Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on April 19th, 2013 at 11:29 am
but it could be a lot nicer.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)
A City of Portland paving project (yes, they still do them) on NE 28th Avenue has spurred a discussion among local activists about how to improve bike access on a busy segment of the street.
The project will grind down the existing pavement and then repave the 0.2 mile stretch between Burnside and Glisan. This part of NE 28th features a common cross-section for Portland commercial districts: two narrow standard vehicle lanes and parking on both sides of the street. Because 28th makes a direct connection from southeast to northeast Portland and has a bike-friendly bridge over Interstate 84, it also happens to be a popular bike route. However, without any bike-specific infrastructure, riding on NE 28th can be stressful and it's certainly not welcoming for novice riders.
That's why, when word of the repaving project got out this week, some local transportation activists began to wonder: Is now a good time to improve biking conditions on NE 28th? Steve Bozzone, a board member at Oregon Walks and a volunteer with Active Right of Way, shared the PBOT project announcement on the AROW email list and asked others on the list, "Probably a long shot but are there any basic improvements for the restriping we should be looking at?" Bozzone's email spurred over two dozen responses.
When PBOT repaves a street, it's often a golden opportunity to reconfigure and restripe lanes. We have seen this many times in the past: The lanes on N Vancouver were re-striped only after a quick-thinking PBOT staffer spoke up during a paving project; and this also how we got the bike lanes on N. Williams widened.
Many people on the AROW list said the new pavement alone would vastly improve biking conditions. Others suggested now would be a great time for PBOT to install sharrows on the street and/or, "Bicycles in Roadway" signs. Both of those measures would help remind road users that NE 28th is an important route for bicycling and help tamp down common road-sharing tensions. Of course, another solution would be to use the existing parking lane as a traffic lane in order to create room for a protected bikeway.
All of the back-and-forth resulted in at least one formal letter to PBOT. Citizen activist Russ Willis wrote to the project manager urging the use of sharrows.
While this seems like an excellent place to use sharrows — which are intended to reinforce correct roadway positioning for bicycle operators and remind people in cars that people have a right to the lane while bicycling — PBOT has been reluctant to use them in these situations. This is because, instead of using sharrows on high-traffic streets that are too narrow for a bike lane (like NE 28th) as they were originally intended, PBOT compromised back in 2010 when they received a federal grant to place pavement markings on bike boulevards (a.k.a. neighborhood greenways). PBOT hoped to use a new type of marking on bike boulevards, but because they were spending federal funds, they were required to use something that complied with the FHWA's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Sharrows were the only thing that fit that requirement and PBOT used them — even though that type of usage ran directly counter to their own policies. (In 2006, City Bike Coordinator Roger Geller said, "We are placing sharrows only on streets where traffic is relatively heavy, speeds are a little higher, and the streets should be marked with bicycle lanes but cannot be because of demands for on-street parking or the number of travel lanes.")
Back in 2010, PBOT Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield told me, while they'd hoped to use a more creative marking on bike boulevards, "In the context of stimulus funding we weren't going to get it approved within the timeframe unless we did something that was MUTCD compliant... We realized at the time that we probably compromised a little bit. They're maybe not as unique and creative as we would have wanted to do but we didn't want to pass up on that opportunity to get the funding for 2,000 markings."
That compromise has led to something of a conundrum for PBOT: Sharrows are needed on many busy streets around town; but in Portland they've become associated with low-traffic, family-friendly streets and PBOT does not want to send mixed signals to the biking public. (Willis believes PBOT erred in using sharrows on neighborhood greenways and has written about that on his personal blog.)
Getting back to the potential for NE 28th, it seems unlikely PBOT will do anything in the near-term. However, NE 28th is part of the proposed 20s Bikeway project, which won over $2 million in a federal grant back in 2009. PBOT spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck said yesterday that, "What we do on 28th will be decided through a public process and will be funded by the grant." That process is set to start this year. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: Bozzone heard back from PBOT's Roger Geller. Geller said, "It may be that shared lane markings will be the best approach for this stretch of 28th. It may be that we will do something different." And Geller also referenced the upcoming 20s Bikeway project and added, "Regardless, to do something now could preclude our doing something later."