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On June 17, the Portland City Council enacted a resolution adopting Vision Zero, which sets a goal of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries from traffic crashes over the next 10 years. This is an ambitious goal — since 1996, an average of 36 Portlanders are killed each year and many more are injured due to traffic violence — but one that will have massive and obvious benefits to our city’s health and welfare if we can achieve it.


Vision Zero is just a fancy way of saying that we need to put safety first when designing and using the road. But it’s important to recognize that this is quite a change from orthodox thinking, which instead places travel time first.

Traditionally, traffic engineers design for the peculiarly large volumes occurring during rush hours. Intersections are assigned a letter grade based on how congested they are during the busiest 15 minutes of the day. This is called “level of service.”

If the average driver waits more than about a minute at a traffic signal or a half-minute at a stop sign, the grade is a failing one, and we’ll start looking for opportunities to address this by adding capacity. The experience of people walking and cycling is not considered, and safety is a secondary consideration.

By creating a system that’s efficient during the busiest 1 percent of the day, we’ve inadvertently designed one that encourages high speeds and dangerous driving during the other 99 percent. It’s no surprise, then, that an outsize number of serious crashes occur along major arterials such as Burnside Street, Powell Boulevard and 82nd Avenue.

Vision Zero takes precisely the opposite tack, holding safety paramount even if it leads to increased congestion during the peak hours.

Road diets are a good example of this approach. For obvious reasons, these projects often are unpopular at first — the Tribune’s editorial board lambasted them in this op-ed a year ago (http://tinyurl.com/nzweb8k). But we’ve seen that the pain of the new designs are usually short-lived while the safety benefit is permanent. Over time, other benefits are realized as the street becomes more walkable, more livable, and more vibrant.

The notion that no death or serious injury is acceptable is both totalitarian yet completely democratic. It’s unfortunate but undeniable that many social injustices clearly manifest on the roadways. Parts of the city in which we’ve historically underinvested see higher levels of traffic violence than well-off neighborhoods.

As both a cause and consequence of this, we Portlanders are more appalled by traffic violence in our urban core than in our underserved outskirts, and existing inequities are thus perpetuated. But Vision Zero, by being intolerant of any and all carnage, will rightly refocus resources to address the areas with the greatest need first.

By creating a system that’s safe, we are building communities that are more livable and more equitable. This is quite the opposite of what we’ve brought about by designing with the superficial goal of reducing travel times.

Of course, the assumption that underlies the Vision Zero philosophy is that all traffic crashes are preventable. This, too, is a change from the orthodoxy, which holds that a certain number of serious accidents are an inevitable consequence of mobility.

As our understanding of traffic safety has evolved, however, it’s becoming clear that most crashes are not accidental at all; they’re predictable, preventable outcomes of ill-considered choices like driving drunk, distracted or too fast for conditions.

Consequently, the vocabulary around safety is evolving as well, with “accident” falling out of favor as a synonym for a crash or collision, and blunt terms like those I’ve used — “carnage” and “traffic violence,” for example — becoming more commonplace. To the extent that language affects perception, mainstreaming these uncomfortable descriptions of traffic violence will be key to eliminating it.

Vision Zero fundamentally changes the relationship between transportation infrastructure and its users, asking each to expect more of one another than we have in the past. Streets and intersections must be designed to anticipate and forgive human fallibility, and road users must redouble their efforts to place a premium on safety. Success will require nothing short of a citywide commitment to this goal, but achieving it would make Portland richer in countless ways and ensure our continued presence at the vanguard of great cities.

Brian Davis is a senior transportation analyst at Lancaster Engineering. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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