Portland commissioner cites ‘vehicular violence’ in response to spate of crashes

Posted by on February 9th, 2021 at 4:39 pm

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Portland’s commissioner-in-charge of transportation has responded strongly to a spate of crashes and fatalities on the streets she oversees.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty published a statement on Twitter Tuesday afternoon that comes in direct response to the past week of violent carnage in our streets.

Here’s the statement:

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Three days. Four deaths. All from vehicular violence. I can assure you that myself and @PBOTinfo are digging deep into both immediate and long-term solutions to keep all Portlanders safe as they move around our city.

We have a lot of work ahead to realize our Vision Zero goals, but I am committed to that work.

We can mitigate danger on our roads by improving street design and developing infrastructure that protects people from the potential damage cars are capable of inflicting.

While we double down on that work, I ask all that drive to acknowledge the outsized potential cars have to inflict violence on our streets. I say this as someone who didn’t always see it this way. Please drive slowly & carefully. No matter the circumstances, lives are at stake.

It’s highly notable that a city commissioner in Portland has used the term “vehicular violence”. To my knowledge it’s the first time the term has used by a Portland city official.

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We first used the term here on BikePortland in November 2017 following an intentional vehicular assault in Lower Manhattan. In the past year, the phrase took on new urgency and relevance in light of people driving through protestors over the summer, or more recently when a man intentionally rammed his car into several people and killed one of them in southeast Portland.

If we want to stem this dangerous tide of death and destruction on our streets, we must acknowledge that the mere act of driving has immense potential for violence (defined as, “intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force”). Whether intentional or not, when we decide to drive a multi-ton steel vehicle through spaces where vulnerable bodies exist, we create the possibility of a violent outcome. Resistance to that word or framing is partly responsible for the widespread desensitization and normalization of traffic deaths and injuries in America.

It is a good sign that Commissioner Hardesty has not only come around to this understanding and necessity of this term and the, “outsized potential cars have to inflict violence on our streets;” but that she has chosen to state it publicly.

Now comes the difficult task of matching actions to words.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Hello, KittyJonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)sorenGlowBoyNadia Maxim Recent comment authors
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Jon
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Jon

Notice she does not mention enforcement at all. She is opposed to any (even traffic cameras) enforcement. Until all the roads are somehow transformed to make sure nobody can speed or drive drunk we need to enforce the laws and enforce them now. Traffic cameras can be color blind as long as they are placed in all neighborhoods.

eawriste
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eawriste

I remember hoping Wheeler would be a safety advocate when Hales was Mayor. Now I remember hoping Hardesty was a safety advocate. If she wanted to make an impression on people who advocate for safe streets, I think she made a pretty clear one in her decision to prioritize parking over PBLs.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

No one was offering PBLs on Hawthorne; the best you could get was BBLs with a resurfacing project. I agree the parking decision by PBOT staff was not smart, but I don’t think she could have modified that decision one way or the other – it was beyond her control.

eawriste
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eawriste

The commissioner in charge of PBoT couldn’t change a decision made by PBoT? Huh?

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

That has in fact been my experience with PBOT decisions. The commissioner is “in charge” in name only. Sam Adams was able to change decisions, but only when he was mayor, not as a regular city councilor in charge of PBOT. Hales & Novick were continuously frustrated by the bureaucratic inertia, I dare say Eudaly was too. Even the PBOT director’s powers are pretty limited. It’s the department heads and senior engineers who have the real power at PBOT – they hold the money and they know how to say yes or no and make it stick.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

If Hardesty walked into the department head’s office and said, “I want the street to be designed with the safety of pedestrians and people on bikes as priority,” could department heads refuse?

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

The department head would likely reply positively that they design all streets for the safety of all users, blah blah blah. And then they will go ahead and have their staff design the street the way they will, which is usually driver-friendly. The department head doesn’t want to upset Hardesty, but they simply are not worried she will be able to fire him or her – it’s far beyond her and the mayor’s powers to do so, and everyone is aware of that, including Hardesty.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

Would you recommend legislation, such as in the case of Cambridge where PBLs are mandated during any redesign? How can we change this?

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Develop a relationship with the City civil design engineers, invite them to meetings with advocates. The other strategy I do is I go to a public open house, corner an engineer, and talk about a project that is a concern for me and other advocates, but usually unrelated to the open house project. If they can’t solve it, they will pass it on to the engineer who can or is in charge of it. Remember that engineers are “soft” people, very sensitive, always mean well, and are usually incapable of actually lying, so play nice with them.

Most mid-level engineers have absolutely no notion of the power they wield, and the less they know of their powers, the better off we all are. It’s part of the bureaucratic structure of engineering bureaus like transportation, water, and sewers – the engineers hold the power and money, but select others direct that power. Your job is to find these people.

It’s not transparent nor democratic, but it is a lot like life, isn’t it?

A legislative change I saw in British Columbia was a requirement that the local bike advisory committee had to sign off on any highway or transportation project of any sort, about 25 years ago. The immediate result was a proliferation of local and rural bike committees with rubber stamp members, but gradually there was a real shift to actual users, and now there’s bike projects all over the province. It takes time.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

It sounds as if Portland would be a lot better off if there were a mass firing of engineers at PBoT. Regardless of whether they mean well, they are designing streets that are inherently unsafe, remain at odds with a lot of research on street design, and have killed a lot of people. Who can hire/fire them?

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Effectively no one can fire public engineers, a bit like the police in that respect – they are generally seen as an essential set of employees in all public governments, people paid a lot of money to be anal. Public employees everywhere are protected by civil service laws, except for major crimes that a proven in a court of law. As with the police, effectively the only way to get rid of engineers is to cut off all their funding, which historically only happens when a government goes bankrupt or through a revolution, neither of which are particularly likely in Portland.

I will say however that the younger the engineer, the more likely they will be current in best practices for pedestrian safety, so what a lot of governments do to cull the heard a bit is to offer generous early retirement for the old farts, and pass the costs off to the nearly-bankrupt state pension system rather than the local jurisdiction.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Well, they have a Public Employees Union that might not take kindly to that.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

For the engineers, most belong to https://www.oregonafscme.org/

GlowBoy
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GlowBoy

A decade ago I took a graduate-level class on Signal Timing at PSU (not for credit – I really am that much of a transpo-geek), taught by Peter Koonce as it happened. And in that class I learned quite a lot not just about how engineers calculate intersection capacity, but how they think.

Historically they have been a very conservative and car-oriented bunch – to the point of absolute tunnel vision of not even considering anything other than motor vehicles in any engineering sense, and only as afterthoughts.

But things are changing.

To the person, every future engineer in that class was enlightened in wanting to put pedestrians, cyclists and transit on at least equal if not higher footing than cars and trucks. Even from a purely engineering perspective, I think it is axiomatic among these newer engineers that designing primarily for cars and trucks is a highly inefficient use of limited public right-of-way. A number of my classmates also appeared committed to getting into positions where they could influence decisionmaking and change how things are done.

Unfortunately many older engineers seem to lack this perspective, and remain committed to the vehicle-based calculations and formulas they learned in school. So unfortunately, one of the main solutions to this bureaucratic problem is time.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

I agree with you about the time factor, but there are things that can be done to speed up the process aside from hiring more young engineers and retiring older ones. In my community of 300,000 our long-standing city traffic engineer up until 2017 would generally refuse to build any bike facilities other than the odd painted bike lane. In 2018 our state sent him and several others from around the state on a junket to the UK where they interacted with fellow traffic engineers there.

Suddenly our very conservative traffic engineer put in a green lane downtown, then a buffered bike lane near a suburban Walmart. Now buffered bike lanes are routine, we have our first parking-protected bike lanes, soon we’ll have our first bike box. Our conservative traffic engineer still rejects half the projects, but now he patiently explains why he rejected them – and you know what, we can see his reasoning, it makes sense even when we disagree with him. His reasoning includes removing traffic lanes not to increase safety (even if it does do so), but to save on future maintenance costs, that much less to repave.

And our relationship between advocates and city engineering staff is now much improved, we are getting good facilities faster than ever even if we are still light years behind larger more liberal cities like Charlotte, Charleston, Raleigh, or DC, and it’s getting easier and safer to get around. (Our local transportation planners have a statewide reputation of being utterly incompetent, which is fully justified, alas.)

I’d like to see Portland have a 25% bike mode split, it would make advocacy much easier in my community and most others nationwide. And the quickest way to achieve that would be to send your junior-level traffic engineers on a post-covid junket to regular cities in Europe similar in size and importance to Portland, plus a few touristy places too, and have them talk with city engineers there. No planners, no elected officials, and no advocates. Places like Newcastle, Manchester, Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Lyon, Genoa, Bilbao, Malmo, Bremen, etc. plus Bruges, York and Siena.

Zach Katz
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Zach Katz

I don’t have anything to add, just that this is a fascinating take/perspective that makes total sense to me, and thank you for sharing it.

Nadia Maxim
Guest
Nadia Maxim

The department heads are “at will” employees and can be replaced. It is hard for the department heads to modernize operations in Bureaus as there is a lot of resistance to change by employees who know they can’t be fired.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

The bureau directors and some (but not all) of their department heads are “at will” and as you say can be fired (but only by the mayor, not by Hardesty). Some of the department heads such as at maintenance are “classified employees” who are protected by the civil service, as well as the vast majority of engineers, planners, etc.

Nadia Maxim
Guest
Nadia Maxim

Thanks for that clarification. Given the bridges that divisive Hardesty has burned with Mayor Wheeler, doubt she would have much pull to ever replace the current director unless Wheeler also wanted to do that.

soren
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soren

One of Hales and Novick’s first actions was to defund active transportation. The fact that they are held in such high esteem by so many bike advocates/activists is a perfect illustration of the limitations of cycling incrementalism (political centrism). De-prioritization of the automobile is, by definition, a radical political stance and the reluctance of most bike advocates/activists to embrace radical politics (Hi BTA/ST, Shift/WNBR, and BikeLoud) is, IMO, one of the main reasons that cycling has declined for years. Given the trajectory of inner Portland’s demographics I am skeptical that we will ever see a reversal. IMO, the center of gravity for Portland metro active-transportation politics is moving outside of the urban center.

Phil M
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Phil M

All talk.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

I’ll judge Hardesty by the results she gets.

Nadia Maxim
Guest
Nadia Maxim

I’m not holding my breath.

Middle of the Road Guy
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Middle of the Road Guy

I think you’d have better odds at a casino.

Kw
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Kw

Traffic law enforcement is the issue here. Ive lived all across the country and this is, by far, the worst group of drivers Ive ever encountered.

Everyone acts like there are no rules, because those rules aren’t being enforced. I used to drive like an idiot when I was younger. But I did it in a state that enforces their traffic laws. So I had to drive normal unless I wanted a ticket. If I drove like an idiot, I knew full well I could lose my license. The penalty wasn’t worth the reward.

If people actually got ticketed for running red lights or not waiting for pedestrians, we wouldn’t have so much chaos on Portland roads. But because the mentality here seems to be ” screw your neighbor” while simultaneously FEIGNING inclusion and progressiveness, its a free for all out there.

Until everyone realizes they have a responsibility to their fellow road goers (bicycles and peds included) nothing will change.

Boundaries without consequences are suggestions…Portland needs to grow up when it comes to driving, you all act like trash fires on the road.

USE YOUR HEADLIGHTS AND BLINKERS!

DONT TRY TO BEAT YELLOW LIGHTS!

LOOK ON THE SIDES OF THE ROAD FOR PEOPLE!

We wont let an 18yo buy a firearm to defend themselves but we’ll give a 16yo a 7000lb semi automatic V8 SUV on the assumption their parents taught them how to drive properly….

Driving is a privilege, not a right.

Rant over,
Kdizzle

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

I used to walk in my neighborhood every morning. Had a streak of a year without missing a day. Last December I quit as I value my life and safety more. Too many close calls by my so-called “friendly” neighbors.

JeffP
Guest
JeffP

Worst bike/walk commutes I ever had were in the neighborhoods; people drive them by memory and habit – things they expect to ‘see’ get reaction but anything ‘new’ or ‘not familiar’ in their everyday street use gets overlooked. Can’t count the number of discussions I’ve had with drivers in their neighborhoods who excuse their own speeding or stop sign ignoring by saying “I live here and NOBODY else is EVER at this intersection”.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

I used to live in Australia. There is a big highway through the middle of the largest city, Sydney, and the speed limit is 75kph, about 48 miles per hour. That is agonizingly slow for an American used to the open road. But nobody speeds because there are speed cameras every few miles.

They have far lower rates of traffic casualty because of these controls. And it costs taxpayers nothing — it’s a net revenue generator! The answer is simple. And yet the Portland and Oregon governments refuse to do their jobs and implement solutions to basic problems.

It’s time for Americans to understand that this situation is not normal for a developed nation, and there is no legal or moral justification for it.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Everything you say may well be true, but we have to contend with the reality that Americans don’t like the government watching over them. Australians willingly gave up a significant amount of their gun rights after a horrific mass shooting in Tasmania. Despite many many such tragedies in the US, we have not been willing to do anything remotely similar.

Our culture is different, and our relationship with our government is different.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I agree with a lot of your points, but here’s where I (again!) put in my plug for another long-term solution.

I’m not sure if Oregonians are the worst drivers, but they do appear to be among the least-educated about the rules of the road. Many states have had mandatory Driver Education for minor drivers for decades. Which means, since most people learn to drive as minors, that most people have had formal education and behind-the-wheel instruction. Oregon, bizarrely to this day, does not require this.

It’s time for mandatory DE for minor drivers. Then at least people will know what the rules are. And they’ll get introduced to the most important lessons I had drilled into me. Which weren’t the technical rules of the road, but that (1) motor vehicles are deadly weapons, and (2) driving is a privilege, not a right.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Since you consider it one of the two most important driving lessons you learned, what practical benefit does declaring driving a privilege provide? What practical difference is there between a right and a privilege that is available to all on equal terms, and cannot be revoked without due process, and how does understanding that difference translate into safer roads?

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

One practical difference is that when people assume driving is their right, rather than a privilege, they get outraged if anything challenges it.

Honestly declaring that it’s a privilege changes the conversation. It is important in dismantling cars from the supreme position at the top of the transportation hierarchy. When you recognize that driving is a revocable privilege that not everyone is entitled to, it becomes harder to justify putting drivers above pedestrians, in particular. Because traveling about the country under your own power IS a right. Arguably, sacrificing pedestrians’ safety and convenience for those of drivers is unreasonable, especially when you recognize that walking is a right and driving is not.

This is also important when we talk about who should not have driving privileges. I hear a lot of conversations about how older people whose driving skills have substantially deteriorated (or, sometimes, those who’ve lost their licenses due to history of DUIs and other serious valuations) “need” to get to the store, work, etc., and should still be able to drive. No. It’s not a right, period. Once you acknowledge that it’s a privilege, it’s easier to see that if you can’t do it safely you don’t get to do it at all. Many Oregonians don’t seem to see this perspective.

This also shows up in the outrage I frequently see when Oregonians do get ticketed, as if it’s somehow an affront to their civil rights. One of my favorite examples: remember, a few years ago, when someone drove a long way down the bike path on the I-205 Glenn Jackson bridge and finally got stuck halfway across? Even right here on BikePortland, several people questioned whether she should even be ticketed for this offense. As bad as this was, some here argued that it was an honest mistake and she shouldn’t have to deal with the outrageous burden of paying a ticket and having the violation show up on her record. You’d think they were talking about dragging her off to jail, some people were so insistent. Now in other, more heavily patrolled, parts of the country, honest mistakes – even much smaller ones than this – get you tickets. It’s common enough to get nailed that you recognize you got caught, pay the fine (assuming you can), and move on. In Oregon there’s this defensiveness about it, as if your constitutional rights were violated.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I hear you on the rhetorical advantages of calling driving a privilege, but you state “when you recognize that driving is a revocable privilege that not everyone is entitled to,” and I’m not sure this is true. There is no discretion that I am aware of in terms of who gets this “privilege” and who does not.

Everyone who has the skill and physical ability to do is entitled to drive, and it’s only as revocable as other rights. Also I question the claim that your only right to travel is what you can physically do yourself unassisted by devices or contraptions. If that’s accurate, it’s a pretty limited right in a country as big as ours.

I do not assert that driving _is_ a right, only that it is largely indistinguishable from one on any practical level.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

Thoughts and prayers! Good thing PBOT is going to fix the road Fallon Smart was murdered on! /s

J_R
Guest
J_R

I accept that road design influences how motorists drive, but I do not accept that we can reengineer and rebuild our streets to significantly reduce the number of crashes or fatalities.

Every day I see motorists blowing through neighborhood stop signs at 10 mph and hitting speeds of 30 mph on local residential streets. Some of them are my neighbors!

On arterial and collector streets speeding by 5 to 10 mph is common.

Pick a signalized intersection such as Powell Boulevard at 26th adjacent to Cleveland HS and watch motorists (especially westbound) blow through the red. I guarantee you won’t have to wait long to see that.

What’s your design and rebuild solution to these moving violations? Angle diverters every two blocks in residential neighborhoods? Speed bumps on every block? Crossing gates that come down to block red-light-runners? How many millions of dollars are you prepared to spend to implement these solutions?

Sorry, but I don’t see road design as a viable solution to mitigate a city-wide or region-wide problem. Spot problems, yes. Corridor problems, maybe.

We’ve got to change behavior. We should at least try enforcement and much of it should be automated enforcement including speed cameras and red light cameras.

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

I kinda like spike strips at stops. When light turns green, spike strips go down into pavement to let wheeled vehicles through. Turns yellow, spikes start to slowly come up. Turns red, spike all the way up.
Ok, crazy idea, but no worse than the lame ones that PBOT/ODOT put forth to make streets “safe.”

J_R
Guest
J_R

I’d be in favor of retractable spikes! Blowing through a signal could cost you $1000 or more – $200 for towing and $200 per tire (x4). I am a bit concerned about the environmental consequences of all those wrecked tires. Why not just do a red-light camera and enforce it with a $1000 fine?

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

I think it’s in Minnesota that the state requires all communities asking for state road money to explain why they are not putting in a roundabout for any intersection-upgrade application. Most communities want plain old signals, but the state has found that roundabouts have far fewer crashes even when drivers are impaired or the power goes out. Colorado seems to do something similar.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

“Rebuild it all” is a fantasy. A fine one at that (like spike strips and gun turrets), but at some point someone needs to come up with a realistic solution. Or else we should just acknowledge that we have chosen a doubling of our fatal crash rate and make peace with that.