Portland’s Safer Streets: How Do They Do It?

Last Sunday in New York, the Street Memorial Project organized a ride in memory of the 14 bicyclists and more than 100 pedestrians killed by cars in the city in 2008. You can see the StreetFilm about the ride here.

215449694_c53892daf9_m.jpgPBOT traffic safety expert
Greg Raisman. Photo © J. Maus.

In Portland, OR, they marked a much happier milestone this New Year’s. That’s because 2008 was a year in which no cyclists died on that city’s streets. Streetsblog Network member Bike Portland talked with the Portland BOT’s "chief traffic safety guru," Greg Raisman, to get some insight into why and how it happened.

In an interview with Bike Portland’s Jonathan Maus, Raisman makes the point that safe streets are by no means just good for bikers and pedestrians:

All traffic fatalities are a symptom of the same disease. It’s equally sad and tragic if a person is killed while walking, biking, or driving. It also appears that the conditions that make it safer for the most
vulnerable make it safer for everyone. As roads become safe enough that a child can safety walk or bike to their friend’s house, the roads also become safer for driving to that friend’s house when you have to.

His attitude is inspirational.

Elsewhere on the network, Car Less Ohio reports on Columbus’s efforts to become the "best bicycling city in the country," Greater Greater Washington posts on how urban bike trails aren’t just for recreation, and The Transport Politic updates the banks/transit financial mess.

  • anon

    For what it’s worth: New York City has a population just over 14 times as large as Portland’s.

  • “His attitude is inspirational.” And his reasoning is impeccable. Which is why his peers in other cities should take note.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    What happened with the on-again off-again urban-growth boundaries and in-fill development in Portland? Has that had any effect on the car culture?

  • Doesn’t is seem that the people running Portland just get it. Setting goals and achieving them. Understanding things like when you make things better for the pedestrian it makes things better for everyone. We should all take note of the attitude and vision of Portland.

  • gary fisher

    @anon

    Portland had about 18% bike mode share compared to what, 6% here in New York(?) and New York had infinitely more cyclist fatalities last year.

  • Bob

    “What happened with the on-again off-again urban-growth boundaries and in-fill development in Portland? Has that had any effect on the car culture?”

    Portland, and all cities in Oregon for that matter, has an urban growth boundary. Periodically it is expanded or contracted depending on a variety of factors. What effect has this had on the car culture? Well, Portland is still an auto-centric place, but the number of vehicle miles traveled is fewer than it is in cities of comparable population size. For a couple of decades there has been a push for more compact, denser development. Along with that there has been a commitment to improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure, as well as the development of a comprehensive transit system. We still have a long way to go, but in a year in which there were bike traffic jams it is heartening to see that no one on dies.

  • I \v/ NY

    its true that portland isnt all that pedestrian or transit oriented particularly once you leave the central city. but rather where portland’s strength lies is in its public policy both at the local and regional level. and of course note that it has a regional government unlike anywhere else in the US.

    the public policy in portland is very pro-urbanism, pro-transit, pro-bike, pro-pedestrian, pro-environment and anti-highway and anti-sprawl. and the urban growth boundary is key to this. the regional government’s guiding policy is pretty much the charter for new urbanism, its all about focusing development around transit and existing urban areas and not on new farmland.

    portland is really the only place in the US where bike, ped, transit, urbanism has the political support and favor. and this is where portland serves as the role model and not so much in its overall built form (although as a result of this strong urban policy there are some outstanding new urban areas in portland).

  • Jibbs

    I’m not sure how much more Portland has grown, but the last time I was there in 2005 the streets looked almost empty compared to NYC. Seriously, I’m not trying to put down the great news that there were no cyclist deaths there, but the congestion isn’t nearly at the same level as NYC.

    Also the fact that there are more bike riders also means that drivers are that much more aware of cyclists in their midst, making them much more cautious.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    So then its three cheers for urban growth boundaries, regionalization (or metropolitanization, tomato tomatoe). Its a message from the “Minutemen”, controlling your borders is essential to political power. Wasn’t there something going on in Minny-St.Paul along that line as well?

  • jmc

    New York didn’t have “infinitely” more cyclist fatalities last year.

    Portland is an amazing example of a small-to-midsize American city that works, but the problem is that it is small and not super dense (Seattle’s Capitol Hill is more dense than anywhere in Portland, for example).

    New York has ~14.5x the population of Portland, so if you divide 14/14.5 then you get less than 1 fatality.

    No fatalities are great, and we should focus on traffic calming and all of the Jan Gehl strategies. But Portland is no mystical place.

  • Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Let me chime in with a couple of thoughts.

    1) To my mind, an exciting thing about the trend is that the numbers compare Portland to Portland. A better way to compare the trends in the two cities would be to compare NYC to NYC, then compare those results to similar Portland v. Portland tests.

    As it stands, Portland had the fewest traffic fatalities in 2008 than any other year on record. The record dates to 1925. 2008 had 20 total fatalities. The next lowest was 2000 with 27. 1935 had the most with 89 fatalities. 1972 had the second most with 84.

    I am working on a chart with that will show this data. It will also show a timeline for major traffic safety milestones. Stay tuned, I’m hoping to have it done within a week. The preview is that post-1990 has many fewer fatalities than pre-1990.

    2) NYC is big by any measure. It’s the largest US city. Portland, by contrast is the 35th largest US city. So, in my mind, Portland’s a large US city, with 550,000 people. To me, a city with 100,000 to 300,000 is medium. Less than 100,000 is a small city. I pay homage by thinking of a city with more than a million as a metropolis – in it’s own league.

    3) There is nothing about the presented data that reflects any travel rates or per capita measurements. They’re just nominal figures. How many people died over time? Not, how many people per population died.

    I recall that NYC has a relatively low number of fatalities per 100,000 compared the the country as a whole. Rural areas score the worst in per capita fatalities. Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has done some fascinating research about the fact that cities offer the safest transportation systems. http://www.vtpi.org/

    Thanks for all you’re doing to make NYC more livable.

    Greg Raisman
    Community and School Traffic Safety Partnership
    Portland Bureau of Transportation

  • Erin Qureshi

    Greg: Thank you for continuing to work to make Portland a better place to LIVE, not just bike, walk, etc. I am pleased to see your photo on Streetsblog this morning. As a former Portlander and now resident of NYC, I do believe that NYC is backwards in many ways, having little to do with its population size. The car culture is surprisingly strong for a city where most people do not commute by work – and perhaps that’s why – based on conversations with co-workers (from all over the metropolitan area) and people in my neighborhood (Washington Heights), it’s a lot of people’s ambition to get a car and show it off and drive it fast. I’ve been in taxis speeding along at 55mph, literally, on 7th Avenue in Manhattan. I’ve almost gotten whiplash from taxi drivers going too fast and then slamming on the brakes. And, I almost never bike anymore because I’m terrified. Yes, there is a greenway and sometimes (in Lower Manhattan) it isn’t so covered in people grilling on it that you can bike along. Bike lanes are usually almost unusable because of taxis/SUVs/delivery trucks stopped in them. The separated bike lane on 9th Ave. gets filled up with pedestrians spilling off the sidewalk into it. After you live somewhere where people are relatively educated and aren’t constantly fighting so much for things that actually aren’t very good for their lives (Portland), it’s hard to live somewhere like here in as healthy a manner. Yes, NYC is big, but so are other world cities which are making more efforts to encourage cycling (Paris, for example).

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