By Midge Pierce
The three most dangerous thoroughfares on the Eastside are Powell, Division and Broadway. Yet it was upper Hawthorne, with center lanes that can turn into passing lanes, that cost the life of 15-year-old Fallon Smart, who died legally crossing an unmarked intersection last month.
When it comes to transportation and safety, nothing is easy in the City that works.
The tragedy prompted the Richmond and Sunnyside neighborhoods to host an emergency safety meeting with a panel of traffic officials, representatives of Safe Walks to School, Oregon Walks and the mother of the August 12 traffic fatality, Dustin Finney.
The meeting at Southeast’s Altheia Bible Fellowship yielded free-flowing tears but few profound answers.
Despite the recent death of Smart on Hawthorne, City Hall’s current push is to concentrate improvements in Portland’s underserved, outer eastside.
Officials claim pedestrians are twice as likely to die East of 82nd than in “closer, wealthier” neighborhoods.
“We have to look at the City as a whole and balance needs,” said Leah Treat, director of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation and a mother of four school-age children.
Much of her presentation focused on Vision Zero’s lofty goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries. Yet, funding is simply unavailable to achieve a system of safe, connected streets that prioritizes pedestrian crossings.
She entreated Portland residents to attend a City Council hearing October 12 to advocate additional funding for the program that claims to have reduced traffic deaths worldwide by 50%.
Program goals include lowering speeds, ideally to 20 mph on roads where cars, pedestrians and bikes intermingle. A crash involving a car driving 40 mph is reportedly 80 times more likely to result in a fatality.
Treat is pressing Portland to reduce its speed limits and urge the state to likewise lower speeds on roads over which it has jurisdiction.
For the short term, safety education and awareness are essential. Treat lamented a culture of indifference to laws against driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs, texting or talking on cellphones. She said nearly all those charged with reckless driving admit to unsafe behavior.
Her office plans to lobby the state for more frequent testing of licensed drivers and driver education in schools, but even education has its limits, especially with out-of-state drivers coming to town unaware that pedestrians have the right of way at intersections.
Longterm, the City is in critical need of funding for street repairs, re-engineering and to operate a call-in system known as Safeline that is “1000 complaints in the hole.”
Yet, in a tearful admission, Treat doubted that Vision Zero could have stopped the death of Fallon Smart. “I don’t know if there is anything anyone could have done to prevent that fatality except the driver.”
Panel and audience members discussed a myriad of temporary, lowcost fixes such as curb extensions made of flower baskets, haybales and orange cone zones to separate cars, much like a jerry-rigged looking bikeway recently established on Naito Parkway. One resident suggested green crossing flags at corners.
The night after Smart’s death, marked crosswalks were clandestinely painted along Hawthorne. The City said it had no intention of removing the stripes at this point in time.
Several residents said the striping made a difference, reminding drivers that corners were crossings. From the back of the room came dissent – that crosswalks provided false security.
“Crosswalks make pedestrians overly confident. They aren’t enough. The first time a pedestrian is killed in one, people will feel terrible.”
Instead, the dissenter insisted, traffic signals are absolutely needed at multiple intersections along Hawthorne to slow traffic and provide safe crossings for pedestrians.
Other solutions the City seems to favor are road diets like the one for Foster Rd. Several residents complained that upper Hawthorne’s two-lanes with center turn lanes at intersections had turned the third lane into a passing lane.
Permanent solutions like blinking lights and active crossing beacons are apparently cost prohibitive, with traditional traffic signals costing upwards of $140,000 each.
Traffic diverters can be problematic for residents who want to turn left. Another option is medians that provide safe haven refuge for pedestrians.
Context sensitive greenways like Clinton St. can improve bicycle safety. All come with extensive engineering analysis requirements and hefty pricetags. Panelists and residents called for SDC (system development charges) to pay for road improvements and safety.
With the outer Eastside as a priority, inner SE has to wait in line for funding. A city representative suggested another option – self-funding.
She cited the success of Thorburn Rd residents who are paying for traffic calming devices along the curvy stretch. She said the permit process has been simplified to make it “easier for neighbors to come to us”.
Several residents blamed Portland’s explosive growth on traffic dangers and predicted the situation will worsen with 400 new housing units being built along SE 50 between Division and Hawthorne.
Citing the mad rush to density in SE, one citizen called for an immediate moratorium on construction until traffic solutions can be found. Another voiced concerns about the re-opening of Franklin High. “We must coordinate safety efforts with the re-opening of the high school.”
Police are stretched to the max. Traffic Division Captain Mike Crebs shared the difficulties police officers face with the department down 70 officers.
“At any given time,” he said, “We only have 5 – 8 traffic officers citywide. They can only make an impact in one spot for a single day” before they need to move on to another traffic hot-spot.
Answering a question about the impact of marijuana use, he said there have been a lot more serious crashes since it was legalized and an uptick in impaired drivers. The challenge is tracking infractions specifically back to weed.
What is most needed, Crebs said, is a renewed effort to socially stigmatize dangerous habits like speeding, driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol and talking or texting on cellphones.
Treat said her department will explore state legislation for 2017 that would include increased license test frequency along with a troika of solutions: safety education, better traffic engineering and better traffic enforcement.
Meanwhile, she urged individuals to take the Vision Zero pledge and encourage friends and neighbors to be vigilant and drive safely.