Portland’s first cycle track proposed for Cully

A cross-section detail of proposed design of NE Cully Street shows 8 1/2-foot wide cycle-track. Note: Not shown is a wide pedestrian walkway. See below for fully cross-section.

Nearly two years ago, we wondered whether it was time to try physically separated bike lanes. Now, the City of Portland is poised to build its first-ever, Copenhagen-style traffic lane for bicycles — otherwise known as a cycle track.

The cycle track is part of the Cully Boulevard Improvement Project, a multi-agency, $5.4 million project that will completely rebuild NE Cully Blvd. from NE Prescott to NE Killingsworth Streets.

This Street View of Cully shows a largely
unimproved road with no sidewalks
or safety features.

Working from a clean slate, PDOT has recognized that this major road project is a rare opportunity to create a world-class bicycle facility from the ground up.

This morning I learned more about the project from Rob Burchfield, PDOT’s head traffic engineer.

He explained that there’s been a lot of interest in cycle tracks from within Portland’s planning and bike advocacy community, but that questions remained about how to implement them. The Cully project, he says, offers a unique opportunity because it’s, “a complete street reconstruction, something we rarely do.”

A delegation of Portlanders ride on a
cycle track in Copenhagen last month.
(Photo: Jay Graves)

With a clean slate to work with, and a very wide right-of-way, Burchfield has seized on this opportunity to build, what he calls, “a bike facility to a European standard.”

Burchfield said he and his team initially looked at bike lanes on Vassar Street on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those facilities put bike traffic on a wide sidewalk and use texture and colors to try and separate bikes and pedestrians.

The Vassar example has been criticized for not doing enough to separate bike and pedestrian traffic and Burchfield said a citizen committee working on the Cully project also had reservations about mixing the two modes.

It was at this point in the project when Burchfield urged everyone to abandon the Vassar design and embrace a Copenhagen-style cycle track. On Copenhagen cycle tracks, bikes and pedestrians have both vertical (trees or other median) and horizontal separation (at a different height from other traffic).

The current design for Cully has the motor vehicle roadway, then a 3-inch curb up to the cycle-track, then another 3-inch curb up to a planter median and pedestrian sidewalk.

Complete cross-section. (Click to enlarge)

When Burchfield first pushed for the Copenhagen-style design, he hadn’t yet visited the city. That changed in October when he was part of a delegation that visited Amsterdam and Copenhagen to learn and see first hand how the best bike city in the world designs its roadways.

That trip, according to Burchfield, “strongly validated the direction we were going.”

So, how does it work? What will people on bikes experience on this new cycle track?

A separated bikeway in Montreal, similar
to what’s proposed on Cully.
Photo: joelmann/Flickr)

Burchfield says the cycle track would be constructed from concrete, smoother than a sidewalk, and longer lasting than an asphalt roadway. Bike traffic will also enjoy a comfortable width. Current design calls for a cycle track that’s 8 1/2 feet wide (including a 2 1/2 foot buffer for opening car doors). For comparison, the standard city bike lane is 4-5 feet wide.

At intersections, the cycle track will drop back to the street in order to cross, and then will start up again on the other side (Burchfield mentioned that on high volume cycle-tracks in Copenhagen, bikes have their own signal at intersections).

Burchfield said they’re still thinking about how bike traffic will leave the cycle track to make a left turn or access a driveway or business on the other side of the street mid-block. He said they’ll design the curbs to be “rollable” so that bike riders can easily leave the cycle track.

Another aspect of this new design is having parked cars between two lanes of traffic. “The parking will give more buffer to the cyclists,” says Burchfiled, “but also makes you less visible.” It’s important to note that on Cully, since it’s a largely residential street, there isn’t expected to be much demand for the on-street parking spaces.

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According to Burchfield, a new Cully Blvd. cycle track is likely to cost less than a standard bike lane facility. Because the cycle track is on a separated grade and will be made from concrete, the city has less width of (increasingly expensive) asphalt roadway to build. Burchfield pointed out other advantages as well; “We’ll have less street to maintain and in terms of life cycle, a concrete surface built well, will be much better in the long term than asphalt.”

“You need to take that first step somewhere and this is a great opportunity to do it.”
— Rob Burchfield

While they provide more space and comfort for bike traffic, cycle tracks are likely to draw the ire of vehicular cycling proponents who tend to oppose separate facilities. From sources close to this project, we’ve learned that some of the same critics of Portland’s bike boxes have already raised questions about PDOT’s move toward cycle tracks.

When I brought that up to Mr. Burchfield, he was aware of potential controversy, but said this project has one major difference from the bike boxes. Cycle tracks, he said, are more of a street design and “built environment” issue and don’t involve traffic control elements like the bike boxes did (meaning that, some of the controversy was around the fact that bike boxes were new traffic control devices that hadn’t been properly vetted before installation).

For Burchfield and the rest of PDOT, this is an exciting project and it represents an opportunity for Portland to live up to its green and bike-friendly reputation.

“You need to take that first step somewhere and this is a great opportunity to do it,” says Burchfield, “I don’t see any downside in this case.”

The Cully Boulevard Project isn’t slated for completion until 2010 and the final design will be put to a City Council vote before it’s built. As for the innovative cycle track component making it through to final construction, Burchfield is optimistic; “From a design feasibility standpoint, we’re comfortable with it. We’ve really got the design worked out.”

[Editor’s note: The City of Portland, working with Portland Streetcar, is also planning to build a separated bike lane (similar to this one in New York City) on NE 7th Avenue through the Lloyd District as part of the streetcar plan. I’ll have more on that next week.]

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