Monday’s city hall press conference about a troubling rise in traffic deaths was a disappointment. I think I speak for many of Portlanders when I say we were expecting a plan of action and more concrete reassurances that City Hall feels our pain and shares an urgency for safer streets. It was a press conference that should have had an easel with a poster full of a bulleted list of actions that the Portland Bureau of Transportation and its Commissioner Mingus Mapps plan to take in order to defend our streets from dangerous drivers and restore respect among all road users.
But while Mapps lacked a new plan, he didn’t lack a new priority: culture change.
“The next thing that I’m leaning into is, how do we bring about this culture change?” Mapps shared in an interview just before he was whisked back into City Hall by a staffer.
I pressed Mapps several times during the conversation to tell me something new and significant his office and/or PBOT would do to assuage the deep, visceral fear many Portlanders have around using our streets. He wasn’t able (or willing?) to answer that. Instead, he shifted his response each time to this new focus on education and culture change. So let’s delve into it a bit more…
“We need to develop a strategy to consistently do education,” Mapps shared. “My goal is to do an education event, basically, every Thursday, Friday, where we remind people that traffic enforcement is going to be out, and remind people that if you drive drunk or you drive fast, the risk of you killing someone is increases dramatically. I think that piece needs to happen a lot more.”
Mapps continued: “Has our infrastructure actually gotten worse in the last couple of years? Have we been ripping out bike lanes and sidewalks? No. What has changed in the past couple years, frankly, is our enforcement strategy and the way we use our roads. We have made significant progress and turned the corner on enforcement. And now the third leg that I’m trying to build here is the culture change piece.”
I agree with Mapps. Culture eats everything. And right now our traffic culture is so toxic and dysfunctional that it’s erasing all of PBOT’s infrastructure investments, overwhelming their educational campaigns, scaring away bike riders, and lowering the standards for behavior on our streets. The big question is: What is Mapps’ plan to actually create the cultural shift we need? How far are he and his team willing to go to make it happen? Is PBOT even equipped to do this?
To effect real, lasting cultural change (given Portland’s current funding, enforcement and infrastructure constraints), a strong way to start is with great communications and framing. The fact that at a press event where he hoped to debut a focus on culture change, Mapps slipped and used the word “accident” (which absolves road users from taking responsibility for their actions) instead of crash — and where he avoided any tough talk directed at drivers and his remarks fell flat with safety activists who are on the front lines of this crisis — shows he’s not off to a stellar start.
Culture is created by people. Our traffic culture is terrible because many people act terribly when using our roads. But instead of a stern and serious tone targeting those people, Mapps voiced the typical, government “pretty-please-act-nicer-out-there” tone. That should change.
If we want any chance of shifting culture, leaders like Commissioner Mapps must be able to grab the bulls by the horns and speak clearly about the threat we are facing. And that threat is drivers and their cars. I know that fact is uncomfortable for Mapps and that there’s political peril in being perceived as anti-car, but we need to acknowledge this truth if we want to make progress.
Consider the remarks from Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Ty Engstrom at Monday’s press event as an example of what not to do.
“People feel entitled on our roadways,” Sgt. Engstrom said during his remarks. “All motorists, all pedestrians, all bicyclists.” Then, after hearing loud boos and disagreement from some in the crowd, he continued. “You are right, there are motorists out there that are 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.”
Read that again. One type of road user is killing other people. The others need to be more careful. Therefore we all have a shared responsibility to change? I strongly disagree. There’s a vast imbalance in that statement and our city leaders must start to recognize it. Cars and their drivers are the force that kills and maims and instills fear. When I get into my car — I don’t have to make a decision to be dangerous — the mere act of stepping into a vehicle with such dangerous and deadly potential, puts me in that position every time I drive.
The way we talk about traffic culture must accurately reflect the issue. Ignoring that cars and drivers are the main problem will tie us to the same outcomes we’ve always had.
So, what would look like to take a stronger stance against this highly problematic subset of drivers who are trashing our traffic culture? Or, in Mapps’ own words, “How do we bring about this culture change?”
Here are just a few ideas:
– PPB and PBOT could share more media content showing the rampant lawlessness on our streets. I’m not talking about street racing or high-profile hit-and-runs. I’m talking about the everyday stuff that’s been normalized. Like when people just blatantly run red signals, block bike lanes, don’t stop for someone using a crosswalk, turn right on red despite massive signs saying not to, drive without license plates, speed down neighborhood greenways; and so on and so forth.
– Commissioner Mapps or someone on his or PBOT’s staff could walk or bike in a location known to be dangerous or stressful. Have someone covertly record him biking around or trying to cross a major street. Then share the content and his first-hand experiences with the public via social media or a blog post.
– Make quick infrastructure changes at locations where people often drive dangerously and where a high-profile fatal or serious injury crash occurred — then tell the media about the bad driver behaviors, why they are so dangerous, and why the installation was necessary.
– Set higher standards for city employees using fleet vehicles by installing speed governors or publicizing a “no pass” pledge on neighborhood greenways. That modeling could influence Portlanders and shift the way people think about speed and residential street safety.
Culture change is hard. Politicians usually avoid it like the plague. But Mapps, being out of options and feeling pressure to do something, has reached for it. Maybe we can help him grab it and do something that will make a difference. I’d love to hear your ideas.