When the Oregon Department of Transportation strong-armed the City of Portland to remove the bike lanes and bike boxes on Southeast 26th Avenue and Powell Boulevard in 2018, we knew it would make the crossing less safe. But ODOT persisted. In a twisted plan to encourage people to not bike on 26th (lest they get hit and make ODOT look bad) the agency removed infrastructure that was meant to protect them.
Looking back, that plan was both twisted and tragic.
That’s because on October 4th of last year, Sarah Pliner was riding her bike to work and somehow came into contact with a large trailer pulled by the driver of a semi-truck who was making a right turn from 26th onto Powell. The collision killed Pliner and her body came to rest just yards from where ODOT removed the bike box.
Now the Portland Bureau of Transportation has re-installed the bike boxes. One of them is in the exact spot where, just four months ago Oregon Walks leader (now Metro Councilor) Ashton Simpson stood in the southeast corner of the intersection with a sign that read, “Human Bike Box.” He was part of a large protest that helped force the hand of PBOT and ODOT to step up and do the right thing.
It’s nice to see this infrastructure come back. But I won’t celebrate, because it cost us the life of Sarah Pliner.
When I visited the intersection yesterday to take a closer look, I had that sick feeling in my stomach. That mix of anger and frustration I’ve had so many times over the years as we sit back and wait for the city and state to get serious about reining in the inherent danger of streets filled with people driving cars and trucks in a way that endangers us every single day.
It’s the same feeling I had in July 2008 when I rolled up to West Burnside and 14th — the intersection I’ll always know as the place where Tracey Sparling was run over and killed by the driver of a large truck who — just like in Sarah’s case — was making a right turn. At that time, bike boxes were new, but the threat of right-hooks wasn’t.
When I heard about the installation of a bike box where Tracey died, I called her aunt. “It makes me physically ill to consider that such a simple fix would have definitely prevented the right hook that killed my niece,” she told me. When I got home and worked on my story, all I could think of was why Tracey had to die before we took that simple step. It was a bittersweet bike box. I even made a video about it (below).
The re-born bike boxes at 26th and Powell occupy a similar place in my head. When ODOT, PBOT, and The Street Trust agreed to remove them, we knew people would still ride through that intersection. We knew it would more dangerous. But they were removed anyway.
I’m glad they’re back. They seem to work very well. Combined with the head-start on the walk signal (a.k.a. leading pedestrian interval, which I was happy to see a bike rider use, even though Oregon law hasn’t caught up to this behavior yet), the new curbs in the southeast corner where Sarah was killed, the lower speed limits and school zone signage, it feels like drivers have calmed down a bit.
We haven’t done nearly enough to tame traffic on Powell Blvd, but adding back green bike lanes and bike boxes in both directions is a good step forward — or should I say a step sideways since we’ve merely added back what we had before.
Would they have saved Sarah’s life? We will never know. What we will always know, is that that it took her death to get them back.