Safety vs. Convenience

A few months ago, a pedestrian was tragically killed on NW 23rd not far from my home. The immediate response from the neighborhood was to ask for lower speed limits and striped crosswalks at all intersections.

The Tribune reported yesterday that the business association has withdrawn their support for the crosswalks. Apparently they are concerned that this would force parking removal at the corners.

There are a couple of aspects of this that I want to explore:

1) I think we could figure out how to provide crosswalks without changing the parking, and we should separate the issues.

2) There is a real safety problem at the corners because of the visibility issues created by the parked cars. I’m teaching my 16-year-old step-daughter to drive, and skill #1 to get off our block is to learn to look between and through the windows of parked cars to see if it’s safe to turn out onto NW 23rd. Removing parking is one solution, but probably not a popular one to any group in the neighborhood. Another option would be to enforce the existing regulations that prohibit tall vehicles within a certain distance of the corner (kudos to anyone who can find the code section for me).

How do other neighborhoods feel about this problem and potential solutions?

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20 responses to “Safety vs. Convenience”

  1. I hate hearing about incidents like this.

    I like the “limit tall vehicles” but just like with most laws one has to ask if it is really functional. Enforcement would be a real problem and you most likely would still have that being a major issue.

    One of the biggest things in Portland that I’ve noticed (the second upon arrival almost everyone not from here notices) that cars stop for you to cross the street, pedestrians have this wierd psuedo right of way, and other strange things happen regularly.

    That inherently is a primary root of this problem. Sure car drivers need to be cautionary buy pedestrians also need to pay more attention instead of this Portlander’s Obliviousness that is so common. REgardless of whether a car drive is supposed to be watching, the sad fact is they are the one with the deadly object, thus the pedestrian out of natural law should be more observant of the vehicle.

    But as I’ve typed this I must admit, to change peoples habits around here would be as exhorbatantly expensive as it is to not change them. In the end it is very doubtful it would change any more than limiting tall vehicles.

    I’d also say make the neighborhood non-SUV. :) hahaaa. Just ban em’ from the area. If someone has one they gotta sell it or leave.

    … I always like those creative solutions.

    Either which way though, to attempt to stay on topic, there is no real solution because the problem isn’t trackable enough to really know.

  2. A simple start along NW 21st and 23rd would be to put in zebra strip crosswalks at intersections that already have curb extensions and transit stops…to remind drivers they are in pedestrian areas. No parking required, good sight-lines for pedestrians, etc. That along with lower speed limit…20 instead of 30 is start, but on dark rainy nights….”Trust no car!”
    PS I was stopped at the signal at 15th & Weidler yesterday going east on Weidler on my bike. The light changed, I started up and a women going north on 15th…who was talkin on a cellphone…started into the intersection on red! She saw me just in time…and got a earful.
    Trust No Car!

  3. There was an accident about 2 weeks ago on Lovejoy & 20th, near where I live.

    A car pulled out onto Lovejoy going North on 20th, and was T-boned by a car travelling at around 30 mph E on Lovejoy. Both drivers in the hospital…

    The reason it happened? YOU CANNOT SEE PAST ANY PARKED CARS ON THE CORNER! Especially when they are SUVs.

    So perhaps the law should be: no SUVs parked on any streetcorners in Portland. They are too much of a safety hazard, as you simply cannot see past them. Even as a pedestrian, where you stand taller than the average car, you have to actually stick your head out into traffic – within range of passing mirrors – to see if a car is coming. I’m surprised we don’t have more decapitations, actually. I see it happen on an almost daily basis.

  4. The root of the problem is speed. Not speeding, i.e., going over the speed limit–it’s that the speed limits are way too high. Even the latest proposal from ITE (Institute for Traffic Engineering) for Context Sensitive Solutions which I skimmed through last night uses the term “slow” to describe cars traveling at 25-35 miles per hour. 35-45mph is described as moderate.

    From whose point of view do you think these terms are defined? Even 25mph is ten times walking speed and twice bicycling speed. Designing roads for these “high” speeds will necessarily lead to crashes and deaths. If 800 Oregonian fatalities is okay with us, then there isn’t a problem. But, if we are serious about safety, then we need to seriously consider limiting auto speeds where people might walk or bicycle.

    Research has shown clearly a direct, exponential relationship between speed and crash severity and death. Slower speeds also allow crash avoidance, which should be a high priority. It is negligent of society and almost criminal of the transportation engineering profession, to accept high injury and fatality rates on urban streets when the solution is so obvious. SLOW DOWN.

    Design speeds of 15-20mph should be the norm for roads whose primary purpose is access. Leave the speeding to the freeways.

    (Another interesting tidbit from the ITE CSS report: recommendations to limit the size of trees, keep street furniture away from the road, make signs breakaway in order to “protect” drivers who crash because of speeding, regardless of the effect these limitations have on pedestrian safety and aeshetics. If the jerk who speeds loses control and crashes, pedestrians should have WALLS to protect them, forget the speeder!)

    (Portlanders Bob Appleyard (SERA architects) Marcy McInelly (Urbsworks) and Tom Kloster (Metro) were part of the ITE groups working on this manual, which is actually full of good ideas, yet fails in its basic assumption on speed and the need to accommodate cars going fast because they can rather than adapt the technology to the conditions.)

  5. Crosswalks are practically useless anyway. Almost no one stops for that shit, unless you literally step out into the street. That’s what I end up doing, preparing myself to jump back to the sidewalk if necessary. I almost never do, as drivers will come to a stop when you throw an obstacle in their way, but still… some times I get honked at because people don’t realize that when I’m standing at a crosswalk, I have right-of-way.

  6. Lenny-

    You’re always saying there’s no parking problem in NW. So, it shouldn’t be an issue to remove a couple of spaces here and there to make room for more curb extensions and crosswalks, right?

    I think this incident highlights the need for striped crosswalks and curb extensions at every intersection along 23rd. And maybe… traffic circles at intersections without stop signs. I know Tri-Met buses can drive around traffic circles, because the 71 does it on Lincoln Street between 52nd and 60th, and the 19 does it going through Eastmoreland, just to give two examples. So, there shouldn’t be any problem with installing a traffic circle or two on NW 23rd, especially south of Thurman where there are not likely to be large trucks.

    Traffic circles, striped crosswalks and curb extensions would make 23rd a lot safer. Sure, curb extensions might remove a few parking spaces at each intersection… but probably not all that many. And if parking in the neighborhood really isn’t an issue, why would that matter?

  7. Rex-

    I agree that speed is part of the issue, and that design is the solution. Not enforcement. Design. If streets are designed to look complicated, with striped crosswalks, curb bulb-outs at intersections, traffic circles, etc, then drivers will naturally drive slower. Drivers need to be made to feel like they are not safe travelling at higher speeds.

    Another potential solution is to remove the yellow line from the middle of the road. The yellow line provides a sense of security — that as long as you drive on your side of it, you can drive as fast as you want and you’ll be fine. If the yellow line is removed, drivers slow down because their sense of security is reduced.

    I believe the ultimate solution for Portland is to design all of our streets so that drivers are intuitively given all the cues they need to drive at a safe speed. In theory, this should eliminate the need for speed enforcement. Speed enforcement is an aknowledgement that, yes, this facility was designed to allow for safe travel at higher speeds, but now we’ve decided that the high-speed design was a mistake, so we’re going to sock you with a ticket to make you slow down out of fear for the law. Result: Motorists drive at the design speed, but with an eye out for the law, applying their brakes only when they see the police.

    If, instead, the roadways are modified so that the design speed is the proper speed, then motorists will drive at a safe speed, and slow down when they see the pedestrians and bicyclists that design cues tell them they should be looking for.

  8. “The root of the problem is speed.”

    Why is it only the US, and only certain places in the US have this problem with “speed”.

    There are outlying points of data that need to be checked.

    20mph is gonna kill somebody just as fast as 30mph. The problem lies in reaction time.

    Plus making it 20mph vs. 30mph is a half a!! solution because 85% of people break the speed limit anyway.

    Being it boils down to reaction time something functional should be done for some one’s reaction time if someone really wants to make a difference… i.e. the tall vehicles on the corner. Limited visibility. Limit parking, cut down trees…

    There are a lot of solutions… changing the already slow speed limit isn’t going to help that much… maybe 2-3%.

    banning cell phones from drivers, walkers… that might help too. :o

  9. Another idea I just thought of… someone stick some parking on burnside and extend the streetcar south on 23rd and north on 21st… …and limit traffic to one lane in one direction…

    or switch 21 st & 23rd to south and north… however.

    That would be a double kicker and benifit all. The streetcar could drop off riders closer to their destination, cars could move at the current speed limit in a more safe and flow oriented movement, and pedestrian crossings could be laid out cleaner with more visibility from all points since only one direction would be the concern.


  10. 20mph is gonna kill somebody just as fast as 30mph.

    In fact, that’s not true. The accident stats are pretty clear that in a ped/auto crash, the fatality rate undergoes a step function about 20mph. (Greg Raisman, please chime in with the real data!)

  11. True, I do understand that there is a significant difference in results, what I did not describe well though was… point being… getting someone to go 20mph instead of 30mph is very difficult, law or no law.

    However, enabling drivers to see and react, and designing the street to a speed is much better than arbritrarily assigning a speed limit to a street like that.

    My point is, a speed limit change is not as functional or useful as designing something more specifically to it’s purpose. i.e. multi use streets should be designed more toward that goal… ala my previous epihphany up above about making 21st and 23rd one ways and setting up one side to parking and funneling the street car down what would be the other lane.

    I can gaurantee that such a design would drastically reduce or eliminate whatever number of fatalities/incidents currently occur. It would also just prevent outright many of the current problems with crossing all together.

    …and I would think that everyone could agree that it would be much more useful to keep incidents from occuring than just making them slightly less painful (i.e. getting hit at 30 vs. 20mph).

  12. The results are actually pretty conclusive that as speeds rise, so do deaths. Less than 10% of peds are killed at 20mph, compared to more than 80% at 40mph (see link).

    However, simply changing the speed limit may not affect actual speeds. It should allow more aggresive speed-reducing measures to be taken.

    Many cities in Europe set speed limits of 30 kmh (18mph) in their urban cores. Almost all of Freiburg, Germany is a 30kmh zone. Not coincidentally, ped and bike death rates are much lower in Europe (for other reasons as well…).

  13. kewlness… :)

    btw -> I’m not trying to be argumentative… I know the way I write comes off that way sometimes.

    If I seem that way, I apologize.

  14. I find it interesting that too much speed is an issue on 23rd, considering the amount of activity it gets–I think of it as a slow street. Overall, it seems that since its a high pedestrian area, it should get slower speed limits.

    Oh, and they did put curb extensions in at some of the bus stops. And I wouldn’t describe 35 MPH as “slow”, especially in an urban setting with pedestrian usage and parallel parking. As for a couplet, it could be good since the 15 & the 17 could be combined; however, it seems that 2 lanes = higher speed.

    TriMet Line 10-Harold also negotiates traffic circles in Ladd’s Addition.

  15. Its kind of funny… on 23rd, 9th, and other streets, as the streets wear down, traffic has been incrementally slowing as well, partly due to tourists, partly because the roads are bumpier, and partly due to all the activity, bicyclists, and shoppers going up and down them, plus the parallel parkers.

    But those old streetcar tracks showing through… hmm, makes you dream, eh? When I was down in Tucson, they restored some old uncovered streetcar tracks for trolley useage.

    Sorry! Kind of a tangent. Anyway, they need to be logical about enforcing 20 mph business/main street zones. These exist in places like Hawthorne, Mississippi, 23rd, 21st, Belmont, etc – according to State Law, any biz district is 20mph, no matter what. They need to stick with that number.

  16. Unfortunately we live in a culture of speed. It’s one of the main selling points of many car companies (seen VW ads lately?).

    I think the solution should be a mix of enforcement, education, and engineering.

    Here is a very interesting graphic from PDOT that shows the effects of speed on stopping distance.

    After you study that graphic, consider that the police have an unwritten policy to not enforce speed limits until someone is anywhere from 10-15 miles over it. I have heard them say this at meetings and I find it unacceptable.

    It’s also interesting to note that at a recent traffic safety meeting I heard Jean Baker (president of the N’hood Business Associations) say that she wanted to be more involved with Safe Routes to School and traffic safety issues.

  17. I think most people in NW Portland would like for both 21st and 23rd to stay two-way streets, so it’s unlikely that a one-way couplet would ever fly with the neighborhood association. Also, given that there is already a perfectly good streetcar line bisecting those streets, it’s unlikely that another line could be created that traverses them.

    However, just for discussion’s sake… wouldn’t it be great if 21st and 23rd were turned into a one-way couplet? I present three different scenarios:

    Scenario 1: A streetcar loop could traverse the streets. The streets could be narrowed by a few feet, so that there would be just one mixed-traffic (streetcar & cars) and one bicycle lane. This could allow the sidewalks to be expanded by a couple of feet, allowing for more sidewalk cafes and a higher volume of pedestrian traffic.

    Scenario 2: Or — a parking garage could be built at each end of the couplet. Parking could then be removed along one entire side of the street, allowing for one automobile through lane, one parking strip, one dedicated streetcar ROW, one bike lane and expanded sidewalks.

    Scenario 3: Or — automobile traffic could be eliminated entirely from 21st and 23rd. The streets could be turned into woonerfs, with only a streetcar, bicycles, pedestrians and delivery vehicles allowed on them. Sidewalk cafes could then meander leisurely across most of the width of the R-O-W, along with public art projects, more trees, more benches and other street furniture, and more activity. It could become a rennaisance center for non-automotive activity. Cars would still be allowed through on the cross streets. Parking garages on each end would then be optional, at the whim of the neighborhood and the business association.

    Thoughts? Preferences? Just pie-in-the-sky, right? Never happen, right?

  18. 23rd Avenue is very different above and below Lovejoy. To the south, all the activity puts a brake on things, and as I pedestrian, I just walk out in front of cars like I own the place. So far, so good. To the north, however, where the fatality recently occurred, drivers just take off. So maybe the trick is to extend via any and all tools the safer congestion of the south segment to the north segment. The easiest thing is to remove the yellow center line…that immediately signals to drivers some uncertainty about who “owns” the road. I bet taking out center lines gets you an instant drop of 10MPH in speeds. What does PDOT say about this?
    re speed limits….Mississippi is posted at 30MPH and has even a double yellow…right in front of the ReBuilding Center where people, bless them, double park!

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