Friends of Barbur is a grassroots advocacy group started by citizen activists Kiel Johnson and Owen Walz. Their goal? To turn SW Barbur Blvd. — a high-speed state highway (99W) that runs adjacent to I-5 south of Portland — into a more comfortable place to ride a bike. Kiel (who you might recall as the Bike Train guy) and Owen (a freelance 3D modeler and sketch artist for design firms) combined forces to create a more bike-friendly vision of Barbur as their project for the Portland State University Traffic and Transportation class.
Transportation activist and BikePortland contributor Steve Bozzone asked Kiel and Owen a few questions about their efforts… But first, here’s one more of those amazing illustrations of what a bike-friendly would Barbur could look like..
What inspired you two to create Friends of Barbur?
“What would happen if the 1,000 people who ride Barbur everyday showed up in front of ODOT and wouldn’t leave until ODOT decided to make some improvements? I want to find out.”
— Kiel Johnson, Friends of Barbur
Owen: We’ve both had to brave this route many times, having both lived in outer SW while maintaining busy lives in town. I chose to investigate cycling improvements along Barbur as part of my coursework at PSU’s Traffic and Transportation class. Kiel, having heard discussion of the issue in the activist community, joined in on the project as a community liaison. It occurred to us that we should try to keep some momentum going after the class, and form a group to unite the various parties interested in improving Barbur.
Kiel: There are few places left in Portland where you are forced to ride your bike next to cars going 50 mph. Whether or not you believe in God you start talking to him when you share one of the unlit bridges on Barbur with cars. During one of these experience I promised God that if he let me safely cross this bridge I would do everything I could to make Barbur a safer place for all people using it. Now if I die while going up Barbur at least people will be able to say, “he tried to make it better”.
You recently held a meeting about this project with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), how did that go?
Kiel: Everyone at the meeting was very receptive. There is a lot of enthusiasm and momentum for getting some improvements along Barbur. The challenge is going to be effectively channeling all that energy and getting as many people on board so that the Oregon Department of Transportation has to make some changes. Everyone has something to say about Barbur but if we are all yelling at ODOT nothing is going to happen. We need to create one really loud voice that they cannot ignore. This voice needs to include not just bicyclists, but motorists, pedestrians, and transit users.
As far as you know, has anyone else worked on similar efforts in the past?
Kiel: Yes, the Oregon Department of Transportation has looked into making improvements several times. Currently there are a lot of tools — like bike sharrows and separated cycle tracks — that the Portland Bureau of Transportation have been successfully applying throughout Portland. We want the Oregon Department of Transportation to consider some of these tools to make Barbur a safer place.
Owen: It’s clear that multiple organizations have been discussing the state of Barbur for a while now (including the BTA). There are plans involving the area, including one referred to as the ‘SW Corridor Refinement Plan.’ My impression was that most were long-term, ambitious plans. We heard about a plan that would route active transportation onto an extension of the SW Trails system running parallel to Barbur (potentially adding new bike/ped bridges along the way).
Who else is interested in seeing improvements to Barbur? Who would most benefit from them?
“Only 9% of all cyclists on Barbur are female, the lowest ratio of any bike route in Portland.”
Kiel: It is very important to talk about how doing this would benefit all Barbur users, not just cyclists. When I drive up Barbur I am very anxious that I am going to hit a cyclist. Sharing the road at such high speeds creates a dangerous situation for cars too, as they try to change lanes and rapidly slow down. Pedestrians would also benefit. Improving the bridge crossings would also create more room and distance from cars to be a pedestrian.
Right now Barbur is for the “Strong and the Fearless” and the “I just don’t have any other choice” rider. Only 9% of all cyclists on Barbur are female, the lowest ratio of any bike route in Portland. If we figure out why this number is so low we can make Barbur a safe bicycling option for many more people. Barbur connects many SW neighborhoods to the rest of Portland and if we are going to make bicycling a useful option to the 36,000 people who live in SW Portland we need to make Barbur a safer place to ride your bike.
Owen: Surprisingly there are a great deal of commuters using Barbur already (1,000 average daily bike trips by one count), and certainly their interests are in mind. In addition to working commuters, certainly the student population at Lewis and Clark would appreciate easier access to central Portland.
What’s next for Friends of Barbur? What can interested individuals do to support your work?
Kiel: Once we have developed a plan we want to do everything possible to make sure the people at ODOT know about it and know that there is support behind it. This will involve going around and getting community groups and businesses on board and showing up at ODOT with all these people. It took several years and lot of people standing in front of City Hall before Copenhagen decided to create the bike infrastructure it has today, there is no reason to think that Portland is any different. What would happen if the 1,000 people who ride Barbur everyday showed up in front of ODOT and wouldn’t leave until ODOT decided to make some improvements? I want to find out.
Owen: I would encourage interested individuals stay in touch with the BTA on this issue, as they would likely be involved with any proposal put forth. We’ve started a Facebook page called ‘Friends of Barbur.’ We hope the that number of ‘Likes’ that accumulate there will give a sense of how many people support improvements in the area. We would love to see any design suggestions posted to the ‘Friends of Barbur’ wall.
You heard them folks, get over to the Friends of Barbur Facebook page to learn more and show your support of this effort. These guys have the skills and the energy to keep this going. I wonder if this will be the first Facebook-based transportation activism effort that gains some traction in Portland?
We’ll follow the progress and keep you updated.