This guest post is by Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot, a new “10-minute newsmagazine” and wiki about low-car life in Portland.
(Photo © J. Maus)
When I asked Allen Morgan, TriMet’s head operations safety trainer, if mixing cars, buses, bikes, MAX and pedestrians on two narrow streets in downtown Portland had been the right decision, he paused.
“Initially,” he said, “I would have told you it was a crazy idea.”
It was the night of Aug. 12. I’d just spent the day walking up and down 5th and 6th Avenues, struggling to find any pedestrians or retail managers with nice things to say about the new every-mode Transit Mall, which opened in 2009. Morgan had just spent an hour listening to an out-of-town consultant tell TriMet bosses that Morgan’s department was heavily understaffed.
When it came to the transit mall, Morgan was choosing his words carefully.
“We’ve had lots of close calls,” he said.
Despite his ongoing worries, Morgan said he’d been relieved by the mall’s nearly spotless safety record in its first year.
What neither of us knew at the time was that, an hour before and a few blocks away, an OHSU medical student on a bike had nearly become the new mall’s first fatality.
I’ve since had more than a dozen conversations about the mall with city, TriMet and business leaders, and I can tell you one thing: After a decade-long argument about parking, driving, pedaling, walking and rolling on 5th and 6th, everyone is eager to declare this problem solved.
“… half the retailers I talked to said they don’t see any benefit from having cars on the street.”
But is it? As Portland Afoot‘s print edition reports this month, you don’t have to see safety problems to question the new mall – half the retailers I talked to said they don’t see any benefit from having cars on the street.
I’ll tell you how I feel: I don’t think Portland can afford to end this conversation now.
So let’s keep it going. What are your ideas for making this couplet in the heart of our city better? Here’s a sample of the ideas I’ve heard so far.
Dan Anderson, city spokesman: no need for improvements. (One of many officials who said this.)
“We’re definitely happy with the mall. It was about 15 years of work to get it in. So, no plan at all for long-term or short-term changes.”
Eva MS, blogging TriMet operator: More signs.
“How about “CARS THIS LANE ONLY” all the way up and down the left hand lane on 5th and 6th Avenue? How about large informational placards educating people of the severe dangers of our new transit mall? If we do not admit that the dangers exist and are real, we are like the ostrich who supposedly sticks its head in the sand; the dangers do not go away by us ignoring them.”
Dan Zalkow, PSU transportation planner and director: physical barriers.
“More signals should be placed along the mall to distinguish between the transit lanes and the car lanes. Potentially a post at the beginning and end of each block, with a sign that says cars on this side, transit on this side. Some more physical barriers in the street.”
Douglas Obletz, acting executive director of Portland Mall Management: fewer signs.
“TriMet and the city would put up ‘do not do this, do not do that’ all over the place if they had their druthers. Those ones that were recently added were not what we favored. We fought long and hard on behalf of the business community to reduce the clutter of signage. All this stuff is governed by the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The problem is that there isn’t another project like this anywhere else in the country.”
Jessica Roberts, program manager, Alta Planning and Design: drop the car lane. (One of many who brought this up.)
“Drivers cannot understand where they can and can’t go. They just don’t get it. With only a single non-transit lane, everything backs up when anything happens. So someone’s waiting to turn or you have maybe a bicyclist that’s slow and they’re taking the lane, as they probably should be. You have heavy pedestrian volumes, and somebody’s waiting to make their prescribed left-hand turn off the transit mall. It backs everybody up, pisses everybody off. What about turning it into a pedestrian space?”
Jim Howell, AORTA director: Replace MAX with streetcar.
“Take MAX off the mall. Run streetcars up and down the mall, every 5 minutes. Streetcars are far more appropriate for mall operation. It would be less expensive to operate the light rail system, because you wouldn’t be creeping up and down the mall with 200-foot trains.”
OK, your turn.
— The cover story of Portland Afoot’s November issue is about ordinary commuters with awesome obsessions. BikePortland readers in the metro area can subscribe for $10 a year with coupon code “bikeportland.” Email Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.