“Our design standards still point to bike lanes for this particular project… After reviewing the data, a physically separated bicycle facility did not appear to be warranted.”
— Jilayne Jordan, ODOT Community Affairs
Our story last week about an Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) “safety project” on NE Sandy Blvd has gotten the agency’s attention. After being emailed by several readers who questioned the agency’s chosen design for handling bike access in the project, ODOT community affairs staff sent out a detailed, bulk email on Friday afternoon. The email explains why ODOT chose standard bike lanes on the busy freight route instead of something with more separation — like a cycle track or a buffered bike lane — as recommended by their own design guidelines.
As per the project, ODOT is widening a 1.1 mile stretch of Sandy to include a center turn lane as well as two, six-foot wide bike lanes. ODOT Region 1 Community Affairs Coordinator Jilayne Jordan says the new turn lane is intended to reduce rear-end and other collisions and serve as, “a refuge for vehicles turning left onto or off of the highway.”
The addition of bike lanes are a step forward from the gravel-strewn shoulders that exist there today. However, merely widening that shoulder and painting a stripe on it doesn’t seem like much in a $3.6 million project aimed at improving safety.
In their response, ODOT listed several reasons why they are moving forward with the bike lanes and not a more appealing bikeway.
There’s the budget…
“Halting construction, starting a new design, obtaining new permits and buying necessary right of way would increase the project cost, exceeding the total budget… ODOT is increasingly concerned about ensuring its projects are completed on time and on budget, particularly during these difficult economic times when transportation dollars are few and precious.”
And the lack of roadway space…
“The widths of the travel lanes and the sidewalk being built as part of this project are already at the recommended minimum and cannot be reduced without creating safety and mobility problems for highway users.”
But what about how their own design manual calls for a more robust bikeway design? ODOT says that even if they used the new, 2012 Highway Design Manual (which includes the 2011 Bicycle and Pedestrian Design Guide as an appendix), their decision to provide two six-foot bike lanes “would likely remain unchanged.”
“We do not design our bicycle facilities using just the Recommended Separation Matrix or the associated Separation Context Matrix from the 2011 Bicycle and Pedestrian Design Guide…
When making design decisions, we must also take into consideration a variety of other factors, including the context of the roadway, location of adjacent or connecting bicycle facilities (such as the existing bike lanes on Sandy Boulevard between NE 102nd Avenue and NE 122nd Avenue), availability of right-of-way, a roadway’s functional classification, whether or not it’s a freight route, expressway or scenic byway, if it’s a heavily used bicycle route, if there’s a history of bike-involved collisions, etc. Based on all these considerations, our design standards still point to bike lanes for this particular project.”
Jordan said the project team did consider more significant bike access, but that, “After reviewing the data, a physically separated bicycle facility did not appear to be warranted.”
Another thing ODOT pointed out in their reply (and during a phone call I had with them about this last week), is that no one raised these concerns during the public comment period. The time to have effective input into a project like this is two years before it goes into construction. Jordan then shared details about ODOT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), which is updated every few years and which has many ways for the public to track the projects in it.
I hear this range of excuses a lot from transportation agencies: That there aren’t enough people bicycling on X roadway to warrant a robust bike facility; that there’s not enough right-of-way to go around; that it would cost too much; and the big one — that if people want different outcomes, they should become more engaged in the public process.
I understand the importance of activists getting involved at the right time during a project’s evolution in order to lobby for changes. Effective input at the right time can push back against all those excuses above. But the truth is, most people — especially the ones we should be building our streets for — are not activists. They just want safe transportation options and the same quality of access to our streets whether they’re in a car or on a bike.
Relying on citizen activists to influence project outcomes will never lead to the change in the transportation status quo we are all pushing for. There must be a balance. Agencies (this story could easily be about PBOT, Multnomah County, and so on) need to do more activism themselves. That means not hiding behind outdated guidelines and claims that “there isn’t enough funding” when hundreds of millions are being spent on highway-widening projects and we continue to build streets primarily for cars when our future depends on better access for bicycles.