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

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.

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