PSU Hit & Run: What happened and where do we go from here?

Friday morning, a driver hit and injured three women at the PSU Urban Plaza, an intersection of public transit, vehicle and foot traffic. Many others walking and standing nearby feared they may be hit as well, as they watched the vehicle swerve through the transit-only lanes and drive up onto the sidewalk. All three women were taken to hospital and two are said to have sustained life-threatening injuries while the third suffers serious, but not life-threatening injuries. There may have been a fourth person injured at the scene.  

As we followed the story throughout the day, our thoughts were with the victims of this horrific incident and their loved ones. While it was an enormous relief to hear that none of the women had lost their life, we know all too well that many others were not so lucky - nine of the 17 people killed using Portland streets so far this year were walking, a percentage that is nearly five times the national average. Five people were killed in traffic-related fatalities in March alone. Through our work with Oregon & SW Washington Families for Safe Streets, we have seen first hand how these deaths devastate the families impacted by traffic violence on our streets. We will continue to support their critical work and urge you to support them as well.

 

At Oregon Walks, we believe that every person has the right to access their community by walking – and should not be afraid to do so. But at the scene of yesterday’s tragedy, at least one witness expressed doubt about her personal safety. She told a reporter that she’s considering taking all her classes online next semester. The fact that a student feels so unsafe walking through a public space that she’s considering avoiding it all together is unacceptable. What does it say about Portland as a community when we can no longer have the reasonable expectation of personal safety when we inhabit our shared spaces?

Oregon Walks envisions a Portland where everyone can easily and safely access public spaces that prioritize and protect people, and where it is not only unimaginable but physically impossible to drive a motor vehicle at the 40-45 mph speeds reported yesterday. We know that a pedestrian hit by a driver at 25 mph is nearly twice as likely to die compared to someone hit at 20 mph – and the odds of survival only get smaller as speeds increase.

This is why we eagerly supported the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s “20 is Plenty” campaign, which lowers speeds in all residential neighborhoods. And why we worked with our partners at The Rosewood Initiative and PBOT to get the speed lowered on Outer Stark. We championed Vision Zero in the City of Portland - the policy set to reach zero traffic fatalities by 2025. We are so grateful to be working with city officials who recognize the critical need for speed management to prevent needless deaths on our streets.

But is that enough? A look at the numbers clearly points to “No.” Last year, a record 18 people were killed while walking in Portland, making 2017 the deadliest year on record for pedestrians since 2003.

With yesterday's tragedy we can't help be reminded that not only are people being injured and killed on Portland’s streets, the rate of pedestrian deaths nationwide is at a 25-year high. A 2017 report shows the sobering fact that pedestrian death is the fastest portion of all vehicle fatalities.  A major factor is the rise of SUVs, which are responsible for more pedestrian deaths than any other type of vehicle. due to increased vehicle weight, horsepower, and ride height, compared to traditional sedans. The vehicle involved in yesterday’s hit and run was a mid-sized SUV.

It’s clear that while lower speeds and education will move us closer to achieving the Vision Zero goal, they alone are not enough to make our roads truly safe. The way we design our streets and public spaces may be the most critical element, and better street design does not happen overnight. We need to get serious about creating road designs that are meant for people, which will result in safer driving habits. Prioritizing those who are not in a vehicle when we design these spaces is better for everyone. It creates more usable and accessible space but more importantly it creates spaces that are safe.

Sadly, even perfect road design will not ensure perfect safety if we don’t approach issues of community health in a holistic way. The information that has come to light about the background of the driver believed to be responsible for yesterday’s violence  illustrates that a truly healthy community cannot be achieved without a strong commitment to systemic change.

We need initiative not only in our policies regarding traffic management, road design and public space, but also improved access to mental health services. Further, we must strive for policy that recognizes the inextricable connections between public infrastructure, physical and mental wellbeing, and thriving communities. When we consider that walking is one of the best things we can do for our health -both mental and physical- it’s clear that access to safe walking conditions is even more necessary for the health of our communities.

Creating safe, walkable communities where people can thrive is at at the heart of our work at Oregon Walks. Tragedies like yesterday remind us that our work is far from done and as a community, we still have a long way towards reaching those goals. We will continue to work towards making our streets safer for everyone and ensure that work is centered around those that are the most vulnerable.