Since When Does Being Intoxicated Justify Unsafe Driving Conditions?

With so much energy being focused on streetscape improvements on Foster, and taking the long view on planning, outreach, design, and the vast potential, it’s become somewhat accepted that the tradeoff for a 2014 commencement of construction is a good, planful design that captures all the potential and needs of the neighborhood.  In essence, after nearly 10 years of fighting for city money to fund the already adopted Foster Streetscape Plan, many in the neighborhood have begrudgingly given a thumbs up to a longer wait in exchange for a refreshed plan that promises to be more encompassing and demonstrative of Foster Road’s potential.

Somehow, though, that potential has been wrapped up in a planning process that has plain and simply neglected the safety of the neighborhood.  When neighborhood association members from Foster-Powell and Mt. Scott-Arleta met with the mayor, his transportation planners, and PBOT staff a few months ago, the stated goal was to implement traffic and pedestrian safety improvements on Foster Road in the immediate future…not two years from now.  This was in direct response to the hit-and-run death of Jason Lee Grant in January, which only added to the characterization of Foster Road as a high-crash corridor.  With several pedestrians killed on the busy corridor in recent years, something needed to be done.  And Mayor Sam Adams, with his staff and PBOT on hand, vowed to do something.

What did we get?

A day of traffic enforcement and the commitment from PBOT that the Foster Streetscape Plan would indeed be constructed someday.  That someday has turned out to be at least a year and a half from now, perhaps even two and a half….and that’s if there are no more delays.

In the meantime, another pedestrian was hit by a car on Foster.  While media and police reports indicate no wrong doing by the driver, and speed limits were being adhered to, the accident is no less devastating to a stretch of Foster that has not been able to stop the injuries and deaths, despite public outcry and pleads for change.  At the same time, many reports have implied the victim’s alcohol intake may be to blame for the accident, a sentiment widely echoed in comments on various online news articles.  Not only does that thought miss the mark and suggest a concerning disregard for human life, it speaks to how accepted the lack of pedestrian and traffic safety is on Foster across the city.  The fact is, drunk or not, this is an accident all too typical in our neighborhood, and one that is avoided in many other neighborhoods with bars and intoxicated pedestrians.

Even if the speed limit was being followed by the driver, something went wrong.  Perhaps it means that 35 mph is, indeed, too fast for Foster.  Perhaps there’s something wrong when a driver cannot see a dark figure step into the street because of a lack of lighting.  Perhaps it raises a red flag when, at least for those in the neighborhood that know, using a crosswalk would have made no difference because they are not lit or clearly marked.  Perhaps being drunk had nothing to do with it, other than a convenient excuse to downplay the fact that pedestrians are hit by cars at an alarming rate on Foster.

So what now?

Going back to that March meeting with the mayor and PBOT, the neighborhood was told that money was the stumbling block in getting improvements made, as well as the disruption it could cause to future planning for the streetscape plan.  Then, to put the ball back in the neighborhood’s court, they offered a compromise:  get short-term safety improvements now, but lose money to fund the larger streetscape plan in the future.  While this may have made sense from a fiscal policy standpoint, it also created a scenario where safety and long term planning/design for the neighborhood were exclusively linked, and the neighborhood was to choose one over the other.  In reality, we didn’t have a choice at all, and the city has proceeded with their plans (the aforementioned day of traffic enforcement and planning process for the streetscape plan that’s two years from breaking ground).

And since…another pedestrian has been struck by a car on Foster.  So do we continue as planned, or is there an alternative?  While safety improvements are, indeed, part of the Foster Streetscape Plan, do additional and immediate improvements need to be part of that project?  It appears as if that’s a false premise, and one that takes a city-wide issue of traffic and pedestrian safety and places it into the hands of a neighborhood.  And while millions upon millions are being spent on other low-priority projects and the planning that goes into them, it’s laughable that something can’t be done now to prevent further blood-shed on Foster without jeopardizing the future livability of the long-neglected corridor and the neighborhoods on either side of it.

It seems reasonable to let the streetscape planning process play out in a way that’s comprehensive, engages the community, and gets it right for the future of outer Southeast Portland, all the while finding money to address a city-wide safety issue NOW. For a city with such high credentials for its planning, and often lauded by other cities as they model their planning on Portland’s, this should be resolved with relative ease.  And as long as city money is being spent on pet projects with little or no relation to making the city safer and more livable in a fundamental way, this issue cannot be put on the back burner.  Several people have died trying to cross Foster Road, and countless others have been injured — and to the extent the city directs resources to address it, it can be avoided.  Drunk or not, within crosswalks or otherwise, pedestrians and drivers alike should be able to travel along Foster without fear of an accident.  It is time this becomes a reality, not a long range planning goal.

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27 Responses to Since When Does Being Intoxicated Justify Unsafe Driving Conditions?

  1. Ruben Medina says:

    I simply think the delay is all about economic discrimination. Had this been the Pearl these issues would have been resolve a long time ago. The most we can do is continue the citizen involvement and remember that elections do matter. Jefferson Smith is from this area and we should remind him as well as his opponent of our needs and that we will vote with those in mind.

  2. Sia says:

    We were discussing this just yesterday at the Lents Farmers Market in our informal in-person chat room. Someone felt like no matter what improvements you make people (pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers) are going to make poor choices that harm themselves or others. While I believe this is true, I also think there is room for improvements along Foster Road that make things safer and traffic flow smoother for ALL THREE GROUPS of travelers. Shortly before the accident I was almost side-swiped by white car speeding East and zig-zagging through traffic at a high rate of speed. That driver probably won’t change no matter what streetscape improvements are made. Conversely, The folks who dart into traffic on Foster Road wearing dark clothes without taking the precautions we teach school-aged kids about traffic, I believe need to bear some personal responsibility as well. You can repost this if I end up getting flattened for jaywalking. 🙂

  3. MizVerde says:

    It does get old seeing “nice” neighborhoods made nicer, while others are effectively left to rot. Enough with the lip service, already.

  4. Nick Falbo says:

    Thanks for raising this point. Foster road has a higher serious injury rate than most other streets in the city, and it’s not because we have more intoxicated people trying to cross the street.

    I’m not going to defend irresponsible drinking or irresponsible street crossing, but we should not have to put up with irresponsible road design. Safe crossings should be provided, whether they are used by young people, old people, and yes, even drunk people. Today, these crossings are few and far between.

  5. Aaron says:

    The irony here is the abundance of bars cropping up on Foster. But arguably, a bar within walking distance is safer for local residents. Just don’t stagger blindly through the crosswalk…

  6. Jed says:

    This certainly isn’t an issue that is limited to Foster Road: http://blogtown.portlandmercury.com/BlogtownPDX/archives/2011/05/24/tracking-pedestrian-deaths-one-by-one/

    How to solve these problems is no mystery (traffic lane reduction!!), but it’s all about money, and Foster Road is on a long list of troubled corridors. Given the widespread need, we should be stoked that $3.25 million is coming our way in 2014.

    Of course, 2014 is a couple years off, and like the rest of the dangerous corridors, we need safety improvements yesterday. If you’re up to it, there are always grant funds available. Maybe then we can see some re-striping of the lines ahead of 2014.

  7. Nick Christensen says:

    The needs of the 25,000 drivers – the vast majority of whom are driving responsibly – should be taken into account when considering what Foster looks like in the future. That means carefully considering what commuters from areas east of FoPo need out of the road. We are stakeholders too.

    • Agreed. However, I’m not just advocating for FoPo. I’m on board with all safety and livability improvements through the Lents Town Center and beyond 205, for they would make all the neighborhoods along Foster better.

      When speaking of particular stretches of Foster, though, I tend to think the balance of needs should be tipped a little in favor of those that actually live in the neighborhood, not those driving through it. With that being said, it will be important that the various stakeholders have a say, and the needs of all are considered. But if not all needs can be met, what becomes more important…safety or a few minutes saved on commute times?

      • Sia says:

        Most people living on Foster Corridor must commute to jobs, to school (even high school since Lents no longer has one) because of the dearth of jobs and resources in the neighborhood. It is a privilege to be able to live and work in the same neighborhood, most of us have not had that privilege. That said, the difference between a 20 minute and 45 minute+ commute each way affects family life, livability, etc. My hope is that we all remember that other people have different circumstances, and take those into account when deciding ehat Foster Road needs. The traffic changes and proposed changes on N Williams have created some clashes. And certainly we in Lents, worked through some rather heated neighborhood issues that cropped up when the bike lanes went in on SE Holgate east of 92nd.

    • Nick Falbo says:

      What do commuters driving on Foster need?

      • Nick Falbo says:

        I mean… I know that they want to get where their going (presumably, outside of the Foster area). I guess I’m trying to figure out what the terms are. 25,000 cars per day is a lot, but I don’t see any of the changes being discussed for Foster in any way preventing people from continuing to commute on the street.

      • Aaron says:

        The need for speed, perhaps… 😉

    • John Mulvey says:

      Wait… what?

      What exactly are you advocating here? You oppose implementing the Streetscape? Or you just want a Streetscape Plan that improves things for drivers?

      If it’s the former, you should have thought to move here in time to comment before the City Council approved it in 2003. If the latter, how many more lanes and how many fewer crosswalks do you think would be adequate to make people who don’t live here happy?

  8. Messy says:

    Thank you for a well thought out article. Foster Rd needs to be made safer. It is crazy that ANYONE is still getting killed, just TRYING to crossing the street. How many deaths will it take before our neighborhood street safety issues are addressed?

  9. John Mulvey says:

    “In essence, after nearly 10 years of fighting for city money to fund the already adopted Foster Streetscape Plan, many in the neighborhood have begrudgingly given a thumbs up to a longer wait in exchange for a refreshed plan that promises to be more encompassing and demonstrative of Foster Road’s potential.”

    This is a really key point, and I’m glad you made it. Clearly the neighborhood associations have gotten the impression that implementing the existing plan equals settling for a bare-bones set of improvements. And conversely, that agreeing to re-open the plan raises the possibility of a more thoughtful and comprehensive set of improvements.

    But that’s not what I was told at PDC’s Open House last week. The representatives from PBOT told me that the $3.25M that the neighborhoods have worked to line up is required to be spent on the small number of improvements described in the City’s flexible funds application. That means that if the neighborhoods want the road diet strategy, we’d be starting from zero in terms of funding.

    We now have the frustrating scenario of the neighborhood associations helping to keep a lid on neighborhood anger about the City’s inaction, and there’s a fair possibility that in the end we won’t have gotten anything for having done so.

    The 2003 Streetscape Plan is more than adequate for what we need. By agreeing to waive our objections to drafting a new plan, we’re strengthening the hand of the people who have been trying to kill this project for years. And anyone who thinks we’ve been promised something better might want to read the fine print.

  10. Squish says:

    35 mph is probably not too fast, however, most cars are travelling 40-50. The city needs to get more speed limit signs up and cops to enforce the speed. I think there is one speed limit sign b/w 50th and 82nd…anyone know?

    • Nick Falbo says:

      More enforcement would be great, but I don’t think people are speeding because they forgot what the speed was on Foster. Traffic engineers have shown that people driving don’t really pay attention to the speed limit, rather, they drive according to what “feels right” based on the design of the street. (how wide are the lanes, how close is the parking, how much visibility do I have around the corner?)

      The problem with Foster (and 82nd) is that what “feels right” is to drive like it is a freeway. But it’s not a freeway. It is no more a freeway than Hawthorne, or SE 17th, or inner Division. Foster and 82nd are surrounded by stores, restaurants, homes, apartments and schools. In the future, there will be more of these things, not less. We need a street designed to respect, and support all of the activities that take place in our neighborhoods.

      • Ben Waterhouse says:

        Foster is, by design, a highway. It’s the widest street in the city, wider even than Powell. If we want people to slow down on Foster, we need to remove a lane, at least through the area from 72nd to 52nd.

  11. Aaron says:

    I think more sidewalk and storefront beautification would help: outdoor sidewalk seating for cafes and bars, and more trees. The current abundance of ugliness feeds into the expressway mentality, and also discourages pedestrians; more pedestrians would discourage fast driving.

    I wonder if there are similarly wide streets elsewhere in urban USA that have struck the right balance.

  12. lentsna says:

    Lane removal is not necessary. Foster wasn’t designed as a highway, it’s wide because it was designed as a European style boulevard with wide sidewalks and multiple lanes. What went away/was never realized was the active use on the sidewalks, the businesses, the street trees, the street furniture, the lighting, the frequent crossings, the median plantings and paving treatments and all of the visual cues that tell drivers that it’s a boulevard – for people and strolling and local transit and driving.

    Add all that back in – along the full length of Foster between 50th and 104th and the number of lanes will not be an issue anymore. Certainly, we could narrow the lanes to make room for more of the above, a streetcar and separated bike facilities. But, getting hung up on lane removal/road diets is just going bog things down. The traffic counts on Foster don’t support a road diet and it’s really hard to make a reasonable argument for it.

    • Cora,

      The things you describe would all be welcome…active pedestrian use, street trees, lighting, and other visual cues that tell people Foster is not a highway. The goal is to slow traffic and make it safer, not necessarily remove lanes and choke off all traffic. And if some of the above elements returned to Foster, or were introduced, you may be right about the end result. A lot of what contributes to the high speeds and unsafe conditions is the visual character, and changing that may be the first/easiest/cheapest step. In fact, I think John Mulvey was making that point earlier…there’s already a streetscape plan in place that changes the visual character of Foster in a way that transforms it into more of a main street, not a highway. And much of what you suggest is already incorporated in that plan.

      As for the road diet, that’ll be up to the traffic engineers and stakeholders’ sentiment. Opinions certainly vary, especially as you cross neighborhoods. The idea is that it would slow traffic in a way that didn’t require multiple lights/signals to calm driving behavior. The hope is that Foster becomes more of a main street, with safety and livability being paramount. I think lane removal would help strike a balance between some desire for bike use, a potential streetcar, and maintained parking for businesses, while also calming traffic. I think folks are definitely open to all ideas at this point, though. Perhaps there’s an option out there that appeases everyone.

    • Brett says:

      I think there are many reasonable arguments for a road diet on Foster. Metro highlighted many of them in the recently released “Metro State of Safety Report” http://library.oregonmetro.gov/files//state_of_safety_report_043012.pdf

      I’ll highlight some relevant “Findings”:
      – Streets with more lanes have higher serious crash rates per road mile and per VMT (vehicle mile traveled)
      – Streets with more lanes have especially high serious crash rates for pedestrians.
      – Arterial roadways (like Foster) comprise 59% of the region’s serious crashes, 67% of the serious pedestrian crashes, and 52% of the serious bike crashes, while accounting for 40% of vehicle travel.

      … And some of the relevant “Strategies”
      – Safety strategies that match solutions to the crash patter and street and neighborhood context, rather than an approach of simply bringing roadways up to adopted standards.
      – Highway Safety Manual strategies to address arterials, such as medians, speed management, access management, roundabouts, and road diets.
      – Policies that reduce the need to drive, and therefore limit vehicle-miles traveled.

      There are also many additional recommendations in the report which will hopefully be part of future safety improvements (improvements in lighting, crossings, etc.) I still expect traffic experts/engineers will inform much of the dialog about the feasibility of any potential road diet solutions. I don’t think we should take it off the table in the hopes of not “bogging things down” though.

      • Cora Potter says:

        All of these are good points about why traffic needs to be calmed, but none specifically support a road diet. Road diets are effective tools in cases (like Holgate Blvd east of 205) where traffic counts are well below the capacity that the lanes provide. This is not the case on Foster, and even with VMT reduction strategies and policies, it won’t be the case for quite a while.

  13. Cora Potter says:

    I think the devil is in the details with the plan. While it’s certainly adequate to achieve traffic calming and safety goals, what we want to avoid is making improvements that will need to be removed/adjusted to accommodate future improvements that are on the books in other plans – like the Streetcar System Plan and the Bicycle Master Plan. That’s the purpose of the refresh – to ensure that the improvements we make don’t stymie the other plans that came after 2003. The bonus result would be that it also does as much as possible to help with redevelopment efforts on the entire Foster corridor – including areas East of 82nd and industrial/freight needs.

    Just speaking from prior process experience – we did a similar refresh based on the the 1997 Foster/Woodstock streetscape plan before we moved ahead with the engineering for the Foster/Woodstock streetscape. As part of that, we looked at removing the couplet (not recommended in 1997) and analyzed the outcomes. Then end result was still that we kept the couplet, but we also got better intersection treatments, the transition of one of the 4 lanes on Foster to on street parking, and an innovative way to incorporate street trees on the north side of Foster at 92nd where it was previously thought that there wasn’t enough right of way to accommodate them. And, we managed to get a realignment of 91st street in there too – which makes the pedestrian connections from South of Woodstock to North of Foster much more direct and intuitive.

  14. Sia says:

    I just love that this conversation is happening.. . . . .

  15. Messy says:

    What is Mayor Sam Adams response/comments about these two latest pedestrian deaths? Foster/Powell NA? Mt Scott/Arleta NA?

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