ON OUTER Southeast Division Street, the traffic violence plays out in a tragic loop.
Just before 7 pm on December 7, a 51-year-old man named Myit Oo was fatally struck near Division and 156th, not far from the spot where 25-year-old Joe Stone was killed in 2013.
Kristi Finney-Dunn knows Stone’s story too well. The man’s mother, Kim, is part of Finney-Dunn’s group, Oregon & SW Washington Families for Safe Streets. It’s a coalition of people who’ve lost loved ones to crashes.
So the first thing Finney-Dunn did when she learned of yet another fatal crash in that spot last Wednesday was call Kim Stone. She wanted to say, “I know this must be hard for you.”
She’d learn precisely how hard mere minutes later, when police reported the second fatal accident on Southeast Division in a matter of hours. This one occurred where the busy five-lane road passes SE 87th—very near where, in 2011, a drunk driver ran Finney-Dunn’s son Dustin off his bicycle.
“We’re pretty much reeling,” she said Saturday afternoon, pointing out the spot where her son was killed. While she spoke, 30 or so demonstrators used hay bales to shut down two travel lanes of Division in a bid to get city officials to take action.
Portland police note that neither man killed last week was crossing Division at a marked crosswalk, a factor that might well have played a role in the incidents. Activists say it’s more than that.
Fatal crashes repeating in the same spots along Division are “more than just a coincidence,” Jessica Engelman, an organizer with the group BikeLoudPDX, told people at Saturday’s protest. “That’s a sign these are problem areas.”
Last month, Portland City Council adopted a Vision Zero Action Plan, aimed at eliminating serious traffic-related injuries and deaths by 2025. BikeLoud and its supporters argue outer Division is a great place to start.
They say the road has been allowed to remain needlessly dangerous east of SE 82nd, even as the Portland Bureau of Transportation recently made a portion of the road west of 82nd drastically safer.
In 2013, the city spent a little more than $100,000 to restripe Division from SE 60th to 80th. The change reduced the street from two travel lanes in each direction to one, and gave PBOT the room to install wide bike lanes in each direction.
In October 2014, PBOT also formally lowered the speed limit on the same stretch, from 35 mph to 30, but by then, drivers were already moving slower. “Crashes are expected to decrease about 30 percent and speeding has decreased 56 percent, yet there has been little change in travel time over the 20 blocks,” a May 2014 PBOT report said.
In fact, that modified portion of Division has exceeded expectations. PBOT says crashes were reduced by 50 percent during the year after it was modified, though traffic flow didn’t change [PDF].
“We’re here to say, ‘What you did down there you need to do up here,’” Engelman said Saturday. Then her group set about creating a sense of what that might look like.
For six blocks in each direction—from SE 84th to 90th—the protestors set hay bales, cones, and signs (“Lives > Speed”) in the outermost travel lanes, forcing drivers to use a single lane each way.
It went about how you’d expect. Some honked in support. Others called out things like “Bullshit!” and “Get that out of the road!” A few sped down the center turn lane, or veered into the bike lanes to dodge the makeshift barriers.
One man, who declined to give his name, got out of his truck while patronizing a plant nursery, calling the protestors “fucking idiots” and saying the road was meant for cars.
He’d cooled down somewhat after arguing with an activist, but remained unconvinced. “I’m just not sure how effective this is,” he said, reasoning: “There’s a mortality rate associated with everything.”
Despite the frustration, Division’s a hazard for motorists, too. Of the 30 “high crash corridors” PBOT has identified throughout the city, Division causes drivers serious injuries the most often. It’s also the fourth-most dangerous street in town for pedestrians, according to city figures, and the second-most dangerous for cyclists.
Of course, cyclists and pedestrians, without the benefits of a car’s protective cocoon, are most easily injured. Of five traffic deaths on Division this year, four have been pedestrians. One was a driver.
Despite all of this, PBOT’s not likely to grant BikeLoud’s demands.
Not long after the activists departed on Saturday, city employees stopped to clean up the protestors’ handiwork. “After dark, the hay bales would have presented a considerable hazard,” PBOT spokesperson John Brady says.
Brady says a “road diet”—as a reduction in travel lanes is often called—isn’t practical for this part of Division, which PBOT thinks is too wide to make such a change effective. Instead, the city’s considering installing medians, pedestrian islands, and crosswalk beacons to help make conditions safer.
It’s also planning to install speed cameras at Division and 156th in order to force people to slow down. In addition, the city wants to educate the community on road safety, and will seek the state’s permission to lower speeds on “sections of outer Division,” Brady says.
Speeds are currently set at 35 mph on much of that stretch. Activists have pushed for 20 mph.
“They need to slow the speeds down, and people in cars need to pay attention,” Finney-Dunn said Saturday, waving a picture of her son at passing motorists. “I’m not saying pedestrians can’t do better, or bikes can’t do better, but cars are what kill.”