New Project: INTERSECTION 911

After moving to Portland last September, I’ve largely enjoyed my new city’s smart planning and general responsiveness to unsafe conditions.

I noticed, however, a few things unique to Portland that made intersections feel less safe:

  • Lots of 2-way stops, even though 4-ways seem a safer bet
  • Plenty of streets intersecting larger, arterial byways have very poor visibility of oncoming cross traffic.  This is due to parked cars and other obstructions close to these intersections.
  • Some streets seem to be unofficially designated “no bike zones” because of the speed and density of vehicular traffic (i.e. MLK, Burnside), which makes crossing them even more difficult.

There is the political (and social) will to make our streets safer where I live, but still much needs to be done.  In places like Philadelphia and New York City, there is less (but growing) will to reimagine our intersections as safe, communal spaces.   My sense from the initial reaction is the acceptance that visibility is important, but not every city is ready to give up parking at every corner.  I’d like to challenge the notion that the convenience of parking a car should not endanger pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers.

Portland has a vague, largely unenforced law that prohibits cars that are 6ft or taller from parking within 50 ft of an intersection.  This law is only enforced when someone complains, and on recent excursions to document intersections, I’ve been overwhelmed with how many vehicles were violating this law.  Short of me creating a full-time, unpaid job for myself by reporting all of these cars — who’s drivers most likely don’t understand the law as it’s buried in city code — I see a need for Portland to go on a ‘parking diet’ and take an active role in prohibiting parking that makes it dangerous for cross traffic.  I consider cross traffic any car, bicycle, or pedestrian attempting to cross a street where they do not have a physical barrier (i.e. stop sign or stop signal), to aid the lack of visibility.

The word I’ve gotten thus far, is that the city doesn’t want to lose the parking spaces, particularly on commercial strips like Alberta and Hawthorne.  If the parking were removed, it would lead to more cruising for spots, which leads to more cars circling neighborhood blocks, spewing carbon monoxide and adding to a general sense of congestion.

Seattle, which arguably has a higher demand for on-street parking, has a citywide law that prohibits parking within 30 feet of all intersections.  Similar laws are on the books across the country.  One sense in Portland is that this poor visibility forces drivers to compensate by driving more cautiously.  The idea is Mental Speed Bumps: less traffic control and more visual stimulation, lead to traffic calming.

I do appreciate that many side streets are kept calm and there is a culture of planning in Portland which makes every intersection a bit safer than your average city.  But, I’m not sure I’m buying that mental speed bumps have a comprehensive impact on safer streets.  In a time when more drivers are distracted by eating, cell phones, bad weather or lighting conditions, passengers and so forth, I’ve had enough close calls in this city to wonder just what works to make drivers more aware, drive slower, and perhaps, drive less.

I’ve created a mini-blog called INTERSECTION 911.  A space to

  • document intersections perceived to be dangerous
  • connect perception to reality –  back up with data whenever possible
  • highlight successful intersection interventions in Portland and other cities
  • understand the process – how Portland addresses problematic intersections
  • create tools to help others advocate for changes in their cities
  • pressure the city to investigate and address intersection concerns

There are other folks working on similar projects, for now I’m creating my own space to keep my information nuggets together.  Eventually, it may make sense to contribute to Livable Streets.  I also plan to take a free class at PSU on Transportation planning (thanks, Greg!) this Fall, and continue to build relationships with stakeholders.  For now, I’m going to make parking near intersections my first concern and see what comes about.  Let me know if you have any ideas!