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Opinion: We want more progress on road safety, not more excuses

Posted by on January 15th, 2021 at 3:40 pm

Southeast Division near 130th.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

2020 was a horrible year on Portland roads. Depending on how you count*, somewhere between 54 and 58 people died on our streets. 34 of the 56 people on our list of fatalities were not inside a car when they were killed: Five bicycle riders, eight motorcycle riders, 19 people on foot, and two people who were asleep adjacent to the roadway.

This is a crisis, yet I worry we have become complacent to the carnage. In order to end this nightmare we must accept responsibility and build the urgency required to do more, faster. Unfortunately, the agency in charge of keeping our roads safe has been more interested in protecting their reputation than protecting our lives.

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On January 6th, the Portland Bureau of Transportation released a statement about the 2020 traffic toll. The headline read: “PBOT urges public to focus on wellness, caution as Portland sees a 24-year high number of people die in traffic crashes.” I was shocked when I read this — not because of the historic number but because it sounded like nothing more than “thoughts and prayers”.

PBOT filled the statement with a number of excuses about why so many people died: “Excessive speed and impairment,” “Alcohol consumption, as well as rates of anxiety and depression,” “Covid-19,” “Risky driving behavior,” “People driving are fatally crashing into fixed objects.” A PBOT spokesperson told The Oregonian that the steep 2020 tally, “Actually represents a decline in the death rate on our streets,” because our population has gone up so much in the past two decades.

This is an attempt to sanitize bad news. Besides that, the more important metric is vehicle miles traveled (not population growth), which was actually way down this year due to the pandemic, making the high death toll — and disrespectful PR spin — even more unacceptable.

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Former PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was asked by Oregon Public Broadcasting in late December to reflect on her time as bureau leader. “I know people like to criticize Vision Zero and think that it’s a failed program because we haven’t seen a dramatic reduction in traffic fatalities,” Eudaly responded. “But half of our fatalities are happening on ODOT facilities. We have no control over those roadways.” This claim not only deflects responsibility, it’s also false. According to PBOT’s own analysis, over the past five years an average of 34% of Portland traffic deaths happened on state-owned roads.

This is not the right tone and not the type of leadership we need from a city that has adopted Vision Zero.

Vision Zero means zero excuses. It means accepting responsibility and a commitment to the difficult, systemic changes necessary to prevent people from dying — even when they behave recklessly. Transportation departments have a long history of blaming human behavior for road deaths. They want to have it both ways: At ribbon-cuttings they tell us road designs change behaviors, but when the bodies pile up suddenly there’s just nothing they can do to prevent it.

When I shared PBOT’s year-end statement with Leah Shahum, executive director of Vision Zero Network (of which PBOT is a member), she gave credit to PBOT for their safety work, “But given the overall troubling and tragic numbers of traffic deaths and severe injuries citywide,” Shahum said, “it seems clear that this approach to prioritize safety over speed needs to be spread fully and systematically across the city to make life-saving changes… safe mobility for all will take a paradigm shift.”

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Scenes from one of PBOT’s Transportation Safety Summit events, which were held annually between 2006 and 2012.

10 years ago, long before Vision Zero came to town, things felt much different around this issue. We were hitting record low numbers of traffic fatalities and we had a mayor and PBOT commissioner who unequivocally prioritized traffic safety. Anyone remember the annual Transportation Safety Summit? These were important events that had a positive impact on the community and traffic culture in general. We should bring them back.

PBOT is doing some good things from a policy and project perspective. But it’s not nearly enough. As climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote in 2017, “Winning slowly is the same as losing”. When we win slowly in traffic safety work, more people die.

We are scared to walk and bike on our roads. We are grieving the loss of loved ones. We want progress, not excuses.

*Not all deaths that happen on the street are technically considered “traffic deaths” according to federal definitions, which is why my number (56) differs from the City of Portland (54) and the Portland Police Bureau (58).

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Hello, KittyJ_RJonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)Evan ManvelBicycling Al Recent comment authors
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Joe Hand
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Joe Hand

I will start believing PBOT actually embodies and cares about Vision Zero when employees driving city vehicles with Vision Zero stickers on them start driving the speed limit. Until then its nothing but a hollow marketing gimmick. Because if they cannot even follow the laws when driving themselves, in PBOT vehicles, they will never do it when planning and in other capacities.

Christian Samuel
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Christian Samuel

Not a surprise that PBOT gave a report full of excuses considering it has been headed by the demagogue Chloe Eudaly until the 1st of this year. Unfortunately, I expect we will see more of the same with the incoming director JoAnn Hardesty.

Hello, Kitty
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Hello, Kitty

I hate to say it, but 2021 is likely to be another bad year. I see nothing on the horizon to change our current trajectory. If anything, with no traffic division, it will be worse.

Please stay safe!!

Ernie A
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Ernie A

Thanks for this. Saw this earlier today on same subject, other end of the continent: https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2021/01/15/andrew-yang-rides-the-bus-and-then-sort-of-throws-pedestrians-under-one/

I saw it somewhere with a link to stats that showed while traffic deaths went down in absolute numbers in 2020, in miles traveled they were sharply up. Ugh.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

Typos:
34 of the 56 people on or list of fatalities were not inside a car when they were killed… “Or” should be “our.”

Unfortunately, the agency in charge of keeping our roads safe has been more interested in protecting their reputation than protecting our lives. Not really a typo, but it should be “agencies” and “have”, as to include ODOT, Port of Portland (Airport Road), and when you get down to it, all the other city and state DOTs nationwide, as well as USDOT.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

I remember the transportation safety summits very well, as I participated in most of them. As I recall, the first few were designed to get the many agencies, advocates, and nonprofits all in one room to talk with one another, something they rarely did before then. And it was successful for a year or two. But as I also recall, towards the end it became an excuse for the many agencies to have a joint “open house” of upcoming projects, and an invitation for us advocates (and the nonprofits) to lobby for particular policies and/or projects, or to bitch. By the end, it was no longer a “summit” and it wasn’t really about “safety” either – it was more a transportation planning agency festival, complete with snacks, prizes and bling.

I believe almost all were downtown and none were east of I-205 (though there was one in Lents one year.) 90% of the participants were white and none were poor or homeless. Agency staff dominated. Ultimately the program ended due to budget cuts.

Mike Quigley
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Mike Quigley

Remember, now, that in a democracy (or what’s left of one) the government reflects the people who elected it.

Fred
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Fred

Preliminary conclusions:

1. The PBOT commissioner in 2020 (Eudaly) was a disaster on every level.
2. The Portland commission-form of gov’t – uniquely dysfunctional among U.S. cities – is a continuing disaster that allows unqualified people like Eudaly to be in charge (now Hardesty – perhaps equally unqualified – is in charge).
3. Anyone who rides a bike knows traffic enforcement is nonexistent and drivers are completely out of control. Yes, reform the police but also REfund the police and bring back reasonable, necessary enforcement.

No more safety summits? – whatever. Address those three root causes and you might start to move the needle.

Lazy Spinner
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Lazy Spinner

The senior management and staff of PBOT needs to be replaced. It is a cadre of bureaucrats leftover from prior administrations that keep trafficking in old ideas and old behaviors. They are constantly studying problems but, never fixing them. They do not propose any bold initiatives rather, re-stripe some bike lanes or build a bike bridge in a wealthy neighborhood and sell those as bold. Forgive me Jonathan, I know that you need content and that you report bike news but, traffic calming bumps and flexible plastic bollards are not game changers.

I stopped bike commuting a few years ago because drivers are out of control and auto traffic is getting heavier on streets that required fixing 10 years ago. I have moved to the unfashionable suburbs simply because I can access quieter streets for my weekend recreational riding. I lost faith that “advocrats” would or could do anything meaningful. Our major bike advocacy group is now a catch all organization for anyone (peds, transit riders, roller skaters, etc.) not presently sitting in a motor vehicle. The so-called visionaries that were going to make Portland the best bike city in America seemed more interested in annual junkets to Copenhagen and Utrecht than truly improving infrastructure. Mayors and councilors used bikes as an occasional campaign prop instead of using them for personal commuting or leading by example.

It’s a sad joke and I no longer find the punchlines “Vision Zero”, “2030 Master Plan”, or “Platinum” funny.

Chopwatch
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Chopwatch

I will start believing when PBOT’s parking enforcement division and TSUP stops looking the other way on sovereign citizen like behaviors and egregious disregard for street rules by those with means, like extremely wealthy construction companies that do not think they have to follow rules right in broad daylight, closing off parking, closing lanes without proper processes without being held accountable.

Bicycling Al
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Bicycling Al

Ok, so this is Bike PORTLAND, and if you look at my annual heat map of bike travel, most of my miles are done in Gresham but much of what Jonathan wrote applies in east county as well. In my 4 decades of riding bikes, 3 of which include bike commuting, I suffered 5 collisions with vehicles. 2 of these were in the past 10 months! I feel like I’m getting more careful and attentive with age and experience and not less and yet my own data is very concerning.

Both of the latest accidents occurred due to issues that have been identified and have solutions. One was a driver making a right on red into me and the other was a driver failing to see me at a flashing light crossing. These aren’t situations I could have simply avoided by being “more careful” but they are entirely fixable with changes that would also result in fewer collisions between cars.

One is to ban right turns on red within the city and the other is to convert flashing light pedestrian crossings to just plain red, yellow and green traffic light ones. This isn’t rocket science but when I propose these, there’s suddenly a lot of opposition and “how are you going to pay for it” type excuses. Well, I’m already “paying for it” with my health and the city is already slowly converting to a no turn on red policy one intersection at a time, typically where serious injury has occurred. It’s time to stop these CYA do nothing measures and do the right thing.

Evan Manvel
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Evan Manvel

Curious as to why you argue vehicle miles travelled is a better metric than per capita.

If we build a transportation/land use system where people can take shorter trips (and perhaps fewer) – that means people are safer, with reduced exposure to dangerous roads – period (along with a lot of co-benefits).

Using VMT makes a system where people have to drive 20 miles on the highway every day (very low risk environment) to get where they want – instead of biking 4 miles – improve safety numbers.

I get there’s some desire to get at the exposure – hence, how likely is someone likely to die/get hurt for every hundred miles they travel – but isn’t the underlying concern how likely someone is to die/get hurt overall? Hence the per-capita measure makes more sense.

One could argue for multiple metrics, but perhaps the VMT exposure should be injuries per minute travelled, rather than per mile.

J_R
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J_R

I predict 70 traffic deaths in Portland in 2021 based on an increase in driving post-pandemic, reduced use of public transit, a complete absence of traffic enforcement, and generally more anxiety and frustration on the part of residents and motorists seeking to make up for what they lost during the pandemic/shutdown/slowdown.

While I agree that some facilities can be designed to calm traffic and discourage speeding, that will not cause motorists to exhibit legal and courteous driving behavior such as stopping at stop signs, staying off their phones, and yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks with lights flashing. I saw all of those happen this morning when I walked to the Post Office.

Maybe once we hit 100 traffic deaths per year, we’ll reconsider the no enforcement policy.