There was never any doubt Portland City Council would approve a resolution to adopt Vision Zero this morning. What politician would be caught dead opposing the notion that serious traffic injuries and deaths are not acceptable? It's easy enough to pass a non-binding statement of support (which a Dan Saltzman-less council did 4-0), vote to pay $150,000 in state money to study it (ditto), and move along.
But this morning's vote was striking in two ways: One, it appears this council really wants to make the city's streets safer—and at a time when recent high-profile crashes (see here, here, here, and here) have drawn protest and outrage and public statements by elected leaders. Two, they're not sure just how the hell they're going to make that happen, and are leery of setting a firm date for success.
Let's take those in order.
The Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Oregon Walks, and the other groups flogging Vision Zero this year have an ally in the city's stop transportation official. Leah Treat has said since she took the helm of the Portland Bureau of Transportation she wants to implement the concept—which prizes safety and eliminating serious crashes and deaths over automobile throughput and brutal efficiency.
But Treat's got a boss to answer to, which makes comments by Commissioner Steve Novick (the boss in question) really important. Particularly this one: "This is a vision that will guide all aspects of our work."
That's a sweeping commitment for Novick to make. And with an election campaign in the offing, it's an easy cudgel for opponents to wield if PBOT begins announcing projects that seem contradictory to the vision of slower speeds, narrower roads, and less mayhem in general.
"I think that there are people who assume that it's not possible to drastically reduce or even eliminate fatalities or serious injuries on our streets," Novick said at the outset of this morning's discussion. "That is not true."
The data PBOT's been throwing around in the Vision Zero discussion is six years old. It shows that Portland is already safer than many big American cities at 6.2 traffic deaths a year per 100,000 residents.
The cities that do even better than that are denser, with narrower or more-choked streets that make it a relative pain to drive a car. (The very thing you're freaking out about happening here.) New York is the best in the US for traffic deaths, at 3.9 per 100,000 residents, but San Francisco, Washington, DC, Chicago, and Seattle are beating us out. Stockholm, which created the concept of Vision Zero after experiencing serious traffic mayhem in the 1970s, boasts 1.1 death per 100,000 residents.
Novick, by the way, was far from alone in his forceful support. The mayor and two remaining commissioners all spoke passionately about stopping the crashes that seem to have piled up in recent days (auto deaths have decreased in Portland, but we do a bad job protecting pedestrians from harm).
Commissioner Amanda Fritz's husband, Dr. Steven Fritz, died in a crash on Interstate 5 near Salem last September, and she's been pushing for new barriers in the medians of hundreds of miles of highways ever since. "It’ s been very difficult for me to sit through this hearing," she noted. Commissioner Nick Fish said he'd also lost a loved one to a crash as a child.
Mayor Charlie Hales said the resolution (and the money council also approved to study the matter) "isn't just a soundbite or a photo opportunity. It's a serious commitment by us as a city to say this is our goal and we mean this. We are going to join other cities who are in the vanguard of this movement."
So there's support! But here's the second thing about today's vote: No one's really sure exactly what it means. Some of that will come out in the pricey consultant's report the state is paying for, but when advocates Rob Sadowsky (of the BTA) and Noel Mickleberry (of Oregon Walks) pressed council to set a deadline, 10 years hence, for eliminating serious crashes and deaths, commissioners balked.
"I’d want to have conversation about the pros and cons of setting a date," Novick said. "I'd want to talk to colleagues and other people involved in the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness and what the implications were of setting a goal and what happens when you can’t meet it."
Fritz noted that the city doesn't have enough money for existing transportation needs, that there's no sign the state's going to come to our rescue, and that—even if legislators do manage to reach accord on a transportation bill in the quick-dwindling days of this session—Portland should probably reopen the toxic street-fee discussion again.
Hales seemed to agree, but noted the city hasn't shied from putting timelines on other sweeping efforts.
"We've made those kinds of commitments before," he said. "We made a commitment to take more housing to execute the Urban Growth Boundary. We made a commitment to reduce our carbon footprint in this city and we have a goal, and we have a timeline." (Carbon footprint is likely top-of-mind for the mayor since he's going to go visit the Pope on the public dime next month to talk climate change.)
This reasoning against a concrete date was not impressive to the BTA's Sadowsky, who's pushing Vision Zero on the state and national levels, too.
"Unless you set a date, it's not bold," he said after council had voted. "I don't buy [that logic]. I think it's bullshit. I didn't get a chance to say that, though."
(It should be noted PBOT's already sort of set a date. A 2-year plan the agency released earlier this year commits to Vision Zero and pledges to "move toward zero traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries in the next 10 years.")
City council was more amenable to another proposal from the BTA: That whatever plans emerge from Vision Zero carry explicit assurances against racial profiling. That provision is based in the experience of New York, where Sadowsky says cops used Vision Zero as pretext for stopping minority citizens for jay-walking and other minor infractions.
The bottom line: We are a Vision Zero city now (we sort of have been since PBOT adopted that ethos earlier this year). What that winds up meaning is an open and interesting question.