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What you missed at Wonk Night

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 6th, 2012 at 11:30 am

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PBOT staffer Peter Koonce (L) and Metro
Councilor-elect Bob Stacey at Wonk Night.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Last night a solid crowd (about 37 people) showed up for our Wonk Night here on the 4th floor of the Title & Trust Building in downtown Portland. We met in the spacious lobby of Lancaster Engineering (which happens to be adjacent to my office) and enjoyed snacks, drinks, and hearty discussions.

The folks that showed up made just the right mix of officials, planning students, engineers, and citizen activists. Faces in the crowd included: Metro Councilor-elect Bob Stacey; ODOT Region 1 Active Transportation Liaison Jessica Horning; ODOT Region 1 Grant Manager Lidwien Rahman; PBOT Signals, Streetlights, and ITS Division Manager Peter Koonce; Oregon bike tourism advocate and bike journalist Russ Roca; Active Right of Way volunteer and northeast Portland neighborhood activist Ted Beuhler; animation expert Spencer Boomhower; bike advocate John Beaston; Portland Pedicabs owner Ryan Hashagen, and many others.

After giving everyone ample time to chat and meet each other, I shared some thoughts about my recent trip to New York City. I had also laid out some of the materials I picked up at the NACTO Designing Cities conference (which, for this wonky crowd, proved to be quite popular).

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ODOT's Jessica Horning had an apropos sticker on her helmet.
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A big topic of discussion last night was street performance metrics and the shift away from traditional, auto-centric standards. While U.S. transportation engineering practice has always focused on auto speeds and capacity in determining whether or not a street design "works," there's a growing movement among advocates, engineers, and planners that are working to change that. As I reported last month, the NYC DOT is leading the charge on using a new set of metrics to measure street design performance (so is Portland, which I'll get into more later in this post).

I also shared thoughts and answered questions about my general impressions about biking in Brooklyn and Manhattan. We talked about what New York City is doing well, what's not working, and how it compares to bicycling in Portland. (Stay tuned for a separate post about that.)

Getting back to performance measures, Mike Ard and Todd Mobley from Lancaster Engineering gave us an update on the City of Portland's efforts to revise their Level of Service (LOS) standards.

Mike said he (and most other traffic engineers of his generation) was trained as a civil engineer. As such, he was taught how to design structures based on rigid calculations and equations. But designing streets is often, "more art than science," Mike said, and old LOS standards don't give any leeway for new ideas or changing road use trends (like more people biking). "So it's really about changing that mentality of trying to add 2+2=4 and everybody gets the same answer and realizing there might be different answers and that's O.K."

Todd then shared a local example of how the outdated LOS standards impact road design.

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Todd Mobley (L) and Mike Ard of Lancaster Engineering.

Lancaster is doing the traffic engineering around the forthcoming New Seasons in northeast Portland. They've identified the need for a new traffic signal at Broadway and 32nd. It would serve as a crucial north-south biking and walking connection between the Tillamook bike boulevard (to the north) and the future Sullivan's Gulch trail (to the south). However, in order to get approval of the signal, Lancaster would have to show the City that it meets performance standards for the next 20 years. "So for us to do that," Todd explained, "We're better off showing that there aren't any pedestrians or bikes because to the extent they are there, they impede auto traffic and that's the sole metric the performance standard is based on."

Todd said the 32nd/Broadway signal situation is a good example of how engineers have to take the "square peg/round hole approach" to try and make bike-friendly changes that will mesh with the existing performance standards.

The final topic of discussion was right hooks. Portland's problems with preventing them is well-documented and Lancaster's Brian Davis thinks it's time to re-assess whether or not PBOT's designs and implementations are actually working (you can read a blog post he wrote on the topic here). He shared the following slide and asked everyone if it looked familiar...

Right on cue, we all tried to nicely tell Brian his slide had a mistake and that the right-most lane shouldn't have a straight arrow. But Brian's point was that you never see this configuration on standard lanes — yet this is precisely the situation we have with bike lanes that continue straight while adjacent lanes go right. Brian then explained his concerns with several existing bike box locations (including the one at SW 3rd and Madison where Kathryn Rickson died). A heated exchange followed between Brian and PBOT staffer Peter Koonce about the existing designs and what the best options might be for improvements. Several folks spoke up about other things — beyond infrastructure — that we could do to improve the right-hook issue (like better education, equipment requirements, and law changes).

In the end, it became clear that PBOT needs to take another look at some of their green bike box/bike lane implementations. At this point, it seems like the idea of mixing zones at intersections (which PBOT is already doing at NE Multnomah) is the most acceptable/feasible solution.

I really enjoyed the discussions and ideas everyone shared and I hope those of you who were there feel the same way. I find it very valuable to bring smart people together in an informal, unofficial setting to hash out these important issues. We definitely want to host more of these in future. Feel free to recommend discussion topics. Thanks again for coming and thanks to Widmer Bros Brewing/Omission Beer for the sponsorship.

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  • DK December 6, 2012 at 11:59 am

    Indeed...The bikebox color should change. Green means GO!

    Yellow, or "proceed with caution" seems more appropriate. ...Or some other color that's not already defined in our existing traffic control systems.

    Portland is a big enough city to attract folks from out of town. I often wonder what the person with the Arizona (or insert another state) license plates is thinking when they approach one of our green bike boxes. ...I'm no Einstein but the situation is something other than safe to a laymen, like me.

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    • Alan 1.0 December 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      "Or some other color that's not already defined in our existing traffic control systems."

      How about red paving (not paint!), like other countries have used for a decade or more? I've seen it and there's no confusion with other uses of red (tail lights, stop lights, emergency lights...).

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      • A.K. December 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm

        You don't even have to look as far as other countries - Bend has red bike lanes. Not sure if they are painted or colored asphalt.

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      • Craig Harlow December 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm

        I asked about that at a B.A.C. meeting earlier this year, and Roger Geller said that because of federal regulations, green is the only approved color bike lane treatments nationwide.

        Pity, I love those brick-red and terra-cotta colored treatments in some European cities. They're just better looking. They also don't scream, "GREEN!", which I fear is codified for a large segment of our population as "green = ecofriendly = liberal = those pesky speical-interests..." etc. etc.

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        • Alan 1.0 December 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm

          My understanding (AICBW) is that MUTCD status is their interim approval for green bike lanes as of April 2011. That doesn't mean other treatments are prohibited, just that they aren't recognized by MUTCD. Not sure about AASHTO or NACTO. So, Geller is technically correct but also lacking in the will to go outside the existing box. At this point in US bike infrastructure, I don't think it's asking all that much to propose alternate--possibly better, and widely adopted elsewhere--bike lane colors.

          I wonder how PDOT managed to do the lanes in ecru on Multnomah St?

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          • Paul Cone December 7, 2012 at 10:59 am

            The ecru (aka yellow) area on Multnomah is for the buffer zone -- not the actual bike lane, which has no color, except for the crossings, which are n indeed green.

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            • Alan 1.0 December 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm

              oh, right, thanks!

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            • Alan 1.0 December 7, 2012 at 1:13 pm

              ...but still...where is that color designated in MUTCD?

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  • Andrew Seger December 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    I'm curious about the heated exchange re: right hooks. Did people at wonk night think the newfangled light actually works at improving compliance at NE Couch & Grand? For that matter is compliance at any of the "no right on red" marked intersections at an acceptable level?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      We didn't talk much about the new LED thing at Couch/Grand. PBOT guy said they still need to do a study/analysis on it. Not sure about compliance either. After last night, I feel like the tension in general is between people who feel the design is bad/wrong and and others who feel that people just need to behave differently and take more responsibility/caution at intersections.

      We're stuck because much of the advocacy community is demanding separated infrastructure; but PBOT can't afford and/or isn't willing to do the major changes needed to create separation downtown. Lately, it seems the future seems to point to more mixing/sharing and less separation at these tricky intersections. And that's a different stance than I think Portland has taken in the recent past.

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      • Hart Noecker December 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm

        If they aren't willing to make bold changes then they need to be replaced. We don't have time to wait, PBOT's inaction is going to cost more lives. The ultimate goal should be to implement every deterrent possible to driving a car in this city.

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        • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 7, 2012 at 11:57 am

          As ScottB's comment below shows... Activists say PBOT/City Hall should just do the right thing and make bold reforms... But in response, bureaucrats say it's activist's job to create the political conditions to allow the bold moves to happen.

          I see both sides... and solution is somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately neither side is really fulfilling their role and that's where the stalemate comes in.

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      • BURR December 7, 2012 at 1:05 pm

        Jonathan - I don't think the place separation is needed is in the downtown core, where traffic speeds are slow, and there are a lot of turning maneuvers; but rather, on the outlying arterials, by which I mean all of them outside the downtown core, and particularly, for example, all of the significant east-west and north-south arterials on the inner east side. Even in these cases, however, as with SE Couch and Grand, there really needs to be a solution to the right hook problem.

        As an example, IMO, the decision in the Division Streetscape plan, being implemented right now, to put curb extensions and curb-side parking on Division from SE 11th to SE 26th instead of using the existing 'pro-time' lanes for separated bike facilities was a very, very poor decision.

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    • Greg December 7, 2012 at 12:45 am

      As someone who regularly commutes through NE Couch & Grand (and initially thought the new sign was lipstick on a pig), I think it does raise awareness and is effective. Of course, this is completely anecdotal. Pre signal change, I used to see a very close call (screeching car, swerving bike tires) about once every two months. I haven't seen that since the change went in.

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  • benschon December 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Wonk on, wonkers!

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  • dwainedibbly December 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I'm less worried about separated infrastructure downtown than in other areas. Downtown speeds are slower, etc. If there isn't room for proper separated infrastructure, then we should encourage bicyclists to mix with traffic (with exceptions where there are one-way streets going uphill) and we should encourage motor vehicle operators to expect that mix. It might have saved Ms Rickson.

    My late step-father was a retired traffic engineer for a midwestern city about the size of Portland. In his day (1970s, mostly), he did some very inventive work with electronic signs, etc. Still, I bet he would have some trouble wrapping his mind around the LOS changes that are coming. One needs to be more than a traffic engineer to "get it". It takes an understanding of new urbanism. Reading Mia Birk's book, I could imagine my step-father in the place of the people that she (and others) had to convince to get changes made. I'm not sure he would have been easy to work with. For traffic engineers it really is a paradigm shift and I salute the open-minded ones who are on our side. It isn't easy.

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  • Jim Lee December 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    The $150 million wasted, courtesy of Michael Powell, Charlie Hales, Earl Blumenauer. Rick Gustafson, Chris Smith, et. al., on the eastside streetcar boondoggle would have bought mucho separated bike infrastructure throughout out fair city.

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    • Greg December 7, 2012 at 12:47 am

      Why do you think it is a boondoggle?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 7, 2012 at 11:59 am

      that's a good point. Not that those projects are boondoggles.. i'll reserve judgment on that for now.. But that they are extremely expensive and I don't think we've had an honest public debate about whether or not they should be given so much priority over other needs. The good news is now, mostly because money has dried up so much, the era of those big rail projects is over.

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  • KC December 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Nice write-up, thanks Jonathan. When is the next Wonk Night?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm

      Thanks KC. We'll do one in January. Stay tuned for the date. In the meantime, we'll be thinking about topics. already have some suggestions/ideas but feel free to share and contact me with ideas. Cheers.

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  • ScottB December 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Hart Noecker
    If they aren't willing to make bold changes then they need to be replaced. We don't have time to wait, PBOT's inaction is going to cost more lives. The ultimate goal should be to implement every deterrent possible to driving a car in this city.

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    You mistakenly blame the line staff for political choices. Elect the right representatives to prioritize the spending the 'right' way.

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    • BURR December 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm

      You mistakenly blame the line staff for political choices. Elect the right representatives to prioritize the spending the 'right' way.

      That may very well be, but if the line staff you have to work with are all classically trained civil engineers who insist on doing things 'by the book' and there's no creative thinking applied (along with a large dose of good judgement regarding non-motorized safety issues), you're still stuck.

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  • Ray Thomas December 7, 2012 at 8:20 am

    Nice story and sorry I missed this presentation as I am wanting to hear more about the NYC stuff you learned. I am also interested in what "legal changes" they discussed for the right hook. I think that diagram of the two side by side right turn arrows tells it all. I know drivers need to do shoulder checks and use mirrors but I wonder if any engineering study or statistical study has ever been conducted to compare the real world performance of the "California Rule" (turn right from on top of the bike lane) to the Oregon rule of staying off bike lane to turn right? I am not trying to provoke anyone or necessarily revisit the whole California Rule thing but I am curious to hear about any improvements that could be made to the law of right turns to improve safety on the street.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 7, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      we talked mostly about the "if bike lane is present you must use it" law. There remains confusion in the community over how iron-clad this law is and when it would be likely to be applied by the police. We need to get rid of that law altogether to avoid this confusion. And yes, I do see the California-style law (where vehicles merge PRIOR to intersection instead of AT the intersection) possibly coming more into favor in Oregon.

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      • BURR December 7, 2012 at 1:12 pm

        + 1x106 on repeal of the mandatory bike lane use statue.

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  • John Landolfe December 7, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Couldn't make this one due to a scheduling conflict but I'd be enthused to make one in the future. Two related topics I'd like to see discussed more in wonky fashion are theft prevention and end-of-trip facilities. Both topics are hugely important to the rider experience but tend to be treated as outside the public sphere (that is, the responsibility of individuals and their homes or employers). Perhaps there's some community solutions here and I'd like to hear what the wonks think.

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