with the dangerous and outdated Barbur Blvd.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
(NOTE: The headline of this story was originally, “When it comes to bicycling, SW Barbur Blvd is an embarrassment.” But after realizing that it’s just terrible and dangerous for everyone, I removed the bicycling part. — Jonathan)
Let’s be honest: SW Barbur Blvd, which is perfectly positioned to be the cycling conduit between southwest and downtown Portland, is a relic of traffic engineering. Its design is about five decades out-of-date and by lacking basic safe facilities for people on bicycles, it does not live up to the standards Portland prides itself on.
We’ve written about projects, plans, and tragedies on SW Barbur Blvd for years and have ridden on it several times. But Tuesday night, during the You Need A Better Barbur Pedalpalooza ride (and following two weeks in Copenhagen and the Netherlands where bicycles are a respected part of the traffic mix), it really hit me: Barbur is an embarrassment.
Tuesday’s ride was a collaboration between the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Friends of Barbur. The description for the ride was: “Barbur Boulevard should be the best route to and from SW Portland. Right now, it’s scary. Learn how we can fix it.” Despite the dangers, a dozen or so people showed up. The BTA’s Carl Larson was in a super-bright, neon jacket. “I don’t usually wear bright yellow,” he said, “but then I rode on Barbur and realized you really do need extra visibility out there.”
The people on the ride were a mix. One guy was a daily Barbur commuter who wanted to share his perspectives and gripes. One woman I met lives just a block or so away from SW Barbur yet had never ridden it before (it seemed too scary to ride alone so she drives instead). Super citizen activist Roger Averbeck was also with us. He has fought from within the system to make Barbur better for years. He’s got a list of small victories to show for it; but you can sense his growing frustration at the lack of real change.
One of — if not the — main reason change is slow in coming to Barbur is because it’s a state highway (99W). As such, it’s managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), an agency with a much more auto-centric way of doing business than the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). As Barbur begins just south of downtown Portland across I-405, we noticed some recent improvements such as sharrows and a new buffered bike lane. Those changes were done by PBOT because the close-in sections of Barbur are under their jurisdiction. But even the PBOT-managed sections aren’t anything to write home about. (A new buffered bike lane just south of Sheridan completely lacks bicycle symbols. The bike lane itself is just the standard, 5-6 foot stripe of paint and you ride just a few feet from people driving 40-50 miles per hour.)
At a stop on SW Hamilton, Averbeck warned, “We are now entering ODOT country.”
Beyond an agency culture that seems reluctant to move past the auto-dominated status-quo, ODOT has no good reason to not bolster bike facilities on Barbur. (Amazingly, one of ODOT’s responses to the road diet suggestion was that they might need Barbur in case it’s needed as an alternate to I-5.) As Averbeck pointed out on Tuesday, Barbur is classified as a “district highway” in the Oregon Highway Plan. That plan says the objective of a district highway is to (among other things), “provide for moderate to low-speed operation in urban and urbanizing areas for traffic flow and for pedestrian and bicycle movements.”
If you’ve ever ridden on Barbur, you know it doesn’t live up to those objectives.
One of the worst stretches is south of Hamilton, when Barbur curves into a wooded area dotted with apartment buildings as it heads toward SW Capitol Highway. To take the photos below, I stood at the exact same spot I visited the night Angela Burke was hit and killed by a speeding drunk driver back in 2010.
The ride also gave us a chance to ride over the bridges that go across SW Vermont and Newbury streets. A $5 million seismic rehab and repaving project for these bridges are what sparked a grassroots movement for a road diet. The BTA strongly endorses the idea, as do neighborhoods and citizen groups like Friends of Barbur. Even PBOT knows a road diet is needed and feasible at this location. As of today, ODOT has not endorsed the idea. Instead of the attractive and comfortable design envisioned by community advocates, they’ve offered feeble solutions like a slightly wider sidewalk and a flashing “Bikes on Bridge” sign.
Barbur could be a bicycle corridor with massive amounts of people riding on it to connect to downtown. The possible fixes are not rocket science: Re-allocate roadway space to make bicycling more comfortable; add design features that will encourage safer driving behaviors; increase speed enforcement via red-light cameras and speed reader boards; do more placemaking and encourage development that will add human life to the streetscape; and so on. Any solution that moves forward must put the bicycle facility on equal footing with the auto facility (or future transit facility) or we will never realize this road’s true potential and we will continue to put the health and safety of our community at risk.
Your move ODOT.
— Get involved with the effort to make Barbur Blvd better for bicycling. Like the Friends of Barbur Facebook page, get inspired by their vision for Barbur and stay tuned to the Front Page for developments.
If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.
In reply to your tweet, Jonathan: No, “embarrassment” is absolutely not too strong a term here. Nothing in this world could get me to ride Barbur under any circumstances. When I had a car, I was scared to drive on it too. It’s a horrible street.
I usually avoid it and take Beaverton Hillsdale Highway into town. It’s totally out of my way, but at least I can get up to almost par-speed with auto traffic. I’ve had cars very pissed off I wasn’t going 40 mph down that hill either, as there isn’t even a bike lane on that.
do you mean down the hill from Woodrow Wilson school down to Barbur? it’s a 25 mph zone… people are riding my ass when I’m DRIVING it… they must be in a hurry to go 50 in the 35 zone on Barbur, because that’s what they do once they get a chance to go around somebody impeding them by going the speed limit…
Embarassment is the right word here. I’ve been bike commuting as my main mode of transportation for nearly 20 years in Victoria, BC, Washington, DC, and PDX. I fall smack dab in the middle of the “fearless male rider” demographic and even I avoid Barbur Blvd out of fear for my safety on those occasions I need to ride from my downtown job to my in laws house in Burlingame.
Before I moved, Barbur was the only real reasonable way back to my house (the other way would be Vista), but you feel the entire time like you’re going to get run down. You can turn up towards Hillsdale, but then have to climb a steeper hill, the right side is plant overgrowth into the bike lane, and the line separating the bike lane from the vehicle lane is fading, which isn’t exactly comforting. You can take Terwilliger past OHSU, but that is less direct and still requires that you climb. So you end up probably committing to Barbur. In wintertime with the poor light this is asking for something to happen.
It’s just not clear to me how people in SW beyond the hills are supposed to get from downtown to e.g. Beaverton while feeling safe. There are five vehicle lanes, and they are never, ever, ever anywhere near capacity (only mention it because I think future capacity is ODOT’s mantra of choice on why they can’t add reasonable bike facilities to Barbur).
I work part-time on SW Macadam and live in the Cedar Hills area of Beaverton. I actually climb neighborhood stairs that start just around the corner from the Zupans on Macadam to get up to Custer Way, then take a right onto SW Brier, left on SW Miles, and take Barbur down to Multnomah. If I’m feeling saucy, I’ll catch the right to Bertha and take that to Beaverton-Hillsdale.
There’s no best way, or even good way to get home from there, but that’s what I have to work with, unless I want to ride all the way up to and thru downtown to take Kingston up to the Zoo and onto the bike path that follows Hwy 26.
I used to ride Barbur a couple times a week during the summer to get out to Wilsonville. It could certainly be better, but it’s not all that scary. For one thing, it’s rare for someone on a bike to be rear-ended by a car driver — the real danger is someone turning across you. And Barbur has huge stretches with no intersections or driveways, which makes for smooth sailing.
As for the bridge abutments, if you have a rear-view mirror it is easy to time your exit from the bike lane so that any drivers coming up have plenty of notice to change lanes. A mirror also reduces your stress a great deal when you get to the trickier parts of Barbur/99W where there are cars trying to turn through the bike lane.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see improvements. But let’s not scare people about what is actually a reasonably safe route for experienced riders.
The problem with what you are saying is that this is a stretch of road that isn’t too bad for “Experienced” riders.
I just have to ask then with all the tens of thousands of people (ie potential riders) that live on or near Barber how many are “experienced”? And would potential riders become experienced unless they had a place to ride? Loading up the car rack and driving somewhere else doesn’t count -it should never be that difficult for anyone to ride.
I got mirrors and I’ve ridden bikes for nearly 30 years (mind you much of that in Detriot Michigan in the 80’s where it’s almost all highway speed roads no lanes) almost exclusively as an urban cyclist, and I wouldn’t ride on Barber unless I absolutely had to. Barber makes Foster, Powell, or Sandy look like the Springwater in compairison.
Though I usually only comment on East side stuff and often speak out against the “all roads lead to Downtown” model for improvements , even I who seldom even drive my car on Barber – would say this should perhaps the top priority for bike infrastructure in the metro region. If only because there are so few available route options in that part of town with as much exposure to residental properties.
That’s exactly why I said “experienced”. A street with 45 MPH traffic and disappearing bike lanes is never going to be a street for beginners. And let’s be realistic: Barbur will not soon be downgraded into a bike boulevard. You’d love it, I’d love it, but it’s not going to happen.
The only point I wanted to make is, if you are experienced (and alert, not wearing headphones, etc.), it is not a “scary” street. Needs improvement. Not scary.
What’s really interesting is that the first year I lived here (3 years ago), I rode Barbur a lot. I had lived in Ohio, Colorado, and Seattle and Barbur didn’t feel that bad to me (I am very experienced, and I’ll admit that the street was not great for everyone. But even my not that experience wife would ride it now and then to get to work). But after moving to the east side, and very rarely riding Barbur the last two years, now I go back and I get what people are saying.
COMPARED TO THE REST OF PORTLAND, Barbur is an embarrassment. Compared to most other parts of the country it’s actually pretty good. It’s all about perspective.
That said, with the very low auto traffic, there is absolutely no reason that the road should stay the way it is. (To play devil’s advocate though, People who move into the SW have to know they are going to deal with some hills. Kind of trade off)
It’s beyond embarrassing, and not just for bicycles. It stinks for cars too, and it’s a waste of money for *everyone*
In a car, whatever speed you can gain between Terwilliger and Hamilton you lose at those intersections. Faster to take the freeway even at rush hour. But that doesn’t stop most drivers from going 50mph+ on that stretch of road. Hurry up and wait!
Even if there were no need to slim the road for bikes, four-plus lanes is a dangerous and pointless waste of money and space.
Only one northbound vehicle lane is needed in the vicinity of the two bridges. This is such a simple change, and it’s so frustrating to see no action on it…
As far as “future transit projects” for the corridor, I don’t believe that any road space will need to be allocated. The SW Corridor project will either be Bus Rapid Transit, or light rail. If BRT is chosen, the busses will not need priority lanes in this stretch, because the traffic levels don’t require two lanes. If light rail is chosen, the best option will be to tunnel just south of downtown and add a subway stop for OHSU, bypassing this section entirely.
Every time I survive my commute from SW Durham Road to my office on NW Yeon via SW Barbut and Naito Parkway (reverse going home via SW 5th to Barbur) I get down and kiss the ground for survivng another day. Thank you for focusing on this terrible stretch of commute that could be so much more than it is today. Your srticle hit all of the high points.
I commuted on Barbur for years from SE PDX out to Tualatin. It wasn’t great, but it was hardly the worst part of that commute. The bridges suck, but traffic is usually pretty light in that area, and it’s easy to avoid by taking Terwilliger.
Which is not to say it’s a good facility. I just can think of half a dozen other things I’d fix first.
I have been riding Barbur 3 or 4 days a week morning and evening for 7 years. The bike lane seems pretty generous to me. Maybe I have grown numb to the traffic, but I often am able to beat cars from Terwilliger to Hamilton in the evening as they sit through multiple lights at Hamilton.
How many other other people take SW Naito to Barbur and vice versa? They just put in a brand new stretch of road over the new max/streetcar tracks. It does not appear to have ANY shoulder whatsoever, forget about a bike lane. This is by far WORSE than anything currently on Barbur. Heading North on Naito off of Barbur at rush hour in the evenings is a complete nightmare.
I completely agree with you. I’ve been riding that road for years, it’s actually the road i started bike commuting on. In my opinion it’s a great with four big problem areas, the intersection of capitol hwy, the two bridges and the multnomah blvd off ramp. That said, those are all easy to negotiate. Honestly, i miss that ride now that i live in NE.
Not an embarrassment, a model road. It works well for cars and bikes.
I don’t know… if something critical shuts down I-5 and traffic is routed on to Barbur it might be very friendly for bikes. Odds are auto traffic would slow to less than 10mph during all daylight hours.
Turn the right-hand lanes into wide, buffered (with paint) bike lanes on each side). If there is really an “emergency” (need to evacuate the city?), police can direct car drivers to use the bike lanes, just like they reversed the opposite direction of some freeways before Hurrican Rita in Houston. Painted bike lanes are just pain, after all.
Granted the painted lines would be sacrificed but my contention is that automotive traffic would be SO SLOW as to allow bikes to do California style lane splitting with only the dangers of a door prize.
Barbur as a backup for the full throughput of I-5 is joke and ODOT has to know this on some level. Any attempt to use it as such would be a disaster approaching whatever would have hypothetically immobilized I-5.
After Barbur gets maxed out all the side streets would get overflow and they’d max out; this includes every comfortable and relatively safe bike route.
My point being that attempting to use Barbur as a backup would make all the other bike options less safe counter-intuitively making the Barbur Blvd parking lot the safest bike route even without a separated bike lane.
You didn’t even get to the worst part in your ride- just try heading south/west of SW 25th. Killer storm drain grating, 2 foot potholes, bike lanes that disappear on and off every other block. Not to mention cars coming into and out of blind driveways and frustrated drivers failing to yield on left turns. My S/O put her face into the side of a van three weeks ago thanks to that and the doctors were still picking rocks out of her eye and face last week.
Surprisingly, it gets better once you hit Washington County. The lanes are much wider, there are fewer abrupt changes in lane designations, and someone seems to have considered the need for setbacks and brush removal. The entire SW Portland area is a trainwreck, but Barbur is especially bad.
Here’s to hoping our governor’s new transportation adviser will help foster a better audience at ODOT–for Barbur, as well as for this city’s other ODOT-managed surface street embarrassments.
I rode Barbur 5 days a week for almost a year and a half. I never really felt like it was that bad, honestly. The bridges were easier to handle going into town than leaving because coming down the hill affords one to keep up a pretty good pace. There is no doubt that it could be improved, but this is what lots of people in this town face everyday, on multiple roads, who don’t have the luxury of living in the central areas of PDX. My biggest concerns were always right hooks, but I never really felt like I was going to get rundown from behind. As I said, there certainly can be improvements but I’m not a fan of the constant attitude that it is instant death to ride the road, a sentiment that I have heard many times from many different sources. That being said, where Barbur intersects Naito coming into town is a huge mess for cyclists and was probably the one area where I always felt some anxiety.
It wasn’t that bad really? So I guess I can go ahead and let my ten year old ride it by herself then! Since it’s “not that bad, really”.
When people realize bike facilities need to be for everyone, not just the spandex brigade, we’ll all be better off.
Jersey barriers or a guardrail between bikes and traffic might get me to ride Barbur regularly. Otherwise, forget it.
Jersey barriers + 2-way cycle track on one side of the road? All the way to Tigard? Has anyone even thought of this idea before?
Thats basically what they did in South Waterfront, although they only used a curb.
Personally, I have never ridden Barbur, although I probably would if I lived in SW. Cars approaching from behind you at speed with no shoulders can be really stressful, although you can learn to ignore it after some time. But it really isn’t a very safe situation, as I see many auto drivers who drive with their right wheels over the white line.
The “manage Barbur as an alternative for I-5” modality was made very clear during the City’s Barbur Concept Plan process. Even the signal timing is designed for the situation where I-5 is failing due to an incident.
Wow. That really makes me ill. Someone needs to stand up and change that. I mean, seriously, is this a normal/reasonable thing? They have an entire freeway a few yards away. This is a street for people and for urban mobility. It should not be constrained by some 1950s mentality that says it’s needed in case the freeway fails. Am I crazy?
You’re definitely not crazy. The opportunity for a policy change is in the SW Corridor process. I know Kiel is tracking that. We need to be ready to organize as a community to affect that outcome. I’ll be asking questions about it during a Planning and Sustainability Commission briefing on SW Corridor on July 9.
One thing to keep in mind is how often (not everyday or anything, but about once every year or two) someone shuts down the freeway because they misjudged the Terwilliger curves and suddenly a whole day is needed to clear out the wreckage. Or even when there’s a freeway accident that doesn’t completely shut it down, especially during the rush hours, Barbur becomes the only high access alternative to a 1-2 hour commute. But as someone stated already, Barbur then becomes very friendly for cyclists because the back-up doesn’t allow for cars to go over 20 mph at any given time. Perhaps the original worry of having a long term alternative to the freeway was before they started doing the erosion upgrades, where it was a real worry that a portion of the freeway would suddenly be blocked by the falling hillside, or fall itself into Johns Landing. Anyway, agreed that this piece of policy needs an update, and as the wife of a daily Barbur commuter (I joke that he should ride with a sign on his back that says ‘father of three young children’) I am all in favor of any improvements to the cycling infrastructure in our part of town.
Mobility in SW Portland is very poor – almost everyone uses SOV’s because walking and cycling is unsafe, this article is a great example.
If more people walked, bikes, and rode transit, then the freeway getting jammed up wouldn’t be as big of a problem for mobility in the corridor, as many more people could use alternative means to get around.
Related: Trimet is planning their SW Corridor Project to build light rail or bus rapid transit from downtown to Tigard or Tualatin/points south. This will be able to move 10s of 1000s of people in the corridor without using the freeway.
Now we need a walking + bike friendly street to compliment the mobility enhancements!
Luckily, the final Barbur Concept Plan hit the nail on the head when it comes to fixing the Barbur Bridges. It essentially says: fix them now. Don’t wait. http://btaoregon.org/2013/04/barbur-concept-plan-goes-before-city-council/
I rarely, if ever, bike to SW to do work. In fact, I don’t pursue any work in that part of Portland.
Ah yes, Portland zenophobia at it’s finest. Always the key to any livability issue we all face.
Chris’ statement might make more sense if you knew that he’s a contractor who hauls all his tools and materials by bike. I imagine he avoids SW because of roads like Barbur, not the people.
Did you notice how the southbound bikes-on-roadway sign is tiny compared to the Hwy 10 offramp sign? Even while riding, I don’t notice the bikes-on-roadway sign until the last minute and I suspect that drivers may miss it as well (it is just after the giant Hwy 10 offramp sign).
Photo from google streetview:
(Sidenote: that streetview shot was apparently taken during maintenance, when half of Barbur’s lanes were closed — and I don’t see any huge traffic backup.)
Folks might try calling ODOT:
ODOT Region 1 Policy & Development Manager – Rian Windsheimer – (503) 731-8456, email@example.com.
See also: ODOT’s Region 1 org chart. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B3vc9MesxkTubmRNTU1IZGFBUmc/
Agreed that the SW Corridor process is a critical opportunity to provide change in the future; in addition, we need to fund improvements that can be felt now. Huge thanks to Roger Averbeck and other thoughtful, passionate advocates for their work to build a better Barbur.
Didn’t the governor just appoint a new transportation director, or something? Maybe that will change attitudes at ODOT. (I can always dream, right?)
It would be fine for Barbur to be the utterly shitty facility for bikes that it is, if there were other feasible alternatives for cyclists to take.
So please, ODOT, go ahead. Tell us our glittering alternatives as cyclists! Oh, ODOT, you simply MUST refer us to the myriad of quiet, connected bike boulevard streets that run tranquilly alongside Barbur!
Oh? What’s that you’re saying, ODOT?
There aren’t any?
I thought ODOT was poised to move to a less “freeway-centric” mode of thinking in their planning. You have at LEAST 2 organizations clamoring for change, and the existing roadway is terrible for all users. So, this seems like an easy transition to a better facility.
Or was that just more talk, ODOT?
We need roadways like this to be improved, and quickly, if we are going to not have the city clogged with tons of traffic all of the time.
Roger and I are also working with ODOT to make improvements to Barbur between SW 60 and 64th (see http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/REGION1/pages/OR99W_ramps/index.aspx). They made some tweaks to add a 3-foot shoulder and wayfinding to help bikes get through this area (the graphic on the website today needs to be updated with the tweaks they’ve recently agreed to). The bridge was built in 1985 without bike lanes and full sidewalks, and they claim there is no room today just like they do about the 1934 bridges. I’m arguing that they need to think about how to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian safety first on every construction project along facilities with inadequate infrastructure, like Barbur, Powell and 82nd. ODOT could have been creative on this project to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians, but they waited until the last minute to do so and now claim there’s no time. So much for ODOT priorities–it’s still motor vehicles. Next time, lets get started with all modes in mind.
Just rode Barbur last night. I don’t find it quite as horrible as some suggest (at least the bike lanes are fairly wide – uh, where they exist) but I definitely agree that it is an embarrassment. As an enthused/confident I will ride it downhill (home from work) on clear days, but never in the wintertime when visibility is impaired. In the winter I take a much different (and unfortunately much hillier) route through the West Hills just to avoid Barbur.
I certainly would never allow my child to ride it. A few years ago a Portland police officer – a young guy who very much looked the strong/fearless part – told me he used to bike to work but stopped because his route was Barbur and he found it too dangerous.
Would a full road diet make it safe for kids? Probably still not, but it would make it safe for a large number of potential bike commuters that live in or ride through the hills of SW Portland and the suburbs in that direction.
All that said, while I would strongly advocate for a major road diet, I don’t agree with the characterizations of ODOT’s current plan as “feeble.” Sure, it’s far short of what we want to see, but it does fix the absolutely worst problem with Barbur – those bridges – and absolutely will make the difference for me in terms of using Barbur more often.
Speed is key here. Barbur is fearsome w/ 50-mph cars. Terwilliger much less intimidating, mostly because of the slower speeds and continuous bike lanes.
Here in Massachusetts, we have a ton of roads that MassDOT considers to have adequate bicycle accommodation that look at lot like that, except much worse! Here the roads have shoulders that vary between 8′ and 0′ that are neither designed nor marked as bike lanes. They’ll taper down to nothing at intersections just for the heck of it, sometimes because they add a right turn only lane but often just because that’s how they’ve always striped shoulders in MA. I would LOVE to have nice wide bike lanes. Cycle tracks are a pipe dream. I consistently striped bike lane, even at 5′, would be better than what we have now.