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Parents, PBOT, and PPS struggle to tame traffic around Tubman

Posted by on October 24th, 2018 at 12:28 pm

Bicycle and car users stream down Flint Avenue as a Tubman Middle School crossing guard watches.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“Everyone’s afraid their kid is going to get hit.”
— Jillian Wieseneck

No one was surprised when a sixth-grade student was hit by a car driver while crossing North Flint at Russell near Harriet Tubman Middle School last week.

Both times in the past three years that this school has re-opened to students, attempts have been made to educate the public about the traffic chaos that takes place in front of the school each day during drop-off and pick-up. This year the site houses a middle school and observers say conditions are worse than ever before. And as reported in more detail by The Oregonian this week, parents had flagged dangerous conditions on Flint for months prior to the opening of school.

Today, some parents remain afraid for their children’s safety and they’re frustrated at the lack of respect their concerns have been shown by PBOT thus far. Portland Public Schools and PBOT are aware of the issues and are taking (and have taken) steps to make it better; but will it be enough? And will it happen soon enough?

PBOT and the school respond

A Tubman staff person effectively closed the intersection to students yesterday.

Some safety updates to Flint have been made already and there have been some educational efforts. There are now a few speed bumps in front of the school and there are striped crosswalks on both sides of N Page Street (which is adjacent to the school’s main entrance). There are big “School is in Session” banners and signs in the neighborhood that urge people to use caution.

PBOT was quoted in The Oregonian article that striping of Flint and Russell is coming soon. The City’s Safe Routes to School program staff are also in touch with parents about holding an educational event. Tubman’s Principal Natasha Butler and a PBOT Safe Routes to School Program Coordinator Lale Santelices signed onto a join email to parents yesterday stating they are, “Deeply concerned whenever anyone is injured on our streets.” They also shared a map:

Map sent to parents via email by Tubman principal yesterday.

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And while Principal Butler and PBOT’s Santelices say “We believe [Flint Ave and Russell] would benefit from markings,” they are also calling on the community to focus on education. “There are limits on the effectiveness of infrastructure, so we will need community support to encourage safe behavior from everyone: commuters and the school community alike.”

We’ve also heard that PBOT is planning another educational campaign that will encourage parents who drive to the school to park “away from the school” and walk the rest of the way. For people biking south on Flint, PBOT will encourage them to stay on Vancouver and then turn right on Tillamook to connect back to Flint. For cut-through drivers that want to access the Broadway Bridge, the city will ask them to consider taking Russell to Interstate instead.

What an expert thinks

Kari Schlosshauer is the Portland-based Pacific Northwest Senior Policy Manager with the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. She thinks both educational and infrastructure solutions are needed.

“It’s unfortunate that these concerns [about the crosswalk at Flint and Russell] were not addressed prior to the school re-opening,” Schlosshauer said, “and I can empathize with the school community’s frustration.” “Regardless of where marked crossings exist, we know that people will follow their ‘desire line’ and take the most direct path to their destination,” she added. “Telling students not to cross somewhere will only work while someone is stationed at that intersection. It will continue to be dangerous until there is an engineering change.”

Conditions on Flint

Speed bumps were recently installed.

Large school buses add to the stress.

It is really chaotic. There is a steady of stream of bicycle riders, auto users, and even a few large big-rig trucks came barreling down while I was there; not to mention all the kids (being kids) walking to school. All the traffic would be bad on its own, but because there are so many different behaviors going on, the conditions feel even more stressful. Many people using Flint in the morning are just cutting-through to somewhere else. That type of use does not mix well with people who are trying to access the school.

Another thing I noticed was very bad choices being made by bicycle riders. People on bikes swooped around crosswalk users at high speeds and I even saw a guy flying down the left side of the road, seemingly frustrated by all the traffic and just wanting to avoid it all.

And the corner of Flint and Russell is very dangerous and complicated. There are several different movements happening, and it’s downhill so you have that speed/momentum factor of bicycle users. I think a marked crosswalk would help here, but I doubt it would suddenly solve the problems. Given that so much of the danger comes from automobiles — and that educational efforts are likely to have only limited impact — we’ve heard from some activists who think Flint should be closed to driving during drop-off and pick-up. Carfree school zones are common in cities in The Netherlands and the idea has recently spread to Norway.

Parents’ perspective

There are just a few parents advocating for safety upgrades. I met two of them at the school yesterday. Jillian Wieseneck and Joan Petit both have students at Tubman. Jillian’s work so far has been key to getting the new crossings striped at Page Street. And while she’s glad to see some movement, it still feels like too little too late — especially since someone has been hurt. “This whole thing could have been started last year,” she said, while we stood on the corner of Flint and Russell.

Wieseneck lives in Irvington and for years her kids enjoyed a very safe walk to a nearby school. But getting to Tubman is much more dangerous. From their home near NE 14th and Tillamook, Wieseneck’s child and other kids her neighborhood have to cross 7th, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Williams, Vancouver, and Flint before they are safely in class. “Everyone’s afraid their kid is going to get hit,” she said. Wieseneck thinks establishing a safe route for biking and walking to school should have been done before the start of school. She’s also frustrated because her neighborhood is not served by a free school bus. “All of us would send our kids on buses if we could, just to get them off the streets,” she said. “We’re less than 1.5 miles away, so we don’t get a bus; yet we also don’t have a safe route, so we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Wieseneck and fellow school parent Joan Petit want a flashing beacon to aid crossers of Flint at Russell. “Just like the one Legacy [Hospital] put in up the street,” Petit said, pointing north where a flashing beacon and crosswalk was installed in 2011. They also want signals and/or a striped crosswalk on Page at Vancouver and Williams.

Both of these moms feel that educational efforts could have a huge impact.

“You can influence kids,” Wieseneck said, “Especially now. They’re scared. They saw the girl get hit. Now they know it’s a reality.”

CORRECTION, 10/25 at 4:22pm: This post originally attributed an email as coming from Tubman Principal Natasha Butler. I failed to mention that a PBOT Safe Routes to School staffer was a co-signer to that email. I regret the error.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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17 Comments
  • Chris I October 24, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    The city should try out a time-based closure for this street. If gates were installed at the 3 main entry points, school guards could restrict all traffic except busses, bikes, and pedestrians during school dropoff and pickup times. Parents looking to pick up their kids by car could park a block or two away and then walk to meet them when they get released. This would be much safer for everyone.

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    • Esther October 25, 2018 at 12:43 pm

      They would have to have a way for parents or students with disabilities to be able to get in in their car as well.

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  • jb October 24, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    I agree that time based closure would work. I would restrict everything except busses and pedestrians. Just close flint in front of the school. Divert southbound traffic back up N. PAGE to Vancouver and northbound traffic up N. Tillamook back to Williams, bikes can follow the same diversion – no biggie (or get off and walk the block in front of the school would be simple enough). It would be a giant traffic snarl that would solve itself!

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  • Bald One October 24, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    It should not be a surprise that PBOT had yet to install a crosswalk by this school. In my experience, getting this action completed takes a minimum of 4 years of lobbying the city and Safe Routes to school programs (there are the convenient run-arounds of who is charged with these safety improvements). This work requires many letters, emails, and phone calls, but more frustrating, also requires getting it onto the city planning queue for “safety improvement projects” – which is many, many years long. That, if they just don’t say to go write a grant application. Getting it tagged and fast tracked by Safe Routes may improve this timeline, but is very dependent on whether your safety project makes the short list cut or not thus moving the multi-year process forward instead of stalling (also a function of how much letter writing and community organizing are done on this project).

    This school is not alone in this city in having a chaotic and mixed street which passes by it. It is only unique in that it had been closed previously, and has just now opened this year. If they are lucky, and they have lots of media coverage, this school will receive a new zebra paint job on the street out front within 2 years – that would be fast tracked. Perhaps this Oregonian story is accurate that it had already been slated for this painting, and so the only thing left to happen was the paint truck to roll by and do it… that would also be surprising, that this school, by the luck of having been closed for a number of years, got special attention to safety issues at the school prior to it’s re-opening and thus the many-year process of getting a new crosswalk was bypassed. If only every school that needed it was also so lucky.

    I think some parents at the school and PTA level look at these time lines and huge effort required and think by the time my first grader is leaving to go to middle school, they might get the crosswalk installed….so why bother with the letter writing campaign.

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    • Sigma October 24, 2018 at 3:47 pm

      From the article we are commenting on:

      “Some safety updates to Flint have been made already and there have been some educational efforts. There are now a few speed bumps in front of the school and there are striped crosswalks on both sides of N Page Street (which is adjacent to the school’s main entrance). ”

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  • TheCowabungaDude October 24, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    What if Flint was blocked (for all users) at Russell? People on bikes could continue down Vancouver and then turn right onto Tillamook to get onto Broadway. Also, people should not be allowed to turn left onto Page from Flint. It isn’t a U-turn like the map suggests to avoid, but it functions like one.
    I think the trick here is to reduce as much non-school traffic as possible. By eliminating people’s access to the street we reduce the number of users. PBOT’s suggestion of the park and walk is pretty solid too.
    But in all honesty, my first suggestion above would just lead to right hooks on Vancouver. I got nothing

    Or let’s just move the school somewhere else. It’s in a terrible location.

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  • bikeninja October 24, 2018 at 5:02 pm

    My idea is to redo the intersection of Vancouver and Broadway so that motorists can turn right on too Broadway from Vancouver, then put a diverter at the bottom of Flint so only bikes can continue on to Broadway from there. That would drop the auto traffic on Flint dramatically. The biggest problem with that idea is the exit from I5 that intersects with Broadway, but I would’t have a problem getting rid of that too.

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  • Matt S. October 25, 2018 at 6:23 am

    Another example of small town living in a big city. “I remember back in the day when you could drop your child off at school and be at work in 25 minutes.” I imagine now it probably takes well over an hour. Flint is example of the frustration people have with how congested the city is.

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    • Matt S. October 25, 2018 at 6:28 am

      Also, what do people think about the behavior of bicyclists: when there’s this much traffic, should a biker remain in line with cars and be part of traffic or do we still have the right to go around cars? I know I have an attitude that If I’m going to ride my bike to work, I shouldn’t have to sit in traffic.

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      • John Lascurettes October 25, 2018 at 9:14 am

        You should never go around to the right of a car in a passenger drop-off zone. You’re asking to get pinched or to hit a kiddo.

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      • joan October 25, 2018 at 3:15 pm

        I think that, during the busiest morning times, cyclists should stay on Vancouver a few more blocks and turn right on Tillamook and avoid the school zone completely. It’s faster that way anyway.

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        • X October 25, 2018 at 10:34 pm

          It’s faster if there’s not other traffic coming down Flint. Fine with me if Flint is diverted to all but buses and delivery vehicles, but I suspect the biggest constituency against diverting private vehicles off Flint would be parents of pupils at the school.

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        • X October 25, 2018 at 10:53 pm

          People on bikes can be kind of “chaotic neutral” at times but let’s remember what description of vehicle was in fact piloted into a child near the school, and what makes those vehicles different from the ones that people on bikes are using. Massive, enclosed, over-powered machines designed to go really fast on freeways and mountains, if you believe their advertising. Scattering pedestrians occasionally, if you believe their advertising. Meh.

          I’m a pedestrian every day, on city streets, in my neighborhood, walking to the store or to the train. I see the exact problems with car operation that led to an injured child, and I’ve had people in cars give me gratuitous advice about where and how to walk.

          Calls for bikes to give up a street currently marked as a bike route, to solve a manifest problem with car operation, are not well taken.

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  • X October 25, 2018 at 10:59 am

    This is frustrating for so many reasons. I think kids should be able to walk or ride to school safely but–

    *Somebody drove their car into the space a kid was in BUT we’re talking about bikes…
    *…because too many people ride their bikes like self-centered jerks, and…
    *…the person in charge of the car didn’t get any of the possible traffic tickets…
    *…but we’re not talking about the police fecklessness toward VRU…
    *…because cars whacking people is just like, another Tuesday.

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    • Matt S. October 25, 2018 at 7:05 pm

      This is a bike blog after all…

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 25, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    CORRECTION, 10/25 at 4:22pm: This post originally attributed an email as coming from Tubman Principal Natasha Butler. I failed to mention that a PBOT Safe Routes to School staffer was a co-signer to that email. I regret the error.

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  • Mark smith October 27, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    The irony that people who drive are complaining about the chaos from “people who drive’. It’s a simple equation. Make the street less inviting for people who drive.

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