Archive | Urbanism

Shedding Some Light on “Be Seen, Be Safe”

Along with the shortening of the days and the return of the rain, it appears that the parade of retro-reflectivity brought about by campaigns such as Tri-Met’s “Be Seen Be Safe” is becoming an autumn tradition in these parts. The award-winning initiative, which encourages people walking and riding to dress for maximum visibility, probably sounds great to people who see their city primarily from behind a windshield—it would certainly simplify the driving task if everything you weren’t supposed to drive into started glowing and blinking. But for those of us who rely on some combination of walking, biking, and Tri-Met’s ever-diminishing service to move about town, there’s a patronizing naiveté in the implication that all of our anxious moments would abate if only we’d liven up our dour wardrobes with a few shades of traffic cone.

Perhaps a story can illuminate (ahem) my grievances: One recent evening, I find myself in a bit of an adventurous mood as I’m heading south through downtown, so I decide to take the “bicycle facility” on SW Broadway to enjoy the sights and sounds of one of my favorite streets. Ever the good soldier, my ride is fully loaded with front and rear dynamo lights and I’m sporting a hi-viz jacket with retro-reflective strips sewn into every seam. Alas, not more than a few pedal strokes onto Broadway, I notice that the car next to me is creeping closer. Looking over, I see a driver focused laser-like on the smartphone on her lap, and I brake just in time to place myself behind her as she drifts fully into the bike lane. Just as I’m getting back up to speed (12 mph FTW!), a car door swings into the lane in front of me and I have to break hard again. The surprised driver mutters something to me about slowing down as he exits his vehicle. There are a couple of other tense moments—some aggressive drivers and right-hook near misses. It’s all par for the course on the only continuous “bicycle facility” through downtown in America’s Best Cycling City™.

I can wear all the shiny shit I want, but it won’t make me nearly as bright as a smartphone screen if that’s where a driver’s gaze is fixed. Nor will it bestow the power of backward vision upon anybody who doesn’t look for bicycles before swinging their car door into the bike lane. See, with bike lights, retro-reflective strips, and whatever other accouterments I scrape together, I can control whether I’m visible to the users I’m sharing the road with, but I cannot control whether or not I’m “seen.” That part is up to them.

Being maximally visible when it’s dark is a good idea, but there’s a fine line between offering this sound advice and conferring a disproportionate share of the responsibility for safe travelling upon the street’s most vulnerable users. Aside from a legally-required front white light and rear red light or reflector when riding a bicycle, one needs no “proper gear” to walk or bike, despite the campaign’s implication to the contrary. Legally, however, there is an important burden placed upon motorists through the Basic Speed Rule, which requires that drivers maintain “reasonable and prudent” speeds “having due regard for…weather, visibility, any other conditions then existing.” Thus, during the dark, rainy commutes of the Portland winter, the law actually directs motorists to slow down accordingly. How slow? For starters, any speed where you can’t spot and stop for pedestrians regardless of their attire doesn’t sound “reasonable and prudent” to me.

Of course, there’s no mention of the Basic Speed Rule on the “Be Seen, Be Safe” website. Nor are drivers reminded to make sure their car lights are turned on and properly functioning, though one would presume this is just as important for the two-ton, really fast thing as it is for the 200-lb, 12-mph thing. There’s no appeal for drivers to plaster “reflective stickers or tape” all over their vehicles (though that’d certainly be entertaining to see). There is an admonition against distracted driving worded several different ways, but the title shows that the focus of the campaign is elsewhere, which is perhaps why that message isn’t resonating. That’s a shame—“Look Up, Slow Down” would be a better message that properly places the burden on the most dangerous road users (in addition to using objectively more interesting action verbs).

“Be Seen, Be Safe” is a symptom of an auto-centric worldview where if a pedestrian or bicyclist is unseen by a driver then they must have been unseeable. They must have “come out of nowhere.” While it’s an obvious tacit admission that our law enforcement efforts are inadequate and our facilities are growing obsolete, it does little to protect riders and walkers from the myriad of dangers that result. Until we stop trying to put high-viz vests onto straw men and address the real safety issues, I offer in lieu of “Be Seen, Be Safe” the following bit of more practical advice: Do whatever you can to avoid situations where you rely on a motorist’s sobriety, attentiveness, or lawfulness to ensure your safety. Ride or walk like you’re invisible.

If it fits your sense of style, feel free to dress the part too.

Eleven Reasons Portland Transport readers should come to the 2013 Weston Awards.


Hey, folks! My name is Aaron Brown, and I’m currently serving as Board President of Oregon Walks, the state’s pedestrian advocacy organization that’s been busy working to make streets safer for walking in the state since 1991. I’ll ask you to please excuse my remarkably obnoxious, buzzfeedesque title and format of this article, but I really wanted to extend a personal invitation to readers of Portland’s wonkiest, most wonderful blog to attend our third annual Weston Awards, to be held this October 26, 2013. I thought this enumerated list of reasons might convince you to swing by the North Star Ballroom next Saturday. Here we go!

  1. Every transit trip begins and ends with a walk. I’d imagine many readers of this blog are brought to the table of livable communities advocacy by their interest in transit options in the Portland region. The previous successes and ongoing advocacy of Oregon Walks are an often-overlooked but enormously crucial component of making transit a more effective, more viable, and more desirable option for getting around town. TriMet recently conducted a Pedestrian Network Analysis report highlighting the need for more safety, sidewalks and places to walk, and support of our organization helps us work with TriMet, Metro, and local jurisdictions to stand up for that all-important last-mile, or even last-block.OrWalkLogo_RGB[1]
  2. Making conditions safe for walking is a social justice issue. Thanks to the work of some remarkable, inspiring advocates and community organizers, the topic of safe streets in low-income and communities of color in East Portland has gained tremendous traction in recent years. This was reflected most recently in the unconscionable traffic fatality of 5-year old Morgan Maynard-Cook, who was walking on a stretch of SE 136th without sidewalks. Our organization is steadfastly working to make streets safer for all road users, and our initiative to do so implicitly helps communities that are less-likely to own automobiles, live on safer streets.
  3. Our work for empowerment and advocacy broadens the livable communities tent. As I presented the Oregon Walks letter to City Hall regarding SW Barbur last week, I noticed that I and the other twelve folks who testified were white men. This obviously points to some larger systemic issues about participation in our democracy, especially as it relates to transportation and planning decisions, and I’m proud to say that Oregon Walks is uniquely poised to help bring more folks to the table to stand up for livable, walkable communities. As an example of our work to promote social empowerment be sure to check out…
  4. PhotovoicePIC1-500x352[1]…our Photovoice Project, which will be on display, because it’s seriously rad. Thanks to a grant from the Kaiser Permanente Community Fund,  Oregon Walks has hired the wonderful Casey Ogden to implement a project in partnership with Adelante Mujures, in which Latina Women in Washington County are empowered to take photos of their unsafe streets and present them to elected officials.  The project, titled “Walking: paravida, familia, y comunidad,” represents the epitome of the next generation of walking advocacy, and I couldn’t be more excited to show their work to our Weston Awards audience.
  5. We’re all getting older. When I say that Oregon Walks is bringing new partners to the table, I’m proud to say our organization is partnering with some newer allies who are increasingly concerned with community design, access and mobility. Amongst our Weston Awards winners this year are Donna Green, who ran the City of Portland’s Senior Strolls program, and Bandana Shresthra, the Community Engagement Director with AARP Oregon. With these groups and others such as Elders in Action on board, Oregon Walks is eager to help us design and advocate for communities that will be ready for our region’s ever-shifting demographics.
  6. What better way to celebrate Walktober! We’re in our second year of celebrating Walktober, our monthlong collection of walking. Did you see our recent article in the Oregonian? Why not spend your Saturday evening walking to the Weston Awards? Go ahead and get off the bus a few stops early to enjoy a couple blocks of walking through North Portland.
  7. Did you ever feel so strongly about traffic laws you’ve felt like you practically wear them on your sleeves? If you swing by the Weston Awards, you’ll have a chance to pick up a limited edition, MUTCD-compliant Crosswalk Stop tshirt, as put together by our friends at Lancaster Engineering.
  8. Good Grub! We’ll have food from a handful of restaurants located on Mississsippi Avenue and beer from Thunder Island Brewing, the Cascade Locks-based brewery recently profiled by Michael Andersen over on BikePortland.
  9. We Need a New Executive Director. And your attendance (especially when you bring your checkbook, *cough*) will help us bring new staff on board. If you’ll excuse the pun, we’ve got some mighty big shoes to fill as we look to hire the next Executive Director to succeed the indefatigable, voraciously talented Steph Routh. We’re really excited to begin the recruiting process for our next hired staff, and we won’t be able to bring in the best and the brightest without your help.
  10. 22127a[1]The opportunity to thank a living legend in person. Ray Polani is the wonkiest, most wonderful nonagenarian you could be so lucky as to meet, and Oregon Walks is giving him a lifetime achievement award for his incredible work to support walking-friendly neighborhoods in the region. Check out this August 2013 interview in the Catholic Sentinel, where he calls the Columbia River Crossing “a disaster” and mentions the importance of designing communities for walking. Chris Smith called him “the dean of transit advocates in Portland,” and next Saturday is your chance to thank him in person for a tremendous career of advocacy. We should all be so lucky as to be thinking about transportation in Portland at age ninety.
  11. Biggest reason you should attend? The Westons are fun. Look, I’ve been to my share of gala dinners and events. Last year’s 2012 Weston Awards was, by far, the most enjoyable fundraiser I’ve ever attended. We’re a nimble, scrappy organization doing everything from sitting on planning committees, holding walking events, empowering new communities and supporting legislation all the way up to the state and national levels, and we know how to have a good time. And what better way to celebrate Halloween, the Sidewalk Holiday, than to attend a fundraiser for our state’s pedestrian advocacy organization?

Please buy a ticket! The Early Bird Price is in effect through the end of the weekend. If you’re unable to attend the event next Saturday but you’ve found any of this piece persuasive or enjoyable, consider making a donation, from $500 t0 $5. Any help at all is appreciated.

The Weston Awards
Saturday, October 26th, 2013
6:00 – 9:00pm
North Star Ballroom
635 N. Killingsworth Ct., Portland

On the Impending Transformation of Transportation

Brian Davis is Portland Transport’s newest contributor. Brian is a Transportation Analyst at Lancaster Engineering, a MS Candidate at PSU where his research involves strategies for increasing sustainability in urban freight, and a carfree resident of downtown Portland. Welcome, Brian! – Chris

I’m excited to be joining the discussion at Portland Transport at the onset of a defining era for transportation in Portland.

Our city–and to varying extents, our region and our country–was largely designed to be experienced and accessed primarily via the automobile. By some metrics, this has served us magnificently–the economic growth realized during the American automotive century is unprecedented, and the car has connected distant cities and communities in a way no other mode can claim. By others, it has failed us miserably–our automotive dependence has dirtied the planet, car travel remains ridiculously unsafe, and ironically, the car has isolated the very communities it helped to connect to one another from the people speeding through them.

That we’re moving from car-centrism to a more multi-modal model of mobility is now manifest, and it is happening partly by choice and partly by necessity. The choice predates the necessity, and in Portland it was made in earnest in the 1970’s, when we decided the funds for one freeway would be better spent on a rail line, and the space devoted to another would be better used as a park. Over the years this sentiment has grown, and the first sustained declines in miles driven have recently come about as the smartphone continues to challenge the car’s prowess as a means of socialization and a symbol of status and freedom. The necessity of our paradigm shift owes to the fact that the population of our “magnet city” continues to grow, but we have little remaining roadway capacity, little money for new roads, and little space left in which to build them.

I live, work, eat, play, and otherwise spend most of my time in downtown Portland, and one of the exciting things about life here is that this neighborhood will be the epicenter of much of the transportation-related change that’s coming. While I certainly wasn’t thrilled at the decision to eliminate the free rail zone (or the fareless square that preceded it, for that matter), I think transit is still a good value and I continue to rely on it. I’m curious to see whether I’m in the majority here, or whether travel behavior changes drastically in the central city as a result of the new fare structure. And though many pooh-pooh the streetcar’s use as a transit alternative, I’ve long argued that it’s plenty useful to those of us that spend a lot of our time along its route. By extending it across the river, you’ve increased the number of people who fit that description, and therefore the streetcar’s utility. This is an experiment in urbanism that hasn’t really been tried yet, and whether it can duplicate the developmental magic it worked in the Pearl, with increased ridership as both a cause and an effect, will be fascinating to see.

Most exciting to me is the fact that Portland soon (and at long last!) will be joining the list of cities with a robust bike sharing program. Bicycling in Portland has become part of the city’s culture and identity. Its precocious infancy made weekend warriors into weekday riders, and slowly but steadily more and more people took to the blue lanes and yellow bikes. These days, there’s more denim than spandex cladding those on two wheels, and “bike infrastructure” has gone from meaning a white stripe and a stencil, to traffic-calmed greenways and bike-specific signals. It’s clear, however, that we have a long way to go to fully mature as a bike city; those “grown-ups” are cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where people of all ages, genders, and income levels ride on separated infrastructure comparable in quality to what’s provided for cars. Indeed, Portland is a city firmly mired in its “bike puberty.” We have our awkward moments, we have not yet become fully comfortable in our own skin, and–to take the analogy way too far–we have plenty of zits crying out for peroxide (or perhaps thermoplastic), but the elegance of Alice’s Future City is beginning to become apparent beneath the spotty complexion.

Having lived and biked in Washington DC before its CaBi bike share program was launched, and having visited frequently since, I can say unequivocally that bike share revolutionized cycling in that city. Bike sharing will give Portland a needed push forward as well. One of our metaphorical pimples is the lack of bike infrastructure downtown, and the fact that the heart of our city has some of the most limited bike access is certainly suppressing ridership among the “interested but concerned.” As or bike share program grows, so too will ridership of all sorts, and the financial case for good downtown infrastructure will in short order become too clear to ignore. When we cut the ribbon on the two-way cycletrack on Broadway, complete with its green asphalt, dedicated signal phases, and the ample bike parking demanded by the street’s business owners, that’s when you’ll know Portland has grown up.

So it’s a transformative time, to be sure. I look forward to joining all of you in overthinking it, overanalyzing it, and geeking out about it in ways that make mere mortals question our sanity. I hope I can add a useful and interesting perspective to the discussion, and look forward to continuing to learn from all of you as I have for the last several years as a reader.