LATE LAST YEAR, rogue safety cones began popping up around Portland bike lanes, and an interesting conversation began online. A mysterious figure using the Twitter handle PDX Transformation (@PBOTrans) started gleefully posting pictures of sections of the city’s streetscape that he and others had attempted to make more safe with purloined traffic cones. They’ve since expanded to ersatz speed limit signs, and even a pop-up crosswalk. The movement’s got people talking, and forming up behind it. So we asked PDX Transformation’s founder to explain his motivations.—DIRK VANDERHART
HI EVERYONE! Maybe you’ve heard of us as the people who put down cones on the streets, and you’re wondering why we do it and what else we’re up to. Those are fair questions!
We know you think of us as bike activists—and that this is the Mercury’s Bike Issue—but this isn’t a bike issue. It’s a people issue. It’s the issue of what we want our streets to be, and who they should serve. Some think they should serve only the people driving on them. We disagree.
Streets are public places that should connect people rather than cutting them off from their neighbors. Nobody should feel endangered when they are using our streets. Nobody should feel like they might get injured or die if someone else isn’t paying attention. Nobody should literally die. But that has happened way too often in Portland this year.
So we have to talk about what makes our streets dangerous: speed. Speed turns mistakes and misjudgments into tragedies. Speed amplifies every small bad thing into a big bad thing. Speed makes a huge difference whether or not someone dies from a collision.
Sure, we have made fantastic progress with safety features on cars, but those are all about keeping the car’s occupants safe. When it comes to crashes between cars and people not in cars, basic physics has not had the same safety upgrades. The survival rate of a person being hit by a car at 20 MPH is around 90 percent. The survival rate at 30 MPH is roughly 50 percent. At 40 MPH, it’s about 10 percent. We bet 40 MPH is a tiny fraction of your car’s maximum speed. Think about how easy it is to go fast, without even realizing you’re doing it.
Everybody should slow down a little, but of course the people who most need to slow down are the ones in the cars.
What does that have to do with PDX Transformation? Well, we look for places in the city that are dangerous, but can be made safer with some small adjustments. We use cones, “flexi-posts,” signs—whatever tools we can find—either to lower speeds to safe levels, or provide separation between cars and modes. (We hate the word “mode” when every mode is just a human trying to get somewhere and trying to live, but it’s a useful term to describe how the different ways we move about make us behave differently.)
Some of the things we do are illegal, to be sure, but we try really hard to make sure they’re not dangerous. None of what we do is meant to be permanent. We hope our temporary fixes will inspire the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) or other agencies to enact proper changes with more durable materials. We think this has already happened.
Recently, we placed a crosswalk (made out of white tape!) at SE 52nd and Gladstone to show that every intersection is a legal crosswalk, even if unmarked. Some people said it was unsafe, but they really meant nobody is aware of the law, so people don’t cross there. But people do cross there. All we did is add visibility for them for a few days.
We think PBOT’s hearts are in the right place mostly, but they sometimes put convenience or political expediency ahead of safety, and we want to point it out when they do. They need encouragement to act faster, and we reject the position that we are interfering with their work. We are only demonstrating Portland residents’ pent-up demand that our streets be made safer now.
We want to keep transforming our beloved Portland, and we now have dozens of Agents of Transformation working to make more positive changes, to make our streets safer and more human. We have some big plans coming up. Maybe you’d like to help!
Expect more from us, and together let’s demand more from our city.