EVEN BEFORE a 15-year-old girl was run down on Southeast Hawthorne last Friday, it had been an exceptionally bloody month on Portland roads.
From July 30 to August 19—the day incoming Franklin High sophomore Fallon Smart was hit by a reckless driver—six people died in car crashes throughout the city. Others were seriously injured.
It’s an alarming tally, and not where we’re supposed to be. Last year, Portland officials formally adopted Vision Zero—the notion that no fatality or serious injury on roads is acceptable—and promised the ethos would “guide all aspects of our work.”
Fourteen months later, Portland’s headed in the wrong direction. The city’s seen 30 traffic deaths so far this year. At that pace, there could be roughly 47 by year’s end—ten more fatalities than 2015, and the most deaths on Portland roads since 2003.
That’s one reason a new plan being cooked up by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is overdue. For the first time ever, Portland’s about to take pedestrians and cyclists into account when adjusting speed limits.
On August 16, PBOT pitched a proposal to the state’s Speed Zone Review Panel, a five-member body that has final say in whether speed limits on any road in the state can be changed.
For decades, the state has only analyzed automobile traffic patterns in making those calls. Now, PBOT is arguing that Portland should be looking at more than cars. The bureau is asking to pioneer a new system where it considers the entire road—including how much foot traffic there is, and how closely bikes and cars intermingle—when asking the state to set speeds.
The proposal could mean a swifter process for slashing speed limits on dozens of moderate-traffic roads throughout the city, officials say. Possibilities include Southeast Holgate from the Willamette River to 136th Avenue, or Northeast Prescott from MLK to 122nd, or all of Northwest Skyline. Here's a map (Marine Drive is highlighted in error, PBOT says).
“Speed is a key factor in road safety,” reads the proposal [PDF] PBOT submitted to the state, “especially for people traveling outside of motor vehicles who are not buffered from the impact of crashes.”
In Portland, those road users have fared poorly. Pedestrians in Portland are killed at a rate more than two times the national average, according to the city. (Eight have been killed so far in 2016.) We’ve done better with bicycle fatalities, but four cyclists have died this year—twice the number killed in all of 2015, and the highest tally since 2009.
The circumstances of crashes differ wildly, but research is clear that as speeds go down, so do the chances someone will be killed in a collision.
“The likelihood of a crash depends very much on how many people are using the street, how they’re using the street, and how often their paths will cross each other,” says Scott Batson, a PBOT staff engineer who’s been working on the new speed methodology.
As obvious as that might seem, bikes and pedestrians have never entered into the state’s calculus when Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) officials look into requests for lowering speeds.
The state—like states all around the country—instead puts a lot of emphasis on the “85th percentile” speed. Staffers observe traffic on a stretch of road, and find the speed that 85 percent of vehicles are driving at or below. The number is a powerful determinant when it comes to decisions on speed limits.
“Recognizing that most motorists are generally safe, the speed at or below which 85 percent of the drivers travel is one nationally recognized factor...” reads an ODOT pamphlet on the subject.
But the method has long frustrated advocates.
“It doesn’t reward good behavior,” says Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. “If your goal is to lower speeds on a road that already has high speeds, you’re stuck.”
The focus on cars is so complete that when PBOT recently asked the state to lower speeds on the bustling bike corridor along North Williams, it wasn’t allowed to even mention bikes as a reason for its request.
“It’s as if they’re literally not there,” says Margi Bradway, PBOT’s active transportation and safety manager.
City officials have been working for years to change that. Since 2009, PBOT’s pitched a system where it could set speeds on city streets without the state’s approval. That’s not on the table yet, but the city says the new pilot project—which state officials plan to approve in coming weeks—will vastly improve things.
It’s not that the state often turns the city down when it asks for speed changes. Far more often than not, ODOT agrees that speeds should be lowered.
But the process is too time-consuming, Bradway and others complain. It can take over a year for speed requests to filter through the system, because ODOT has only one staffer to analyze roads in the Portland region. (The city currently has 17 pending requests for speed changes [PDF], including lower speed limits on portions of Southwest Naito and West Burnside.)
The delay is partly PBOT’s fault. State Traffic Engineer Bob Pappe notes the city could do its own analyses of city roads rather than waiting on the state.
“That way they can move to the top of the list, if you will,” Pappe says.
And in fact, PBOT plans to begin doing its own traffic studies, which will be one reason speed limit changes might accelerate. But the bureau says it’s more than that.
Batson, the PBOT engineer, says the state system is “significantly more involved” than the one the city’s itching to try. The new methodology calculates speeds based on how close motorists come to other types of travelers.
According to examples offered by the city, that can be well lower than the “85th percentile” speed ODOT uses as a guidepost. For instance, a mockup request to reduce speeds on a portion of North Willamette shows the 85th percentile speed is 41 mph. But based on the layout of the street—much of which includes a 5-foot-wide bike lane—the city says it would request the speed be reduced from 35 mph to 30, which it calls a “safe speed” for pedestrians and cyclists.
It’s up to Pappe, the state traffic engineer, to formally sign off on the city’s proposal. He says he’ll do so, after suggesting some minor tweaks.
“It’s a completely different concept,” he says, “but I think in a city like Portland that’s probably very, very appropriate.”