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Thoughts on Burnside/Couch after the grand opening

Posted by on October 12th, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Bike traffic on Grand

Traffic on Grand Ave. north of Burnside.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Mayor Sam Adams emceed an event this morning to mark the official grand opening of the East Burnside/Couch Couplet project. The project (which is still not quite finished) began nearly eight years ago and the estimated cost is about $17.8 million. Adams touted the project as a beacon for everything Portland stands for, saying it’s now a multi-modal, “green” corridor that will reduce traffic crashes and boost local businesses, all while being easier to navigate on foot and by bike.

“This answers the question of what we can do today in the current environment with our current political will, but this doesn’t mean as a bike advocate we can’t ask for better.”
— Rob Sadowsky, BTA executive director in an interview before this morning’s event

But, while the project does have some new bike facilities and the signals make it easier to cross Burnside, one hardly gets the feeling that the safe and efficient flow of non-motorized traffic was a top priority.

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance has been vocal about their concerns with this project. A former staffer, Michael O’Leary, called NE Couch a “safety risk” and posted a statement on the BTA blog outlining several reasons he felt the couplet was “not ready to ride.”

The s-curve bike lane on Couch leading onto the bridge raised red flags as soon as it was installed. Heeding safety concerns, PBOT acknowledged a striping error and remedied the situation.

Bike box at NE Couch and Grand-1

New bike box at Couch and Grand.

Concerns — exacerbated by a right-hook collision last month — then turned toward the new bike lane on NE Couch, which can lead to right-hooks by forcing bike traffic to the right of right-turning motor vehicle traffic. PBOT addressed these concerns by installing a bike box at the intersection a few weeks ago.

Today, BTA executive director Rob Sadowsky had the opportunity to address these issues in front of a crowd of notables which included Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Mayor Sam Adams, and PBOT Director Sue Keil.

Here’s an excerpt from Sadowsky’s comments:

“The improvements integrated into this design will help reduce traffic conflicts between motorists and bicyclists and pedestrians, and ease trips into the city across the Burnside Bridge by providing clearer direction and safer route choices for bicyclists.

One of the things that we, as bicyclists, are most pleased about is the timing of the lights on Couch as you’re coming into the bridge. Travel speeds are now at or below 20 mph, providing safer speeds for shared traffic. When you add bike boxes and bike lanes into that mix, creating safer places for people aged 8-80, we are well on our way to making bicycling accessible and safe for all riders.

We also share that there is more to be done to ensure the safety of all road users in this city and this couplet to ease the overall commute to and from the city through this corridor…”

Sadowsky also said we need to build more physically separated bikeways on high-traffic, high-visibility commercial streets and that it would take a new federal transportation bill to take the “next big steps.” In closing, he said,

“So let’s celebrate another step in building out the visionary Portland Bicycle 2030 Plan while we set our sights even higher for even bigger and bolder investment in this great livable city.”

Sadowsky’s conciliatory tone this morning is not surprising. He has to walk a fine line between partnership and support of Mayor Adams while giving voice to his member’s concerns. I asked Sadowsky about the project and the tone he planned to strike at the event before he gave his speech.

About the project, Sadowsky said,

“I think it provides a lot of contradictions. In some ways it starts to approach accomodation and a clear sense of ‘bicycles are welcome here’… but on the other hand there’s unfinished business… This answers the question of what we can do today in the current environment with our current political will, but this doesn’t mean as a bike advocate we can’t ask for better… This is a good first step.”

This “first step” included several new bike facilities. Northbound on NE 12th is now much easier to navigate, there are new bike lanes on NE Couch from 6th all the way onto the Burnside Bridge and a bike lane on Burnside is set to be installed from the bridge to NE 13th any day now. Another key feature for bike traffic is the timing of signals on NE Couch, which are set for a comfortable biking speed of about 15 mph.

Bikes on Couch -7

Bike lane on NE Couch.

For motor vehicle traffic, the project boasts “enhanced traffic flow” (according to a PBOT press release) due to the one-way couplet on Burnside and Couch between NE Third and NE 14th, improved access to businesses with left turns at all intersections, and new on-street parking spaces on Burnside.

Maintaining motor vehicle parking was a major factor in the design of this project. As I reported last year, PBOT project manager Bill Hoffman said businesses opposed the removal of any parking at all. That stance led to Mayor Adams’ decision to narrow the sidewalk by five feet on Couch (from 12 to seven feet) to make room for the bike lane while maintaining space for parked cars.


This guy can’t wait for the
new bike lane on Burnside!

The centerpiece of the project is lower Burnside, which has been (and is being) remade into a more pleasant shopping environment with wider sidewalks, landscaped curb extensions, and lots of new street trees. There are now fewer lanes on Burnside (from three five travel lanes to three, plus a bike lane) and signals at each cross street means traffic speeds should decrease.

Even so, Sadowsky and others are now dreaming about a bi-directional, separated cycle track on Burnside that would lead up and over the bridge into downtown (a similar idea came up three years ago and was passed over in favor of the bike lanes on NE Couch). It won’t be easy to get PBOT to re-open this discussion, but it’s certainly worth a try.

For now, I’d love to know what you think about this project. I’m happy to see the improvements, but also a bit frustrated that yet another major project has come and gone where bike traffic seems to have taken a back seat to motor vehicle “traffic flow” and parking. We have known for years that we must build physically separated bikeways in order to achieve our ridership goals. I wonder when we’ll actually start to do it.

I welcome your thoughts.

— Read past coverage of this project in our archives.

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

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    Mindful Cyclist October 12, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    I cannot say that I like it. I found getting across the Burnside Bridge much easier before having to go all the way over to Couch and around that s-curve.

    I think it would have made more sense to extend the sidewalk out a bit and put the stripes like they have on the Hawthorne Bridge for a bit more physical separation from the cars on the s-curve as well. I have been taking Davis to 6th to get over to Couch, but a lot of cars are starting to realize that is a nice shortcut as well. I think they need one of those barriers on 12th and Davis like there is on 20th and Ankeny.

    Also, I noticed when I take the bus to work, it takes a lot longer to travel that stretch from 12th to the bridge than before.

    Going Eastbound across the bridge as well has proven difficult with all the changes if you plan on getting over to Ankeny. I used to always take that second turn lane so I could make sure I could easily get in the far left lane, but that has gotten more difficult.

    It will be interesting to see what it looks like when it is truly completed, but for now, not sure I am going to like it.

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    Aaron October 12, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    This is great reporting Jonathan. You’ve addressed all sides of the issue well. For me the most notable achievement with this project is not Burnside or Couch at all, but 12th Ave. Before the separation, I hadn’t used the Burnside/12th/Sandy intersection in several YEARS because it was horrible. But with the bike lanes (at least from Ankeny) and the double signal, it’s more user-friendly. Years ago I’d asked Greg Raismond why there wasn’t more signal timing adjustment to slow traffic and he told me that it only works with one-way streets. So it’s nice to see that this project does in fact slow traffic.
    On the other hand I completely agree with you that we’re long past the point where auto traffic should be prioritized in any way. It was such a waste for them to narrow sidewalks in order to maintain parking. We CAN demand better from our streets.

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    Alex Stange October 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Speaking from a motorist’s perspective, the old Sandy/12th/Burnside intersection went from bad to worse. Before it was a very long signal, but there was only one signal, as opposed to going through 3 signals just to continue on Sandy.

    I bring up the motorist’s perspective on a bike blog because I’m not sure drivers or cyclists benefit from this project. Biking in that area before I avoided the intersection, and I would do the same now. If bike safety was the main concern then maybe Couch or Ankeny could have been improved for cyclists’ use, with physically separated paths.

    Pedestrians will benefit most, and making the streets destinations instead of thoroughfares may decrease speeds further, making them safer for everyone.

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    Patrick October 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    I think the new design works fairly well, and I agree that the strongest point is definitely the intersections on 12th street. Although approaching from the south to head west is a bit trickier, coming from the NE or North side it is simple to get into bike lanes and across the bridge with traffic that, in my experience, is good about watching and waiting for bikes. I am anticipating the completion of the Burnside section very much.

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    Dave October 12, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    I think Sadowsky’s comment to you speaks a lot about Portland bicycle infrastructure in general. It’s a good start, but it’s partial, it’s fragmented, it’s not consistent or cohesive. We need to start building stuff that is consistent in design and purpose, connects to other stuff (rather than just suddenly stopping in the middle of busy streets/intersections where it’s inconvenient to work it into existing motor vehicle lanes), and is clear and easy to understand.

    With most of what we currently have, it’s clear that it is still an afterthought, and only worked into the road design where it’s easy and convenient.

    That’s not to say it doesn’t help sometimes, it does. But it’s hardly “world-class”.

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    Dave October 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    I completely agree with the point that we need to have “physically separated bikeways”. In many great cities, this has been accomplished on main thoroughfares and dangerous sections. It is key to improving our ridership rates and ensuring the safety of cyclists.

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    BURR October 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    1. ‘Enhanced traffic flow’ (for motorists) was the primary objective here; all other objectives, including improvements for cyclists, were secondary to that.

    2. The overall design is not particularly beneficial to cyclists and still contains significant hazards, even with the band-aids PBOT has already applied.

    3. The BTA takes yet another step on the path towards irrelevance.

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    Carl October 12, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Parking on both sides of both streets seems like major overkill. I would much rather turn onto a side street than try to parallel park on a major through fare.

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    Steve B. October 12, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    What else could $18 million do for Portland today?

    – 52 miles of bike boulevard
    – 18 miles of cycletrack
    – 1.8 miles of multi-use path
    – 600ft of orange MAX line

    Of course, as Rob notes, federal funding isn’t that cut and dry, I doubt the feds would fund 18 miles of cycletrack as they would this couplet project. We have to ask for better, and if our decisionmakers are not willing to fulfill the city’s own sustainability goals, we’ll need to elect better leadership.

    AROW is still concerned that there are fundamental engineering flaws with the implementation of the Couch Street onramp. There have been so many good ideas about how to fix this, but we have not seen further improvement to the ramp. You can learn more about the pitch/slope problem, calls for separation, speeding concerns and more in this video:

    Here’s my quick and dirty vision of a 2-way cycle track on Burnside:

    Finally, it’s important to note there is a Westside Burnside/Couch couplet project planned. If you’re dissappointed in the East couplet, you’re advised to get involved in the Westside couplet planning:

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    eljefe October 12, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    I just got home from riding NE Couch on my Bakfiets with my baby daughter. I roll that way almost every day. The bike lane is awful. What’s the point? It’s smooth sailing from 14th down to where the bike lane starts, then everything is crunched. I almost got right-hooked right at the green bike box. I slammed on my brakes and swerved. I will not be using the bike lane anymore, but rather taking the lane. It’s easy to keep up with traffic because of the light timing going down that hill. This is a perfect example of bike lane milage that allows planners to gloat without doing anything to improve the lives of bikers
    The “improved” s-curve striping has no effect whatsoever. I have yet to see any motor vehicle navigate the turn without crossing over into the bike lane. Some extremely harsh bumps along the stripe may improve the situation. Failing that, I will be taking the lane every time. If you get stuck behind me, use the time to call PBOT and tell them to get their act together.

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    Tom October 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I think the project is poor, even for cars. The corners are too narrow for the sharpness of the turns, even at slow speeds. Cars have trouble staying in their lanes. Accidents will occur at a higher rate, and cyclists will get hit by drivers evading other cars. On top of that, in the corner near Sandy, the stop lines are not clear at the lights and the traffic lights seem poorly placed.

    I have not see a large truck go through there yet, but I expect a large truck will be all over the road forcing other drivers to take evasive action.

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    Brad October 12, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    The old regime at BTA would have fawned all over the Mayor for his “vision” and declared this as “great for Portland’s cyclists!”. After all, they were tight with City Hall and no one likes to offend their friends. I’m heartened to see the new BTA director issuing a big “Meh…” while stating that Portland can and should do better.

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    brandon October 12, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    The contraflow bike lane going west on Burnside to the bridge is absolutely necessary. Also, when is the city going to install either raised or concrete barrier separated bike lanes on the Burnside Bridge?

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    sabernar October 12, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Take NE Davis instead of Couch. From 11th (or maybe 12th?) down to Grand, it’s all downhill, no stop signs, no traffic lights, and almost no traffic.

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    are October 12, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    i appreciate that rob sadowsky has a set of political considerations to deal with, and i appreciate that the membership of BTA is itself not a monolithic constituency anyway. but i do wish that in giving this faint praise he would be more specific in identifying the shortcomings of this design.
    instead, BTA has given what amounts to an endorsement of the green box at couch and grand:
    incidentally, the published plan for this project shows traffic signals at each intersection on burnside
    but for the moment, at least, the light at 9th, which used to be a very good connection across, has been removed or covered up. what is the plan going forward? are cyclists arriving on ankeny going to be channeled to 6th?

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    spare_wheel October 12, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    i wonder what ruled out the contraflow cycle track?

    the “compromise” on couch definitely feels like a second-class solution.

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    9watts October 12, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    It will be interesting to see how this and other infrastructure stand up to dramatic reductions in car usage. My sense is that the issue with most of these interesting and astonishingly expensive changes to traffic patterns is still the preponderance of cars. With a lot fewer to contend with, travel will get easier–for everyone.

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    Steve October 12, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    I ride through the intersection everyday, using Ankeny onto lower Sandy. I notice that since the Sandy crossing of 12th was closed, drivers turn off of Sandy eastbound and head up Ankeny in order to avoid the lights. This creates significant hazards for bicycles – I have been forced over by drivers in a hurry to get around the intersection. I echo the call for a barrier on Davis and add one on Ankeny to stop the drivers trying to avoid the new traffic flow.

    Also, I was surprised to see that there is no separated bike lane on Burnside. What a wasted opportunity!

    When I do drive through the intersection, it is much worse. The traffic engineers once again have failed to look at how people actually drive.

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    BURR October 12, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    @ 9 watts #17. So when are all the cars and trucks going to disappear? Personally, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting….

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    beth h October 12, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Jonathan wrote: “Another key feature for bike traffic is the timing of signals on NE Couch, which are set for a comfortable biking speed of about 15 mph.”

    Comfortable for whom? Not everyone cruises along comfortably at that pace. This morning, I pased two elderly cyclists heading west on Couch who couldn’t have been doing more than about 9 mph, and onewas pedaling with obvious effort. Both were taking the lane. At rush hour, this scene would’ve had and danger.

    I am less than thrilled with the BTA’s public stance this morning. I agree that a stronger statement with more specifics would’ve been more real, even if slightly less politic.

    And finally, I am underwhelmed by the overall design of the couplet, which I suspect had more to do with trying to address population growth — and therefore motorized traffic growth — in a part of town where commercial development is continuing at a pretty quick clip. I doubt that bicyclists were a primary factor here, or else there would be far less on-street parking than the current design allows for.

    “Meh”, indeed. This is the kind of un-planning that makes me shake my head in disbelief.

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    Simon October 12, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Why do you put “traffic flow” in quotation marks? The auto “traffic flow” is way better on Couch in the morning rush hour traffic headed downtown. As a motorist this is a great improvement.

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    9watts October 12, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    BURR @19: on March 17th, 2015 they’ll all go poof – a car rapture.

    I didn’t say ‘all cars will disappear’ nor did I suggest holding one’s breath. I do, however, think that within the lifetime of this bit of infrastructure–let’s say several repainting cycles of the sharrows–a lot fewer vehicle miles will be traveled in private autos on our streets.
    I won’t pretend to predict the specific decline of automobility, but it’s coming.

    But don’t take my word for it…
    Rich countries ‘must slash living standards’ to fight climate change

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    BURR October 12, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    I think it’s safe to say we both disagree with the couplet conversion.


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    Justin October 12, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    It seems like a real missed opportunity by PBOT to have a project start from scratch and have almost NO provisions for bikes, especially with such a heavily used bike boulevard, Ankeny, right nearby. How hard would it have been to extend the Ankeny bike boulevard across Grand and MLK to go UNDER the Burnside Bridge on 3rd, and do a right-hand clover-leaf bike path up onto the bridge? THat way bicyclists could avoid Burnside and Couch alltogether and that nasty S-turn onto the bridge. The only tricky intersection would be MLK since there isn’t a light for Ankeny, but installing a bicycle signal and paving a new ramp still seems feasible at this point. Anyone more tech-savvy than me able to mark up a google map to illustrate this?

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    bobcycle October 13, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Some (many?) that comment here seem to feel that bike travel was not given ample consideration in the couplet design. I did ride the route a few times before it was finished and tend to agree. Following Jonathan’s link in article I see that PBOT has 5 stated “Key Benefits” for project one of which (20%?) is “Reduced traffic conflicts between autos and bicycles” In the past when on Burnside (either east or west), due to narrow lanes I was pretty much forced to take the lane. Taking the lane pretty much eliminates the right hook. Additional lanes offered autos the opportunity to go around me so I don’t feel I impeded traffic. Bike lanes to the right offer the opportunity for right hook. When on Broadway heading into town if I see a car with a right directional on or slowing or turning his/her head I steer into the lane and get behind them until I can figure out what they are doing. When I have failed to do this I have on occasion come close to getting right hooked. IMHO Bike Lanes on busy commerce streets don’t necessarily eliminate conflict, and require enhanced “auto-awareness” to navigate safely.

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    bobcycle October 13, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Further thoughts…. As long as PBOT and other road designers are convinced that Bike Lanes eliminate conflict between bikes and cars. (my opinion is that do not eliminate the conflict, they merely change it) Then designs like we find here are what we’ll get and we should perhaps not blame road designers since they are working with what they believe to be true. Clarification I am not a vehicularist.

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    commuter October 13, 2010 at 10:10 am

    This was a “solution” looking for a problem. $17 miIlion later it sucks to drive on and it sucks to ride on…..STILL.

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    Michael M. October 13, 2010 at 11:30 am

    My perspective is pretty limited since I almost always go only one way through this area: westbound on NE Sandy (from Hollywood), onto NE Couch, through the S-curve and over the Burnside Bridge into downtown. I find that a much improved experience compared to the old configuration of following NE Sandy to Burnside (at least in part just because the roads are in much better condition now). I used to prefer NE Broadway => Broadway Bridge, but I switched routes during the B’way Bridge closure and now I have no plans to switch back, except on occasion for the sake of variety.

    I’m not particularly worried about right-hooks — it seems to me that the vast majority of motorists signal their intention to turn. I don’t have a problem with the S-curve (actually, it’s kinda fun). All-in-all, while NE Sandy isn’t exactly the ideal cycling experience, this route works well for me now and it didn’t before.

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    Joe Rowe October 14, 2010 at 2:07 am

    The right hooks are bad, but the curve remains just as bad. Jonathan said PBUT “remedied the situation.”

    Woopdie do! They moved some paint 6 inches. Barf.

    Very few car drivers can stay inside the painted lanes of the Couch curve. They swing into the bike lane. Most trucks and buses use their lane and the bike lane to navigate the curve.

    A huge puddle forms in the bike lane because there are spots were rain comes from all directions with no exit. When it dries up it leaves a perfect gravel pit in the bike lane. See the video from Steve.

    The project is 2 steps back for bikes, and the BTA is so freakin silent on the many flaws.

    The fix for the curve is so simple and cheap. Widen the sidewalk so there’s 12 feet for bikes and peds. Give the bike lane to the cars. The bikes lane should be on the curb level on the curve.

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    007 October 16, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    This is not my regular route but I do have a comment about bike boxes. They are great when one uses them. My pet peeve is that cyclists do not know how to use them. They will form a long single line in the bike lane when they should be collecting in the box and form a line after the box is full.
    This allows many bikers to start at once, faster riders can pull ahead of slower riders and a single line can be gradually formed.
    It is so annoying to have to get in the back of a long line while the box is empty.
    What the heck do cyclists think the box is for, anyway?

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