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TriMet’s problem intersection on E. Burnside also includes bike/MAX collision

Posted by on April 20th, 2012 at 10:57 am

Portland Twilight Criterium 2008-6.jpg
Well known local rider, bike advocate,
and lawyer Mark Ginsberg collided
with a MAX train while crossing E. Burnside
in January 2011.
(Photo © J. Maus)

The intersection of E Burnside, 97th Ave, and the I-205 multi-use path seems to have a worse safety record than I first realized. It’s more dangerous than I realized when I posted about Sharon Fekety’s nasty tumble on the tracks back in 2007. It’s also more dangerous than I realized when I posted about the spill Thomas Crosslin took Wednesday morning while biking to work.

I learned about both of those incidents (not to mention others shared in comments) before I knew that noted local lawyer (who specializes in bike law), accomplished bike racer, daily bike commuter, and long-time Portland citizen activist Mark Ginsberg was involved in a collision with a MAX train while bicycling through that same intersection in January 2011.

According to Ginsberg, he was riding the north on the I-205 path with a friend after a long ride. When the I-205 path gets to E. Burnside, it switches from the west side of the freeway to the east side. To make this switch, the route directs bike traffic onto the south sidewalk of the E. Burnside overpass to go east and then it takes an abrupt left turn to go north via the painted crosswalk on E. Burnside (see graphic below). This turn shifts a rider’s eyes view from looking directly east to looking north and midway through the intersection is a set of MAX tracks.

Ginsberg’s path is in blue, the MAX train’s path is Green.

On January 2nd, 2011, Ginsberg made that turn, rolled half-way through the crosswalk and then collided with a MAX train that was turning from south to east. Here’s how Ginsberg remembers it:

“Molly [person he was was with] screamed ‘Mark, watch out!’ and next thing I know a train hits my bars from my left… It takes my bike about 50 feet down the tracks. I instinctively rolled backwards off the bike. I was very fortunate. I fell backwards and scraped my knee. I only ruined a water bottle.”

Ginsberg said the MAX operator stopped, had him board the train and meet a TriMet staff person who was waiting at the next stop to take down an incident report. At the time, TriMet still had a bicycle planning specialist on staff (they don’t anymore, but they say they are interviewing for a new Active Transportation planner this week, says spokesperson Mary Fetsch). Ginbserg says he talked to the bike planner and was assured that TriMet was working to make the intersection safer. “But nothing ever came of it,” recalls Ginsberg.

Ginsberg admits he was at fault. “They had the right of way. I just didn’t see it or hear it.” Despite his errors, Ginsberg feels the intersection is dangerous and in dire need of improvements.

And, as it turns out, TriMet feels the same way.

Image from TriMet’s 2008, Light Rail Pedestrian and Bicycle Crossing Final Report

In their own Light Rail Pedestrian and Bicycle Crossing Final Report (PDF) published on September 8th, 2008 (the one promised by the agency after Fekety’s fall one year earlier), TriMet analyzed this intersection.

In the “Site Assessment” section, TriMet concluded that “Visual and physical strengthening of the north/south pedestrian crossing over East Burnside is needed.”

The report also listed several “Recommendations”. One of them specifically addressed Ginsberg’s situation:

2. Explore methods to increase sight distance to an oncoming LRV [light rail vehicle] for pedestrians and bicyclists traveling west along East Burnside. Options for implementation may include: (a) convex mirrors could be installed on existing or new poles; or (b) seek cooperation of ODOT to remove enough of the sound wall along I-205 multi-use path (+/- 50 linear feet) to enable maximum sight distance between the pedestrian walking west along East Burnside and an LRV turning from the I-205 ROW [right of way] onto eastbound East Burnside…

3. Enhance conditions that warn pedestrians and cyclists of an oncoming LRV by considering the addition of active warning devices and channeling devices to the East Burnside westbound sidewalk crossing. These can include a flashing “train” signal, pedestrian gates, railings, or bollards and cable, and creative use of landscaping.

For how tricky this intersection is — it mixes a two-way roadway, multi-use path, crosswalk and MAX tracks — and given its alarming record of collisions, injury crashes, and documented concerns, I’m very surprised more safety-related infrastructure still doesn’t exist. And, judging from your comments and experiences, it remains a dangerous intersection.

I’ve asked TriMet for an update on any actions they’ve taken to improve safety at this intersection and/or any steps made to implement the recommendations found in their 2008 report. I’ve also requested the incident report from Mr. Ginsberg’s collision. I’ll share more from them when I hear something back.

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Comments
  • Chris I April 20, 2012 at 11:43 am

    While I definitely support improvements at this location, I feel that you are doing a disservice by not acknowledging that Mr. Ginsberg had to be crossing against the light and not paying attention while crossing the tracks to collide with a train here.

    Trains are fairly easy to avoid, as they only travel in 2 dimensions (forward and back). While the sight lines at this intersection are sub-par, it is very easy to avoid getting hit by a train even while crossing against the light, due to the slow speed at which they travel here. The signaled crosswalk here is, quite frankly, the safest place to cross the tracks. The sidewalk/bike lane on the north side of the road is much more hazardous, as it has no visual cues to pedestrian and cyclists that a train might be coming. One has to rely on the audible warnings from the adjacent intersection to know whether to proceed or wait for a train to pass by.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 20, 2012 at 11:45 am

      hey Chris I,

      The story includes a quote from Ginsberg himself saying he was at fault.

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      • Chris I April 20, 2012 at 11:54 am

        Ah, I apologize. I did not see that section.

        I’m not sure what else can be done with the crosswalk here. I feel that it is a very safe crossing. You have several visual warnings (clear do not walk signal, look both ways sign, and flashing max logo), audible warning (chiming), and a very clear view of the slowly approaching train:
        http://g.co/maps/gah4k

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        • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm

          We have a lot of very smart engineers in this town who I’m sure could improve this. The first question is… Are we willing to accept the current conditions? If we are then, that’s one story. If we aren’t, then we can find solutions.

          One problem is that the I-205 route uses the southern sidewalk. I think that’s a mistake. Especially now, w/ the buffered bike lane on the overpass, I think PBOT should cut a ramp in the overpass sidewalk on the west side where the path approaches Burnside and direct bike traffic into the street… not on the sidewalk. Whenever bikes are on sidewalks and then must re-enter the roadway, you have problems.

          i don’t know the answers, I just know that this is a safety problem for people who bike and more needs to be done. I’m eager to hear something from TriMet.

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    • beelnite April 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      I was at fault too – two years ago. I was eating an apple and that light used to change pretty quick. It seriously was “orange”. I know everyone says that. Anyway, I was surprised by the train as it came around the blind corner – I was heading West – into PDX. I stopped in time… but did an endo because I was riding with one arm.

      After that incident – I feel – no proof – but I feel like the light might have been timed better and trains are moving slower. I’ve stopped on “yellow” and waited an eternity… safely.

      I’ll take the blame – yeah I was being stupid – eating and riding in “traffic” but I was still surprised and still am wary of those tracks.

      They’ve painted better lines in the last year and added the bike lane buffer on the overpass – helps a little – the real problem for me is the motor vehicles that refuse to give space and are adamant about crossing the tracks at the same time as little two-wheeled me – AND get ticked off if I take the lane to stop that behavior.

      Even with two arms it’s disconcerting. Just another obstacle on the way to work. Experienced now. Not dead.

      Namaste.

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  • Joe Rowe April 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    The more readers who call and demand action the better. Report your call results here:

    (503) 238-RIDE (call 8am-4:30pm)

    ps: I hope Mark talked to a lawyer, as should everyone after any accident. Can’t hurt.

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    • Schrauf April 20, 2012 at 12:22 pm

      HA! Maybe he talks to himself…

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  • grumpcyclist April 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Suggested solution: Don’t ignore the signal.

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  • A.K. April 20, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Joe Rowe
    The more readers who call and demand action the better. Report your call results here:

    (503) 238-RIDE (call 8am-4:30pm)

    ps: I hope Mark talked to a lawyer, as should everyone after any accident. Can’t hurt.
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    Mark *is* a lawyer, so yes I’m sure he has a discussion with himself after the crash! ;)

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  • Schrauf April 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    So are there flashing lights and chimes when a train is approaching, or not? The article implies no, but a commenter implies yes.

    If no, then the crossing seems incredibly unsafe. If yes, and the chimes are loud enough, then it seems adequate, and the entire incident is simply a good reminder of how riding while talking with a partner, or otherwise not paying attention, is pretty damn dangerous. We’ve all been there in some form or another, but reminders are good.

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    • Schrauf April 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      I’m referring to the crosswalk, not the silly ice skating rink (when wet, i.e. 60% of the time) one must cross when traveling westbound.

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    • davemess April 21, 2012 at 10:19 am

      There are definitely no audible signals there, and frankly I don’t really remember any lights. I had a somewhat closer call with a train there a few weeks ago. It is just not a simple 90 degree intersection, you’re going a completely different direction then you have to turn at the corn, while looking for the train, which can very easily blend in with cars, as they are right next to each other.

      it is one of a VERY many poor routing decisions along this supposed “bike path”. Don’t even get me started on the smokers at the transit centers.

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  • GlowBoy April 20, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Why does TriMet refuse to install gates on dangerous pedestrian crossings of MAX tracks? This is universal in Japan, where most pedestrian crossings of train tracks have a cute little gate that comes down when a train approaches, just like the larger gate that cars get.

    You’d think after the dozens of killings committed by MAX trains over the years, TriMet would finally “wise up” (to use their words) and consider installing these in stations and a few tricky intersections like this one. They’re not that expensive.

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    • Chris April 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      In Japan, the gates are down a lot longer than typical gates here in the U.S.

      Also, gates are a lot more dangerous in some circumstances. For example, over by the Fair Complex stop in Hillsboro, there are pedestrian gates off of NE 28th Avenue. The next time you walk through there, imagine your using a wheelchair and you are in-between the gates when they go down. There is no way to get around them and the train is usually going about 35 MPH at that point.

      This is also why vehicle gates only go half way across the road, so that vehicles don’t get trapped.

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  • Joe Rowe April 20, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Mark is not alone. A lot of people make this mistake all over town. It happens when there are two trains going in opposite directions. Your ears hear the one train and associates that noise with only the train you see, and then the other train hits you without warning.

    When I go down the Mississippi hill and cross the Max yellow line I go very slow at the max crossing. That spot at the Interstate station is very risky. It takes a ton of extra attention when there is a train arriving from the South. I always assume 2 trains when I hear one. The brain has to deal with pedestrians, trains, cars and bikes in all both directions. Not to forget the bike wheels on slick footing and all the poles and curbs.

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  • Ben Guernsey April 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    A flashing sign and some of those bells (like when an amtrak train is about to pass) would probably catch everyone’s attention pretty well.

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  • Mike April 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    I’m not an engineer, but I know an unsafe area when I encounter it. The angle on the MAX tracks on the bike lanes, the slick surface, the MUP route encouraging ‘sidewalk salmon’ riding, having the MUP simultaneously cross both an arterial street and 2 curved light rail tracks while riding between to old-style bollards, the appearance of a ‘pedestrian refuge’ that is anything but, etc. Something should be done here.

    In 2001, the city council adopted the Gateway Region Center Urban Renewal Plan and established a district capable of financing up to $164 million dollars of public improvements over 20 years. The plan specifically called out that within the Gateway Regional Center “motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians are regularly confronted with unsafe situations” and directs public investments in infrastructure to be made towards improving this and other goals. To date, 12 years since the plan was adopted, much of this money remains to be spent.

    This crossing is within the Gateway Plan District, including the Gateway Pedestrian District, and the money is definitely there for public infrastructure improvements that enhance pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and safety. It’s not all on TriMet.

    I guess my point is, the funds have been there for years… but the willpower or motivation to get the job done right at this location has been disappointing so far.

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  • Jim Lee April 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Mark Ginsberg is a far better cyclist than I ever was or could have been, but at the end of a long ride on a cold day in January his sensory perception was not working well. So he is right to acknowledge primary responsibility for letting the train intercept him.

    That crossing is obtuse, indeed, which is why I never RIDE across it. Always I WALK my bike across difficult intersections. It is a well proven survival tactic.

    That said, I consider the business of getting the 205 path from east of the highway to the west side to be inherently awkward and dangerous. Why not run it down the east side to the pedestrian bridge at Main, or the low-traffic motor bridge at Market?

    But the most dangerous place is its crossing at Glisan.

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    • art fuldodger April 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      with you on the Glisan crossing. Very bad, especially northbound. The Burnside crossing doesn’t seem bad to me, but that may be because i’m so familiar with it.

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      • art fuldodger April 20, 2012 at 6:17 pm

        but i meant to add that the Burnside westbound crossing of the MAX tracks is really hideous…

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      • Mike April 21, 2012 at 10:45 am

        MUP northbound @ Glisan from google streetview: http://imageshack.us/f/707/glisan.jpg/
        the condition of the bike route sign in the photo is (sadly) kinda comical- but at least back then there actually WAS signage!

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    • J April 20, 2012 at 6:53 pm

      I think the Glisan crossing is bad because so many people are trying to turn right on red. Portland could use a bunch of those blinky “bike” signs on the traffic light to warn people that they’re crossing a bike route. Or just prohibit right on red. There are a lot of places on the 205 route where I feel like this is true especially where the route is on sidewalks (Stark/Washington, Vancouver…)

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  • mark ginsberg April 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    The issue is that you can not see the cross walk signal. As you cross over I205 on the “sidewalk” you are facing east. You are then forced to turn left (north) and that is the first time you can see the crosswalk light. I did not see the light, so I had no warning or indication that there was even a cross walk light until I was in the cross walk. The intersection is confusing to those of us who do not use it regularly.
    To be clear, I do believe I crossed when I did not have the light, that is not the issue. The issue is -Can you even see the light? and Can you even see the train. Trains are big and they make fake noises so we know they are coming, but here, it is over a noisy freeway with very limited sight lines. I didn’t see the train until it was hitting me. It could have been very bad. In all seriousness, I did very nearly loose my life.
    TriMet told me that had some ideas and fixes, but I never saw any. :-(

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  • dwainedibbly April 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    All of the work that Portland does to fix problems like this will create examples for other cities to use to deal with similar issues as they create their infrastructure.

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  • El Biciclero April 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    This intersection looks to be a prime example of why NOT to treat cyclists as pedestrians by guiding them up onto the sidewalk and then across a crosswalk.

    I find the following observation ironic:

    One of the frequent complaints I hear/read from non-cyclists (motorists and pedestrians) is how cyclists like to “cheat” the system and “magically become pedestrians” by shooting up onto the sidewalk when it is convenient to avoid red lights at “T” intersections, to travel the “wrong way” along a one-way street, or for whatever other reason. These complaints usually end with some variation on, “choose what you are going to be: either vehicle or pedestrian–you can’t have it both ways!”

    Yet here is one example (and I have seen many others) where the “official” route for bicyclists takes them up onto a sidewalk in some awkward fashion because it is convenient not for cyclists to avoid some traffic control or other situation, but for engineers to avoid designing a proper route and drivers to avoid expecting cyclists in “their” lanes.

    Seems the shoe is on the other foot in this case: “come on [insert name of roadway-designing entity here], choose how you want cyclists to behave: either as operators of vehicles or as pedestrians–you can’t have it both ways!”

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  • J April 20, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    This is an awful intersection. The comments focus on crossing at the crosswalk. But I am always riding E on Burnside and treat it as a left turn. I actually only recently even noticed the walk/don’t walk signal (I find this location scary and am always focusing on not wrecking– it’s hard to turn left over rails that are also curving and while watching for train and auto traffic– anyway I was not looking up for a signal where I didn’t expect to see one). Anyway, call me stupid or blind, but I think it would be very helpful to have additional warning signals of an oncoming train. Also if bikes aren’t supposed to just turn left (ie. should wait for the ped signal), that should probably be clearly marked in some way– ie. clear to dense folks like me.

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  • J April 20, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Also turning West from the 205 path onto Burnside is equally confusing and scary– I would say it is even worse. I mean if you are continuing on Burnside so you don’t want to cross over to stay on the 205 path.

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  • Hugh Johnson April 20, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Portland can talk all it wants about what a great cycling city it is, but this just illustrates how far off that is. Lots of people who cycle does not necessarily make a city a great place ride. East Portland is a glaring example of the city government’s blindness to anything east of 39th.

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  • Hot Rod April 22, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    “Yeah officer, I didn’t see that train as I rode parallel to it for 200 feet or so.” ROFLMAO!

    This incident will reinforce the opinion many citizens have that cyclists as “not the sharpest tools in the shed”.

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    • El Biciclero April 23, 2012 at 2:26 pm

      You are misinterpreting the description of the incident. Riding Eastbound, following the path across the street via the crosswalk, there is no traveling parallel to the train. The tracks run roughly at 45 degrees to the bike path (which is on the opposite side of the street) for maybe 100 ft, but in a situation such as the one being described, it is most likely that due to different speeds and the necessity of cyclists to negotiate the 90-degree turn across the street, there is no train on that section of the track until a cyclist has at least started across the street.

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