streetscape on Burnside.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams and a host of dignitaries and bureaucrats held a groundbreaking ceremony for the East Burnside-Couch couplet project yesterday. The $17.8 million project will transform the streetscape of Burnside and Couch by turning them into one-ways, adding traffic signals, bike lanes, trees, curb extensions, and more.
The City is doing the project for several reasons: They hope it will trigger development, improve safety and traffic flow, enhance the business environmen, and in the end, make Burnside into a kinder, gentler street.
Yesterday I sat down with City of Portland Bureau of Transportation project managers Bill Hoffman and Chris Armes to learn more about how people on bikes will navigate through the couplet.
The big changes are on Burnside and Couch, but SE Ankeny — a popular east-west bike route — also figured into this project’s plans.
Currently, Burnside has six (and sometimes seven) lanes of two-way traffic with on-street parking available at off-peak hours. When the couplet project is complete, on-street parking will be allowed at all times on both sides of the streets and Burnside will be re-striped for four vehicles lanes — with one of them dedicated to bike traffic. The new, bike-only traffic lane (a.k.a. a bike lane) on Burnside will run from MLK to NE 13th.
On NE Couch, PBOT will stripe a new bike lane starting at NE 6th that will continue west all the way onto the Burnside Bridge. To get to Couch from Ankeny, PBOT will direct riders north on NE 6th (to Couch) where the bike lane begins. (All the bike lanes in the project are the standard 5-6 feet wide.)
(Photo © J. Maus)
Asked why they chose to not stripe the bike lane all the way up Couch to 12th (which is an important north-south connector to get through the Lloyd Center), Hoffman gave two reasons. First, he said their planning process was not focused on Couch. “It was all about how to get cyclists from Ankeny onto the bridge.” As for Couch, he said “You could have had a bike lane all the way up Couch, but that would have impacted the ability to have on-street bike parking and the green curb extensions on one side.”
“The challenge then became, how best to accomodate both needs. All the designs we considered had some amount of trade-off and this appeared to be the best solution.”
“There was absolute consideration and respect for bikes in this project. The challenge is getting all of these functions to work in limited right of way.”
— Bill Hoffman, PBOT project manager
Finding space for a bike lane on Couch was a challenge for project planners. In our meeting yesterday, Hoffman said business owners in the area were opposed to removing any parking at all (his exact words were that they saw any on-street parking removal as “the third rail” which I’ve since learned means it was a non-starter).
Stakeholders and planners couldn’t reach a consensus on how to fit the bike lane in on Couch, so Mayor Adams (who was Commissioner in charge of transportation at the time) stepped in to make the decision. Ultimately, the decision was made to make room for the bike lane by narrowing the sidewalk from 12 to 7 feet.
On-street motor vehicle parking still holds a large amount of sway in PBOT projects. When room exists for everything to fit — like on Burnside — it’s easy for the City to put in a bike lane (and they’re happy to do it). But when the right-of-way is at all constrained, PBOT will very rarely remove significant amounts of on-street parking to make room for the efficient and safe flow of non-motorized traffic.
Asked about why this couplet project retained so much on-street parking capacity, Hoffman said it’s about trade-offs. “There was absolute consideration and respect for bikes in this project. The challenge is getting all of these functions to work in limited right of way… The trade-offs for a bike lane the full length of Couch were much more significant.”
It’s also worth noting that since Couch has a downhill grade, bike traffic should be able to comfortably take the lane with motor vehicle traffic (currently, there are no plans to install shared-lane markings).
Once on the new Couch bike lane headed west, you’ll cross over Grand and MLK. Just west of MLK will be a new street segment project planners are calling the “Couch Transition”. This street will go across the now-vacant parcel bordered by NE 3rd, Couch and MLK and take traffic onto the Burnside Bridge.
Along with new bike lanes on Couch and Burnside, PBOT will add curb extensions with green stormwater treatments and new signals to every intersection on Burnside. These new signals will have a major traffic impact. Hoffman said the signals will play a large role in “humanizing” the street because they’ll be timed at a reasonable speed. “Because the signals will be timed to 15 mph, you’ll have cars platooning at a modest speed.”
Hoffman and fellow project manager Chris Armes said yesterday they expect bike traffic to increase once the project is complete. PBOT staffers have already done bike traffic surveys to gauge existing conditions and they’ll do follow-up surveys once it’s finished to find out if that holds true.
Another area of this project that will impact people traveling by bike is the notorious intersection of NE Sandy Blvd, Burnside and NE 12th. At that location, PBOT plans to decommission the segment of Sandy just north of Burnside between NE 12th and 14th.
In a statement issued by Mayor Adams after the groundbreaking event, he said this closure of Sandy will “transform the intersection… providing an eastern “gateway to the lower Burnside district, and moving traffic efficiently through what has been called the worst intersection in Portland.”
Adams has a lot riding on this project. “Its a signature project for the Mayor,” says his Transportation Policy Director Catherine Ciarlo. The couplet’s “green street” features (lots of new trees and bioswales to catch and filter stormwater in the curb extensions), expectations of urban renewal, bike lanes, and speed controlling features are all things that Adams has championed throughout his political career.
The success of this couplet on the east side, could also make or break Adams’ effort to do a similar project on the west side — where the idea has been much more contentious and controversial.
The East Burnside Couch couplet project is expected to be completed by October 2010. More info on the project website.