough.
Covered transportation is beginning to make sense to us because of the distance. As we try to hold on to those tight jean bike rides, we are scared because we are now the small fish in that high consequence commuter pond.
Portland had a good thing 10 years ago and social media heard our bragging about it loud and clear.

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

Considering that our roadway deaths are up much more than our miles driven, I’m not sure the case for increased driving being the cause of our increased CARnage is solid. I think the increased miles driven in Oregon as a percentage isn’t far off the nation as a whole, but our roadway deaths are up by a much greater amount.

Maybe we just don’t deal as well with increased traffic as other locales. Maybe adding cars in California just extends the number of hours everyone is sitting in stop-and-go traffic, but increasing traffic here is increasing the number of cars traveling at deadly speeds. I just don’t know, but perhaps someone here does.

chris m
Guest
chris m

It is kind of sad that economic growth in this country literally relies on increasing the amount of death. https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2016/september/shocking-new-study-shows-recessions-may-save-lives

Bjorn
Guest
Bjorn

Normalizing injury and fatality data by VMT is a convenient way to make it look like we aren’t doing so bad when VMT is trending up. If vision zero is the real goal then it shouldn’t matter what the denominator is.

stephan
Guest
stephan

Thank you for Joe this pointed contribution. As a parent with two little kids, it serves as a good reminder that the best I can do for them is to reduce the amount I travel with them; good point to bring up in discussions where other parents raise their concern about me biking around with the kids.

Jonathan Radmacher
Guest
Jonathan Radmacher

Joe (or anyone, for that matter), I’m curious if there is any basis for concluding that lowering the speed from 25 to 20 can or will make any difference in traffic deaths; at the very least, there should be some statistics about how many people going 25 mph killed someone. For example, Fallon Smart was not killed by someone going 25 mph on Hawthorne. If, instead, the argument is that it might get people going 35 to go 30 mph instead, why not just more aggressively enforce existing speed rules?

joe Fortino
Guest
joe Fortino

Anyone know I-5 boons bridge? only way to cross river to get to Camby is shoulder of I-5
and this bridge is high crash zone with shoulder being dirty to ride on now… oh and Wilsonville trying to get another expansion project.. * wish they get french praie bridge going as ped and bike bridge * ODOT 🙁

Andrew Kreps
Guest
Andrew Kreps

Let’s lower the speed limit on East Sandy to 31mph, problem solved.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

Nice piece, Joe.