The Devil’s Advocate – The Transit Feud of Portland

Where Walking Can Be A Health Hazard

 

Those who live in the Pacific Northwest or have visited Portland before are probably aware that there’s a rift between commuters, particularly those who drive and those who use alternative means (biking, walking, public transit, or a combination of the three). Portland has worked hard to be a ‘walking city’, where those who chose to walk or bike have clear paths and safe routes, but there’s still a lot to be done, and I sometimes get the feeling that some drivers feel slighted by the lack of attention they get because of the focus on other means. Yes, it’s a little unfair, but it’s hardly like pedestrians have ‘the good life’ considering the complete lack of actual sidewalks in many areas, and the narrow roads that create problems for drivers also affect bikers, who are unofficially required to share the street when possible so they don’t cause accidents with walkers and joggers. Long story short, everyone’s getting the short end of the stick here, but the issue goes a lot deeper, and the danger here is higher than a lot of other cities.

 

Time for Some Numbers

 

Because of the ‘work in progress’ state the Portland Metro area has found itself in and other considerations (which I’ll talk about soon), this area has become one of America’s most dangerous cities for pedestrians according to Smart Growth America, an organization dedicated to researching and improving the nation’s transportation systems. Now, we aren’t the big numero uno (that dishonor goes to Orlando), but we have been rated 45 out of 51 major cities, and have even somehow become worse than New York, San Francisco, and Boston. So despite the City Council’s enthusiasm for safety measures and cleaner forms of  travel, Portland isn’t doing nearly as well as we’d like (or as our leaders would prefer the rest of the country to think).

I stopped watching the news quite some time ago, but I still hear about major pedestrian accidents all the time, a lot of them taking place downtown, and many of them involving someone on a bike. I even remember an accident that involved a TriMet bus driver mowing down several people on foot who happened to be in a crosswalk, and at least one of the people who were hit died. Most of the time, the driver is clearly being reckless when these kinds of accidents happen, but they aren’t the only ones that deserves some of the blame.

 

I’m Almost 30 and I’ve Never Owned a Driver’s License

 

In the secluded woods and mountains of eastern Washington and northern Idaho, where I spent the majority of my youth, it can become embarrassing if your license is suspended (if you’re old enough to have one, that is), and it can be even worse if you never get one, like I did. When I was 16 and everyone around me was either already driving or gearing up for it, all I did was watch. I wanted to drive just as much as everyone else, and it made me stick out like a sore thumb that I didn’t (everyone thought there was something wrong with me, like I couldn’t handle the simple motions required to steer a vehicle), but fear, laziness, and distraction kept me from fulfilling the one right of passage teens still follow. It hasn’t been fun, I’ll say that much, especially when you live in an area that doesn’t have a single bus or light rail train.

Living in Portland is a lot easier for a non-driver like me, and at least here I’m not alone, but it can still be tricky to get around. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be a driver (I’ve driven before and I’m going to lie; I suck at it), and even if I did become one at some later date I’m still a pedestrian now. In the underlying antagonism between drivers and pedestrians, I usually side with my fellow walkers, but that isn’t the point of this series. Now, it’s time for me to ‘turn on my own kind’. I call ’em as I see ’em, after all.

 

Pedestrians are at Fault, Too

 

The drivers here are nuts. They cut me off when I’m in the crosswalk (and the light tells me to go), they come close to grazing me, they give me dirty looks, and sometimes they even throw stuff out of their windows at me (like an almost full can of beer). They are straight-up rude, and despise pedestrians. Sometimes it gets to me because I’m a very conscientious walker. I stop and let cars go first when they’re pulling into driveways because I don’t want them to get rear-ended; I only cross the street when the lights tell me to, and at the smaller crossings that only have signs I always look for oncoming traffic; when someone’s trying to turn onto another street I walk behind their car so they won’t miss one of the few windows they might have to dart into the thick, constant traffic; and if I absolutely have to cross a street in between crosswalks or blocks I wait patiently and don’t dart out in front of them like some sort of retarded deer. Unfortunately, I’m a rare breed and most people aren’t so considerate or aware of their surroundings. And despite my strict personal rules (which no one can convince me to break) I’ve still been hit by a car while crossing the street. But there’s a reason why drivers here don’t care about the fate of pedestrians, and honestly, it’s a pretty valid grievance.

Over the past several years I have observed some downright idiotic behavior from pedestrians, particularly walkers. Bikers can live dangerously, too, when they’re both on the sidewalk or in the bike lane, but they tend to be a little more circumspect than some of the people who pound the pavement around here. Sure, I’ve seen stubborn bikers take risks (I think a sense of entitlement contributes to this kind of thing), like when they’re in the bike lane and end up right next to a bus when they stop at a light. The problem here is that the bus will be pulling over just beyond the intersection, which means cutting across the very path the biker needs to take, but some bikers won’t hang back and let the bus go first. They just keep pace with the bus as if they’re playing chicken or something. Yes, bikers have just as much right to be on the road as cars, but that bus could squash them in a second, so I don’t think that’s the right time to make a statement. Besides, it’s just common courtesy to let the bus go. They have tight schedules to maintain, and the people riding those buses have places to go and people to see. Anyway, I’m getting a little off-topic here.

Recently, I saw a woman slowly walk into the middle of a very busy street (5 lanes wide, including the turn lane), looking like she was just taking a leisurely stroll, and she wasn’t even near an intersection. Normally this wouldn’t be notable since tons of people, including myself when it’s safe, do that all the time, but that nut job chose to cross just as a huge fire truck was speeding along. They had their sirens on and I’d started hearing them several minutes before, so there’s no possible way she didn’t know they were coming. She showed no indicators of blindness, deafness, or mental defects, yet she timed her progression just right so that the truck barely missed hitting her. To make matters worse, as she started to draw near the other side of the street she cut off a car that had pulled over for the fire truck just as they were pulling back into their lane. So she almost made two vehicles hit her.

I see pedestrians cutting off and disrupting traffic all the time, especially downtown, and the worst part about it is these people do this during the height of rush hour, making it even more difficult for drivers to get where they’re going. I’ve even seen a mob of people completely halt traffic because they decided to walk in the middle of the street. These same people show a similar disrespect to other walkers by taking up the entire sidewalk and forcing others to detour around them, sometimes making people walk out into the street just to get clear. They block driveways, they ignore others, they act as if they have the right-of-way in every situation, even if they legally don’t, and as soon as an angry driver cuts them off they get all offended and violent. It seems that some pedestrians think they’re the king of the road even though the smallest of cars could easily kill them. It’s no wonder drivers are so disgruntled here.

 

 As Aaliyah Once Sang, We Need a Resolution

 

Alright, alright. Aaliyah was talking about the difficulties of love in that song, but it still applies. The only way we can reduce this problem and remove Portland from Smart Growth America’s hit list is to deal with this in a more direct fashion. Just pretending the issue doesn’t exist or downplaying it is only going to cause this discord to grow. And this is where I turn on my fellow pedestrians.

Honestly, I think those on foot are more responsible for this problem than the drivers. Every time one of us forces a driver to heed to an untimely, inconvenient crossing it only adds fuel to their fire. Now, the idea is ‘share the road’, not ‘hog the road’ or ‘relinquish the road to those who are bigger than us’, so I don’t think pedestrians should be expected to just give cars priority at all times, but if we simply abide by the rules and laws that we’re already supposed to follow it could do a lot to calm some tempers. All you have to do is be a little patient and display some manners. Really, pedestrians should be the ones to offer an olive branch to drivers, too. We should publicly acknowledge the issue and pledge to make changes, to be more considerate, because when you get to the bottom of everything, this whole crazy little war is mostly sustained by our actions, and we need to own up to them. If we don’t the only thing we can look forward to is more accidents, more deaths, and more animosity.

It may take a while to see a solid change, but I think it’s worth a shot.

 

Are you a driver? A biker? What kind of transportation issues have you observed in your own community?