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Update on Couch bike lane: BTA says it’s still a ‘safety risk’

Posted by on May 17th, 2010 at 2:48 pm

After re-striping and other changes by PBOT, people have more room on NE Couch.
(Watch slideshow below – Photos © J. Maus)

Reacting to publicity following a bike crash and an admitted lane striping mistake, PBOT has completed changes to NE Couch as it leads onto the Burnside Bridge — but the BTA says the lanes still pose a “safety risk for bicyclists.”

NE Couch bike lanes (with changes)-11

Note the former location of the bike
lane stripe and added buffer.

Two weeks ago, safety concerns that resulted in a crash caught PBOT’s attention. After realizing the lane striping was done incorrectly (a narrow lane was forcing cars into the bike lane), they decided to re-stripe the lanes along with other fixes to help facilitate safer travel by all modes.

The BTA took their concerns public (including air time on the 11 o’clock news) and two days later PBOT Director Sue Keil issued a formal statement outlining changes her department planned to make.

However, the BTA published a letter to Keil today saying that their safety concerns remain even with those changes in place. Also in that letter, BTA Advocacy Campaign Manager Gerik Kransky requested an on-site meeting with PBOT engineers to share input and come up with more improvements.

NE Couch bike lanes (with changes)-14 NE Couch bike lanes (with changes)-10 NE Couch bike lanes (with changes)-6 NE Couch bike lanes (with changes)-5

Today, Mayor Sam Adams’ transportation policy advisor Katja Dillmann told me they disagree with the BTA’s assessment. “We don’t view it as dangerous… But at the same time we also feel it’s not functioning at the perceived level of safety we’d like.” Dillman maintained that they feel the bike lane is safe, but they’d like it to be “more comfortable for novice and intermediate riders.”

“We don’t view it as dangerous… But at the same time we also feel it’s not functioning at the perceived level of safety we’d like.”
— Katja Dillmann, transportation policy advisor for Mayor Sam Adams

To do that, PBOT has re-striped the bike lane to make it wider (from 5 to 6 feet). They’ve also widened the adjacent travel lane to give cars more breathing room and discourage encroachment. A buffered lane treatment with hash-marks and bumps on the outside stripes have also been added to the second (and more notorious) curve. Dillman said the bumps are to give people in cars “sensory feedback.”

Dillmann said the matter has now been turned over to PBOT traffic engineers who are analyzing the situation and are due to report back with additional fixes. Dillmann said it was too early to elaborate on what specific options might be considered feasible. She attended the Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting last week to solicit input from citizens and members.

Meanwhile, members of grassroots transportation advocacy group, Active Right of Way (AROW, formerly TransCon) have been adding their ideas to a discussion thread titled, “We need more than paint — Couch St.”

NE Couch bike lanes (with changes)-16

Bumps have been added to warn
people to stay in their lane
through the turn.

Among the ideas being thrown around include getting rid of the bike lane altogether, adding sharrows, and encouraging slower motor vehicle speeds.

I observed traffic at this location a few hours ago and found that the lane re-striping has resulted in improved conditions. During my observation, no motor vehicles entered the bike lane (although a few came very close). So, in that respect, the lane might be technically safe, but I wouldn’t bike there with my four-year old daughter (we’d be up on the sidewalk).

And that’s the crux of a lot of the bikeway issues we have right now in Portland. They are technically safe in that they don’t have a crash history and seasoned riders have no problem with them, but do they really live up to our 2030 Bike Plan, “Bike City USA” rhetoric? Where are the bold, connected, comfortable (for everyone), world-class bike facilities it will take to significantly move the needle beyond the “strong and fearless” riders? I can’t wait to report on those.

It’s not complicated and it doesn’t have to be expensive. It simply takes political will and some confident decision-making.

Watch the slideshow below for more photos of NE Couch and chime in with a comment if you’ve ridden or driven on it:

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • q'Tzal May 17, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Next: MAX track turtle bumps.
    When that fails to resolve the problem: concrete barriers, ugly ones.

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  • Steve B. May 17, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks for covering this, Jonathan. Glad compliance was better when you were out there.

    I spent some time here during rush hour last week, and here’s what I noted:

    – Buses & trucks have a hard time making both turns within the S curve — there is something wrong with the geometry of the curve here (or lane width). The only large commercial-class vehicles who managed to stay out of the lane were a minority of buses who slowed to about 10mph and moved to the left of the travel lane. Some large vehicles took their turns along the curb, completely in the bike lane.

    – About 60% of vehicles slowed down in the curve, slower than I’m used to seeing cars travel. 20% tried to maintain 25-30mph, and 20% treated this area like a racetrack.

    – Those raised bumps do not work — the tell tale sign for me is that once a vehicle traveled over the bumps, they did not ‘correct’ their steering (to the left), they continued over the bumps until they were on the bridge deck. I did not notice any steering correction in my observation.

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  • AMA May 17, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    The modifications are legitimately MUCH better, but the true solution here really is to just put in very prominent sharrows in the right lane from 12th to the bridge.

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  • Steve B. May 17, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    My personal preferred solution is to bring bikes onto the sidewalk at this point, ala Broadway/Hawthorne bridges. You could even widen the sidewalk, there’s plenty of room on either side.

    I was geeking out the other day and thought, man, this would be a great spot for a 2-way, separated cycletrack (like the ones that are already on the ground throughout NYC), all the way down Burnside to the bridge. Here’s my quick mock-up:

    The sad thing is that with all that new space on Burnside, all we’re getting is a standard bike lane on the right-side of Burnside. That’s better than nothing, for sure, but it shows we have a long way to go before we see this sort of Bike Infrastructure 2.0 in our city. The couch street onramp is a perfect opportunity for PBOT & and the city to get it right and provide a world-class solution, as outlined in the Bike Master Plan for 2030.

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  • ValkRaider May 17, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    I have both driven and ridden on this, and I feel it is fine.  It is
    not, however, completely docile or designed for children or nervous

    Really, should children or nervous people be riding on Couch/Burnside?

    This is one problem I have is that there is never a “good enough” for
    some people.  Look, it is a busy city road with lots of traffic of all
    types.  It is not going to be perfect.

    I think the current treatment is good enough.  Lets work on other
    problem areas which have zero bicycle facilities or treatment.

    The reality is – we simply will not please everyone.  And not every
    bike facility is going to be 100% friendly to 100% of riders.

    And for the suggestion to put the MAX style nipple bumps there, I
    would caution that causing vehicles to lose control and spin out might
    not be the safest thing either.

    But if we REALLY REALLY need to “fix” this one corner to a completely
    perfect solution – then bikes should be given grade separation – take
    them out of the darn curves all together.  A cycle-track style
    treatment is probably the only way to fix this type of problem.

    But I say – there are plenty of other routes close by – no need to
    ride on this one if you are seriously that uncomfortable.

    People all over SW Portland would love to have shoulders of any kind –
    let alone 6 foot bike lanes with buffered curves…

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  • Silus Grok May 17, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Yet another reason why we shouldn’t do with paint what is best done with structure.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm


    I don’t think we should be satisfied in this case.

    Why — simply because my family and I choose to ride our bikes — should we be satisfied with a level of comfort and safety on our roads that is lower than that of people who choose to drive a car or take a bus? That’s not acceptable.

    Cars/transit has access to safe and connected facilities on every Portland street. I don’t think people who ride bikes should settle for anything less.

    As for your calls for geographic equity, that’s an ongoing debate….

    Isn’t it just as important to provide safe and comfortable bikeways in places that have a lot of existing bike traffic than it is to make new facilities with very few and/or no bike traffic yet?

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  • Michael M. May 17, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    I think the real test will be how traffic, in particular the over-sized vehicles like buses, behaves when there actually are cyclists in the bike lane. A vehicle veering into a bike lane or over a center line when there isn’t another vehicle (motorized or not) present doesn’t strike me as any more of a problem than a bicycle not coming to a full stop at a stop sign when there is no cross traffic (vehicular or pedestrian) in sight. And we know most people who ride bikes don’t stop. So far, all the pictures I’ve seen of motor vehicles crossing or coming close to line have shown them doing so when there’s no other traffic around. Has anyone who cycles this section regularly been pinched by motor vehicles?

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  • are May 17, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    the irony here is that a “seasoned rider” would disregard the bike lane entirely from 6th on down and take the travel lane through this corner. so the “improvements” have accomplished nothing, except what such treatments always do, which is to create an illusion of safety which will cause someone to get hurt, and to create a legal situation in which you can get ticketed for doing the safe and sensible thing.

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  • Peter Noone May 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    I drove through there the other day. There were a couple of bikes in the bike lane. I felt very uncomfortable and will actively avoid riding my bike through there, though I consider myself to be a seasoned cyclist.

    Sometimes I wonder if they consult people who actually ride bikes before and during the building of these things.

    It’s a good idea poorly executed, and almost anyone who’s ridden a bike for a while could give ten suggestions for obvious improvements that would have cost little to no extra money.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 17, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Michael M.,

    I observed what you’re referring to. In a nutshell (and as my photos attest), w/o a person on a bike present, people would hug the buffered lane and come close to encroaching the bike lane. When a person was in the bike lane, they’d leave plenty of room for them to operate.


    i disagree with your overall assessment. plenty of seasoned riders (including myself) prefer our own space on the road as opposed to getting in front of fast and furious motorized vehicles. This bike lane designates legal space solely for bicycles which is fantastic… sure it could be safer but it’s far more than an “illusion of safety” in my opinion.

    as for your legal situation… I know what you’re talking about. I agree with you that we absolutely need to abolish the mandatory sidepath law. it’s simply B.S. and it creates an unneccessary legal grey area for people that ride bikes. I would welcome a ticket so I could publicly court-test the need/validity of that law.

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  • Bill May 17, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    I think the mega-sized Bott’s Dots would work nicely here…

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  • John Lascurettes May 17, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    I will continue to take the lane here when I ride alone and take the sidewalk when with my six year old son.

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  • sam May 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Are they planning any more paint? Some of those bike lane stencils? It might help to paint the lines in the striped buffer yellow, too, otherwise they’re just more white noise lines all over the road. A good half the drivers in this town (and every other town) won’t have any idea what they mean and won’t think twice about driving all over white lines.

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  • SyntaxPolice May 17, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    I’ve ridden this a number of times, before and after the improvement. I rode directly behind a car that cut the corner off today.

    It’s easy for me to keep up with car traffic, considering the light timing on Couch leading up to it and their speed through the curve. Therefore, I’ve stopped using the bike lane until just after the curve. That has worked well so far.

    Assuming that driver had seen me, perhaps he would have given me room, but it’s not always possible to avoid a driver’s blind spot in a situation like this.



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  • Doug Klotz May 17, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    A certain percentage of drivers will always cut the corner to go faster. The only real solution is a physical barrier, either a 8-10 inch high curb, or the Jersey Barrier concept like the west end of the Broadway Bridge. I’d prefer a lower barrier, so drivers can see pedestrians waiting to cross in the crosswalk at Burnside (signal not yet activated), so they don’t just blow through those red lights, thinking “there’s no real traffic here” or “it’s a Right on Red, so I don’t have to stop”.

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  • spencer May 17, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    if i have speed coming down couch with green lights, it takes a full-on criterium turn to stay in the bike lane here. The majority of people cannot do this. In regards to the safety of the bike lane, I got pinched on numerous occasions by trimet buses and passenger cars. BOTH the car and bike facilities are the result of poor half-assed traffic design. Its like any 1940’s highway treatment, obsolete and not adequate for current user volumes.

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  • chad May 17, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    “Cars/transit has access to safe and connected facilities on every Portland street. I don’t think people who ride bikes should settle for anything less.”

    Amen Jonathan!

    With that demand echoed time and time again we will someday have a majority of roads that are safe enough for a four year old to ride with his or her family.

    It’s not impossible.

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  • are May 17, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    re comment 11, jonathan, i am talking about the existing situation. you put in a fully separated track or whatever, i have no objection and would not allow my “seasoning” to prevent my using it (if it is appropriately designed and built). my point was, and is, that PBoT has gone to some trouble to move paint around on this stretch, and the result is something that does not in fact provide “safety,” as in, motorists will cut the corner, and large vehicles almost have to. the only people who will get hurt when this happens are cyclists who are lured into believing that paint will somehow protect them. this is why i called it an “irony.” also, given the way the flow is designed coming down couch, motorists will for the most part not be “fast” (a lot of them are “furious” no matter what you do). if you take the lane all the way down, they cannot crush you in the corner, QED.

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  • SkidMark May 17, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Two things: 1. This is a simple switchback turn, left then right, something any cyclist should be able to handle. 2. Traveling directly to the right of a car or truck through a right turn is always a potentially dangerous situation. The best course of action is be slightly behind the car in case it comes over into your lane. This also allows you to see its brake lights.

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  • Mark May 17, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    You can’t fix a major mistake–one way couplets–with paint. I haven’t ridden this yet so I cannot say how it may or may not be improved. One thing I am well aware of living in Irvington: one way couplets are the bane of people on bikes and on their own two feet.

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  • are May 17, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    “it’s not functioning at the perceived level of safety we’d like.” what can this possibly mean?

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  • spare_wheel May 18, 2010 at 12:44 am

    “left then right, something any cyclist should be able to handle.”

    can any cyclist handle an inattentive driver cutting a corner? imo, anyone who does not take the lane here is putting themselves at unnecessary risk.

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  • Anonymous May 18, 2010 at 7:47 am

    It’s the physics of it all.

    A 2500 lb car wants to go in a straight line. Tight corners take more effort on the part of the driver to negotiate those turns and maneuver within the lines.

    The first time I drove this, I was going the posted limit and felt it was too fast for the curves.

    Bumps are not enough, they tell drives after the fact that they have crossed the line. A better barrier needs to be set up.

    The couplet solution for both cyclists and drivers may have resolved the issue at the Sandy intersection, but the access to the bridge is horrible.

    I’m sure once the number of auto to auto incidents start to increase at this location, that more effort will be made to make it safer.

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  • Den May 18, 2010 at 10:34 am

    @mark #21, i couldn’t agree more. I long for the day when even the downtown streets are returned to two way travel, and stoplights replaced with stop signs.

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  • BURR May 18, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Mark #21, and Den #25 – Good Luck with that, the city is going to continue adding one way couplets into the foreseeable future, Burnside-Couch is the first and will be followed closely by NW Lovejoy-Northrup.

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  • Opus the Poet May 18, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Use the cast-iron reflective markers bolted to the pavement. The ones that seriously damage cars that hit more than 2 in a row. This would be the kind of feedback that the most dangerous drivers need to keep out of the bike lane. Plant those on the left side of the bike lane during the right turn and put a hollow spike on top of them to cut the tires of the drivers that run them over. Being stupid and risking the lives of others to save a few seconds should be painful and expensive.

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  • Paulie May 18, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Opus #27

    A car with a sudden blowout would be dangerous, too. So maybe something that will just scuff up their paint job would be better …

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  • spare_wheel May 18, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    “something that will just scuff up their paint job would be better”

    i proposed a concrete jersey barrier…

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  • el timito May 18, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I’ve used this intersection before and after the fix, with and without a loaded trailer. Not a problem. Full disclosure: I’m a daily cyclist (for many years now), and rarely ride it during full rush-hour.

    I have to share my amusement that so much is made of the insuitability of this intersection for novice riders (many of whom are my personal friends!).

    PBOT could make this section absolutely idiot-driver-proof – but what would the novice do at the other end of the bridge? The bike lane merges into a turning lane, with auto traffic going a nice, incline-induced clip. I’ve ridden with my young son in traffic, but personally I’d choose another route than Burnside entirely – with or without the perfection we’re looking for at the Couch slalom.

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  • BURR May 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    IMO, the real question is still: who benefits from the conversion to a one way couplet here? And the answer is, unequivocally, motorists.

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  • Halley May 18, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I ride this every day downtown and while I am still completely jaded with EVERYTHING they have done with this construction project (up to 13th street) I still don’t understand that if they are going to fix something, why they just don’t do it right!

    They widened the lane, yes, but really only visually for motorists. Where the stripe used to be, there is now a big foot-wide grind spot that is not really that fun to ride on.

    What was the problem with putting in a curb or raised sidewalk area just for that corner again? Do we need to have a bake sale so they can afford the concrete?

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  • Zaphod May 18, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Easy now Opus #28. I share your frustration with how motorists don’t show the proper respect to vulnerable road users at times. But we shouldn’t escalate the aggression with the idea of pointy spikes and whatever. I’m all for putting something more substantial there but with the intent of protecting the space.

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  • Dan May 18, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    Just looking at the pics I’d say that could be hazardous (esp in the rain and stuff)

    Still, life is full of risk 😉

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  • bobo May 18, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    “We don’t view it as dangerous… But at the same time we also feel it’s not functioning at the perceived level of safety we’d like.”

    Really? any level of dangerous is still dangerous.

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