Nathan Hinkle knows the intersection well.
The Portland native attended high school at 26th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, where Alistair Corkett lost his leg on May 10, 2015, and Peter Anderson was hit on May 29th. Both were on bicycles; both were struck by motor vehicles in the intersection.
The rest of Hinkle’s community of Portland cyclists knew the intersection as a dangerous place too. Hinkle kept hearing, “That could happen to me.” This summer, the city was coming to terms with a string of highly publicized collisions between cyclists and cars. Anderson’s death was the 10th pedestrian or cyclist fatality of the year.
In June, the City of Portland officially adopted a Vision Zero plan, aimed at eliminating all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries in the city by 2025.
Meanwhile, Hinkle, an engineer, created a website, NearlyKilled.Me. If he and other cyclists had stories of near misses at these same intersections, “If people knew this intersection was unsafe,” he wondered, “why did we let it get to the point where people are getting hurt there?”
The site, also launched in June, allows users to self-report near misses and minor accidents on foot or on bike. Reports detail incident location, who was in danger and what traffic violations the reporter believes were committed. Reports appear as bright yellow pins on Google Maps. Users have submitted nearly 500 so far.
A reported incident on the NearlyKilled.Me map
Hinkle sees the site as a tool that can both educate drivers about how their behavior affects cyclists and help the city direct targeted enforcement toward the most problematic intersections and violations. (Inattentive driving, speeding and unsafe passing are the three most common.)
For its Vision Zero initiative, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is collecting and mapping crash data too. But because they are focusing on accidents that result in fatal or serious injury, minor accidents — or near misses like many captured by NearlyKilled.Me — don’t show up in the data.
“That seems backwards to me, that you have to get hurt to get the government’s attention,” says Hinkle. He wants the data to inform PBOT where infrastructure changes could be made before accidents occur.
Every Monday morning, an automated script sends all new NearlyKilled.Me reports to about a dozen officials and agencies, including PBOT, Oregon DOT, Portland Police Bureau and the mayor’s office. Hinkle is disappointed that, though PBOT expressed interest in his data early on, the agency doesn’t seem eager to act upon it.
“I think the sort of lived experience on the street and the non-traditional data sources are interesting,” says Gabe Graff, PBOT’s safety and operations manager and chief Vision Zero coordinator. “[But] Vision Zero is not about reducing crashes per se. It’s about reducing harm to people.”
The NearlyKilled.Me data can inform other programs, he says, like the Safe Routes to School program, which also relies on self-reported data from parents and students.
While implementing Vision Zero, PBOT’s first priority is making sure all crashes that do result in injury are captured in the data. PBOT receives its crash data primarily from the Oregon Department of Transportation, which has different standards of reporting and may not capture certain types of accidents.
Graff cites San Francisco’s experience: When that city adopted Vision Zero in 2014 and compared the official crash record with hospital and ER data, they found that crashes between cyclists, between a cyclists and a pedestrian, and involving African-Americans were underreported.
Portland is similarly comparing the ODOT crash record to data from the fire department and EMS, the city’s ambulance contractor, and the trauma registry.
Graff and John Brady, PBOT’s communications director, say equity is a major concern of the Vision Zero initiative, and self-reporting may not be the way to achieve it.
Take, for example, the Clinton Street Greenway, part of a network of low-stress streets prioritized for walking and biking. Fully 10 percent of NearlyKilled.Me’s reports come from this street, because it needs safety improvements but also because it’s a rallying point for bike activists.
Even before NearlyKilled.Me, community activists and neighbors raised concerns to the PBOT, resulting in a report on neighborhood greenways and ultimately in the installation of new diverters.
Hinkle says Clinton Street demonstrates that crowdsourced safety information can point to areas for improvement. Graff and Brady agree, but also point to potential inequity.
“The group of self-reporters and the group of most vulnerable residents from a safety standpoint do not necessarily overlap,” Brady says, via email. “We have found that residents living in low-income areas are at a considerably higher risk of being injured or killed in traffic crashes than residents in other areas,” but they aren’t necessarily the same people volunteering incident reports online.
Hinkle says that’s all the more reason the city should embrace and endorse NearlyKilled.Me, which is still in its early stages of development — so more people can access it.
For the large number of trips taken daily by foot or by bike, the percentage of injuries is relatively small, “but a lot of people are discouraged from riding their bike or walking to work because they hear about [fatal crashes] and they don’t feel safe,” says Hinkle.
Take 26th Avenue and Powell Boulevard again, he says.
“When was the last time somebody was seriously injured or killed at that intersection prior to the two incidents earlier this year?” Hinkle asked by email. “On the other hand, if you’d ask any of the people who bike through that intersection every day, they’d tell you that it’s almost happened to them dozens of times.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been corrected to accurately reflect the outcome of the crash involving Peter Anderson.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.