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With Blumenauer in his corner, Novick pressures ODOT for changes on Barbur

Posted by on November 9th, 2015 at 4:38 pm

southbound barbur street view
Almost half of southbound rush-hour traffic on Barbur turns right here. Converting the right lane to exit-only could boost driver safety on Barbur while making room for continuous bike lanes to the south.
(Image: Google Street View)

Consensus seems to be building around a new concept that could finally create continuous bike lanes on state-run Barbur Boulevard.

And now, support for changes to a notoriously dangerous section of Barbur have a new ally: U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

“I look forward to seeing these much needed and long awaited safety improvements in the very near future.”
— Earl Blumenauer, U.S. Congressman

In a letter Monday (PDF) to the Oregon Department of Transportation, Portland Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick made the case for converting a southbound lane of Barbur to an exit-only lane in order to free up road space just to the south to add buffered bike lanes across two narrow bridges.

If ODOT agrees, Novick wrote, he was “hopeful” that restriping could happen in 2016.

Novick sent his letter to ODOT Region 1 Manager Rian Windsheimer and attached a letter from Blumenauer. Blumenauer’s letter was addressed to ODOT Director Matt Garrett and cc’d to Karmen Fore, Governor Kate Brown’s transportation policy chief.

“This report makes it clear,” Blumenauer writes, referring to a recent safety audit conducted by ODOT. “Barbur Blvd needs significant safety investments, and there are actions that can be taken in the next few months to address some of the critical improvements that will save lives and are long-awaited by the community and my constituents.”

It’s rare for a congressman to weigh in on a local transportation issue, but as someone who used to hold Novick’s job as city transportation commissioner, Blumenauer is no stranger to these waters.

Last month, the ODOT-commissioned safety audit found that almost half of southbound traffic on Barbur already turns right at Capitol Highway. Officially converting the rightmost lane to a right-turn-only lane “should have minimal impacts,” said Novick, whose personal car commute to City Hall happens to run along Capitol Highway and Barbur.

“This lane removal could be as short as 2,900 feet, just long enough for people walking and biking to cross the two bridges safely,” Novick said.

The problem with the two bridges is that Barbur’s bike lanes disappear, forcing bike and car traffic to merge into the same 45 mph lane. It’s the only relatively flat bike route between Southwest Portland and the rest of the city.

Novick also, for the first time, endorsed a change to make Barbur safer to drive on and its bike lane more comfortable: narrowing the general travel lanes from 11.5 and 12.5 feet to 11 feet in order to add a two-foot buffer between bike and auto traffic throughout.

Based on conversations with constituents, advocates, neighbors and City staff, the City of Portland strongly supports 11-foot wide travel lanes throughout the corridor as well as a two-foot buffer for bike lanes. Numerous studies have highlighted the ability of narrow travel lanes to reduce motor vehicle speeds, and thereby improve safety.

That 11 feet is wider than the national minimum standard of 10 feet for lanes on a higher-speed urban arterial. TriMet buses and most trucks are 10.5 feet wide, mirror to mirror.

And Blumenauer has Novick’s back 100 percent, saying in his letter that he supports the removal of one southbound lane and narrowing of existing lanes to make room for “protected bikeways.”

Unlike the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Novick didn’t call for physically protected bike lanes and sidewalks to be installed right away. But he did say that they’re an important longer-term goal: “Two-foot buffers will have an immediate safety benefit, but roadways like Barbur need protected bicycle facilities and sidewalks to encourage their full use.”

In his letter, Novick also offers a useful analogy from ODOT’s own playbook.

I believe removing the southbound lane over the Newbury and Vermont bridges is in the same spirit as the recent change ODOT made on the last mile of I-84 in which two lanes were dedicated toward I-5 south as opposed to I-5 north. This change had safety improvements and was generally not noticed by road users because it reflected the natural flow of traffic.

As someone who regularly drives on this mile of 84, I can certainly attest to loving this restriping — it makes it much easier for people driving west to avoid last-minute lane changes when I-84 meets I-5, which I’m sure reduces crash rates.

If a similar common-sense restriping could also add continuous bike lanes to Barbur, it’s hard to see what’s standing in the way of Novick’s proposed 2016 timeline — especially now that Blumenauer is pushing in the same direction.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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  • Gerik November 9, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Great move by Commissioner Novick and Congressman Blumenauer. I’m looking forward to helping make these bridges safe as soon as possible!

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  • Adam Herstein November 9, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Painted buffers are not enough protection. If this project were to go in as proposed, it would need a clear timeline for upgrading to physically protected, not just “some time in the future”. We are all aware of how often “longer-term goals” in this city get scrapped entirely.

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    • Scott November 9, 2015 at 5:41 pm

      Of course, but it’s a good start. This is probably the first tangible movement on the issue than I’ve seen since December 2004.

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    • Gary B November 9, 2015 at 5:41 pm

      Barbur is unlikely to be a neighborhood route for kids to ride on in the short or medium term. This plan is cheap and gives the riders that will actually use it a huge improvement over current. It’d be foolish to spend big money on protected lanes here when that money would have a far greater benefit elsewhere.

      The Southwest Corridor and Red Electric Trail will, hopefully, make this just a temporary fix.

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      • Dave November 10, 2015 at 8:35 am

        Good thought–look at the road and think of who the most likely users are; Barbur ain’t going to be an “8 to 80” road in this lifetime!

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      • Eric Leifsdad November 13, 2015 at 6:56 pm

        SW Corridor project is unlikely to do much more than paint bike lanes. The entire thing is being planned with a vision of 10 years ago.

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  • J_R November 9, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    This recommendation appears to provide some improvements (bike lanes across the narrow bridges), but it leaves me worried about some other areas.

    I’d be especially concerned about the transition where the right-most southbound motor vehicle lane becomes a right-turn lane and the bike lane transitions from the right shoulder to the left side of the right-turn-only lane. I know it’s done all over town on 25 mph roads and even some at 30 and 35. Barbur may be posted for 35 in this area, but I regularly observe motor vehicle speeds far in excess of this.

    Having to transition on my bike across this high-speed, high-volume right turn lane would scare me. Do people envision a transition like eastbound on the Hawthorne Bridge viaduct? Or maybe like southbound Naito near Morrison? Or maybe something better?

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    • Nick November 9, 2015 at 6:35 pm

      Completely agree. This also worries me. As somewho who has to cross 2 lanes of Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy twice every day to make a left-turn, I fear a bike transition on Barbur (with similar auto travel speeds) has the potential to be very dangerous.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) November 9, 2015 at 7:59 pm

      Yeah, I had the same thought. I explored this a little in our previous post about the possibility of a southbound exit lane. Depending on various factors including the amount of money ODOT would want to spend, it might be possible to create a little mini-intersection here that would have better sight lines. See the final section in that post.

      Here’s the thing, though: whatever the setup is at that offramp, it’s not going to be any worse than the current setup, which also creates a harrowing acute right-turn ramp across a bike lane. Personally, I feel less safe crossing this offramp this than I do taking the lane across the bridges.

      If the right lane becomes exit-only, even the worst-case scenario is still better than the status quo, because at least I know that every car in the right lane is almost certainly going to turn right. Right now I might glance back, see that they’re not signaling for a right turn, continue straight and get clobbered because whoops, they couldn’t be bothered to signal.

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      • SD November 10, 2015 at 10:36 am

        The worst case scenario would be that more cars believe that they have the right of way because it is a dedicated right-turn lane. The drivers may not even realize that the bike lane continues south. If this goes in it should include clear signs and visual cues indicating that south-bound cyclists have the right of way.

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        • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
          Michael Andersen (News Editor) November 10, 2015 at 11:53 am

          Good point. I don’t know the behavioral science of this situation and would love to see data on it.

          I guess my perspective on this is informed by the fact that I always yield to potentially right-turning traffic here already, right of way be damned. If I were commuting on Barbur during rush hour I might not do this.

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          • Eric Leifsdad November 13, 2015 at 7:35 pm

            If there’s a gap in traffic before, take the left side of the lane and let cars turn to the right of you. This also puts you in a visible position for anybody coming from behind the right-turn traffic and you need to be in that position before the bridge. If there’s no gap, signal left until you get one or possibly signal left while crossing the off-ramp. Stop if you must, but please don’t yield. The traffic is visible for a long ways before this, so you could also adjust your speed minimize conflict.

            I think a dedicated right-turn could be much more manageable than an offramp across the bike lane with the right treatment, even just a yield sign. With the straight-through lane, you can’t get signage or the crossing into a visible spot.

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  • dwk November 9, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    The main safety fix for Barbur is not the bridges (although this fix would be nice), the most dangerous part of a Barbur commute is the exit to get to Naitto.

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    • Swan Island Runner November 9, 2015 at 10:28 pm

      I agree that Naito exit crossing is scary if you aren’t willing to stop, but it sets you up for a good look at the traffic and I’ve never waited more than a minute to wait for a completely safe gap to go across. That’s no longer of a wait than being stopped by the pedestrian red light crossing a little further north at Barber and Hooker that I seem to get stopped at EVERY time.

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    • VTRC November 10, 2015 at 9:39 am

      That and the Capitol Highway exit going Southbound. /shudder

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  • matti November 9, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    Traffic engineers wanting to prioritize the flow of vehicles onto Capitol may hate this idea, but that spot could be treated as a signalized intersection: generally, it would be green for vehicular right turns, but if a bike is present, it would signal a vehicular red and a bike green. This is analogous to the Broadway Bridge westbound. There is plenty of length for vehicles to queue, and just up the hill at Terwilliger there is another signalized intersection, so it is not as if signals aren’t already limiting traffic flow.

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    • Robert Burchett November 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

      Interesting idea, but the current generation of People Who Design Traffic Signals will give you an awkward bike turn, priority to cars, and a mandated long wait for bikes. That is, you will rarely get a (legal) free run across the intersection. Bike signal=beg button, or full stop over a loop, and a 45 count for the cycle.

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  • Swan Island Runner November 9, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    The additional width/buffer on the bike lanes would be nice. I ride out of the apartment complex part way up the Barber hill on the east side. It is a bit curved there and no matter how I try and look, I can’t see more than 50-75 yards up the hill, which always worries me about pulling out in front of a downhill bike lane rider. I hug to the right of the lane, but a wider bike lane would be nice for that unseen rider to safely pass me if I don’t get going quickly enough.

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  • GlowBoy November 10, 2015 at 6:32 am

    Although it would still be far from ideal for kids or I&C riders, this change would be enough to make me willing to ride Barbur again, even in winter.

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  • Kevin Wagoner November 10, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Blumenauer for Mayor! He could have a lot of impact here at home.

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  • A. J. Zelada
    A. J. Zelada November 10, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Make Barbur Blvd the first electric bikeway in the nation with electric charge stations at every shopping block, grocery, restaurant and barista.

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  • Mark November 10, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Cut it down to one lane each directions with protected bike/ped lanes. Seems simple to me. The rest of the state gets one lane highways everywhere. Why should Portland be special? Lower traffic volume and speed…and all of the sudden the road lasts longer. Win…win.

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  • spencer November 10, 2015 at 10:53 am

    It is asinine that this even needs debate, or that we need heavy hitters to push it through, when ODOT’s study shows zero impact to freight, transit, and drive times while safety can be improved. Its a win all around.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson November 10, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Note that north of Capitol Hwy Barbur has 5 lanes, 3 northbound; so there is extra capacity for even better bike facilities from Naito to Capitol Hwy.
    Will be interesting to see how light rail or BRT will be engineered into this stretch, when the day comes.

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  • Mark November 10, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    When the say comes…I can’t wait to hear Lars Larson rant on.

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  • Kevin Wagoner November 11, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    I am excited about this article. Any improvement on Barbur is great.

    But am I off base here?

    Too passive. Our leaders are too passive.

    *ODOT’s top priority is safety.
    *Barbur is a high crash corridor.
    *Fact, slower speeds give more reaction time.
    *Fact, slower speeds create shorter stopping distances.
    *Fact, slower speeds result in less carnage.

    ODOT could lower the speed limit tomorrow. There is no reason to wait. If they won’t do it the Governor could intervene to lower the speed limit or change out ODOT leadership to someone that doesn’t except a high crash corridor as a norm of life.

    Maybe you have seen this recently?

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