Oregon and Portland Strike Up Vision Zero Plans

By Katie Hawkins

Rendering of bike and pedestrian infrastructure design for SW Barbur Boulevard in SW Portland. Photo courtesy of Bicycle Transportation Alliance Photo courtesy of Bicycle Transportation Alliance

Rendering of bike and pedestrian infrastructure design for SW Barbur Boulevard in SW Portland.

A new legislative effort has been put forth to achieve zero traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries in both the state of Oregon and the Portland metropolitan area. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), Oregon Walks and Oregon legislators have worked together to develop a state proposal; and the Portland policy, “Portland Progress,” has recently come into fruition with the help of Mayor Hales, Commissioner Steve Novick, and Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat. Portland will now join major U.S. cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, as well as European metropolises Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and London in their efforts.

House Bill 2736, a state-wide Vision Zero plan, would provide a specific outline for various municipalities to follow, which could vary depending on size and if the city is urban or rural. It would provide specific recommendations to the Oregon State Department of Transportation (ODOT) for where to put their dollars (high crash areas along state roads, highways and freeways) and provide advice on speed limit revisions as well as outline county and city roads that need improvement.

Portland is in the process of drafting a specific proposal for the city in light of recent traffic-related mortalities. In 2014, there were 28 deaths in Portland involving motor vehicles and there have been 10 reported so far in 2015. Many of those fatal crashes occur on 10 streets — dubbed “High Crash Corridors” by the Portland Bureau of Transportation — accounting for 51 percent of all pedestrian fatalities in the city. For immediate aid, Portland has introduced House Bill 2621 to the state legislature that would seek to have safety cameras placed on these roads, which has been proven to reduce fatal accidents. A formal request was also recently made to the Oregon Speed Zone Control Board, which seeks to expedite the process for setting speed limits on city streets. This type of implementation has already proven successful on SE Division and Burnside, two of Portland’s high-crash corridors.

The statewide call for a Vision Zero plan is a huge step considering that last year the ODOT’s top safety executive, Troy Costales was reluctant to use the term “Vision Zero.” However, in a May 2015 meeting with Costales, Bicycle Transportation Alliance Executive Director Rob Sadowsky and ODOT Director Matt Garrett, Vision Zero was discussed as an inevitable program.

Pedestrian island. Photo courtesy of Greg Raisman Photo courtesy of Greg Raisman

Pedestrian island.

The main goal of the statewide plan is to present a unified vision through education to enforce improvements in road design and to reduce speed limits to make streets safer for all users. Following the examination of accident data, the report concludes, “Serious and fatal crashes in Portland are caused by alcohol and drug use, followed by speeding and aggressive driving.” Currently, there is no driver’s education required in the state to those seeking to obtain a drivers license after turning 18 years old.

“Although drunk driving is still the leading cause of traffic fatalities, the amount of energy put into [awareness and advocacy] has made a huge impact,” says Sadowsky. “It will take the same type of resources to implement this new way of thinking.”

From 2005 to 2009, Oregon reported 1,671 car-occupant fatalities, 229 pedestrian casualties and 58 bicyclist deaths. Additionally, one bus rider was killed but no lost life related to the light rail. On average, 50 people perish annually in traffic accidents in the Portland metropolitan area alone, and 482 people suffer from incapacitating injuries.

Vision Zero addresses an issue of cultural acceptance around collisions, which is based on the observation that despite serious injuries or deaths that occur from crashes, society and our judicial system accept it as an accident, and a trade-off in the name of mobility.

“There are several cultural shifts that need to happen to get to zero,” says Sadowsky. “The first is everyone needs to take responsibility for their driving. All crashes are preventable. We tolerate one of the highest forms of death in the country. If this were a disease, we would have telethons. If falling down [in] bathtubs caused it, they would be redesigning bathtubs. Because the injuries and death are caused by crashes, we accept it.”

20 mph speed limit sign for neighborhood greenway unveiled in Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy of Greg Raisman Photo courtesy of Greg Raisman

20 mph speed limit sign for neighborhood greenway unveiled in Portland, Ore.

Sadowsky explains that the next step is retraining the engineers to build roads based on safety, not necessarily convenience.

“The problem that is given to engineers to solve is how do you move traffic through an area as smoothly and quickly as possible. Ideally, safety is part of the equation, but it is not currently the leading guiding method. The level of service goes first to cars and freight. We must train engineers to design roads to instead hold pedestrian safety as top priority, and perhaps do this at the expense of travel. We want to move quickly, but safely.”

Sadowsky also mentions that the mindset of the judicial system and sentencing for offenders must change. An unfortunate example includes the death of 80-year-old Betty Sandra Glassman; she was hit by a car while crossing a Portland street in January of this year. Driver John Lawson, 66, had a green light and turned right but failed to see the woman and her daughter who were legally walking through the intersection, abiding by the crosswalk signal. Lawson was given a citation for failing to yield to a pedestrian and did not face any criminal charges.

“We really believe this is a violent offense,” states Sadowsky. “Those who cause traffic fatalities and severe injuries deserve punishment.”

Overall annual traffic fatalities in Oregon have decreased between 2003 and 2009 —except for motorcycles deaths, which are increasing. Correlating with the data is miles traveled, suggesting that mortalities are decreasing because people are driving less. This can be attributed to public transportation improvements and more people choosing to get on their bike. Bicycle commuting has increased in recent years to as high as 6.1 percent of the population in Portland; 11.9 percent of commuters claim they use public transportation as opposed to relying on a car.

This decrease in fatalities could also be due to recent road improvements, including addition of sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, street lighting, speed bumps, red light cameras and neighborhood greenways. Vision Zero proposes to continue to implement these policies, which have proven to lessen the number of accidents by cutting down speed. Lowering limits to 20 mph have reduced fatalities in cities such as London, which experienced a 42 percent mortality reduction. Roundabouts; speed bumps, tables and cushions; chicanes (which create an extra turn for motorists to take, forcing them to slow down), and chokers (narrowing a street by extending the sidewalk or planting strip) are all proven tools to help control the rate of travel.

“We are hoping to reduce residential speed limits from 25 mph to 20 mph, as we know that if you get hit by a car at 20 mph or less, there is an 80 percent chance of survival,” explains Sadowsky. “When the speed limit increases, chance of survival decreases. At 35 mph, there is only a 15 percent chance of survival.”

Cyclists will appreciate the proposal of adding dedicated bike lanes where possible. Studies have shown that providing dedicated space for cyclists reduces fatalities for all users. A survey conducted in Montreal, Canada, concluded that the injury rate was 28 percent less on streets featuring bike lanes as opposed to similar roadways without

such features.1

Though both bills are pending legislation approval, pilot projects can be implemented in order to test the best tactics for educational campaigns and infrastructure change. Sadowsky was previously the executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago and led a pilot project confined to an eight-block area with the goal of reducing crashes by 50 percent over three years. The findings eventually influenced citywide policy.

“We learned what kind of signs and education worked, and we could apply those lessons to the city,” he explains. “A city may say, ‘we can’t get to zero, we are too big,’ but what if it was just one neighborhood? Or one small part of a neighborhood? It’s much more manageable to think of it that way.”

There are no current plans for pilot projects, as municipalities must first provide approval. However, BTA has given this recommendation to the Portland metropolitan area, and the city is currently looking for a consultant to design a plan. It will most likely not be completed until fall of this year.

If the state and city bills do not pass through the current legislative session, they will be moved to early 2016. As the legislature also decides on budget every two years, it is possible the bills would not pass until 2017. That said, BTA and Walk Oregon are currently working on a separate traffic safety plan with the Oregon Transportation Commission. Both organizations and many officials are doing everything they can to push the bill through since the earlier changes are made, the sooner the streets become safer.

“For a city that is aggressive, 10-15 years is an appropriate goal to reach zero crashes, and 20 years for the state,” suggests Sadowsky. “The goal should be bold because that’s partly what the policy is about, but not so outrageous that people won’t think you’ll get there. A lot of change has to happen.”

Oregonians should keep an eye out for announcements, calls for action, appearances at festivals and fairs, signs, invitations to coffee sit-downs and barbecues to start the conversation about Vision Zero.

To view the full proposal, visit ourhealthystreets.org/visionzero


[1] Anne C Lusk, Peter G Furth, Patrick Morency, Luis F Miranda-Moreno, Walter C Willett, and Jack T Dennerlein. “Risk of injury for bicycling on cycle tracks versus in the street.” (Apr 17, 2011) U.S. National Library of Medicine. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3064866

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