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PBOT’s new plans for N Williams surprise stakeholders

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

PBOT traffic engineer Rob Burchfield
answers questions at the open house.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

After 16 months and countless meetings, PBOT has revealed how they plan to improve bicycle access and traffic safety on N Williams Avenue. And much to the surprise of Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) members, part of those plans include maintaining two full lanes for auto traffic in the busiest portion of the road.

At the “final” open house for their North Williams Traffic Operations Safety Project, held Saturday at a church on Williams, PBOT rolled out new posterboards explaining the project, a 3-D simulation of the proposed changes, and they had project staff, SAC members, and traffic engineers on hand to answer questions.

Mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith
talks with SAC Chair Debora Hutchins.

The event was well-attended, with a mix of people showing up to learn more and to leave feedback. In a nod to how political and important this project has become (Mayor Adams has been involved as have both former and current Oregon state representatives), mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith showed up. I noticed that he sat down and had conversations with SAC member Michelle DePass and SAC Chair Debora Hutchins.

As many of you know, the 26-member stakeholder advisory committee (SAC) for this project has played a major role in shaping the plans. After some neighborhood residents and activists spoke out with concerns of racial insensitivity, a lack of respect from PBOT for the neighborhood’s African American history, and an SAC that was not diverse enough; the City paused the project and added nine new faces to the committee.

Last month, the SAC made their final recommendation to PBOT. That recommendation included a left-side, buffered bike lane and one standard vehicle lane between Broadway and Killingsworth — except for one section between Fremont and Skidmore. In that busy commercial area*, the SAC recommended a “shared left‐turn lane/bikeway.” (*Note that removal of on-street auto parking to create more space for moving traffic was never really considered during this process.)

On Saturday, some members of the SAC were alarmed to find that PBOT had changed their recommendation and the designs they saw at the open house were not what they had agreed to. I’ll share more about that below. For now, let’s take a closer look at the proposed designs (thanks to Fat Pencil Studio for the simulations)…

PBOT will begin to merge the bikeway over to the left just north of Weidler. As Williams approaches Broadway, a new, bike-only lane will between two standard lanes. The lane on the right of the bike lane will be for through traffic and the lane to the left will be for traffic entering I-5…

Just near the freeway entrance PBOT will include a passing lane in the bikeway that will merge into a seven-foot wide bike lane buffered from parked cars on the left (by a two-foot buffer) and moving traffic on the right (by a three-foot buffer)…

Please note: That blue thing is just the cursor.

Here’s the cross-section showing the left-side buffered bike lane that will run from Broadway to just north of Fargo (except for around N Graham, which I’ve shared below this image)…

The buffered lane ends briefly at the intersection with Graham where the road splits between a median. At that point, we’re left with a standard bike lane (on the left of left-turning cars no less):

With much of the bike traffic on Williams Ave heading east (turning right), some folks have wondered how they will go from the left side of the street, across a lane of auto traffic, to turn right. There’s always the simple merge; but for folks that want help, PBOT has a design at intersections to facilitate crossing to the right. Here’s how it looks at Tillamook…

Leading up to Fargo, the design begins to transition away from the buffered bike lane configuration and into the shared environment. The markings to communicate this transition would include left-turn arrows and triangular yield strips just ahead of sharrows. Here’s an up-close look at it…

Then something interesting happened (and this is where things got a bit testy at the open house).

The SAC recommended that, after a transition area, the design should be a shared left turn lane/bikeway beginning at Fremont. But that’s not what PBOT brought to the open house. Instead, they showed a two standard lane configuration next to a standard (non-buffered) bike lane (essentially, exactly what we have now, just with bikes on the left side).

According to PBOT traffic engineer Rob Burchfield, they “refined” their previous traffic analysis (which showed one standard lane for the entirety of the project would be feasible) and came to the conclusion that two full standard lanes would be required between Cook and Fremont. Here’s how that block would look (Note: This is the block where the new New Seasons Market will be built):

Suffice it to say, some folks — including SAC members — were not happy to see this design. And they were even less happy to see it revealed at the open house without any prior warning. Note the feedback via post-it notes in the photo below…

Segment between Cook and Fremont.

Here’s a closer look at the cross-section in the plans between Cook and Fremont (in addition to a half-block leading up to and after that section):

PBOT’s Rob Burchfield said the city feels two standard lanes are needed in this area to avoid auto congestion due of the volume of car traffic coming off the I-5 freeway onto Williams via Cook combined with all the new trips and auto circulation that is expected to come with the New Seasons Market on that block. Without two two lanes, the city feels, there won’t be enough green time in the traffic signals to “service the traffic” to the extent they feel comfortable with.

“I think we need to recognize, that with New Seasons coming, you’re going to get people circulating in and out of that intersection,” said Burchfield.

SAC members Susan Peithman (of the BTA)
and Deborah Hutchins express concerns to
PBOT project manager Rich Newlands.

At the open house, PBOT project staff got an earful from SAC members and others. They wanted to know why PBOT decided to show this two standard lane configuration. “It doesn’t match up with our adopted stated outcomes for the project… This is not what we agreed to,” one of them pointed out to PBOT.

“Neither congestion nor parking is on the list of outcomes,” said another person looking at the plans, “and yet we have two lanes and parking on both sides of the street at the expense of having a safe bike facility throughout.”

It’s true. Of the top 10 outcomes adopted by the SAC for this project, none of them include maintaining a specific amount of capacity for autos (although, before the SAC even began to meet, the question of removing parking in this dense commercial area seemed to be, for some reason, off the table):

While some SAC members were flummoxed after seeing these designs, PBOT was open to their input and they are already planning to meet to iron out changes that need to be made. We’ll keep you posted on how/if the design changes.

Beyond Fremont, the idea is to make it clear that the left lane is only for through bike traffic and left-turning auto traffic. To help drive that point home, PBOT will place a small median with a sign attached to it at the start of each block. Here’s an example (at Beech) where the shared left lane crosses a street…

And a close-up of the entry to the block…

This shared environment will continue all the way up to N. Alberta, where the left-side buffered bike lane will return…

I hope that makes the plans a bit more clear. Of course, the devil is in the details on this one.

Since much of these plans rely on a buffered bike lane, a design that PBOT has acknowledged is not working as planned on SW Stark Street downtown, some people wonder how PBOT will make sure cars stay out of it here on Williams. Others are concerned about the shared-lane concept, and whether or not it will feel comfortable.

Open house attendee Emily Guise said she already avoids the busy commercial section of Williams because it’s “so stressful.” Her friend Erik Soltan said he doesn’t like the shared lane idea. “I don’t like the idea of being in a shared lane,” he said. In particular, he’s “nervous” about cars accessing the on-street parking on the left side of the shared lane. “They need to eliminate the left-hand parking, because cars will be cutting over the bike lane to get to it.”

Then there are the funding issues. PBOT currently has just $250,000 for this entire project. They could get to work on much of the lane reconfiguring with that budget, or they could add just one of the three signals asked for by the SAC. Hanging over that decision is that the request for signals is strongest among the area’s older residents and the lane reconfigurations would likely be seen as the thing most wanted by people who bike.

In other words, it could be politically risky if PBOT were to reconfigure the lanes first, and put off — once again — adding the new traffic signals that many in the community have been clamoring for for decades. On the other hand, PBOT and City Hall are feeling pressure from some corners to do something soon to improve traffic safety and better handle the crowded bike lane (after all, this project began 16 months ago).

Given the design details that still need to be worked out, the funding issues, and the politics around the project, unless more money can be identified (and the City now says they’ll apply for a federal Transportation Enhancement grant to help pay for it), I could see us waiting quite some time before anything moves forward. I hope I’m wrong.

If you missed the open house, please consider commenting on these designs to PBOT project manager Rich Newlands at rich.newlands@portlandoregon.gov. Stay tuned for updates.