There is a lot of hype and controversy surrounding street developments that favor slower speeds and accommodation of non-motorized means of travel. People get up-in-arms about how the city is catering to “those people” who supposedly don’t pay for the roads and who should just get a car instead or stay off the road. Of course there are a lot of things wrong with that kind of thinking, but perhaps one of the largest misconceptions is that these road changes are only beneficial to those riding bicycles or walking.
As Portland has tried to make their streets more and more friendly to those walking and riding bicycles, an interesting thing has happened. The number of people dying in cars per year in Portland has steadily dropped, from 37 in 1996, to 7 in 2010 (the lowest number since 1925 when official record of traffic fatalities began – notably right about when automobiles became more popular). This continues a steady downward trend since the 1980′s, and the overall number of traffic fatalities is decreasing at a significantly higher rate than the national average, and the number in 2010 was the second lowest figure Portland has had since 1925.
The only exception to this general downward trend is that in 2010, pedestrian fatalities have risen slightly over the previous 5 years. This could be because more people are walking in general (and perhaps the uptick in deaths matches the uptick in numbers), or that more people feel emboldened to walk and do so in areas which have not had proper treatment to make it safe yet, such as the state highways which run through the city (where most of the pedestrian fatalities occur), or that more automobile traffic has been pushed to these large roads due to the modifications of some of the smaller streets. This has garnered a lot of attention this year, and the City of Portland and Oregon Department of Transportation have begun a “High Crash Corridor” program to look at the streets in Portland with the highest death rates, whether they are highways, or normal city roads that currently operate essentially as highways, and determine what can be done to make them more accessible and safe for non-motorized traffic. Hopefully the solutions will not be like the giant $380,000 wall (I mean, public art display) in the middle of 82nd Avenue preventing anyone from crossing the street.
In any case, we are finding that overall, making real improvements to the streets which help to slow traffic, make people walking and cycling more visible, safer, and well-accommodated actually increases the safety of all road users. This highlights something that is obvious, but too often ignored: speed kills. Designing city roads strictly to accommodate speed doesn’t help anyone in the end, and the benefits of designing the roads to favor slower speeds and accessibility are far-reaching.