Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

Editorial: Portland’s golden opportunity to invest in downtown bike access

Posted by on January 15th, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Ride-along SW Broadway-9-6

This is what bicycling is like
in much of downtown Portland.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is prepping a $10.2 million list of active transportation projects they hope to get funded through a federal grant. According to sources at PBOT, conversations have already begun to focus all that money on a package of projects that would focus specifically on downtown bike access in the form of protected bike lanes and cycle tracks.

This is a golden opportunity we should not pass up.

The money is available through a pot of federal money doled out by Metro Council known as regional flexible funds. The amount of funding that will come to the City of Portland (for the 2016-18 cycle) is $14 million. As per a resolution passed by the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation in 2010, $10.2 million (or 75%) of that total must be spent on active transportation projects (the remaining $3.7 million will go to freight projects).

According to a January 7th memo from PBOT Active Transportation Division Manager Dan Bower, the City is working with the following set of criteria to decide which projects to fund:

  • Improving transportation safety
  • Maintaining transportation assets
  • Enhancing public health and livable communities
  • Supporting economic vitality

As I’ve shared on several occasions over the past few years, Portland has fallen woefully behind when it comes to quality bike access downtown. This is due to a lack of political will mixed with complicated funding dynamics (and yes, the two are closely related). When you look at the last several years of investments to improve bicycling conditions, PBOT has focused primarily on neighborhood greenways in north, northeast, and southeast Portland. Look downtown on the other hand and you see hardly any investment at all.

The only significant investments we’ve made downtown in the past few years are a protected bike lane on SW Broadway bordering Portland State University (about $50,000) and the newly widened and green-colored lanes on SW Stark and Oak (about $20,000). Both of those projects, combined with green bike boxes and a bike lane here and there, probably equals no more than $200,000 (or so) in total investment. In fact, there have not been any significant infrastructure projects downtown in recent memory where improved bike access was one of the primary components.

While the City’s recent investments to improve bike access in neighborhoods can be counted in tens of millions (a mix of PBOT revenue and grants from outside rouces, much of it in outer east Portland), the amount spent downtown — where many of those neighborhood bike trips end — has not kept pace.

One of PBOT’s stated goals with the neighborhood greenways was to get more people riding and thus “create a constituency” that would then demand — a.k.a. create political will for — higher-quality, low-stress bikeways that would take them out of their neighborhoods and directly to their destinations.

Everyone knows that in order to convince more people to try bicycling (an imperative if we are to reach our City Council adopted goals), PBOT must provide safer places to ride. Currently in downtown we have glaringly few places where the coveted “interested but concerned” demographic would feel safe. All of our main downtown bridges (Broadway, Steel, Burnside, Morrison and Hawthorne) lack adequate bike connections into downtown. Downtown itself is dominated by 4-5 foot bike lanes and streets without any dedicated bike space at all. On most streets (like SW 3rd and 4th) the only consideration PBOT has made for bicycling is to time traffic signals for biking speeds of 10-12 mph. For someone like me, sharing the road with people in cars at those speeds is fine. But for less experienced riders, or for people with young children in tow, it’s not pleasant.

In other words, the people we are trying to seduce into cycling have nowhere to ride downtown.

A few months ago at the barbershop, the topic of bicycling came up. The woman cutting my hair said she’d love to bike to work; but riding downtown seemed too scary. Her comment frustrated me because I know there are tens of thousands of people just like her.

To get people like her to ride, we have to step up our game. The next step in our evolution is to create a network of protected bike lanes similar to lanes popping up in New York City, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco, and many other cities. Also hovering over this opportunity is the forthcoming bike share system that will plop 740 bikes downtown. Bike share will have a much better chance at success if its customers can count on having a safe place to ride and people driving cars near them don’t have to worry about running into them.

PBOT’s budget is bleak and unstable. This $10.2 million dollars is a great chance to make up for lost time and finally invest downtown.

This is just the start of what should be a productive conversation about how — not if — we take the next step in making our city as competitive, accessible, and safe as it can be. I’m looking forward the discussion. Stay tuned.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

83
Leave a Reply

avatar
32 Comment threads
51 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
42 Comment authors
BcIndyJoe9wattsGreg Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Andrew N
Guest
Andrew N

YES.

Indy
Guest
Indy

Meh. Downtown is fine! I ride it all the time. I’m not really seeing how dedicated bikes lanes would solve much. The deaths that have occurred downtown are in right-hook environments, and you can’t have dedicated lanes at every bikeable intersection.

The average speed downtown is bike accessible. Bikes are a “known culture” aspect of Portland’s downtown, versus car heavy-cities like L.A. and NY.

How about more investment in serious pathways INTO downtown. Barbur is crucial, it’s not only SW Portland, it’s Tigard, parts of Beaverton, Sherwood. A serious swath of the metro population avoids biking because Barbur is scary as hell to ride down/up.

Invest more into serious pathways into/from the city and more people will take biking as a commute seriously.

peejay
Guest
peejay

How will the Oregonian, the WW, and our various TV news outlets frame this as money stolen from more “necessary and worthy” projects like pothole filling paving, to cater to the “special interest” of the “bicycle lobby”?

In advance, I award them points for persistence, if not creativity, and certainly not accuracy.

Alternatively, we can come out in front of them, and change the terms of the debate. As traditional media becomes more and more irrelevant, I suppose our odds increase, but we are up against a lot of resources, and I don’t have a lot of faith in our new mayor to stick his neck out in the face of an inaccurate media narrative.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

We need more bicycle “freeways”. Pedestrian-free would be preferable. I have to agree with those who say bike lanes downtown make little sense when the speed of traffic is already pretty much bike speed. All the addition of a bike lane does is legally force cyclists into the door zone and/or the right-hook zone. They do nothing but legally restrict freedom of movement for experienced cyclists and create a delusion/illusion of safety for inexperienced ones. So-called “cycle tracks”, without separate signal timing for different modes, and without right-on-red restrictions do little more than remove (driver’s-side only) dooring hazards, while further restricting bicyclist turning movements (and often restricting or preventing all movement, due to blockages by illegally-operating motor vehicles or other hazards around which there is no room to navigate), increasing intersection hazards and increasing conflicts with pedestrians. On low-speed downtown streets, visibility and position are key to safety; improper segregation and gutter-running make those things nearly impossible.

Yes, it is possible to build separated facilities that “work”, but we apparently have a policy against it here in America. What we have ended up with in just about every single case of an attempted “cycle track” in a city core is a glorified sidewalk that just creates pedal-destrians. If that’s all we’re going for, then just widen the stupid sidewalks and be done. If we’re going for truly function separated infrastructure, then it’s going to take a lot more than paint.

Andrew K
Guest
Andrew K

This is one of those rare editorials where my response is, “yup, I 100% agree.”

Hart Noecker
Guest

What we truly ‘need’ downtown are streets totally and completely free of space-hogging cars.

Brad
Guest
Brad

Sharrows downtown and better corridors into town like Barbur and Sullivan’s Gulch. Tired of hearing about “interested but concerned”. We’ve had that phrase for years now. If they haven’t summoned the courage by now, they will never have it.

Reza
Guest
Reza

Bike lanes in Downtown are often times poorly planned and haphazard for cyclists. Case in point: 3rd Avenue south of Madison Street. That lane is awful and just sets up right-hook opportunities at 3rd and Clay Street that I have either been witness to or been part of myself. Luckily I have not seen anyone hit there but it’s only a matter of time.

And don’t get me started on the Broadway hotel (door) zone bike lane. What a joke.

So I take the lane.

Reza
Guest
Reza

Bike lanes in Downtown CAN be useful on uphill stretches, so I will concede that point. Another useful investment would be to signalize every downtown intersection. Yes, probably more expensive than world-class separated bicycle infrastructure but perhaps more politically feasible?

There are long stretches around the North and South Park Blocks where east-west streets can become like mini-speedways. Broadway also needs signals at every intersection between the Bridge and Oak Street. Signalizing those intersections would be an easy start and would help calm traffic so that no driver is going faster than comfortable bicycle speed.

Steve B.
Guest

Yes! Let’s do this. All the more important to get important safety improvements done *before* all these interested but concerned folks hop on the new bike share.

Joe
Guest
Joe

Rez, I hear ya ride downtown everyday and its crazy, Ive had ppl swing into parking spots right in front of me, doors swing open. red light runners. cars get away with almost anything. I take the lane, but some auto fokes get made and try to pass or just act wrong.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Guest

Does everyone realize that one reason bike investment has stalled in Portland is because of how quickly people who care about bicycling begin to argue with one another?

Sharrows rule!
No! We need cycle tracks!
I’ll just take the lane!

Politicians and policymakers hear this and their feeling is, “Geez, if the ‘bicycling community’ can’t even come together, than I’m not going to put my neck out for it.”

I’m not saying that’s the right way for a politician to see it, nor do I believe the concept of a “bike community” is accurate or healthy … but I’m just pointing out what happens politically.

IMO, we can help this problem by trying to stay supportive of each other and remember that it takes a full menu of options to create a truly bike-friendly city. Also, this is about not being selfish and understanding that your needs do not match the needs of everyone else.

People don’t fit into the labels of “strong and fearless,” “interested but concerned,” and so on.

My wife, for instance, has been biking around for years with our kids. She’s not “strong and fearless” and she’s not “interested but concerned.” She’s a strong rider, but she’s concerned about the lack of good, safe connections – especially downtown.

Ian Stude
Guest

Thank you, Jonathan, for highlighting this issue. Downtown Portland is an important and vital part of our city, and it deserves to be accessibly by bike in a way that is equal in comfort to the east side. With 100k jobs, 50k students, and a countless number of shopping, recreating, and visitor based trips, downtown is still a very important node of activity in our city. To see it so under-served for those who choose to ride a bike, even occasionally, is an injustice to both our reputation and our goals. Sure, there are some great features that have been introduced in the last few years, like the lanes on Stark and Oak, but there are still way too many weak links. This is exactly why ridership is higher in the surrounding neighborhoods, and thousands of people like your barber don’t feel compelled to include downtown in their personal list of bike-able destinations.
I am hopeful that PBOT’s planned improvements and the introduction of bike share will lead to some remedy. But we are going to need even more than that. We need a concerted and focused effort to bring the PBA into the fold and see them commit to a shared vision for downtown that includes world-class bicycle facilities. We need advocates across the spectrum to support a vital downtown for people on bikes, even if it isn’t their #1 priority. We need architects, developers, and property managers to provide the kind of bicycle parking that accounts for nearly everyone owning a bike and most people using them on occasion. Most of all, we need political support from our elected officials so that our best and brightest minds at PBOT can bring these new designs to light without needing to worry so much about which influential constituents they might annoy or upset.
If Portland is going to continue to the wear the crown of best bike city in the US, we need to invest in a downtown that is truly worthy of the title. It’s heavy lift, but with enough hands, I have every confidence that we can do this.

Spiffy
Guest

people driving cars near them don’t have to worry about running into them.

odd, when I’m driving I’m never worried about running into a person on a bicycle…

Nate
Guest
Nate

How far does $10M get us toward turning the N&S Park Block streets to pedestrian and cyclist only thoroughfares? That is the type of ambitious project this should be allocated to. Plus, it is pretty practical, and would go a long way to making downtown more accessible to those ‘interested’ folks. Currently, there are no cross-core streets to go N/S, other than Broadway, which doesn’t do the trick for the cautious.

Close it down, limit the number of crossings (as at Madison/Main) to fewer (all signalized), and then we’d have a place that anyone could ride, while still leaving 3rd, 4th, etc for the folks who don’t need the safety of a car-free zone (like Jonathan, Indy, and myself).

CPAC
Guest
CPAC

I agree downtown needs work, particularly if we want the bike share to be successful. The biggest thing is connectivity, which is sorely lacking with many of our “better” bike paths. I’d suggest the following four improvements:

(1) a two-way cycle track on the East side of Naito, at least North past the steel bridge. Throw in a couple of better Naito crossing treatments, especially with Stark/Oak and with #4 below.

(2) changing the signal timing of all downtown streets to be like SW 2nd

(3) adding a N/S route up at the top of downtown (SW 13th?) with at least the wide bike likes like Oak/Stark, or (if feasible) a separated bikeway, and a good Burnside crossing.

(4) adding a southern E/W route like Oak/Stark, somewhere between Jefferson and Market that links up with both N/S routes (Naito and (?)13th).

We’d have a nice connected box for getting around downtown, and slower traffic to deal with inside the box.

Reza
Guest
Reza

I sometimes call this the “Gift and the Curse” of the Downtown Street Grid. The gift is that with its high intersection density and short blocks, Downtown is eminently walkable, and it’s very easy to walk a mile or mile without feeling like you’ve traversed that distance.

The curse is that there is there is no noticeable “hierarchy” of streets in Downtown that would allow a bicycle boulevard network to be built as cheaply as it has been on the Eastside. There is no distinguishing between “arterials”, “collectors” and local streets south of Burnside Street (except for Naito Parkway, the Park Blocks, and a few other streets on the periphery) and that means it requires expensive separated infrastructure to cultivate the kind of safe and comfortable environment that families and other vulnerable users have been able to utilize on the Eastside. Expensive because not only are you taking away auto capacity, but you are also installing dedicated bicycle signals at every intersection along a corridor, and there are a LOT of them.

This would be require a total paradigm shift of thinking for PBOT, as they have mostly done the projects that are the “low-hanging fruit”, such as neighborhood greenways on low-traffic residential streets. I see the Downtown situation as analogous to the frustrations that people have with not having good quality bicycle infrastructure on commercial corridors like on Williams, Hawthorne, 28th, Sandy, etc. The same sort of issues with cost, political feasibility, loss of parking, etc. crop up in both cases.

It will be interesting to see how the agency evolves in the next few years under Hales.

Brian Davis
Guest
Brian Davis

This is a terrific article and I hope many eyeballs at PBOT find their way to it and take your advice.

I’m leaving this comment from DC (in town for the Transportation Research Board meeting w/ many Portland Staters and other PDX folks). If they haven’t passed Portland as a bike city yet, it’s close (infrastructure-wise, at least…culturally, we still rule!). Here, I can take a bike-share bike down to Pennsylvania Avenue, where, on perhaps the nation’s most important and famous street, there’s a gorgeous two-way protected lane with bike-specific signals, bike specific turn lanes, and the whole ball of wax. And it’s hardly the only one…new lanes on L street and 15th Street help make for a network where many origins and destinations can be reached entirely on separated (or otherwise comfortable for 8-80 year olds) facilities.

While Portland continues to do many of the little things–signal timing, bike parking, pavement quality, etc.–better than our counterparts (though still not perfectly), it’s hard to talk about Portland as the nation’s best bike city with a straight face when cities like DC and New York are giving cyclists dedicated space on their busiest and most important streets while we have not. I hope the time has come.

CPAC
Guest
CPAC

Nate
How far does $10M get us toward turning the N&S Park Block streets to pedestrian and cyclist only thoroughfares? That is the type of ambitious project this should be allocated to.

I like this idea too.

Livellie
Guest
Livellie

More infrastructure downtown? No thanks. I find downtown to be a fairly safe place to ride. It’s controlled. It’s crowded. It’s slow moving. People are more alert and aware. Just stay clear of the crappy bike infrastructure that currently exists. At best, those green boxes, green lanes and bike lanes only provide an illusion of safety and at worse, they’re death traps.

paul g.
Guest
paul g.

Why the focus on downtown? On what basis do bicycle advocates think it is a more efficient and effective use of transportation dollars to improve access downtown (where, after all, we are soon going to have bike share; where much of downtown is pedestrian accessible and friendly; where many office workers have schedules and dress demands that preclude cycling)

versus neighborhoods where many citizens use cars for short trips that could easily be replaced by bike/foot and where the conflicts between trucks, cars, bikes, and pedestrians are far less severe

or for that matter versus bike corridors like Springwater which may pencil out to be very successful on a dollars invested / usage basis?

The downtown centric approach sounds an awful lot like the way TriMet currently operates in a hub/spoke manner that has left many in the city underserved.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“… A few months ago at the barbershop, the topic of bicycling came up. The woman cutting my hair said she’d love to bike to work; but riding downtown seemed too scary. …” maus/bikeportland

No details reported here from the woman barber about what seems scary to her about riding downtown…what type of rider she considers herself to be…what type bike she rides, how often…what average speed she believes she could maintain on grades typical of Downtown streets.

If Downtown Portland’s streets could be retrofitted within existing right of way to be inviting…less scary…to people not exceeding 10-12 mph on the flats, and slower on Downtown’s uphill grades, there may be some people of that type that might consider riding downtown.

Jake
Guest

love the topics that prompt lots of comments. glad to live in a city where people want the biking to be better. wish there were many more millions of dollars to make cycling in Portland safer and more accessible.

Andyc of Linnton
Guest
Andyc of Linnton

Yes! Let’s hope some forward-thinking ideas go through, and whichever designs make the most sense.
I’m pretty comfortable, personally, riding downtown, only because this is only how it’s been for years and years and years.
There are some tricky situations to deal with, but let’s get going already and figure them out!
I honestly believe some auto-free routes are in order. Both North-South and East-West.
It’s time for downtown to have something world-class about it. Way past time.

A
Guest
A

I live downtown and ended up selling my bike because I’m too chicken to ride in traffic with cars. So I walk, take trimet instead. That’s an okay solution for me, but did want to agree with the point that biking downtown is scary for some of us.

KAW
Guest
KAW

“All of our main downtown bridges (Broadway, Steel, Burnside, Morrison and Hawthorne) lack adequate bike connections into downtown.”

I could not agree more, Jonathan. Using Roger Geller’s four types (in a different way than he intended) to describe my current weekday commute: starting in SE Portland I’m Strong and Fearless; nearing the river I switch to Enthused and Confident; but I sink quickly to Interested and Concerned as I get to the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge and begin the one to three-block process of transitioning south to get to work. This is much more of a barrier to me (female and over 40) than weather or traffic volume has been or will ever be. It’s those few minutes of my 6-mile trip that discourage me from commuting to downtown by bike as often as I would like.

How about bike-only light signals (similar to the one at the Steel Bridge at N Interstate) to facilitate diagonal left turns at the base of several bike-busy bridges? Maybe design it so that pedestrians could also safely cross diagonally. I’m okay fending for myself on all but the largest and most congested of streets in the region, but I do resent being forced to daily make a series of dangerous maneuvers to simply turn left off of the busiest bike bridge in the state.

All that said, I do want to take a moment to say I’m always amazed and thankful at how patient, kind, or just plain tolerant most drivers and bikers are in this town towards each other, and I’ve been grateful for years at the exploration, effort, and investment all of us have made and continue to make in biking infrastructure – wherever in the city it happens and whatever form it takes. It’s wonderful to have the luxury and opportunity to continue to work towards making it even better.

seeshellbike
Guest
seeshellbike

IMO the worst parts of riding downtown for me (an experienced rider) is all the tracks. PBOT has yet to come up with a plan and solutions to make riding around and across these safer. One bad fall could turn a novice off riding completely. If there are more protected bikeways but the issue of safety around tracks is not resolved then we have only addressed half the problem. Downtown routes needs to be safe, seamless and consistent to attract new and more riders. Riding thru downtown is the most stressful part of my commute, but unfortunately the most direct.

Terry D
Guest
Terry D

I am a confident rider that has been commuting through downtown since the 1990’s. That said, the downtown bikeway system is TERRIBLE. There should be facilities for everyone. There are some great ideas out there, but one that has not be mentioned or stressed enough is Morrison/Yamhill. It would be incredible easy to make them bikes only with one local bus. The few random spaces could be turned into parklets, and there can be local access in a few blocks where needed for certain businesses and loading zones. It could connect to the 20th avenue Greenway and the Morrison bridge easily. This is not enough however. We need a complete grid network.

How about this map to start? It increases access to each bridge and creates routes for everyone. I have short explanations for each route. Something should also be done with 3rd/4th…maybe devote one lane to two way bike traffic?

https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=217379782128468346794.0004d3434ba2ff4beefbb&msa=0&ll=45.527757,-122.682009&spn=0.037641,0.08935

John Landolfe
Guest

Jonathan, I fully agree with your assessment. We need to toss out this idea that transportation equity means focusing on the bubbles around where people live. Transportation means motion! People from the east side are traveling, in large numbers, downtown. If we look at the people who are interested in biking but not comfortable in traffic, and match them to where they work, I’m sure the largest concentration of these people work downtown.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

If I were to summarize my thoughts on this issue in a single phrase, it would be, “do it right or don’t do it.” Half-measures are usually worse than nothing.

Of course, my definition of “right” might be different from somebody else’s, but to me it means two things: safe AND efficient. If I don’t have the option to go the speed of parallel auto traffic (within reason, usually not much more than 30mph on a downhill, 15-20 if it’s flat), then efficiency is harmed and I’d be better off in my car. If I am hidden from motorists’ view and must stop/yield at every intersection to avoid being run over, then safety and efficiency are reduced. If I must share a bikeway with pedestrians, both factors go down. If I must go far out of my way, or use multi-stage pedestrian maneuvers to perform the same movements that parallel auto traffic performs in a single fluid step, then efficiency is again reduced. You see what I mean. Of course there are situations where compromising efficiency for safety makes sense, but those situations should not be artificially imposed, as they seem to be with some designs.

The ease and economy with which certain roadway improvements can be done “right” increases with the complexity of the type of improvement. Doing nothing, or adding signs or “sharrows” reminding drivers that “Bicycles allowed use of full lane” is the least complicated, easiest to do “right”. Bike lanes are pretty easy to do “right”, to the extent that Oregon law, which has been done “wrong”, allows. Separated/segregated infrastructure, such as “cycle tracks” is the most complicated and most difficult and expensive to do right, and so most often falls victim to “value engineering” that creates something that looks good on the surface, but is dangerous or not very functional in practice. Such attempts to build cheap separated infrastructure usually result in the worst of all possible worlds. “Cheap”, non-functional bike infrastructure has the side-effect of giving detractors shining examples to point to with comments such as “how much did they spend on that? And nobody even uses it!” (meaning, “we shouldn’t spend any money on ‘bike stuff'”). Or, “this is the kind of bike infrastructure we don’t need, because it’s just dangerous in addition to being slow” (interpreted as, “What a bunch of whiners! What do those holier-than-thou bike hippies want, anyway–bike lanes paved with gold? We shouldn’t spend one more dime on those ingrates!”).

Joe
Guest
Joe

Have to be real ride savy riding downtown.

Bc
Guest
Bc

I live,work and ride downtown, and I know that there’s plenty of room in our existing road network there for the kind of safe, inviting infrastructure I’ve ridden in in places like Copenhagen and Utrecht. What’s missing is the political will to challenge a few vested interests who might have to give up a few parking spaces so that thousands more people will bike instead of driving downtown. Safe infrastructure would bring more shoppers and activity downtown, as it has in other cities. But we need a concrete vision, not just a vague plea for better bikeways. Suppose a group of knowledgeable bike advocates drew up an ideal — i.e. not one compromised from the start — plan for downtown infrastructure, ran it by the public in public meetings, documented and quantified the many public benefits it would bring (less congestion, more retail activity, lower paving and maintenance costs, reduced carbon footprint and pollution, etc etc). And then, in the next few elections, we demand that every candidate for elected city leadership positions answer this question: do you or do you not commit to building the consensus Portland Downtown Bicycle Network by 2020? A single, tangible goal like that might help focus elections on these transportation / environmental issues and draw plenty of allies , like the coalition that gave us Max and waterfront park a generation ago. If elected officials wont support it, might some kind of bond issue referendum might even be possible?