If last night’s meeting at Holgate Baptist Church was any indication, PBOT has its work cut out for them in selling big bike projects to outer East Portland residents. The Holgate buffered bike lanes have become a lightning rod and many residents that live near them shared their anger over the project with City staffers last night.
But it wasn’t all bad news for PBOT. There were positive signs of support for the bike lanes (which were installed last August), even from people who initially opposed them.
“Clearly it wasn’t an adequate public involvement process for a project like this … and the amount of people here tonight definitely demonstrates that. From the City’s perspective and from my personal perspective, I apologize for that.”
— Mark Lear, PBOT
The purpose of the meeting was to provide background and traffic data on the project, share potential improvements, and most importantly, hear feedback from residents — feedback that PBOT admits they should have asked for before the striping was laid down.
The turnout last night — which I’d estimate at about 200 people with a majority being against the project — was a clear indication that this has become controversial and that many people in the neighborhood do not feel like the City has heard their concerns. PBOT brought Traffic Safety Program Manager Mark Lear — one of their top staffers — in to lead the meeting. One of the first things he did in his introductory address was to offer an apology:
“… Clearly it wasn’t an adequate public involvement process for a project like this and I think the feedback we’ve gotten from the neighbors and the amount of people here tonight definitely demonstrates that. From the City’s perspective and from my personal perspective, I apologize for that.”
The City focused on safety and speed reduction in making their case for the lanes. Lear told the crowd that East Portland is “the most challenged” part of town in terms of traffic safety. “Nobody should have to die walking to school, nobody should have to die walking to the bus.”
But the safety argument did not sway everyone. There were a number of complaints and criticisms about the project leveled at PBOT staff last night. Here were the most memorable ones:
- Getting out onto Holgate (in a car) from side streets is now much more difficult because people have to wait longer for a break in traffic.
- Putting all the motor vehicle traffic in just one lane (instead of two) is causing premature wear on the pavement.
- Business property values are being negatively impacted.
- The Springwater Trail is just .7 miles away, why can’t bikes just use that?
- Having just one motor vehicle lane is causing major back-ups and congestion. One person said, “They’ve created a traffic jam that we never had before!”
- No one is using the new lanes.
- “TriMet buses have bike racks on them, why can’t people just put there bikes on those?!”
- The markings are confusing. One man said, “Taking a right is totally chaotic!”
I talked with several people outside the meeting to learn more about why they were so upset…
Can you tell me why you’re so against these bike lanes?
“I’m not against bike lanes but what they did here is just ridiculous… this meeting is just to pacify us and they’re not gonna change anything, we’ll just have to live with it. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt… but now we’ve got more pollution because we’ve got the cars now just sitting in line instead of cutting through.”
I know you’re upset about the congestion and pollution it causes, but isn’t saving lives more important that cars backing up? If it this project prevents people from dying, isn’t that a good thing?
“Isn’t the poillution gonna kill you too? It’s gonna end up killing my trees… look at all those big trees I’ve got in my yard.”
You don’t like trees more than people do you?
“Some!” [As in, he does care more about trees than “some” people.]
Are you more upset about the lanes themselves or the process?
“I didn’t know anything about this project happening. The letter I got came while they were painting the lanes outside my house!”
You’ve mentioned a lack of bike traffic in the lanes. Do you think that some day eventually more people will start biking on them?
“No. It will never happen.”
Bradford thinks Holgate is simply the wrong street for bike lanes like this. “The city has made these things and now they’ll do everything they can to prove it will work, rather than say ‘Hey, maybe we got the wrong street here.'” He also wanted to make it clear that he’s not anti-bike:
“This isn’t the cars against the bikes. Everybody I’ve talked to has said, ‘Hey, I’m not against the bike lanes, but it takes me 2-3 times longer to get out onto Holgate now because we’ve got a parade of cars two blocks long and I sit and wait and finally get out and when I get out on the road, I’m aggravated.’ Now you’ve got an aggravated driver on the road next to bikes…”
Back inside the meeting, there was another exchange that I feel sums up the feelings about both the process and the lanes themselves…
“I feel like you guys came up with your plan and this is just a sales pitch to us. Is there any chance you will take this bike lane out of here? Or is this written in stone and you’re just trying to sell it now? … You mention this safety business and slowing down the traffic… If that’s such a wonderful thing why don’t we do it on Division, Foster, in fact, get rid of the pavement and let’s go back to dirt roads and we’d have no speeders!”
Mark Lear, PBOT:
“You can take my word for it or not, but personally, We’re doing the evaluation to make sure that we have a project which works well, if we have a project that doesn’t work, than we shouldn’t have a bike lane.
I personally feel that all of our busy streets in the city, if it’s possible, need to have bike lanes. Does it need to look like the bike lane that we have there today? No. I think there are significant modifications that can be made there.
I’ve championed hard within the organization [PBOT] that we need to work our butts off inside Transportation to understand the specific transportation needs for East Portland. Again, more people are needlessly dying in East Portland than any other part of town… I’m really committed to having this be the start of the conversation that leads to bicycle and pedestrian facilities that there’s a high level of support for. I wouldn’t be here tonight making this long of a presentation if I wasn’t seriously committed to trying to make this project work.”
While the vibe was definitely tense and angry at times (I heard people yell things like “You’re just a bunch of professional manipulators!” and “This is a farce!” before storming out of the room), there was also support, most of which mentioned how the new bike lanes had slowed traffic. One young man stood up and said, “I was one of those drag racers [the street was notorious for drag racing]… this works!” Others said they used to be afraid to bike on Holgate, but now they enjoy it.
BTA executive director Rob Sadowsky said his favorite moment was when a nearby resident of 42 years shared here story. “She was initially opposed to the bike lane… but now likes the treatment since it has significantly reduced speeding, crashes and noise in front of her house. I see that as a huge victory for active transportation.”
The importance of this project transcends Holgate Avenue. This learning experience for PBOT (both in the communications and engineering around the project) will impact how they approach East Portland for years to come.
On a different note, it’s very unfortunate that much of the anger about this project has little to do with the actual bike lanes themselves. From talking to people, it was clear that other factors were driving their sour mood. From a dislike of Mayor Sam Adams (who’s closely tied to biking in a lot of people’s minds), to “annexation without representation” and scars left by TriMet’s recently completed “crime train” MAX line along I-205. It was also telling that two men who were staunchly against this project also shared with me how extremely upset they were about not being able to freely leave their homes in a car during the recent Sunday Parkways event.
One man I spoke with said for many of the elderly residents who showed up last night, “They’re just tired of waking up and seeing things change.”
PBOT plans to make a few immediate improvements (guidance markings) to help folks navigate around the new lanes. Then, over the next six months, they’ll evaluate the performance of the street on a number of criteria and have another meeting to share their findings in February 2011.
— See more coverage of the Holgate bike lane project in our archives.