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We can’t fix what we don’t know: Why access to information is key to Vision Zero

Posted by on October 11th, 2018 at 3:47 pm

*Watch how many people drive in front of this man while he waits for a chance to cross.

This post was written by our Adventures in Activism column co-editor Catie Gould.

On the evening of April 7th, Alex Hubert was crossing to the MAX platform to catch a northbound Yellow Line train back home when he was struck by a car. There was no police alert on Twitter. There were no news reports. But I was there.

This post is about my attempt to learn more about the safety issues at the intersection and find out why they haven’t been fixed.

Busy MAX station, narrow crosswalk, conflicting signals. It’s a bad recipe.

The day Alex was hit I was on a southbound train that pulled into the station minutes afterwards. After stepping out on the platform, the reason for the traffic back-up was obvious. An SUV was stopped in the left lane of Interstate Avenue. Alex was down, bleeding on the ground. Paramedics had not yet arrived. Like everyone else, I crossed against the walk light because traffic was stopped.

This intersection serves as a major connection for transit, connecting the MAX Yellow line with other MAX and bus lines in the Rose Quarter. It should be one of the safest locations to walk in our city, but years of injuries have gone unnoticed.

Since the City of Portland adopted Vision Zero in 2015, a publicly accessible map attempts to show all the injuries and fatalities on Portland roads. There are four injuries shown at this location, but due to the way data is collected, it could be another couple years before Alex’s injury is added.

Because of what I saw that day, I wanted to know more about this intersection. Doing that turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated.

PBOT’s Vision Zero Crash Map shows four injury collisions here since 2006. The yellow lines show that Interstate is a designated high-crash corridor.

The Vision Zero map doesn’t contain enough information about the circumstances of crashes to be useful. The Portland Bureau of Transportation collects some police reports, but was not able to share any with me. This meant I had to file public records requests with the Portland Police, a process that takes $30 per report and weeks to months of waiting.

Once I received it, the police report for that April 2018 collision concluded Alex had crossed against the walk signal, and was therefore at fault. When police interviewed him at the hospital, Alex had no memory of the crash. He had blacked out from his concussion, waking up inside an MRI machine. Another driver who had already left the scene and left their contact information with the driver of the car, was the only third-party interviewed by the responding officer. Here’s what PPB Officer Daniel Ring wrote in the report:

“The pedestrian was sprinting from East to West on Multnomah St and ran through Interstate Ave. She [witness] believed he was even outside the crosswalk. Traffic in the slow lane on Interstate Ave was heavy and jammed up. The pedestrian ran through traffic/vehicles in the slow lane, dodging them, before running into the passenger side of the involved vehicle in the fast lane.”

Crossing Interstate Avenue to get to the MAX platform is notoriously difficult and people cross when they can, instead of by the signal. In a similar collision that occurred on the morning of January 11th, 2012, three witnesses told police that a person was struck while walking to the MAX platform by a northbound vehicle who had a green light. According to the crash report, Daniel Whipple did not remember what the walk signal was and said when people started to move, he just walked with them.

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Police cited Whipple for failing to obey a traffic control device and failing to yield to a vehicle. A PPB officer visited him in the hospital and left the ticket in a bag next to his bed with the rest of the his belongings. The officer noted in his report that, “I regularly patrol this area and know from experience that pedestrians regularly disregard the traffic control devices there.”

A PPB officer visited him in the hospital and left the ticket in a bag next to his bed with the rest of the his belongings.

Crossing with the signal is not much safer. Two years later on the rainy afternoon of January 8th, 2014 a man turning right from Multnomah to Interstate struck and knocked over a woman using a motorized wheelchair who was crossing to the MAX platform. In this case, both the driver and the woman in the crosswalk had a green light. Surprisingly, this type of signal timing is common, says Dylan Rivera a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

In response to my inquiries, Rivera said that, “Aside from the intense public transit use there, this intersection is, generally-speaking, not unique.”

It turns out I’m not the only one who’s been concerned about this intersection. A woman named Erin Moreland reported this signal conflict on a different leg of the intersection to the city’s 823-SAFE hotline in the summer of 2016. Back then she took the Yellow line to the Rose Quarter and walked the rest of the way to her job downtown several times a week. After a few experiences of drivers not yielding to her she filed a safety concern on the website.

“As a pedestrian, crossing NE Multnomah on the west side of Interstate Ave, there is a ‘walk signal’ at the same time as drivers traveling south on interstate have a green light for turning right onto Multnomah- where pedestrians are crossing. This feels dangerous, and several times I have had drivers not yield to me and instead drive through the pedestrian crossing area when technically I should be crossing at the same time.”

Moreland’s 823-SAFE ticket was reviewed two months later and subsequently referred to PBOT’s Signals and Street Lighting division under a new number. From there, the paper trail stops. At the time of this publication PBOT was unable to provide any documentation of an investigation. No action seems to have been taken.

An 823-SAFE ticket that was received by PBOT but never addressed.

The day after the crash I went back to the Rose Quarter and watched how people used the intersection, hoping to settle my feelings about what I’d seen. I witnessed a man using a walker attempt to cross the street. The walk sign turned on. He waited as person after person turned their car right across the crosswalk — eight drivers total. By the time all of them had passed through, the walk signal was long gone, and the man crossed against the light.

Despite the numerous injuries here, this intersection has not been identified for any improvements. Upgrading the signal timing here is complex because of the multiple transit signals and an outdated traffic control system. A spokesperson for TriMet toldme they’ll be replacing the tracks and upgrading the signal controller for the Rose Quarter in 2020. The new signals will allow for increased train movement, but no safety upgrades are planned as of yet. PBOT’s Rivera said on Wednesday they’ve raised this issue with TriMet and staff from both organizations have recently met to discuss the project.

There are probably hundreds of other intersections like this one across Portland. They have a history of close-calls and injuries, but aren’t deadly or sensational enough to be picked up by the media or be the focus of a PBOT initiative. And as I’ve shared in this post, information that can help concerned Portlanders like us take action or follow-up — such as the status of 823-SAFE complaints, or crash details available only in police reports — are hard to come by and not publicly available.

To achieve Vision Zero — to, “eliminate deaths and serious injuries on our streets by 2025” — we’ll need to make information like this easier to come by. Without a doubt we are missing other opportunities, and more people will get hurt until we do a better job of noticing.

Alex is feeling better these days. His broken ribs have healed, but he still has a persistent pain in his knee and still uses the MAX to commute downtown from his home in Vancouver, Washington. When I contacted him this week about the incident he said, “I’m glad I don’t remember it.”

— Catie Gould, @Citizen_Cate on Twitter

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Matt
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Matt

It’s crazy how hard it is to get from the yellow line to the other lines here. Why not have walk signs in all directions for 2 min when a max train pulls in. Yeah, it would be annoying to drive through, but drive somewhere else. The engineering here is so bad.

maxD
Guest
maxD

This is a major transit hub with almost no design thought. through traffic and transit should be separated on different levels here . Hopefully Portland will get going on the subway through downtown idea, and this will become a partially underground hub with Interstate Ave and Multnomah running over the roof. They could put 20 stories of office and residential above it and pay for part of it!

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

I’m trying to figure what the writer is saying when they are talking about pedestrians crossing the street against the light… are you saying that people shouldn’t receive tickets? I know it is the City’s goal to essentially create a transportation system where people can freely move whenever they deem fit but the clearly don’t work because other people may be moving or occupying where they want to be or go. Whether I am biking, scootering, or driving, I see one common theme. Yes, I know people like to downplay this notion but even in your write you mention it, people being distracted or not paying attention to when it is their time to go. When users don’t abide by the law they have two options 1. Be willing to deal with the consequences or 2. Hope that you can beat whoever is rightly occupying the space.
Also, the data, like you said , is terrible. We don’t know if these events happened after a Blazers game, time of day, weather conditions, and the condition of the person who is occupying the space or the person hoping to occupy the space. These matter. Plastic wands, diverters, and camera can’t and won’t stop people from doing what they want to do. I’m all for calling the city. I’ve called SAFE innumerable times and at this point it’s a lost cause. Same for calling the Right of Way line… still waiting for a callback about Portland Pedal Tours occupying sidewalks in the inner core. It’s only been 7 weeks.

The most saddest part of all of this, we don’t have police officers actively policing so our laws are essentially only needed after an event occurs because it is very clear, PPB isn’t writing many tickets for distracted driving, scootering on sidewalks, pedestrians jaywalking, or cyclists ghosting lights. I won’t even say that I haven’t done any of those things because that simply wouldn’t be true.

emerson
Subscriber

maxD
This is a major transit hub with almost no design thought. through traffic and transit should be separated on different levels here . Hopefully Portland will get going on the subway through downtown idea, and this will become a partially underground hub with Interstate Ave and Multnomah running over the roof. They could put 20 stories of office and residential above it and pay for part of it!Recommended 3

While an excellent idea, that would require a level of vision and practical action that is unheard of on this country (let alone state and city).

Of course, it would be far less expensive to divert autos away from these areas of people-focus … but see my previous point.

mark
Guest
mark

I’ve heard that police will not issue citations for offenses they do not personally witness. Is this actual policy? I’m concerned that the police will take the time to visit the hospital to deliver a citation to someone who might not even be conscious, and has no recollection of the event. They will take the driver’s word for what happened, because surely the driver has no bias and no reason to falsely claim they did nothing wrong.

Zoe
Guest
Zoe

I’m curious – where do the majority of Portland’s police officers live? I recently heard that many of them live in Vancouver or in the suburbs. If that’s accurate, I wonder to what extent this (residing in car-oriented neighborhoods) contributes to their bias towards car drivers and against people walking or cycling. I’m sure someone here has looked into this more than I have… looking forward to others’ thoughts on this.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

I am getting tired of “Vision Zero”.

I do not think a reasonable goal is to have “zero injuries to reckless persons” like the one described here, who was sprinting across Interstate outside of the crosswalk and against the walk signal. Isn’t that more of a “Darwin Award” situation?

Sorry but both money and impetus are in finite supply. Do we have enough to ensure the safety of people who throw themselves recklessly into traffic?

I’d like to amend the goal to “zero injuries to persons acting with due care”.

Scott Kocher
Guest

Catie, thank you for this excellent article. I am working with Families for Safe Streets and Oregon Walks to review the crashes that killed 19 people on foot and using mobility devices (aka “pedestrians”), which was a record high number in Portland last year. Ten months and $571 of public records fees to PPB later I only have 11 of them. They should be uploaded to the VZ crash map as soon as the DA’s office releases them, which is generally prompt (and solvable when it’s not). As is, the VZ crash map has very limited usefulness. The ability of the community to understand crashes is limited to (a) PPB releases in the aftermath (“driver remained at the scene” is not what we need to know), and (b) PBOT aggregate data 2 years later. Plus what Jonathan posts on BP when he is able. I hope the police report sync-ing will happen, and someone will help with the signal you describe.

Alex Reedin
Guest
Alex Reedin

I’m fascinated by the difficulty of making minor signal changes like Catie suggests (eliminating a right-turn arrow). In my fantasy world, a PBOT engineer would be able to modify the programming routine in under an hour on their desktop. The matter of getting the new programming routine to the signal remains – I can see a good case for not connecting signals to the Internet. (Although, plenty of mission-critical things like equipment on the electric grid is connected to super-secure networks). But with new signals, it shouldn’t be any harder than schlepping over to the signal and plugging in something like a flash drive.

I’m sure the reality is way more complicated than that, but I’d love to read something by, say, Peter Koonce (hint hint) explaining exactly how. Do we have 98% old signals that have to be manually and painstakingly reprogrammed at the site? Are the signal controllers often underground and really hard to access? In the world of the Internet of Things

Mick O
Guest
Mick O

“The pedestrian ran through traffic/vehicles in the slow lane, dodging them, before running into the passenger side of the involved vehicle in the fast lane.” — PPB Officer Daniel Ring

Slow lane? Fast lane? Portland police think we have “fast lanes”?

Catie
Guest
Catie

There are a couple other points about infrastructure that didn’t fit into the article that I hope adds to conversation about what we can do to improve this:

– Interstate Ave is a high crash corridor. Like most of the other high crash corridors, this is a function of having 2 auto lanes in each direction. This creates inherently unsafe situations for pedestrians since someone can cross one lane safely and still be invisible to oncoming cars in the next lane. Portland doesn’t seem to have a real strategy around these 4 lane roads other than more signage like rapid flash beacons.

-There is no walk light in the middle island with the MAX train. This makes it very difficult for autos in the right turn lane to see that the walk light is on from their angle and distance. Add in that the countdown is in red, its easy to get confused from a distance what the walk signal is.

– This MAX station is so far from the others that when this crash occurred, Trimet employees at the Blue/Red/Green line station were totally unaware of it. This also creates a pretty long distance that people have to walk to make transfers. It is rare to catch both walk lights at Multnomah and Interstate, which adds to the time delay of getting to the platform.

– The walk signal here is timed so that a pedestrian can cross the whole of Interstate Ave without getting stopped at the MAX station. I am not sure if we even measure data in this way, but I think it is a very small minority that cross here without getting on/off a MAX train. This creates a very long walk signal/limited times it can be on and further increases the odds that you will be stuck waiting at Multnomah anyways.

– Another, often forgotten piece of infrastructure, is the frequency of the Yellow Line. If headways were <5 minutes it is less likely that anyone would run to catch the train. Similar to other MAX stations on the East side, this is a bleak place to wait 15 minutes for a train if you miss yours.

Another Engineer
Guest
Another Engineer

Saying the signals conflict at this location is an incorrect statement. The pedestrians have the legally protected movement and the right turning vehicles have a permissive movement. The vehicles failure to yield could be enforced.

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

Katie,

It’s not clear to me if the scenario you describe at the end of the article is the video posted, but the video posted does not match your description.
In the video the pedestrian signal has already begun counting down before the person with the walker has reached the yellow ADA surface at the edge of the platform. By law, pedestrians are not supposed to begin crossing if the flashing hand and/or countdown have begun. Clearly some more able-bodied pedestrians use the countdown to estimate their ability to cross before the countdown ends, but it does not change who is responsible in the event of a collision (all road users being responsible for safe use of the public rights of way).

The caption for the video would be more accurate if it said “Watch impatient pedestrians cross against the pedestrian signal, further delaying legal right turns.”

The merits of changing how the signal operates, more walk, less countdown, are legitimate items for discussion, and I encourage such further discussion and strategies in any future VZ design programs. There are many strategies toward achieving Vision Zero, not the least of which is better road user behavior, regardless of how those road users choose to travel.

Catie
Guest
Catie

I hadn’t heard of this. This crosswalk has a pretty long countdown that takes up a majority of the cycle. In another video I took, the walk sign is on for just 7 seconds, but PBOT probably has better numbers on this.

Doug Klotz
Subscriber

I was recently in Amsterdam, where trams (light rail?) are often in their own lanes in the middle of the street. There are multiple walk signs: One to get you from curb to the tram platform (usually across a single auto lane). A second one to get you across the rail lines. A third one to get you to the other curb. They are often not all on “walk” at the same time. While this can be confusing for out-of-towners, it seems to work pretty well, and doesn’t require the long curb-to-curb time pedestrian phase. (I left out the complication of crossing the raised bike lanes (unsignalized), before you get to the curb at the edge of the auto lane.)

Kevin G
Guest
Kevin G

I’ve used this intersection as a MAX-associated pedestrian many times. Without litigating the specific circumstances of recent collisions, it does seem like pedestrians do not receive appropriate priority here vis-a-vis motor vehicles. Doing a MAX transfer here, N-bound Interstate is not the only obstacle; Multnomah is also a problem. Jaywalking Multnomah mid-block, where there is a big island separating the lanes, is, I judge, more reliable, predictable, and safer, than using the pedestrian crossing at block end, despite a small amount of indirection. There should, for sure, be no right turn on red from Multnomah to N-bound Interstate. Wheeler, the third necessary road crossing at the Rose Quarter, is low-volume, one-way, and does not pose similar issues for pedestrians.

The other big multi-line transfer point downtown at Courthouse square has no comparable problems with motor vehicles impeding transfers.

Bald One
Guest
Bald One

This entire area has many issues, and then there are major biking through-ways in here. The river, rails, and freeways make shoe-horning the rest of us into some pretty cramped spaces very difficult. Re-engineering the entire traffic flow around this area might make a lot of sense (if only we had $4.5B to do it with):

1) Max trains probably can’t be re-routed from here. Let’s give them and the people that get on and off them at this location the priority.
2) Restrict the auto traffic to go around this area or divert via another route. It seems re-designing the steel bridge access for autos might make some sense. Having vehicles trying to get onto the Steel bridge go the long way around the rose garden and collesium, come up Interstate for a protected right turn to the bridge would reduce these conflicts.
3) why do major bikeways go right through here? Although, this area needs bike access, it does not need to be the cross-roads of major bikeways. The bikes can get routed out of downtown and off of Williams/Vancouver a different way altogether. If cyclists want to access Max or Rose garden, no problem, just ride there, but probably only 0.1% of cyclists using this area actually have it as a destination for that trip. Time for bronze-plated Portland to put in some high-speed, high-focused bike facility that is not a bunch of green paint and stop signals routed chicane-like through a bus and transit mall. Let’s think super-tunnel overpasses for bikes, or perhaps super-wide, tree-lined (natural buffers, not concrete ones) parkways with no impediments or engineered stops and no motors allowed.
4) buses? seems like most of the buses are just not doing much useful in this area, just using it as a staging/holding area. maybe Tri-met could re-route one or two lines here, and focus on optimizing the light rail.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

Sounds like we better close that right turn to cars until we figure out the problem.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

It is astonishing how much paperwork and how little action VZ has generated.

Will this invert now that Leah has departed?

Alex Reedin
Guest
Alex Reedin

Thinking big picture here, would it be feasible to have a project in the 10-20 yr timeframe to:
-Close the Steel Bridge to cars (thus enabling RQTC to be safe and pleasant for people walking)
-Add MAX tracks each way
-I bet that would need structural retrofit for the weight
-While you’re at a structural retrofit, do an earthquake retrofit
?

This would do a lot to allay the Steel Bridge bottleneck and buy time for an eventual, expensive subway.

Ted G
Guest
Ted G

This story leaves me wondering about the criteria the author used to make the claim that the intersection is “unsafe” or that something is “wrong” and must be fixed. If I am reading the map correctly it is showing 2 pedestrian injury crashes at the location this guy was hit, between 2007 and 2015. Considering the volume of people moving through this spot, every day and all day, this does not seem like a lot. I would certainly agree that the Rose Quarter Transit is very poorly designed and getting through it is always challenging, no matter your mode of travel. But I think the data suggests that people adapt.
I did not read all the comments, but I did not see any “fixes” that would have prevented this incident from happening. The Police report states that he was injured when he ran into the PASSENGER SIDE of the vehicle. I just don’t think any amount of infrastructure will save people from themselves.
Yes, every injury and every death on our streets is a tragic loss. But people die tragically in many different ways and those losses are just as tragic. I whole-heartedly agree with advocating for the rights and safety of bikers and pedestrians, but to suggest the City is responsible for completely eliminating these specific types of deaths and injuries at all costs, regardless of the impact to other issues that threaten death and injury to other people in our community, seems…I don’t know…self-righteous.

igor
Guest
igor

As a casual MAX rider going through the Rose Quarter, I’ve always wondered about the design. Why not have a single station at the intersection of the red and yellow lines? I understand the historical reasons, and that I-5 makes a convenient cover from the rain, but for MAX users a cross-platform transfer, as is found at the Gateway or Beaverton Transit Centers is much easier, and as we’ve heard, less dangerous.