State’s $1.9 million gift says it: flashing beacons are the safety tool of the moment

State’s $1.9 million gift says it: flashing beacons are the safety tool of the moment

An active warning beacon in North Portland.
(Photo: City of Portland)

Two state legislators’ announcement this week that $1.9 million from the state’s general fund would pay for new flashing beacons and traffic islands at 18 East Portland crosswalks communicated two things about Portland streets.

First: that street safety is one of State Rep. Shemia Fagan’s core issues, something she’s consistently putting political capital behind. Second: that rectangular rapid-flash beacons, which communicate a person’s desire to cross without using red lights to stop traffic completely, have become one of the city’s go-to safety tools.

Fagan’s list of crosswalks that will get the beacons is slightly different than the one Commissioner Steve Novick and advocacy group Oregon Walks were pushing last week. On Thursday, city staffer Gabriel Graff provided a list of the city’s tier 1 and tier 2 street-crossing improvements, with the 17 East Portland projects selected by Fagan and State Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson for funding marked in yellow.

The legislators also lined up money for an 18th location, the state-managed crossing of SE Powell at 168th.

Oregon Walks President Aaron Brown wrote in an email Wednesday that the advocacy group “is still pushing for some general fund money to get more crosswalks” but that he suspects Tuesday’s announcement makes city crosswalk spending less likely in the current budget cycle.

Our story about this issue last week drew some particularly interesting comments, many of them around the question of whether flashing beacons are a relatively low-cost safety improvement for deadly streets, or a half-measure that doesn’t solve the underlying problem of East Portland’s auto-oriented streets and development patterns.

Here’s a take from commenter GlowBoy:

While think Novick’s reasoning about “chasing down drug dealers who are just going to be replaced by other drug dealers” is faulty (you don’t avoid doing the dishes because you’re going to make more dirty dishes tomorrow), I think this would be a good start. Too many people are being killed by vehicles.

I’m impressed that aside from two spots in SW (which can also be hell for pedestrians), all of these proposed locations are east of 82nd.

From sbrock:

Was very happy when flashing beacons were install at University of Portland. The problem now is that a few people don’t activate them and now motorists are not as vigilant at scanning the area because they give a false sense of security now coupled with complacency now. Most people push the button. Just enough to give you the impression that the crosswalk is safe, then out comes the one or two, who for reasons unknown don’t activate the beacon. Have seen it many times now. If you don’t need reliance on the pedestrian I think it would be a safer system.

From Boris Kaganovich:

Expensive non-solution. Standard NACTO high-vis zebra crosswalks (of which we have none in Portland) could be painted at significantly more than 15 intersections for $1 million.

From pakikala, in reply:

Painting crossings without other features added is the non-safe solution. The PBOT standard is to include RRFB for every 5-lane crossing as a minimum standard, preferably with a median refuge island. Multi-lane crossings also need high level warnings with advance stop bars to reduce the double-threat issue. A single marked crossing on a 5-lane section, with a refuge island and the 3 poles (2 side, one center) starts off around ($3k+$15k+$36K) $54,000 and most people expect two crossings per intersection.

From Engineer Scotty:

The beacon thingies have, from the point of view of transportation engineers, two advantages over traditional signallized crosswalks:

* They are cheaper to install
* They are less disruptive to traffic.

The second item is skewed priorities–unless there is enforcement of crosswalks, if drivers believe that stopping is optional (it isn’t, of course, but many are confused on this point), some of them won’t stop.

More active enforcement of beacon crosswalks–i.e. cops running stings and writing tickets (if the beacon is flashing, a motorist should not be able to avail himself of the “I didn’t see the pedestrian” or “I didn’t think he was in the crosswalk” excuses) is one step. But if that doesn’t go far enough…

…how about putting actual stoplights (or HAWK lights) mounted on poles? Ones that turn RED? In much of Europe, and in the nation’s capital, most traffic signals are mounted on poles on the side of the road; traffic lights hanging from wires or gantries over the lanes are relatively rare.

I invited Graff, the PBOT staffer, to respond to Scotty’s arguments that a HAWK light, also known as a half-signal or hybrid beacon, is often preferable to a flashing beacon. Graff confirmed the first point:

Hybrid signals (also known as HAWKs) are generally more expensive to install (starting at $150,000) than Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons (RRFBs) but it depends on the street. We typically install hybrid signals in places where the ped/bike crossing demand is higher (e.g. 100 crossings an hour in the peak). As your commenters allude to, they function differently than RRFBs, providing a red indication that requires cars to stop even when there are no longer pedestrians or cyclists in the crossing.

Graff added that the city believes the flashing beacons ” will be sufficient for the crossing demand” at intersections with lower pedestrian volumes.

Correction 11:44 pm: An earlier version of this post said Mayor Charlie Hales attended Tuesday’s press conference. He did not.

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