As more and more deadly traffic crashes have taken place on Portland’s streets over the last few years, the resulting promises from local politicians have become commonplace, and are increasingly scrutinized by advocates.
Portland transportation leaders gathered August 7 at a press conference to address the recent uptick in deadly traffic crashes. They were joined by protesters who made it clear: empty platitudes are no longer enough.
After 63 people died in traffic crashes in 2021—the most in more than 30 years—leaders at the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) called it a “new and unexpected circumstance requiring our focus and attention.” When 2022 saw 2021’s record-high number of traffic crash fatalities repeated, PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps called for a renewed focus on safe, slow driving.
Despite pledges to improve safety, 2023 looks to be on a similar trajectory. Forty three people have died in traffic crashes this year so far. Of those, 13 deaths took place in July, making it the deadliest month on Portland’s streets in decades—and possibly ever.
Without political will or sustainable funding for infrastructure overhauls, Portland transportation leaders have turned to police enforcement and urge residents to help enact a “culture shift” on city roads. But as people in Portland continue to fall victim to traffic violence at record rates, local officials face a constituency fed up with what they see as hollow words from leadership and no tangible results.
A “culture change” on the streets?
On July 15, Jean “Jeanie” Diaz, a 43-year-old youth librarian and mother of two young children, was waiting at a TriMet bus stop at Southeast Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Taylor Street after finishing her shift at the Belmont Library across the street. At around 6:20 that evening, a man driving southbound on Cesar Chavez drove his car onto the sidewalk, rolling over and slamming into the bus stop where Diaz waited. She was killed in the collision.
The driver who killed Diaz, Kevin Michael Scott, was arrested for first degree manslaughter, reckless driving, and driving under the influence of intoxicants. Though PBOT has directed some attention to infrastructure changes that may have saved Diaz’s life, such as building wider sidewalks on the busy Cesar Chavez corridor, transportation leaders largely blamed reckless driving for crashes like this one.
In a statement to KATU, PBOT spokesperson Hannah Schafer said speed and driving under the influence “continue to be the two biggest factors we see out in the streets in terms of what causes crashes in our city.”
Mapps echoed that message at the August 7 press conference.
“Every Portlander is horrified by the carnage that we see on our streets,” Mapps said. “[I’m here today] to remind Portlanders that there is hope. We can reduce traffic deaths here in Portland by driving slower, driving sober, and building safer roads.”
Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Sergeant Ty Engstrom, a veteran member of the newly-reinstated PPB Traffic Division, also urged road users to use caution to protect themselves and others. He said there has been a “culture change” on the streets over the last few years, starting at the beginning of the pandemic, and increased police enforcement is one way to turn the tide.
“People feel entitled on our roadways. All motorists, all pedestrians, all bicyclists… it seems like we’ve forgotten how to use these roadways together safely and to share them,” Engstrom said.
He was met with backlash from the audience for what they deemed to be a false equivocation between people walking, biking, and driving cars, the latter of whom are responsible for the vast majority of traffic crash injuries and fatalities.
Transportation advocates agree there needs to be a “culture shift” on Portland’s streets. They just don’t know if it’s enough to rely on traffic cops and individual road users to enact it.
The return of police enforcement
In May, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell announced his plan to reinstate the bureau’s dormant traffic division, which had been slashed in 2020 due to budget constraints and a staff shortage. The move was lauded by Mapps, who made increased traffic enforcement a key priority when he took over PBOT in January.
Engstrom said a limited team of traffic cops has been working overtime since May to make sure Portland’s streets are safe.
“We have officers who are supposed to get off at 3 am…[saying] they have to stay late until four or five o'clock in the morning to process more drunk drivers and get them off the streets,” Engstrom said at the August 7 press conference. “They choose to stay late to process drunk drivers and make sure they’re held accountable, and not just get their car towed away and walk off with a friend or something.”
It’s likely too soon to measure the impact of the partially-reinstated traffic division. But given the surge in crash fatalities over the last few months, some people question the efficacy of relying on traffic cops to stop dangerous drivers. Engstrom said PPB is working on bringing new officers to the traffic beat so they can increase the work.
“We will bring more traffic officers out of the precincts and back to where they belong to help process DUI drivers, get these speeders off the roadways, and strongly combat the dangerous driving behaviors that are taking place,” he said.
After the press conference, Engstrom told BikePortland that due to low staffing levels, part of PPB’s current traffic enforcement strategy is to “try and make [themselves] look bigger than perhaps [they] really are'' by advertising their work on social media and placing cops in strategic locations to increase visibility.
The move flies in the face of PPB’s past approach to traffic enforcement. Engstrom previously promoted a message that because the division wasn’t staffed, Portland’s streets were essentially lawless. He admitted the framing was to “create a stir” so they could get more funding from the city.
“I know that could make things more dangerous. I don’t know. But at the same time, we needed some change,” Engstrom told BikePortland.
Many transportation advocates believe such situations are exactly why police officers shouldn’t be the sole means of traffic enforcement. They think the city should utilize automated speed cameras more often, which can be implemented and processed by non-police city staff, so they don’t rely on PPB’s staffing levels—or its political whims. Automated speed cameras are also seen as a more equitable way to enforce traffic laws, as police presence often leads to worse outcomes for people of color and other marginalized communities.
The presence of more, visible speed cameras could also help send a message to drivers that their actions are being monitored.
Sarah Iannarone, director of transportation advocacy nonprofit The Street Trust, encouraged more automated enforcement at the August 7 press conference.
“‘Slowing the flock down’ makes for cute signage,” Iannarone said, referencing PBOT’s signage instructing drivers to follow the speed limit. “But we need a serious statewide public health campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of high speed driving. We also need to enforce speeds in a way that does not disproportionately harm BIPOC or low-income community members. This includes significant investments in automated traffic enforcement.”
But whether with police officers or traffic cameras, advocates like Iannarone say enforcement is just one tool in the much larger toolbox necessary for preventing fatal crashes. The bigger picture calls for system wide change.
Iannarone noted “speed, impairment, and distraction” contribute to over 90 percent of vehicle crashes in the United States.
“Safe systems” for a public health crisis
To Iannarone and other advocates, enforcement mechanisms and calls to action aren’t enough for a “transformation” of Portland’s transportation system. They call for a “safe systems” approach to preventing traffic crashes, which revolves around designing streets that account for individual mistakes like reckless or drunk driving.
The approach is utilized by programs like Vision Zero, which aims to stop all traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets. The city of Portland committed to the Vision Zero pledge in 2015, but traffic crashes have only increased in that time.
A recent Multnomah County Public Health Data Report looking at the county’s traffic-related fatality trends also calls for such an approach.
“Our discussion of a safe system approach in this report is intended to shift the conversation from individual responsibility to roadway design and policy choices that turn inevitable human errors into deaths on our roadways.”
The county report points out that traffic fatalities disproportionately impact unhoused people, people of color, and low-income populations, largely the result of past segregation and displacement.”
The report suggests implementing “safe pedestrian spaces, appropriate lighting, and slower speeds” to “reduce the likelihood and severity of crashes.”
At the August 7 press conference, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson honed in on the points made in the report and acknowledged the unequal risk of danger faced on the streets by people using different modes of transportation.
“The fact of the matter is when it comes to a pedestrian or bicyclist going up against a car, the car will always win,” Vega Pederson said. “Investing in transportation infrastructure saves lives and creates safer neighborhoods and communities.”
The funding problem
But what’s the plan for systemic investment? To PBOT leaders, the city’s failure to meaningfully implement “safe system” and Vision Zero policies on Portland’s streets can be mainly chalked up to one thing: there’s no money for transportation infrastructure. Transportation funding woes are present at both the local and state levels, serving as a major barrier to traffic safety.
At a July PBOT Bureau Budget Advisory Committee (BBAC) meeting, then-interim bureau director Tara Wasiak said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to advance infrastructure projects in the wake of deadly crashes as PBOT’s budget shrinks.
“The amount of discretionary funding available for quick-build projects is decreasing. As our budget problems grow, our ability to respond and make real concrete changes to our streets is diminished,” Wasiak said. “The problem is that as revenue declines and city council forces us to cut our budget, we simply don't have the money to make the changes to our streets that we know we need.”
Wasiak referenced the recent deadly crashes as a “heartbreaking reminder of what’s at stake when we don’t fully fund our transportation system.”
Vega Pederson and others want to turn to the Oregon legislature for sustainable and safe transportation funding, and plan to ramp up efforts in the coming years.
“Those of us who are working in transit advocacy know how challenging it is to secure funding for safe streets,” Vega Pederson said at the press conference. “That is why we need alignment across jurisdictions and why our priorities must match our budget and funding.”