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Citizen activists work to fix narrow bike lanes on Interstate Ave

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on January 10th, 2014 at 1:27 pm

Bike lane Interstate Ave-1-1
This substandard, narrow bike lane on Interstate Avenue at Larrabee is on a major bike route. In Portland. Thankfully there's an effort afoot to make it better.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

Nearly everyone has a scary story about the narrow bike lane on North Interstate Avenue where it goes under the Larrabee Street overpass (map). Riding a bike on Interstate Avenue is stressful enough in the "good" spots, but at Larrabee, the bike lane suddenly shrinks to a harrowing width of about two-and-a-half feet. That's not much room to operate when a huge semi-truck barrels by a few inches from your shoulders as a storm drain grate gives you and your bike a jolt.

Here's another angle...

Bike lane Interstate Ave-2-1

And the Streetview...

Now a few citizen activists are working to improve the bikeways in this area and apply pressure to the City of Portland do something about it.

Portlander Blake Goud is very concerned about this location and has spent several months raising awareness and support for some fixes. In a comment to our story in October of last year about how to take action on transportation safety issues, Goud wrote:

What about safety issues that aren't in a "neighborhood" like Interstate between N Tillamook and N Larabee where there is a narrowed bike lane under the bridge with a grate at a point where double-long cement truck roll through with regularity?

That post led to a thread that ultimately connected him to transportation activism guru (and the inspiration of that story) Ted Buehler. In the following months, Goud got to work by taking a BTA advocacy training course and then sharing his concerns with several nearby neighborhood groups. Meanwhile, in late December, Buehler organized a work party through the Active Right of Way (AROW) email list to measure and document the bike lane conditions on Interstate near Larrabee.

In an email to the AROW list after the "measuring party", Buehler reported that, "We found the skinniest spot to be southbound under the Larrabee overpass, where the driving lane is 10' 4" and the bike lane is 2' 7"."

Buehler, explaining the finer points of streetcar
track widths, during a DIY activism bike ride in 2010.

Buehler, who has memorized many state and city bikeway design guidelines and carries around an engineer's toolset in his pannier, pointed out that the minimum width for a bike lane is four or five feet (depending on context). "So, not surprisingly," he wrote in his email, "that's not a legal bike lane under the bridge."

It's worth noting that we've pointed out this terrible bike lane in the past. In December 2012 we shared the outrage that ensued when Portland Parks & Recreation proposed an alignment for the North Portland Greenway that would put people on this section of Interstate. Then, in August 2013 we used this bike lane as an example in a comparison of how bikeways are at overpasses are typically handled in the U.S. versus the Netherlands.

With the problem clearly documented and the collective wisdom of the community at the ready, Buehler and Goud have come up with a proposed course of action that includes requests for short and long-term improvements for the bike lane where it passes under both the Larrabee and Broadway bridges. And according to Buehler, they've already made some progress.

For now, they're just asking for paint and signs which are low-cost and don't require any design or engineering. In the northbound direction (which is also narrow, but isn't as sketchy as the southbound direction) under the Broadway Bridge, Buehler says he's already working with PBOT to add new striping that would widen the bike lane to four or five feet.

In the southbound direction, Buehler and Goud are proposing signage that states "Road Narrows" and "Bikes May Use Full Lane". Since there are jarring bumps and storm drain grates in the already narrow southbound bike lanes, many people simply swerve into the adjacent lane.

Interstate Ave -6
View looking south where Interstate goes under Larrabee.

Other ideas for the future include installing concrete barriers and reorganizing the lanes south of Tillamook to improve the safety of a bike/car mixing zone, changing the width of lanes on the Larrabee exit and on Interstate in order to add some buffers to the bike lanes and narrow the standard lanes. In the long-term, Buehler would love to see a new multi-use path to replace the sidewalk and bike lane in the northbound direction and in the southbound direction, create a new "bike lane bypass" that would take riders to the right of the bridge pillars to completely avoid the dangerous pinch-point that exists today.

Goud has also drafted a letter he plans to send to Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick and PBOT Director Leah Treat that outlines his concerns and offers solutions.

"This has been a part of my commute for probably five out of the seven years I have been riding year-round," Goud shared with us via email a few days ago, "and it has been a constant point of frustration." Goud added that he's will to take the long view and be patient with the City, but he plans on being persistent until the issues are addressed.

This effort has just started; but we hope to have more progress to share with you in the weeks and months to come.

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Comments
  • Steve B January 10, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Nice work Blake & Ted!

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • Paul in the 'Couve January 10, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Thank You Blake Gould and Ted Beuhler!!

    I ride there fairly regularly. I hate it. Another aspect not mentioned in the article is driver behavior - besides the speed (which I won't comment on to deprive Wsbob of his current favorite bailiwick) . I have noticed that a fair number of drivers naturally drift rightward and hug the fog line even in wide lanes. Here on Interstate Ave with the curb on the left for the MAX right of way, I notice most cars driving very close to or on the fog line. It is extremely frustrating as a cyclist to be buzzed with 6" passing of cars when they have 3 or 4 feet on the opposite side. I theorize that the fact that they can actually SEE cyclists leads them to be less afraid of hitting us than the curb. Because they can't see exactly where the curb is in relation to their tires, they err on the side of just missing the obstacle they can keep an eye on. I notice this especially at night.

    I have tried taking the lane when traffic is low since I usually ride through there in the evening. However, what I have found that is unless I just hold the lane, I make it worse. When I move over after a car has approached me from behind, too many of them seem to deliberately buzz me out of retribution for my making them actually slow down before passing me.

    This should be improved to make a good cycling connection. It a very logical and direct route to follow that really would be pretty safe since there isn't much cross traffic and local drive ways, if it just had a decent bike lane.

    Recommended Thumb up 16

    • MaxD January 10, 2014 at 2:16 pm

      Paul in the 'COuve,
      I totally agree with about speeds and car/lane postion being a problem on Interstate Ave. I believe that if the City striped a consistent MOTOR VEHICLE lane (instead of striping the bike lane) at 10.5 or 11 feet wide, cars could do a better job of staying in their lane and perhaps drive a bit slower as a result. PBOT could monitor the painted lines, and in places where they wear the quickest, they could restripe and add some plastic candlesticks to drive the point home a bit. Striping the motor vehicle lane would have the added benefit of revealing to motorists and cyclists the points along the route where there is no buffer, and where the bike and motorist lanes actually overlap! One of the scariest moments of my life was riding under the Larrabee overpass with my daughter in the sidecar. I was new to town and did know how crazy narrow the bike lane when half of just disappears without warning. A big old (rear-engine) City bus overtook us at his pinch point and it was so close I nearly lost control of the bike. This spot NEEDS warnings, at least.

      Additionally, a very effective, low-cost option could be to close N Interstate Ave to motorists between Tillamook and Larrabee (they could use the Larrabee Viaduct to access Broadway, I-5, or get back to Interstate Ave). That stretch of Road could be a 2-way MUP, and in the future could extend south along the Thunderbird property to the Esplanade and North it could head down TIllamook, to River street and continue along the Cement Rd. The City has already made the case that using the viaduct is not out of the way or inconvenient for cyclists, so it should be much of a stretch to let the cars, trucks and buses have it!

      Recommended Thumb up 9

      • dr2chase January 10, 2014 at 5:45 pm

        Seems like you could kill two birds with one stone if the bike lane were actually raised, and cars/trucks given the minimum necessary space for their tires. Standard semi-trailers are 8.5 feet wide; give them 9.5, and not only will it be clear where the bike lane is, they'll also drive a lot slower. For bonus effect, use sharp-edged granite for a curb edge, like they do here in New England. And with slower traffic and the curbs to guide wheels, it should be possible to dispense with the guide/guard rail, and gain a few more inches for the bikes.

        Recommended Thumb up 5

      • Blake January 13, 2014 at 2:42 pm

        One issue with closing the Interstate section would be the weight limit on the viaduct itself, which is 20 tons for shorter trucks, 25 tons for 18-wheelers and 22 tons for the double-long trailers.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Dan January 10, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    I bike through this section just about every weekday. It's not great, especially at the pinch point under the bridge, and even worse when there's a truck joining you at that narrowest spot. It's hard for me to imagine a infrastructure change happening here that would eliminate the problem of the narrow bike lane, but I applaud those activists for pursuing their vision. I like the idea of the bike lane bypass.

    I will say that I have plenty of experience driving through this area too, since the days I'm not biking I am generally driving my pickup south on interstate, and from the driver's perspective, the lane feels much too narrow. I do whatever I can not to overtake cyclists under the bridge. All in all, I think I feel more comfortable when I'm biking through here than when I'm driving. It's very useful to see what a road looks like from behind the wheel sometimes.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • John Liu January 10, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    I wonder if placing plastic bollards (the thin, flexible ones) on the stripe separating bike lane from auto lane would help. They would give drivers a visual cue that they are getting too close to the right edge of their lane. Most drivers don't want those slapping their paint. If spaced widely enough (ten feet?) they would not prevent cyclists from moving between auto and bike lanes.

    Rumble strips on the right-most foot or two of the auto lane would similarly alert drivers that they are encroaching. Interrupt them at intervals to allow bikes to cross.

    The areas where the stripe is worn away show that cars/trucks encroach on the bike lane quite regularly.

    It would be great to also find a way to discourage excessive auto/truck speed on that road, or at least where the road beomes particularly narrow. Speed displays? Speed bumps/dips?

    "Taking the lane" there is pretty dicey, in my opinion.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

    • MaxD January 10, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      John,
      I completely agree about taking the lane. I have attempted many times but I have many terrible reactions including tailgating, horn blasting, and just driving around me forcing me back into the bike lane. I have made 5 request for commute-time patrols to catch speeders, distracted drivers, and aggressive drivers, but I have never seen a patrol car on N Interstate (I ride each direction once a day minimum). I try to be as careful as I can, but there is only so much you can do with substandard infrastructure and zero enforcement.

      Recommended Thumb up 12

    • Blake January 13, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      The problem with bollards would be it restricts people on bikes from taking the lane where it is needed and I don't know if a bike would fit through the space between the grate and the bollards at the very narrowest section. Personally, I don't ride on the grates because they are sunken and I worry that riding on them every day will greatly increase the likelihood of a crash.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

  • pdx2wheeler January 10, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you Blake and Ted. I ride this route everyday and greatly appreciate your efforts!!

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Todd Hudson January 10, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    That spot is cursed. It was right there, while running the Portland Marathon, I got the worst leg cramp I've ever experienced.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Lenny Anderson January 10, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    The bike lanes on Interstate have a checkered past. Back in 1999, after the defeat of the South/North light rail bond issue, the City decided to go ahead with a lower cost version of the Interstate section of MAX.
    Trans. Commissioner Hales organized a Interstate Bike Lane TF when PDC asked that they be removed from select stations. I was a member (as was C. Ciarlo, then head of the BTA). Some members of the TF wanted the lanes removed from Overlook Blvd. north; we pushed back but did agree...a decision I regret...on their removal north of Willamette Blvd. The idea was that the "thru bike route" would shift west there via Willamette to Denver Avenue and north to Kenton. We did get them restored north of Dekum, so that just Killingsworth Station and Rose Parks Station have no lanes, so that on street parking could be retained. I was very unhappy when New Seasons put a parking lot in from of the Arbor Lodge store.
    We all knew the lanes under Larrabee and Broadway were totally substandard, but the rebuilding of those two structures would have been so costly that it did not ever come up! The overall design of all travel lanes on Interstate is very poor, with lots of asphalt on which one cannot drive, walk, park, bike or anything else. It could have been a lot greener! But that is another subject.
    As a board member of npGreenway I am a strong advocate of the WGT using the Flyover (bi-directional) to connect to the Broadway Bridge and then return to Interstate north of the Bridge. There still needs to be a fix as Ted, et.al. have demonstrated, and the one that makes sense is a structure to take southbound bikes around the bridge pillars. Again its the money!

    Recommended Thumb up 10

    • MaxD January 10, 2014 at 4:34 pm

      Thanks for the interesting backstory, Lenny! As I ride and drive Interstate southbound, I have come to understand that the Larrabee Viaduct and Interstate Ave are redundant. Instead of squeezing mor vehicles and cylcists on both, why not just separate the uses. These are the options:
      1. The viaduct becomes bike-only, motorists wanting to access Broadway and I-5 use the existing signal at Larrabee south of the Broadway Bridge. The Viaduct itself could get "park treatment" to make some cool overlooks. A new ramp down to Interstate, would meet grade, and head around the west side of the brodway bridge column.
      2. Interstate Ave is close to motor vehicles between Tillamook and Larrabee. Motorists would all use the the ramp/viaduct to access Broadway, I-5, or return to Interstate ave at the Larrabee Signal. This stretch of road would become a 2-way MUP for bikes and ped. Some overlooks with tables/ benches could be added. The MUP (NP GREENWAY) would head west to the top of the river bank just south of the brodway bridge column and continue along to the Steel. I think this path could easily (with a bit of cash) slide under the Steel Bridge, above the RR access road, and connect directly to the esplanade!

      voila!

      Recommended Thumb up 8

    • Blake January 13, 2014 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for the history on the bike lanes in that section of Interstate.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • dwainedibbly January 10, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks Blake & Ted!

    Jonathan: that lead photo scared the daylights out of me.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • spare_wheel January 11, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Riding in the bike lane at this bottle neck is far more dangerous than taking the lane. A temporary fix would be to create a mixing area signaled by flashing lights with speed mitigation mediated by signage and rumble strips.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

    • dr2chase January 11, 2014 at 10:03 am

      Maybe giant massive swinging gates that would narrow the road to only a comfortable bicycle width, and only open wide a few seconds after the bicycle had passed through them. (I can dream, can't I?)

      Recommended Thumb up 1

      • Paul in the 'couve January 11, 2014 at 3:16 pm

        If we are dreaming, I want to ramp up onto an elevated cycle track above the MAX line at the bottom of Interstate and at Mississippi ...

        Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Ted Buehler January 11, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for the article, Jonathan.

    If you all want to turn up the heat on this, send an email to safe@portlandoregon.gov.

    You may get a response that an engineer looked at it and deemed it okay.

    You can read it, and send a appropriate reply (to safe@... again) with your personal observations as to whether the decision to do nothing is justified.

    Ted Buehler

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Ted Buehler January 11, 2014 at 11:10 am

    And, ask for *signage* stating that the bike lane ends. Other requests they can put off for forever because of funding issues. Signage is a band-aid, but it could be put up immediately, and save someone's life.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

    • dr2chase January 11, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      And ask for specific signage. Not just "bike lane ends" but "bike lane ends,
      do not pass bicycles in lane". It's not safe. It should not be on the head of the cyclist to take the lane to indicate that they think that it's not safe, it should simply be stated that it is not safe and a consequence is that passing bicycles is illegal.

      Recommended Thumb up 8

    • spare_wheel January 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      The signage should also explicitly state that motorists should yield to cyclists.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • LILA January 11, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    I agree that signage needs to be explicit that cyclists have right to the full lane in these kinds of situations. "Bike lane ends" -- I think a lot of motorists think that means bicycles will not/should not be on the road past that point. Similarly, "share the road" can mean to drivers that the bicycle should move over and let them by.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Mike Flynn January 12, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you for your efforts - It's time someone take (proper) stand.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • o/o January 12, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    is there any possible to move lane around the outside columns? I dont go there often.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Blake January 13, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      I think that would be the ideal long-term solution, but it is likely to be costly.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

    • MaxD January 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm

      Until there is money to build a wall to hold up a path outside the columns (or move the column farther out), Interstate could be closed to motor vehicles and routed up the Larrabee Ramp just south of TIllamook. This would not cost very much at all, it would only require some signage, paint and traffic diverters.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Barbara Kilts January 19, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Like mentioned above, a flashing warning sign saying 'Road Narrows, Yield to Bicycles'. Since cyclists are going downhill at a higher speed, it would not cause motorists to have to overly slow, just would let things flow smoother... What is the speed limit at that point?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

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