A few years ago, Cheryl Howard put new brakes on her Volvo wagon. She says this was perhaps the only reason she was able to stop fast enough to avoid a three-year-old boy who stepped in front of her car at a crosswalk on the Bend Parkway. His mother had gotten her stroller tangled in the brush and didn't see him step onto the road.Not that Howard isn't a cautious driver. Howard, who grew up in Bend and lives in the Orchard District, is the chair of the Deschutes County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC).
"How could I have lived with myself?" Howard said about the incident.
This situation is not uncommon. Crosswalk safety has been a hot topic lately, with multiple deaths in Portland due to cars hitting pedestrians and bicyclists. Closer to home, Robert Hunt, a local electrician, was killed while riding his bicycle on the Reed Lane crosswalk on the Parkway this past October. Hunt was struck while crossing the Parkway with his teenage daughter. The driver was a 26-year-old Bend woman who apparently didn't notice the bicyclists, although the other lane of traffic had stopped. Hunt's daughter received non life-threatening injuries.
Later that month, a woman was rear ended when she stopped for a man in the same crosswalk.
"After the crash, it was clear the crosswalks were not meeting the objective that they were designed for in the first place," says Peter Murphy, Public Information Officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).
But just how to make Bend safer for pedestrians is still a matter of some debate, even inside organizations like ODOT. In some cases, additional safety measures for walkers and bikers, such as the aforementioned crossing lights, directly conflict with other traffic management goals and the agency's own long-term strategies for places like the south end of the Parkway.
In response to Hunt's death, ODOT held a safety audit, addressing the crosswalk at Reed Lane and possible solutions to make crossing the Parkway safer, including adding a blinking yellow pedestrian-activated light and more visible signage near crosswalks.
Between November 8 and 10, ODOT gathered staff members, representatives from the Bend Police Department and local bicycle and pedestrian organizations to address possible solutions for the Parkway crosswalks that intersect Reed Lane and Badger Road. The three-day-long Safety Audit gathered information on how many cars pass through the Parkway as well as how many people cross the crosswalk on foot or by bike. "It's a comprehensive look of who's out there from the pedestrian/bicycle angle instead of the car," says Murphy. "We know the car. We're looking at the other side."
Howard attended the audits on behalf of BPAC. "I walked away really pleased they were asking the right questions to come up with a good, safe solution," she says.
Not surprisingly, the safety issues on the Parkway are intertwined with the larger problem of how the community manages its recent rapid growth, which saw Bend's population grow from 52,000 in 2000 people to over 80,000 residents today.
Before the Parkway was built, there was a seamless neighborhood in the Reed Lane area. But the Parkway split that neighborhood in half, necessitating a crosswalk.
"That was a neighborhood. People would be able to cross over to the commercial side - it was routine for people to do that. It made sense at the time," said Murphy.
"In other communities, folks have seen that the construction of highways has divided communities," says Murphy.
Bend tried to avoid that by creating a more pedestrian-friendly road in the Parkway, a sort of hybrid between a commercial corridor like 3rd Street and a traditional highway with minimal traffic signals and driveways. For a while, it worked. But the growth in traffic is now straining the system, both from a traffic flow and a safety perspective.
"Our traffic loads were less than half of what they are today," says Murphy of when the Parkway was constructed.
Murphy says ODOT is likely to install advance stop bars - physical markers where cars are encouraged to stop for pedestrians - and signs to alert drivers to the crosswalk, install "PED X-ING" symbols on the pavement and place bike and pedestrian safety messages on Bend Area Transit busses. ODOT is also considering building an over-or-under crossing.
On Tuesday, ODOT received approval to install marked crosswalks and install flashing beacons at the Reed Lane and Badger Road crosswalks. The beacons - user activated LED lights - flash an irregular pattern similar to emergency vehicles.
However, according to Murphy, ODOT and the Oregon Transportation Commission want to remove stoplights from Hwy. 97 altogether, so cars never come to a stop or a halt. ODOT has started this process with the Murphy Road project, where the Parkway intersects Pinebrook Boulevard and at the 3rd Street intersection at the south end of town. Expected to start in the winter of 2012, the Murphy Road project will include the removal of stoplights, the construction of an east-west arterial and a bridge on Murphy Road that crosses over Highway 97.
Murphy admits that it's counterintuitive to have a crosswalk on the Parkway if the goal is to remove the need for vehicles to stop.
"There's no easy solution," he says. "The goal of removing stops on the Parkway is a long-term goal. We need immediate upgrades to our crosswalks in the meantime."
While warning signs and blinking lights may increase awareness of the crosswalks on the Parkway, speed may be the biggest culprit in accidents in crosswalks. During the safety audit, Bend police found that 87 percent of drivers on the Parkway speed - driving at approximately 55 miles per hour in the 45 mph posted road.
"If 87 percent of the drivers are driving too fast on the Parkway, maybe our problem isn't that pedestrians are crossing the Parkway," says Howard. "Maybe the problem is that everyone's driving too damn fast."
However, as anyone who has traveled on the Parkway can confirm, getting drivers to slow down may be easier said than done. The thoroughfare, which may be posted at 45 mph, feels more like an urban freeway.
Bend PD's Porter says the police department enforces posted speed limits on the Parkway, but the department mostly utilizes their four traffic officers in areas like school zones and downtown.
While the safety audit only discussed the Parkway, other roads not under ODOT's jurisdiction also raise safety concerns for bicyclists and pedestrians.
"When you count the [pedestrian] trips per day on the Parkway as opposed to places like Reed Market, Franklin, Minnesota and Wall, it leads us to believe our resources are better spent where we're having the most pedestrian incidences," says Monson.
While the safety of the Parkway crosswalks is an important topic to address, the reality is that safety issues extend beyond the Bend Parkway.
"The majority of pedestrian vehicle accidents [this year] were off the Parkway and not related to the Parkway," says Captain Jim Porter of the City of Bend Police Department.
Other areas of pedestrian safety concern include downtown, school zones and 3rd street.
Robert Heater, a frequent bicyclist on 3rd Street, says he has multiple close calls every time he rides his bike.
"I've almost gotten hit five times since I left [my house today]," he said on a recent Wednesday afternoon. "People don't even watch. It seems like some of them speed up and try to hit you." Heater, who lost his license, relies solely on his bicycle for transportation. He says he feels so unsafe riding on 3rd Street that he rides on the sidewalk whenever he can.
A recent study conducted by Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) found that approximately 20 percent of bicyclists in Portland are injured every year, with five percent of those injuries serious enough to warrant a hospital visit.
In Deschutes County, ODOT recorded 61 vehicle crashes that involved a pedestrian in 2009 and 63 that involved a bicyclist, including one pedestrian fatality. And according to ODOT, pedestrians account for 10 to 15 percent of traffic fatalities in Oregon.
"There are more people biking and walking," says Jeff Monson, Executive Director of Commute Options.
As a result, Monson said it's incumbent on transportation planners, including the City of Bend and ODOT, to account for this change in commuter behavior.
"It's not [about] just building more lanes - wider, bigger, faster - but community development," says Monson. He mentions building medians on busier streets and the bicycle-parking corral in front of Thump Coffee as examples.
City Councilor Jodie Barram acknowledges the safety issues concerning crosswalks across Bend, but says the city does not have a budget specifically for crosswalk safety.
"The budget is folded into street maintenance and transportation," she says. Ultimately, the city takes an advisory role for road safety when new building occurs, although Barram notes the city has paid for safety updates in accordance with the American Disabilities Act.
Safety improvements notwithstanding, Howard says it's incumbent on motorists to do a better job of sharing the road and looking out for their neighbors when they get behind the wheel.
"The responsibility still comes back to us as drivers," says Howard. "Be mindful and courteous because somebody's life might depend upon it. If you know that driving 10 miles an hour slower might save a life, is it worth it?"