An average of 37 Portlanders die in traffic collisions annually, including 11 pedestrians, 2 bicyclists, and 24 motorists each year. Unfortunately, pedestrians bear a brunt of the overall traffic fatalities in the City and the region. Looking across the state, while other transportation modes have seen a decrease in fatalities – pedestrian deaths are slowly rising. We have made great strides in making vehicles safer for the people inside of them, but not as many advances for people outside of cars – who are most vulnerable to death and serious injury. In addition, as our population grows and especially as communities are displaced, density and affordable housing are increasingly located on highways and other high speed roads that were not built for the communities that now call them home.
The Portland-based organization Oregon Walks is the State’s advocacy group that promotes safe streets for pedestrians. Oregon Walks does work in communities around the Portland Metro Area (and the entire state) to “bring pedestrians forward as a constituency that needs to be taken seriously”. Oregon Walks Executive Director Noel Mickleberry says her organization believes that a focus on the who, where, and why for pedestrian safety in particular is critical in creating streets that are safe for everyone – by addressing the needs of our most vulnerable roadway users first.
Photo Credit: Oregon Metro
According to Dr. Hunter Shobe, a geographer at Portland State University, Portland has a national reputation as a relatively safe city in which to walk. Shobe points to The Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2016 report, which found that Portland’s pedestrian and bicycle fatalities per 10,000 commuters ranked 6th lowest of the most populous cities in the country. He says that although Portland has been recognized for its efforts to be a pedestrian friendly and “walkable” city, the geography of pedestrian injuries and deaths from motor vehicles suggests very different levels of safety throughout the city. In Multnomah County, a pedestrian is 2.3 times more likely to be hit and killed in low income neighborhoods.
Dr. Shobe points out that more than half of deadly crashes occur on just 8% of Portland’s streets. The City of Portland designates these streets as high crash corridors, and together they make up the “High Crash Network”. High Crash Network streets are displayed in the map below. Portland’s Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) has identified areas of the city where traffic safety needs are particularly acute, calling these areas “Communities of Concern” (shown in grey in the map below). According to PBOT, Communities of Concern are neighborhoods where people “have fewer choices about how, when and where they travel, putting them at higher risk as they move around”.
Portland’s Vision Zero Plan
The City of Portland adopted a Vision Zero strategy in 2015 with the goal of eliminating all serious and fatal traffic injuries by 2025. According to PBOT, Vision Zero aims to redesign streets to reflect the goal of moving people safely, not just moving cars efficiently. The plan has an emphasis on equity, and states that “Vision Zero’s guiding principles and actions prioritize infrastructure investment on our most dangerous streets in traditionally under-invested communities”, and acknowledges that “the need is ever more acute as gentrification and changing demographics force low-income, transit-dependent residents into neighborhoods where walking is especially dangerous”.
In 2106, Portland voters approved Measure 26-173, which over a four-year period will raise approximately $64 million for street improvement and traffic safety projects administered through a program called Fixing Our Streets. The bureau plans to spend the money on a wide variety of street improvement and safety projects across the entire city. Fixing Our Streets will be investing in preventive street maintenance that PBOT says saves money and prevents potholes, as well as building more sidewalks, traffic signals, street lights and bike lanes.
PBOT says there is public support for certain automated enforcement measures.
A survey they conducted showed that 85% of those polled supported automated tickets for drivers who run red lights and 71% supported the use of automated tickets for drivers who break speed limits. The city declared its intention to apply enforcement towards this effort cautiously however, limiting enforcement actions in the plan in order to reduce the possibility of racial profiling and other negative impacts on targeted communities.
Vision Zero has received critiques for its top-down strategy for cultural change, its dismissal of concerns about influence of eurocentric thinking (the movement originates in Sweden), and its failure to fully address racial dimensions of traffic policing. In some cities, transportation advocates have pushed policy makers to include the community in the Vision Zero planning process. In Los Angeles, a group of advocates formed a coalition called the LA Vision Zero Alliance, to hold the City accountable and to drive the policies toward goals of equity and social justice.
Pedestrian Advocates work toward change from the bottom up
Oregon Walks is the state’s pedestrian advocacy organization, dedicated to ensuring that walking is safe, convenient, and attractive to everyone. The organization was founded in 1991 as an all volunteer advocacy group, focused primarily on ensuring walking infrastructure was prioritized in local transportation projects and plans across the city. They have championed state legislative changes like the 2011 Crosswalk Safety Bill.
In recent years, Oregon Walks continues to champion project level pedestrian advocacy, but now work more explicitly on elevating underrepresented voices in transportation policy and funding decisions across the region and state. The group is dedicated to ensuring that walkable communities do not become a privilege only available for those able to afford it, but instead a universal public good that is accessible to everyone.
Oregon Walks worked with the City of Portland to develop their first Vision Zero Action Plan. Vision Zero has been a priority campaign for Oregon Walks since 2014 when they launched a petition after two fatalities in two separate crashes on Valentine’s Day weekend in East Portland.
In addition, Oregon Walks has developed programs aimed at broadening access to walking as a health and community building tool. Walktober, now entering its sixth year, is a month of walking fun during October. Anyone can lead a walk or join a walk using our free online calendar, and the group leads targeted walks with partner groups to provide opportunities for people to connect through walking.
In 2016 Oregon Walks launched a new community led, walking focused open streets event series called Oregon Walkways. This event series is aimed at creating open streets events at the human scale, and focused on highlighting community assets and values. Working closely with place based partners the group organizes a day-long event each summer that closes down streets to cars, and opens them up to people – through placemaking activities, vendors, street art, and performances. The event is focused on accessibility for all residents, with routes that are short enough for people on foot or mobility device to participate, and is free and open to the public.
Though Portland enjoys a reputation as walkable and pedestrian friendly, we still have a long way to go towards achieving Vision Zero’s goal of zero fatalities by 2025. Equity continues to be a concern for pedestrian advocates and policy makers alike. Community based advocate groups like Oregon Walks not only serve as resources for the community, but also build capacity for the city through partnership. Their work continues to help bring walking into our complex web of multi-modal urban transportation, while elevating and prioritizing funding safety improvements on our City’s most dangerous corridors that serve our most vulnerable communities.
Noel Mickleberry, Oregon Walks
Hunter Shobe, Portland State University Sources:
Portland Bureau of Transportation. 2016b. What is Vision Zero?
Alliance for Biking and Walking. 2016. Bicycling and Walking in the United States 2016
Portland Bureau of Transportation. 2017. High Crash Corridors