Walking in Portland can be dangerous to your health

by Sharon Wood Wortman

Last week another vehicle almost nailed me flat as a coffin. I was alone in a crosswalk in the center of Oregon's most worldly city, Portland. I had been walking uphill and had made it six blocks west of the Willamette River.

I get my exercise some days by hiking around downtown and combining errands. Photocopies. My bank. Motor Vehicles. Caesar Salad. I'd found a long-term meter so I could walk to Powell's City of Books and back if I wanted. It was not quite 2 p.m.

Since I sit on the Portland Pedestrian Advisory Committee, I know two things:

One, walking across city streets is not a leisurely activity, despite Portland's pint-sized 200-foot-long blocks. Depending on the time of day, we walkers get 22 seconds to make it from curb to curb. In this time, the "Walk" signal shines steady white for 10 seconds, followed by a blinking "Don't Walk" sign for 12 seconds. A solid red "Don't Walk" light of 56 to 90 seconds finishes most cycles.

Two, for the five years between 1996 and 2000, 527 pedestrians and bicyclists were hit by motor vehicles in inner Portland on just the west side of the Willamette River, with another 14 killed.

It was 50 feet curb to curb where I stood. I didn't need a tape measure to recognize a risky distance. I moved fast.

Just as I reached the middle of the street, I heard screeching and at the same time looked up to find myself between a pair of headlights as unexpected as lightning. A custom steel grille stopped a half-axle away, rocking back and forth in a tortured momentum that inspired nausea. My nausea.

The driver had turned, illegally, from the outside lane on a red light. He'd swung around in a wide arc, surprising me mid-street.

I froze. My hands and the rest of me started falling apart like stapled Jell-0. My right hand flew to my chest. I couldn't catch my breath. Was that tire rubber I smelled? The driver stared at me. I noticed his seatbelts. I wore sandals. My eyes, still wobbly, flashed, "What-are-you-doing?"

In response, his arm out the window, a jerk of the thumb: "Come on!" he commanded.

My walk sign had changed to caution mode -- blink, blink, blink -- soon to be done with its allotted seconds.

"Me come on?" I yelled. "You come on!"

I sounded like my mother, not a bad thing. By the time I stepped on the curb, I could only recall that the vehicle had been a German-looking sport utility vehicle about the size and color of an adult male rhino. Still, I regretted not standing my ground. Why didn't I write down the license number, the make of the vehicle, beat on his slick hood with my fists, fall down, anything but do as he commanded? Come on?

I crossed the street and slid into my van, parked pointed in the same direction my near miss had been traveling. I called my husband on the cell phone. We talked. "I'm glad to be alive one more time," I concluded, in Portland, one of the West's great cities, but increasingly crowded and dangerous.

Being an experienced victim doesn't always help avoid disaster. In the early 1990s, a professional courier driving an economy car struck me while I was walking across on another street a few blocks farther north. I rolled up over her car hood and onto the windshield during her acceleration and then spun face down and spread-eagled on the pavement in front of the tires as her brakes grabbed. That driver, also in a hurry, had been turning left, too.

And now, wet palms again. I drove two blocks and turned left to find three grilles aimed toward me with more on their way. I had started into a one-way street going the wrong direction. I put the phone down. I turned around while all three cars braked.

A pedestrian walking south along the sidewalk stopped well before his cross walk. He waited for me to quit moving before he'd set foot into the street. He flashed me a "What-are-you-doing?" look. I understood. It was a day I wasn't managing well as either a driver or a pedestrian. I knew I needed to pull over to a curb and do nothing, if only for five minutes. I kept driving.

Sharon Wood Wortman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Portland, Oregon.

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