One Death on Our Streets is Too Many

kariIn May, a series of incomprehensible tragedies happened in the City of Portland and the surrounding region – vehicles hitting, hurting, maiming and killing people walking and riding bicycles. One crash after another. Advocates and activists who had cheered the focus on Vision Zero earlier in the spring became exasperated by the frequency and severity of the crashes that were occurring, and became increasingly vocal about the need to address safety immediately.

Two years ago, Leah Treat took the helm as Portland’s Director of Transportation, and since day one she has talked about adopting a Vision Zero policy—almost as frequently as she talks about how much she loves Safe Routes to School. Vision Zero, the strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all, is a great complement to Safe Routes to School initiatives that advance safe walking and bicycling to and from schools.

This spring, the Portland Bureau of Transportation released a two-year plan that formally states their commitment to Vision Zero for Portland. The plan aims to make Portland’s transportation system the safest possible and to move toward zero traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2025. Our partners, Oregon Walks and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, have been pushing for Vision Zero in Portland for more than five years, and in March published an outstanding co-written report outlining the essential and unifying components of Vision Zero for Oregon.  

After the sequence of crashes in May, the Mayor and the Transportation Commissioner quickly called a meeting to discuss how to make our streets safer, and among other things, they heard a strong call for a citywide commitment to Vision Zero.  With the prior work to establish Vision Zero policy in Portland had already done, the call was clear, and many were ready to go: within two weeks, a Vision Zero resolution was heard before council. After passionate testimony and discussion, Portland City Council adopted the Vision Zero resolution  unanimously.

Now that Portland has formally adopted the goal that “no loss of life is acceptable on our city streets”, we begin to ask the hard questions about how it will be implemented, what timeframe and metrics will be put in place as targets, and how the clarion call to eliminate traffic fatalities will be addressed through paradigmatic shifts in provision of infrastructure, policy prioritization, traffic enforcement, our traffic court system, and public awareness and education campaigns. Advocates will be working closely with the City of Portland on equity, education, enforcement, and engineering fixes, but we have yet to see what this will really mean for our Police Bureau, our bus drivers, our residents who must walk across and along ‘high crash corridors’ daily, and for how we manage safe travel to and from all schools and other frequented destinations. Indeed, this is a question emerging around the country, as more and more cities realize the promise of comprehensive and coordinated Vision Zero policies.

In Portland, advocates are looking to other cities like New York and San Francisco, that are a few steps ahead of us and have already begun to roll out model policies and ideas, such as decreasing speed limits, increasing penalties for collisions in crosswalks, and restricting right turns on red, as well as community-and-safety-boosting ideas such as Play Streets. In Portland, we will push the City to move toward a strong coupling of Vision Zero and Safe Routes to School initiatives; after all, when we provide safe routes for our children to walk, bike, and roll to school, we enhance the safety for all travelers in the city, no matter how they exit their front door or reach their destination.

Vision Zero is a crucially needed initiative for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the disproportionate impact that unsafe streets have on marginalized communities. Portland’s pedestrian fatalities, for instance, are largely clustered on large arterial roads located in poorer neighborhoods with high percentages of communities of color, senior citizens, and recent immigrants. Portland’s commitment to Vision Zero is an implicit statement of affirmation that it is unacceptable for marginalized communities to continue to bear the burden of an unwillingness to spend political capital improving these streets. Furthermore, this affirms that it’s the city’s responsibility to ensure that every Portlander has the ability to walk their child to school across the streets in their neighborhoods without fear they won’t make it to the other side.

Vision Zero is a monumental undertaking, but we can start immediately on proven, easy-to-implement tasks, even as we take time to look at long-term and comprehensive enactment of improvements citywide that will result in zero fatalities and serious injuries from traffic. Things to consider that would positively improve school travel:

  • Reduce speed limits citywide: Lower the speed limit by at least 5 mph on all major corridors. Lower the speed limit on all residential streets to 20mph, utilizing Neighborhood Greenways as a model for building safe, family-friendly streets with maximum 15 mph speed limits.
    Speed matters: at 40mph, only one out of 10 pedestrians survive, but at 30mph half do, and when speed limits drop to 20mph, nine out of 10 pedestrians survive.

speed injury rate

  • Build more safety projects: Focus our limited safety funding on improvements and engineering near schools and in historically underserved communities. Implement easy and quick safety improvements in the half-mile around schools, such as increased enforcement of school zones, and painting or repainting crosswalks. Fund a school crossing guard program in schools that do not have a volunteer program in place.

  • Perfect and build our Neighborhood Greenway network: Especially in areas with higher crash frequency and lower income communities that rely upon walking and bicycling, but do not yet have safe routes to do so, look to Portland’s existing and proposed Neighborhood Greenway network: low-auto-volume residential streets that give priority to people walking and rolling. Ensure existing routes are truly safe, and build proposed routes immediately, via inexpensive and proven traffic calming methods such as traffic diversion, speedbumps, pavement markings, and improved crossings at main streets.

  • Launch a broad-based education and social marketing campaign on Vision Zero: Start with the youth by expanding our nationally-acclaimed walk and bike education and Safe Routes to School encouragement initiatives to 100% of Portland schools.

It is imperative to move forward on implementation of Portland’s Vision Zero policy immediately, working together with stakeholders to ensure a fundamental right of safety for all transportation users, regardless of age, ability or mode of travel. People’s lives depend on it.