Vision Zero is Dead, but it will rise again

What seems like a obvious move is likely just to be another identity politics play.

Vision Zero has been one of the most disastrously stupid and quixotic policies that this city has ever attempted. The stated goal of the policy was to eliminate all traffic accidents and fatalities, but in reality it was nothing more than an ideological justification to push a number of silly policies, in particular “road diets” and biking, and by doing so it created disastrous results.

Every single year since Vision Zero was implemented, injuries and fatalities have climbed.

It’s not without some level of measurable success. They used Boston’s template of reducing speeds on neighborhood roads from 25 miles an hour to 20 miles an hour, based upon sociological evidence when Boston lowered their neighborhood limits people actually drove slower even if speeding. This type of project looks amazing on graphs and charts, everyone pats themselves on the back. Actual scientists and engineers point to road designs as the primary factors influencing the speed at which people drive: straight wide road people drive fast on, narrow curved roads people drive slow on. People do everything out of their own self interest, and when driving they’re trying not to crash their car into physical barriers. Road signs and speed limits are indicators of possible physical barriers (like school kids) who you may crash into, and lowering the speed limit increases the subconscious alertness level. People are not making egalitarian calculations about the traffic flow around them, and if they are, they’re not the people who drive recklessly and cause accidents. One has to consider if speed bumps are ignored by drunk people, because certainly speed limit signs are.

In addition, some of the roads they redesigned saw less accidents. Can’t say I’m too surprised, as some of these intersections hadn’t been evaluated by an engineer since the 1970’s. A workgroup of 10 random people off the street could improve half of the intersections and roadways in Portland, so I don’t really give PBOT any credit for obvious fixes. We pay these people to be creative with solutions, not look at a problem and say “A new street light and some fresh paint ought to do it.” Fresh paint doesn’t last forever PBOT.

Though, one has to also step back and realize that things like gas prices, culture, economy, collective stress, politics, and dozens of factors create national trends. Year-over-year national traffic fatalities fluctuate wildly. They didn’t go down dramatically between 2007 (41,259 deaths) and 2009 (33,883 deaths) because we installed a bunch of safer infrastructure. There’s some correlation between higher gas prices and people driving worse - but don’t tell civic transportation planners that - gas prices inflated by gas taxes fund “road safety improvements.” Imagine if those gas taxes caused people to drive worse!

Most ironic about the Vision Zero policy is that planners used it as justification to introduce more dangerous infrastructure such as combining bicyclists on roadways without protective barriers that will definitely lead to more accidents. On roads people should not feel safe biking on, they brought unprotected bike infrastructure. The city moved the goal post constantly, such as declaring they would retrofit a road with a “protected bike lane” and what would result is some road paint, removable cones, and new blind spots where bikers and drivers interact. The city wouldn’t even install a basic curb to protect bike traffic.

In addition, the city has adopted an attitude of “innovation” where we want to “test” different means of combining bicyclists on roadways leading to completely inconsistent roadway interactions from road to road. The political class said that this was to find the “Best Solution” but given that we’re 10 years in to some of these “innovations” and far from adoption of a “standard template” as a best practice, I don’t think the political class was telling the truth. We’ve spent the last 10 years randomly assembling components of bike infrastructure and then crossed our fingers that drivers, bicyclists, and public transportation would just “figure it out” without any fatalities. This has made transportation around the city significantly more dangerous, as one neighborhood street has one set of rules, and the next neighborhood over has a different set of rules. In Downtown Portland you can find 5+ different ways bikes and cars interact, for example if the bike lane is to the left or right of parked cars, or if there’s no parked cars at all, or if the bike should be in the middle of the street.

In my cynical opinion, these “tests” have been nothing more than excuse to justify capital expenditure and inflate the costs of projects. We’ve ensured that at least 50% of these new designs will be objectively worse than the other 50%, so those will need to be retrofitted.

The core problem with Vision Zero is that it’s run by Portland Bureau of Transportation who purposefully panders to the activist community. The head of our Bureaus are appointed by the Commissioner who is elected, and to ensure election victory the Commissioner picks people to lead bureaus who are politically charged. This Commissioner-style system is one of the biggest challenges to our city and one of the most contentious issues for the last 20+ years. In most cities the Director of a City Agency is someone who is competent and experienced and based upon merit - in Portland, it’s all politics. Every time Bureaus are reassigned to new Commissioners, the head of the agency (and thereby the strategic direction) is changed.

Behind Vision Zero there was a simple methodology: identify the intersections and road with the most crashes and fatalities, and then commission an engineering team to solve those problems, then prioritize the construction based upon the severity of the accidents. In a vacuum this seems like an no-nonsense means to solve problems at specific intersections and ultimately reduce traffic accidents. However, we introduced politics.

The lack of numerical values is not an accident. Who has more accidents and injuries? Bikes or Cars? Can you even ballpark the number of bicycle deaths to car deaths given these charts? At first glance you may not even notice that these charts don’t depict the same thing. “All Other Injuries” are not even in the stated scope of Vision Zero, but they thought it was appropriate to chart here for bikes…but not cars.

The political belief is that bicyclists are most vulnerable, therefore the highest risk, therefore solutions should be engineered around their needs before the needs of automobiles. Nevermind that automobiles make up the vast majority of injuries, accidents, and fatalities on Portland’s roads. So one tragic bike fatality would galvanize the community and create political pressure to focus on a specific intersection. Pedestrians, too, were lumped in, but only when the Bike Community felt appropriate.

For patently moronic reasons, Vision Zero (as far as I ever saw) never proposed a solution that would remove bicyclists from the roadway - nor proposed a solution that would simply remove cars from areas that should be exclusive to bikes. Vision Zero never proposed a major redesign of a vehicle intersection, besides simply painting new lines and thereby introducing a new setback on a left turn lane. There was never a single mention (much less proposal) for a modern Roundabout, even though these are considered to be significantly safer.

In addition, due to political pressure, all of the accidents were considered to be the fault of the automobile. The rationale behind this? If a car didn’t exist in the situation, there wouldn’t be an injury. Doesn’t matter if you’re drunk and riding a bike without reflectors at 2am, the automobile is dangerous element. High on meth and wondering into a major 4-lane road? The cars are to blame if you’re hit. Moreover, I understand the data will point to “intoxication being a factor” in both of those situations, but without explaining the intoxicated pedestrian or bicyclist is at fault.

Speaking of morons, the bike community’s activists are a central component of this program’s failure. We have to stop trying to appease a tiny minority of moronic and loud people. For example, this week there has been an unveiling of SE Hawthorne blvd redesign, and it includes no bike lanes. Why doesn’t it include bike lanes, because within 500 yards North AND South there is already roads purposefully dedicated to bikes. At 11 mph on a bike that’s a 90 second ride. Yet these useless idiots are claiming it’s some huge injustice to their transportation. In reality these people don’t give a shit about bike lanes, they want bike lanes for the sole purpose of reducing vehicle lanes. For example, they’d never support expanding a road from 3 lanes to 4 lanes, if it also included a protected bike way. Half of the bullshit in the bike community isn’t actually about biking, it’s simply an excuse for half-baked white middle-class environmentalism.

As another layer of irony, all of the sober bike activists themselves have been unhappy with what Vision Zero brought them. For example, no reasonable person should look at road cones and say “Yeah, that’s a protected bike way, thanks PBOT.” Yet a huge portion of their community has to cheer on PBOT for their own ideological reasons so they didn’t critique anything publically.

Fear not, they’re not changing strategy, this is an “equity” problem.

The City made it clear that by firing the Commission running Vision Zero they’re not scrapping the program all together. No - they’re just going to find a more “Diverse” set of stakeholders. Which yeah, overdue. The current PBOT Commissioner, Jo Ann Hardesty, has positioned most of her career around identity politics, and very clearly these committee members lacked an element of diversity.

Kudos to the Vision Zero team for their efforts toward “diversity.”

Will a new “more diverse” group help? Honestly, yeah, it’s totally possible. The bike community has been a central problem for the proper execution of Vision Zero’s methodology, and the bike community is overwhelmingly white men, but in particular white people.

Though, in an equal sense, if you did a survey of every white male in Portland, their transportation policy priorities would look incredibly different than what Vision Zero has offered. For 20+ years working class people have all wanted more efficient roads for vehicles, with only a small percentage wanting major bikeway improvements.

Will the city reset the clock?

The original goal written by Steve Novick was no traffic accidents by 2025. Seems like a short amount of time to turn this around.

This city loves to adopt policies that we have no actual way to achieve. The “10 Year Plan to End Homelessness" and the Climate Action Plan are top of mind. It’s as if the planners and political class have a theory that if we set out with an unrealistic goal, get halfway, that would be further along than trying a realistic goal.