Archive | August, 2008

A More Nuanced View of Bike Helmets?

A recent flap over the idea of making bike helmets mandatory for adults appears to have died down, so I’m hoping it’s not too soon for a little calm reflection.

The flap ensued when State Senator Floyd Prozanski (a bicycle advocate) floated the idea of a mandatory helmet law. That prompted more than 250 comments on, most negative.

The Senator quickly backed off, triggering counter claims of a “knee-jerk” reaction.

Can we look at this a little more dispassionately, in the context of how Portland is developing its bicycle system?

Arguments in favor of helmet use:

  • We want bike riders to be safe
  • Crashes, particularly at speed, can lead to serious head injury
  • Helmets can help reduce head injuries in crashes
  • more…?

Arguments against requiring helmet use (for adults – let’s not get sidetracked on kids here):

  • Pick your favorite civil-liberties argument
  • Requiring helmets portrays cycling as an unsafe activity, creating unnecessary fear about an activity with substantial personal and societal benefits
  • We want to remove obstacles to cycling, not add to the steps necessary to bike
  • In cycling-centric European cities, helmets are not part of the culture, and head-injury rates are not higher than ours

I blogged on that last point after returning from a visit to Amsterdam.

So what’s different now than three years ago, that might further inform my perspective?

We’ve shifted our strategy for building out our bicycle system. We have consciously adopted a strategy of expanding the system on low-speed, low-traffic bike boulevards with well-regulated crossings of arterial streets, rather than expanding the bike lane network on heavily-trafficked streets.

While we may not have a bicycle network that is as safe as Amsterdam’s we’re headed in that direction (in Amsterdam, the network is relatively slow by design – it’s engineered for an average speed of about 9 miles-per-hour, a speed at which the risks of head injury are lower).

Could we develop a policy (advice, if not regulation) around bike helmets that reflected both the current state of safety (or lack thereof) on our system AND the aspiration for a very safe system? Something along the lines of:

“If you limit your travel the bike boulevards and off-street facilities at relatively low speeds, by all means use a helmet if you want, but don’t feel like you have to. But if you’re going to travel on bike lanes on arterial streets, or on busy streets with no bike lanes, you really should be wearing a helmet.”

Perhaps we need to think of helmets not as a requirement, but as mitigation for safety conditions that are not yet what we want them to be?

Can we develop statistical data to support such a position (how many bike crashes with head injuries have occurred on the Esplanade, how many on the Springwater Trail)?

Would it be good policy?

Would it be understandable?

Would it help encourage more of the “interested but concerned” demographic to get on a bike?

Streetcar Loop Moves Forward, Your Input Needed on Future Routes

Yesterday Portland City Council approved the start of final engineering for the Streetcar Loop. The Council had actually conditionally approved this last March. The condition was that we either had to have FTA approval of the Federal dollars, or Congressional earmark of those same dollars.

The facts on the ground did not quite line up with the way the conditions were written: the Senate earmarked the funds, but the House committee did not publish its results (presumably because of partisan issues around the work ‘earmark’).

This is not just an academic concern, since every month we delay adds about $500K in inflationary costs to the project. So today Council voted 4-0 to move the project forward!

Meanwhile, the District working groups for the Streetcar System Plan want YOUR input on potential corridors. Take one or more of our web surveys…

Curious about potential streetcar corridors?

Take the Portland Streetcar Survey for your part of town!

Surveys for North Portland, Northeast Portland, East Portland and Southeast Portland are available at

Help the Portland Office of Transportation (PDOT) prioritize potential future streetcar corridors throughout the city. As part of the PDOT Streetcar System Plan (SSP) effort, DISTRICT STREETCAR SURVEYS are now available on the SSP website:

Please take the survey(s) for the area(s) where you live, work or own property.

These surveys were created by citizen-led District Working Groups (DWG) as an informal assessment of community support for potential streetcar corridors. This information about public support will be added to technical data that considers the level of service possible, anticipated ridership, compatibility with the existing transportation system, and opportunities for sustainable neighborhood development along each corridor.

The results of the technical and public involvement evaluation process will guide SSP project staff in developing a long-range, conceptual plan for how future streetcar investments could be prioritized. The SSP will be updated as necessary to reflect the results of later planning efforts, such as the Bureau of Planning’s Portland Plan effort.

The surveys will remain open through Sept. 15, 2008.

Please help us get these surveys out to as many people as possible by forwarding this message to your colleagues, friends and neighbors.

Become an Effective Transportation Advocate

Once again, it’s time for the annual PSU/PDOT Traffic and Transportation Class.

There’s no better way to understand how transportation works in this city, and how to work to influence it. This class has launched many activists, including yours truly.

Calling all neighborhood activists – Learn how the city that works, works! And how you can affect change in your community.

The Portland Traffic and Transportation Class offers Portlanders the opportunity to learn about the city’s transportation system while working on actual neighborhood projects that affect your community.

Work with decision and policy-makers, planners, scholars and engineers to get your neighborhood transportation project moving.

This interactive Portland State University class is open to all Portland citizens and full scholarships are available to qualified applicants. Learn more on the website.


Scott Cohen
Portland Office of Transportation
Transportation Options Division

CRC is Triple Threat for Salmon

Concerns voiced by the National Marine Fisheries Service about the Columbia River Crossing:

  • Construction impacts
  • Increased run-off from 40 acres of concrete
  • Risk that sprawling development enabled by the bridge will impact creeks that fish depend on

Full story in the Oregonian.