Are you familiar with ‘Vision Zero’? You may have seen some signs around town. Particularly in neighborhoods on residential streets. Below you will see some statistics as to why this is so important!

Forty-five people died on Portland streets in 2017, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT).

It’s the highest number of traffic deaths Portland’s seen since 2003, when the city recorded 47, and well higher than Portland’s homicide tally from last year. It’s also just one higher than 2016’s death toll.

At the same time, the number of people who died in traffic crashes while walking in 2017—19—was higher than any year dating back to 1996, which is as far back as I could readily find. Nearly 70 percent of last year’s traffic fatalities occurred in the “high-crash network”—the list of busy streets that the city says is routinely responsible for half of fatal crashes.

The Implementation of Vision Zero

Starting in April, all of the city’s residential streets will have a speed limit of 20 mph, down from 25.

In a 5-0 vote, the council took advantage of a right Portland won in last year’s legislative session to set its own speeds on non-arterial roads around town. PBOT will now spend $300,000 putting up 2,000 new speed limit signs (and removing the old ones). By April, the bureau says, 70 percent of the city’s street grid will have the new limit.

“We are poised to make a really significant step today in the City of Portland,” PBOT Director Leah Treat said at this morning’s meeting. “Five miles per hour may not seem like much, but it actually is a big deal. We all know that speed kills.”

Treat’s correct, and today’s decision is certainly a potent symbolic move for a city council with at least three members who’ve lost loved ones to car crashes. What’s less clear is that the speed limit change will do anything to change the ugly numbers above.

After putting up signs and rolling out an education campaign, the city has no plans to increase speed enforcement on the roads where the new limit is in effect, officials said today. They’re partly hoping that people who speed will index that speeding to the new limit.

Will This Help?

It’s hard to tell how many serious crashes actually take place on these residential streets. When we asked PBOT if it had that data yesterday, the bureau sent back something else: a tally of all serious crashes, from 2006 to 2015, that took place within 25 feet of one of these streets. According to PBOT’s figures, there were 2,362 crashes that resulted in death or serious injury in that time frame. The bureau says 803 of them of them occurred within 25 feet of residential streets.

“Bottom line, approximately a third of fatal and serious injury crashes are on or very near to residential streets,” PBOT spokesperson John Brady said.

That’s not at all the same as saying they occurred on those streets. After all, the number PBOT sent along ropes in crashes that occurred on busy streets, but also happened to be near the intersection of a residential street. Brady also sent along a map plotting out all these serious crashes, and while I haven’t gone through it minutely, it suggests that the vast, vast majority of the crashes occur on busier streets.

That’s one reason safe-street advocates have been relatively muted in their enthusiasm for the change. Groups like the Street Trust and BikeLoudPDX are absolutely supportive of the new 20 mph limit, but insistent that more substantive steps need to take place on streets that are actually causing Portland’s traffic carnage.

“The street design is what ultimately determines drivers’ speed,” says Emily Guise, a chair at BikeLoudPDX. “BikeLoudPDX wants to see the city lower the speed limit as soon as possible on arterials as well, and most importantly follow it up with changes to the street design that further decrease speeding.”

The Steps

Providing Streets for Everyone: We want streets where all Portlanders, from the oldest to the youngest, and including all physical abilities, can move safely. This means we need a complete, connected, and comfortable system. Achieving such a system requires that every street project be designed to achieve zero deaths and serious injuries. Projects should be designed such that if a collision occurs it will not be fatal or serious, or alternatively a project should eliminate modal conflicts between users. Projects that reduce speeds, “tame” arterial streets, and provide frequent and convenient protected pedestrian crossings will be prioritized.

Protecting the Most Vulnerable: As Portlanders, we value equity and diversity. We want a multi-generational city where people can live full and healthy lives from birth through old age, regardless of skin color, language, physical ability, income, or geography. Our youngest and oldest residents, those with mobility limitations, sensory impairments, or limited language abilities require special consideration and special accommodation.

Teaching Portlanders to Live and Travel Together: Education and awareness is critical for individuals to contribute to keeping themselves (and others) safe. We need to educate travelers of all modes to enable them to operate safely, comfortably, and respectfully together. A safe multimodal transportation system requires a social compact in which all modes agree to follow the rules with patience and tolerance.

Enforcing Safe Behavior on Our Streets: While we wish enhanced design and education alone would ensure a safe system, we know enforcement too plays a significant role in encouraging good traveler behavior. Enforcement is a necessary tool to encourage compliance and remind us that these rules are not optional, but mandatory and very necessary. An effective enforcement initiative will include PBOT and Portland Police developing shared safety objectives and implementation strategies, as well as achieving legislative authority to use automated enforcement. Working with our partners, we can expand monitoring programs and enforcement activities.

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Author: Rizk Law

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