Anger and frustration about Portland deadly roadways — and a feeling that local officials have not done enough in response to it — has been simmering (and at times boiling over) for months. At a press conference Monday morning at City Hall, that anger revealed itself in the voices and actions of several protestors who shouted over scheduled speakers.
As Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner (and mayoral candidate) Mingus Mapps came to the mic (after being introduced by his new PBOT Director Millicent Williams, who assured the crowd she is, “firmly committed to Vision Zero”), protestors forced him to recognize their presence by walking in front of him holding signs.
“Say their names! Say their names! Say their names!” yelled Betsy Reese and about a dozen other protestors, as Mapps stood at the mic ready to speak to a row of media cameras.
“Sure, actually,” replied Mapps, calmly.
(Audio clip above is Commissioner Mapps speaking with protestors shouting.)
After he finished reading victims’ names, he said the reason he called everyone together was to, “Remind the people of Portland about a dire threat to public safety.” “Portlanders need to know that our city is in the midst of an epidemic of traffic fatalities… 43 people have been killed in traffic accidents,” he said.
“Crash not accident! Crash not accident!” someone in the crowd responded (saying “accident,” which implies that nothing can be done to avoid them, has been a no-no for many years and it was a very unfortunate mistake for Mapps to make). And Lois Leveen, the activist who led a group ride to the event from the Belmont Library (across the street from where Jeanie Diaz was killed July 12th), shouted, “Motorists killed 43 people! Motorists killed 43 people. Say it!” It was the first of several outbursts from Leveen, who wanted Mapps to use stronger words against drivers.
As the commissioner continued, saying that Portland could cut the number of road deaths in half if they’d just slow down and not drive impaired, Leveen and others were clearly unsatisfied and continued to yell at him.
“I hear you rage. I hear your frustration. And I share it.” Mapps said.
At one point, PBOT Director Williams walked down from the steps of City Hall where she stood behind Mapps and other speakers and she engaged Leveen in a face-to-face conversation (see photo below). It was a preview of what was to come; but it didn’t smooth tensions.
Frustration by some in the crowd spiked even higher when Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Ty Engstrom spoke. He’s been in the PPB’s Traffic Division for 10 years and said, “Traffic is my passion.” Engstrom spent much of his time talking about how hard it is for him and his officers to see the consequences of traffic crashes. “It weighs on all of us to see that carnage; to see the families devastated. I have lost track of how many times I’ve had to go tell a parent that their child will not be coming home. I’ve had to leave crash scenes and call my wife to decompress a little bit afterwards because I’m thinking about my six kids that I have that are out on the roadways…”
Then Engstrom did something that made several people very upset: he both-sides’d it.
(Audio clip below is some of Engstrom’s remarks.)
Engstrom said one main reason for the reason spate of deadly crashes is a change in culture where he says, “People feel entitled on our roadways. All motorists, all pedestrians, all bicyclists — it seems like we’ve forgotten how to use the roadways together safely and to share them.”
“No. Don’t do that. Don’t do that!” a man in the crowd immediately erupted. (After the event I heard a woman approach Sgt. Engstrom to say, “You really offended me when you said that. I had to turn my back and walk away after you said that. It was offensive.”).
Engstrom (who spent a long time listening to criticism and feedback after the event and was very open to changing how he frames these issues) pressed on, saying, “You are right. There are motorists out there driving in a way that kills people. Absolutely. But there are also people that are on bikes or pedestrians that need to be also more careful with what they’re doing. So it is a shared responsibility and a culture change that needs to happen.”
After three elected officials and one public health expert had spoken, there was still no clear plan of action on the table. People are dying every week. What will City Hall do about it? How will they change an approach that clearly isn’t working? What new ideas are being considered for implementation?
Unfortunately we heard nothing on those fronts at the press conference. One man who showed up on a bike was so frustrated at the remarks he left early and could be heard shouting, “This is horseshit!”
The strongest official remarks came from The Street Trust Executive Director Sarah Iannarone. In a notable shift from previous eras, The Street Trust (formerly the Bicycle Transportation Alliance) leader was standing alongside power — instead of in the crowd protesting. This is part of a strategic shift at the nonprofit that has been many years in the making but has been hastened by Iannarone’s leadership.
After thanking the Oregon Department of Transportation for funding Street Trust research project about how homeless people are impacted by “traffic violence” (a term only she and Chair Pederson used), Iannarone said, “This public health epidemic is preventable, but only with timely attention and action from the government at every level.”
Iannarone called for a “transformation of our system” and urged a harm reduction model of street design that expects people to make bad choices. She cited an expert who says, “If you make streets safer for drunk people, you make them safer for everyone.”
“Building streets which take into consideration that people do make mistakes, makes us all better off in the long run,” she continued. Iannarone said Oregon should follow Utah’s lead and lower the blood alcohol concentration level that triggers a DUI from 0.8% to 0.5%.
As for speeding drivers? Iannarone riffed off PBOT’s recent, bird-themed anti-speeding campaign. “‘Slowing the flock down’ makes for cute signage; but we need a serious, statewide public health campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of impaired and high-speed driving,” she said, to rousing applause.
Iannarone called for collaboration and urged people to join The Street Trust. She was the only speaker to receive strong applause from the activists. But again, there was no plan offered.
I was struck that even after all the talk of a “dire threat to public safety,” “crisis” and “epidemic,” not one speaker shared a clear plan of action on how to respond.
I asked PPB Sgt. Engstrom about this in a one-on-one after the formal remarks were over.
“As you heard today, people are really scared and frustrated. As a leader at Traffic Division, what happens now?,” I asked him. “How are people going to feel safe tomorrow? Next week? What are you doing differently at PPB to make people safer in the short-term?”
“That’s extremely hard… that’s a hard answer,” Engstrom replied. “All I can say is what we’re doing right now, by having Traffic Division back, is trying to be as visible as possible.” He explained that they’re having officers blanket one area to make an impression rather than sending one unit out at a time. He also mentioned more use of social media to “just try and make ourselves look bigger than perhaps we really are.”
As much as I appreciate Sgt. Engstrom’s work and concern about the issue, his response to that specific question was not reassuring. I also found it ironic that now he’s trying to make PPB look bigger, when his strategy in 2021 was to make them look smaller.
I asked him again about his press conference two years ago when he broadcast to everyone that the PPB wasn’t able to enforce traffic laws. And he finally admitted that it wasn’t a good idea. And that it was a political move. “We needed to create a stir to get some change to get them [city council] to fund us back up,” he said. “I mean that’s the honest truth. I know that could make things more dangerous. I don’t know. But at the same time, we needed some change.”
I also talked with Commissioner Mapps one-on-one and asked him a similar question. He rattled off all the what he and PBOT are doing. But none of it was really new and none of it will move the needle fast enough to save lives in the short-term.
“What is happening from your office or from PBOT that reflects the severity of the threat?” I asked.
Mapps then leaned back into his main focus of this event and asked me rhetorically: “How do we bring this culture change?” He said they plan to be more consistent with educational events like the one today and he wants to hold them more regularly. “The one piece I am dissatisfied with, where I don’t think we’re trying hard enough, is the culture change piece.”
I failed to ask Mapps to define what he means by “culture change”; but since he said he’s made it a focus in large part by reading my stuff on BikePortland, I’m confident assuming it’s something like this: The City of Portland needs to encourage people to make better decisions when they operate vehicles. The culture on our streets is dysfunctional and it’s time for an intervention.
Culture change can be difficult for timid government officials, like the ones we tend to have here in Portland. It can be hastened by radically different street designs, following through with novel policy approaches, and by quality communications and marketing — none of which PBOT or Commissioner Mapps’ office has shown to be great at yet.
While I wasn’t impressed with most of the speeches today (outside of Iannarone’s), I was heartened by one aspect of the event itself. It brought some people together to talk and hear new perspectives. While the protestors were not representative of Portlanders on the whole (to say the least), they were at least able to have quality conversations with PBOT, PPB, and City Hall officials.
Those conversations were worth something; but I’m afraid that one hopeful highlight from today won’t be nearly enough to make our streets feel safer any time soon.