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Checking in on the SW 12th Avenue project

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

The City wants to create dedicated bike access on SW 12th, but business owners and developers aren’t so sure it’s a good idea. Yet.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

I am overdue in checking in on PBOT’s plans to improve bike access on SW 12th. If you recall, back in March PBOT announced they would re-allocate space on the north-south downtown street in order to make it a nicer place to ride a bike. Unfortunately, local businesses objected to the plan and PBOT has since decided to put it on hold indefinitely.

While I was away on vacation back in May, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) shared that the reason the project has been put on pause is because of objections by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and a group of local business owners and developers.

“We would encourage the City to evaluate other options than the 12th Avenue Bike Lane Project.”
A letter signed by downtown business owners and developers

On April 12th a group of nine business owners and developers sent a letter to the PBOT project manager (PDF) stating their specific objections to the project. In the letter, they question the need for a “bike only lane that would eliminate a lane of traffic” (they must not think a bike only lane is a lane of traffic). “Unsure as to the demand” for more robust bicycle access and concerned about how the new road configuration would impact traffic flow and new developments, the business interests asked for a detailed traffic analysis to be performed.

One line that stands out in their letter is, “Please explain why the existing bike lanes on Broadway and on 14th are not adequate.”

The letter was signed by nine people and was cc’d to Mayor Sam Adams and PBOT Director Tom Miller:

In a one-two punch that sent PBOT scrambling back to their corner, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) penned a letter of their own on April 26th that shared even broader concerns about the project.

The PBA stated they are uncomfortable that this project was being planned, “outside a comprehensive land use and transportation strategy for the central city” and that, while they support projects like this in general, the 12th Avenue plan was “moving too quickly.” While the mentioned similar concerns about future development, they also shared more specific and technical concerns such as how new bike access would impact TriMet LIFT vehicles that service local elderly residents.

One interesting objection they raised had to do with bike speeds on SW 12th (which is a downhill):

“SW 12th Avenue is essentially a downhill ride for its full length, bicyclists are likely to achieve speeds that match auto speeds at which the traffic signals are set. Thus the need or justification for a cycle-track should be in question.”

The PBA also added that other “demonstration” projects PBOT has done downtown, like the protected bike lane on SW Broadway near Portland State University and the buffered bike lanes on Stark and Oak, should be re-evaluated. “We are concerned,” they wrote, “that the evaluation was left without a broader process of stakeholders to determine whether or not these demonstration projects should remain in place.”

In a blog post today, the Portland Mercury posted a follow-up on this story. In it, a PBA spokesperson said they simply want a “better understanding” of how the project would impact the area. The BTA’s advocacy director Gerik Kransky told the Mercury he feels the business interests have “some valid points” but that he’s “disappointed” in their “reflexive opposition” to the project and their “outdated mentality.”

From my perspective, there remain questions about the business backlash to this project, how it was rolled out by PBOT, and what the future holds not just for SW 12th, but for all future bike access improvements downtown.

I have long been concerned about how PBOT holds private meetings with certain stakeholders (business interests in this case) before they do any public process, especially when that private meeting results in stopping a project. Business owners are an important stakeholder group, but they should not have sole veto power. And, as we’ve seen with other projects around town, a few business interests can easily (too easily?) scare off PBOT and City Hall.

While some downtown business interests are skeptical about the need for improved bike access, without looking into it further, it’s difficult to tease out whether they are opposed to bicycling in general, or whether they could warm up to projects if they were framed and/or pursued differently.

That being said, hopefully the BTA and PBOT will not let these objections stall progress on creating more robust bike access downtown. With bike share a reality, this is an issue we’ll be forced to come to terms with. There is clearly some education to do with these business owners, and the sooner we do it and move this conversation forward, the better.

Stay tuned.