It was just before noon on a sunny Valentine’s Day in Portland, Ore., when Yan Huang and her husband Zhi Hu were struck by a pickup truck while crossing Southeast Division Street. When police and paramedics arrived moments later, Huang, 78, was already dead — and Hu, 80, was rushed to the hospital.
That wasn’t the only tragedy that holiday weekend. Less than 36 hours later, another pedestrian was killed in a hit-and-run, left on the pavement of Powell Avenue as the battered minivan fled into the night.
Noel Mickelberry remembers that weekend as a turning point. For the executive director of Oregon Walks that was the moment the rising number of traffic fatalities in her city became unacceptable — and a grassroots mobilization for Vision Zero began in earnest.
Her organization took action, asking Portland city leaders to “recognize the moral imperative to fix these streets” by committing to Vision Zero — a premise that every traffic crash is preventable. “We launched a petition to get Portland to adopt Vision Zero — and we had more than 800 petitioners and 25 organizations sign on in support,” Mickelberry says. “That momentum really kicked it off for us as a priority.”
Despite its inception in Sweden, it wasn’t a foreign concept to the city. In fact, just a week before the Valentines’ Day deaths, Leah Treat, Portland’s transportation director, had committed to incorporate Vision Zero into the next transportation plan. For Mickelberry and others that was a great start — but just the first brush strokes of a much larger picture.
“The city just put out a progress plan that includes calls for specific actions around Vision Zero, which is fantastic,” Mickelberry says. “But, because Vision Zero is so much more than the number of crosswalks, we’re hoping to see this, not just at the transportation bureau, but at the state and city level, too.”
As the dialogue gained momentum, the opportunity for education — and a shift in perspective — became apparent. Creating safe streets, many city officials said, has always been a central duty of municipal staff and policymakers. What’s so different about Vision Zero, they asked? It opened the door for advocates and stakeholders to invite a paradigm shift in how we all perceive what metrics really matter on our streets.
“We had to develop the notion of placing human lives at the top of that ‘efficiency versus safety’ conversation,” Mickelberry says. “That’s a hard shift. And when we started getting interest from engineers and planners they were saying, ‘Well, what do we do? Tell us what to do next?’”
So Oregon Walks and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance did exactly that: They compiled a report that pinpointed the problems with a deep dive into the data around traffic crashes in the Portland Metropolitan Region, and outlined the solutions, from state policy changes to shifts in street design. Released last month, Our Healthy Streets has amplified the issue and mobilized new activity around the push for Vision Zero.
The report revealed numbers that can’t be ignored…
- The toll of human suffering: On average, 50 people are killed in traffic crashes annually in the Portland Metropolitan area, while an average of 482 people suffer incapacitating injuries from crashes.
- Where crashes are happening: Arterial streets account for 59% of all serious crashes, 67% of serious pedestrian crashes, and 52% of serious bike crashes… And while the 10 highest crash corridors make up only 3% of the road network, they account for 36% of all traffic fatalities.
- The reasons behind area crashes: Alcohol and drug use are the leading causes of fatal crashes in the area cited in 57% of all deaths, while aggressive driving and excessive speeding tie for second place at 46%.
- The disproportionate burden: In Portland, pedestrians are 2.3 times more likely to get hit by a car in the highest poverty regions of the city.
- The economic cost: Crashes resulting in serious injury and death cost the region more than $958 million per year in property damage, medical costs, and lost productivity.
But didn’t just uncover the problem — it provided actionable solutions.
- Present a unifying solution to the public, including City Councils adopting a Vision Zero policy that sets a clear goal of reaching zero fatalities and serious injuries with specific dates and mid term goals. (The report even includes a model ordinance.)
- Engage the region’s diverse communities with an outreach and coordination program, including reaching out to historically marginalized communities and communities with large non-English speaking populations to ensure that community education and engagement strategies are culturally appropriate and they are able to influence any planned changes to their neighborhood streets and to any new laws and policies.
- Design and maintain street systems that are safe for everyone, including implementing road diets on high-crash corridors and other dangerous streets that reduce travel lanes and include safe bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Ensure that these roads are designed to allow for future safety treatments, transit operations and emergency response needs.
- Eliminate dangerous and illegal speeding, including allowing the setting of roadway design speeds at a target speed that is below the 85% observed speed, to enable the use of design treatments that encourage slower vehicle speeds.
“Historically, when a fatality happens, we respond and say this road needs to be fixed,” Mickelberry says. “This report boosts our ability to advocate for specific changes, but it also helps us be less reactive and more proactive in our approach.”
Unlike past campaigns centered on just a segment of the population — for instance, better infrastructure for bicyclists or retrofitting a particular neighborhood street — Vision Zero has galvanized a wide array of stakeholders who more truly represent the full community, from health organizations to the AARP to the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. The Our Healthy Streets report is an opportunity — and a vehicle — to deepen that conversation.
“Our big next step is building a coalition around this report and these recommendations and finding out which priorities fall under what organizations are already working on,” Mickelberry says. “It give us the chance to ask how can we collaborate to increase our impact, start building trust between organizations and achieve this mutual goal through the different efforts we’re all pursuing.”
The report was released at the annual Oregon Active Transportation Summit, and the co-authoring organizations hosted a workshop to not only galvanize interest and get feedback, but also gain tangible buy-in from residents across the region. “There was a lot of interest and energy,” Mickelberry says. And later this month, a large group of stakeholders, from community residents to injury lawyers, from non-profit leaders to health professionals, will gather to plot out the next steps of the campaign.
As Our Healthy Streets concludes: “This goal may seem ambitious, however we can not continue to justify the loss of a human life in exchange for a quicker commute.”