In Saturday morning’s Oregonian neighborhoods section, there’s an article about the safety and traffic conditions on NW Cornell. It contains the line:
The society would like to see a stop sign or a crosswalk signal, but Costello isn’t optimistic. “I had a PBOT engineer tell me that realistically, it’s not going to happen until someone dies.”
On Twitter Friday, in a conversation about the latest right-hook accident at NE Broadway and Wheeler, BikePortland said:
The vast majority of major bike safety-related initiative in this town in the last 7 yrs have happened only after ppl were hurt/killed.
While PBOT has made many ongoing improvements to the transportation system over the years, it seems plausible that this is true for specific changes to intersections considered dangerous by their users and the surrounding community. Bike boxes and the N Greeley/Interstate closure followed on serious right-hook crashes; the closure of Wheeler is only on the table after many serious crashes and tons and tons of advocacy work. It also seems clear that this trend or fact is recognized even within PBOT, based on the report in the Oregonian article.
This is simply unacceptable as an attitude, especially when at the same time Mayor Adams, who is responsible for PBOT, is claiming that “safety is the #1 priority”. Safety should be the #1 priority, but it isn’t. This needs to change. The cost of transportation safety improvements does not decrease with time, and the cost to the community increases hugely, both financially and emotionally, as a result of injuries and deaths that occur within the transportation system. Once a documented safety problem exists, it is wrong morally and misguided both financially and for the health of the community to take the attitude that a fix can be delayed until major injuries or death occur.
The fundamental orientation that underlies this attitude, and that I believe needs to change, is the “problem orientation”. This is an attitude that focuses on the problem. The problem in PBOT’s case, as it is in many cases, is a combination of inertia and lack of money. There is no money for new signals, so we just won’t install them right now. We think that painting crosswalks without adding other features doesn’t make people safer, so we just won’t paint them, since we don’t have the money for the other features. “We can’t do the obvious thing/the thing people are asking for, so we won’t do anything.”
Problem orientation is difficult to challenge because the problems are genuine. PBOT has serious budget challenges that they need to address. Research does show that the simplest solutions, the ones that people often want, are not always effective, or they have negative side effects. But having a real problem doesn’t preclude moving past it to consider solutions. It means you have to be more creative, and let go of your attachment to the problem as insurmountable.
I’ve been involved in other projects where the problem orientation was a significant barrier to reaching solutions. In 2001-2002, I was involved with a group in college that was suffering under a bad-fit leader. The problematic incidents slowly mounted, but because of the difficulty involved with making a change, there was a lot of gossiping, taking sides, quiet non-compliance. I unfortunately became one of the gossipers, someone who talked a lot about how bad the situation was but did little to figure out a real solution. Eventually, enough happened that the header left. Later I came to feel terrible about how I behaved in that situation. I got so focused on the problem that I didn’t contribute constructively to a solution. So I know how easy it can be to get stuck there.
In 2008, I had a chance to do better. Caltrain was doing everything they could to avoid talking about bikes on board, even though there was a huge interest from the community in more capacity to bring bikes on the train. When confronted, they had a long list of reasons why this wasn’t possible, none of which seemed insurmountable to the community. Instead of giving up, several groups (each in their own way) took the listed barriers to change and worked on creating innovative solution possibilities (some of which which worked around them entirely by relying on the community) and asked them to truly research whether certain things were really impossible, rather than just insisting. In the end, they increased capacity by 25% overall and significantly improved information and capacity consistency.
So I know how easy it is to get stuck in a problem orientation, but I also know that it feels terrible, and that the result of looking for a solution will be far better, probably better than you could ever imagine when you were stuck inside the problem.
Decisionmakers at PBOT: please believe that safety is worth the effort of getting past the problems and barriers. I know there are already staff at PBOT who believe this, but for something to be the #1 priority, everyone needs to believe it, especially the people in charge. It is worth it to me, it is worth it to the community, and it is worth it to you. Do the creative thinking, make the hard changes, and make Portland a truly safe and enjoyable place to travel for everyone, for every mode, everywhere.