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Transportation director calls traffic 'public health threat'

Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat declared war on cars Tuesday, saying her top priority was providing more alternatives to automobiles for city residents.

"We have a growing public health crisis in Portland — traffic," Treat said during a lunch jointly sponsored by the Portland City Club and the Oregon Active Transportation Summit at the downtown Sentinel Hotel. The summit is a gathering of bicycle, walking and alternative transportation advocates being held this week at the hotel.

Citing statistics that show more Portanders are being killed in traffic accidents than by homicides, Treat said her guiding philosophy is Vision Zero, a movement she said started in Sweden in 1997 that makes safety the top transportation priority with a goal of eliminating all traffic-related deaths.

In her first major public address since taking over the transportation bureau in July 2013, Treat said Portland needs more transit, bike lanes and walking paths to maintain its reputation as American's most livable city.

"Imagine a time when a parent can bring their child to OMSI or the farmer's market without having to drive," Treat said of her vision.

Treat said walking and bicycling have multiple public benefits, such as losing weight and increasing health. She also said cars are "incredibly expensive," especially for those who can least afford them.

Paying for such a multimodal transportation system is a challenge, Treat said, especially because Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick have committed to developing a new funding source to increase the maintenance of Portlnd's existing roads this year.

Treat says surveys conducted as part of the Our Streets PDX transportation funding effort show the most public support for a fixed monthly fee for residents and business charges based on the number of automobile trips they generate. Treat said those involved in the planning effort have not settled on specific figures yet, but she expects a proposal to be presented to the public in the foreseeable future.

Some other funding initiatives have also been slow to finalize, Treat said, including installing parking meters in more parts of town and finding a private sponsor for the bike share program that was supposed to start by now. Treat said city and bike share operators are close to securing a sponsor, but did not say when the bike rental program might begin.

After the talk, Novick said, "I can assure you that we are not at war with cars. My attitude toward cars is 'peace through strength.' We can coexist peacefully with cars, but we need a strong safety program for pedestrians and bicyclists, and a strong transit system. We have made our intentions clear to the cars, and they have assured us that they, too, are interested in detente."