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New fire bureau policy could allow speed bumps on more commercial streets

Posted by on March 21st, 2014 at 11:33 am

BAC bike ride-8

Speed bumps used to calm traffic on neighborhood greenways could be used on more streets under a new city policy — potentially with slices cut from them to allow emergency trucks to cruise through.
(Photos by J.Maus/BikePortland)

For years, as Portland has looked for ways to calm auto traffic in commercial districts like N Denver Avenue, SE Stark Street or NE 28th Avenue, the biggest tool in its shed — the speed bump — has been off limits.

“PBOT and Fire are in the middle of a conversation about the city’s emergency response network.”
— Diane Dulken, PBOT spokeswoman

The reason: Portland Fire and Rescue says major streets need to be flat and smooth enough for emergency trucks to rush down them, when necessary, without losing critical time when responding to emergencies.

But a new Fire and Rescue policy in the early stages of discussion would soften this rule by designating some major streets as being of secondary importance to emergency response routes. City officials say this might allow speed bumps on some such streets. But it’s not clear whether the decision by the city’s fire chief could be completed in time to affect the design of one street where the option might matter most: 28th Avenue.

“PBOT and Fire are in the middle of a conversation about the city’s emergency response network,” Portland Bureau of Transportation spokeswoman Diane Dulken wrote in an email Thursday. “As for 28th Avenue – it is way too soon to tell if traffic calming would be an option for any portion of that street.”

Bike corral on SE 28th at Ankeny-12

28th Avenue, looking north from SE Ankeny toward Burnside, in 2009.

Rich Newlands, project manager for the ongoing 20s Bikeway project, said Tuesday that he’d seen a map indicating that 28th between NE Sandy and SE Stark might be one of the streets that could be allowed to get speed bumps under a revised fire bureau policy. If the city were in fact able to add speed bumps on 28th and/or 26th, that’d be important because it’s a way to improve the street for biking somewhat without removing auto parking.

“Speed bumps alone… won’t make the route comfortable enough for the interested but concerned.”
— Carl Larson, BTA

A professional biking advocate who’s following the 20s Bikeway project said he didn’t think that adding speed bumps would be enough to make 28th truly welcoming to most Portlanders if they wanted to ride a bicycle there.

“Speed bumps alone (absent extreme woonerf-style traffic calming AND traffic diversion) won’t make the route comfortable enough for the interested but concerned,” Bicycle Transportation Alliance Advocate Carl Larson wrote Thursday. “It’ll only improve things for bolder users. That’s not in keeping with the city’s goals.”

If the city were to install a traffic diverter on 28th, forcing auto traffic to turn east or west at some point, Larson said that might reduce traffic volumes on 28th enough to make most people willing to ride on the street. But he said the city has resisted such a big change.

“I pushed for calming and diversion and was flat-out denied,” Larson said. “PBOT does not seem interested in changing the road’s functional designation.”

The city’s current plan for 28th, as well as for other two commercial districts along the 20s Bikeway, is a so-called “couplet” that would include buffered bike lanes in one direction along the corridor, green-backed sharrow markings in the other, and a nearby parallel neighborhood greenway for bikers who prefer not to use the shared lane.

One shared lane and one buffered bike lane is the city’s lead option for several stretches of the 20s Bikeway. But under current fire bureau policies, the city isn’t allowed to include speed bumps in either direction.

But the need to remove parking from 28th to make way for the buffered bike lane has some businesses and landlords worried that it’d make the district less convenient to visit, and some nearby residents worried that commercial parking would fill up neighborhood streets.

Even some bicycling advocates say traffic calming might actually be preferable to a one-direction bike lane. Kirk Paulsen, a professional traffic analyst and advocate for better biking who sits on the 20s Bikeway advisory committee, said that the combination of green-backed sharrows, slightly raised crosswalks and speed bumps might be enough to make most Portlanders feel comfortable biking on 28th.

“If all three of those treatments would be used in combination, I honestly believe that the street layout could be left with on-street parking on both sides AND attract a portion of the interested but concerned demographic of bike riders that is highly sought after,” Paulson wrote Thursday. “Personally, I’d be more in favor of that design that keeps the roadway symmetrical (to all users) and focuses most of its attention on calming traffic as opposed to fighting the political battle to remove parking on one side for a design that only works well in one direction. It’d be much easier for all users to know what is expected of them with that very simple but effective design of calming traffic.”

Dulken, the city spokeswoman, downplayed the importance of speed bumps to the city’s decision about the best design for 28th and other commercial districts along the 20s bikeway.

“Even if they would be an option on a portion of 28th, they would be a component in a larger street design and by themselves would not change the overall conversation of whether bike lanes belong on any portion of 28th,” Dulken said.

Larson, meanwhile, welcomed the fire bureau proposal and said it’d be “good news for other projects” if it comes together. Stay tuned — we’ll definitely be covering its progress.

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  • Nick Falbo March 21, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    If traffic speeds can be brought down to a natural 10 mph (and I think they can with the right design, maybe even *without* speedbumps), then I’m with Kirk. A shared road can be comfortable for the interested but concerned.

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    • davemess March 21, 2014 at 1:30 pm


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      • Nick Falbo March 21, 2014 at 4:24 pm

        ok. maybe 12.

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    • Carl (BTA) March 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      I think we’re saying the same thing. “A natural 10 mph” environment is wildly different and would take more than just speed bumps to achieve. I see it as the ideal outcome but it doesn’t appear to be in the cards, even with this policy change.

      Sharrows alone would probably improve MY experience on 28th — no question — but this isn’t about riders like me.

      If a low-volume, 10 mph street is off the table, though, and a pair of buffered lanes is politically impossible, the couplet is actually a great compromise — a big step in the right direction.

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    • JV March 21, 2014 at 3:05 pm

      If a 10mph street is an explicit goal, then you are going to have a hard time selling the public on your vision. I want to be on a street where I can ride faster than 10mph. Plenty of 10mph streets already do exist in Portland…we have 59 miles of unimproved streets in our neighborhoods.

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  • PorterStout March 21, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Is that what those slices in the speed bumps on NW Cornell are for? Emergency vehicles? I always assumed it was so bicycles could come down the hill at speed. That’s what I’ve used them for. 🙂 Interesting that PBOT’s emphasis is on preserving vehicle speed in case there is a future emergency situation, rather than reducing speed the rest of the time and thus perhaps preventing an emergency in the first place.

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    • Sigma March 21, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      Lowering speeds won’t stop your house from catching fire, or your grandpa from having a heart attack.

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      • PorterStout March 21, 2014 at 5:18 pm

        Lowering the speed does not necessarily mean that your house burns to the ground either. The question is what’s the tradeoff between the extra 2 to 3 minutes it takes for someone to get to the house versus how many fewer people are hit by a car that is driving too fast. There’s a direct correlation between average rate of speed and accident frequency.

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        • was carless March 22, 2014 at 9:59 pm

          By far the most common types of emergencies that the FD is responding to are auto accidents. Think about that, in regards to their longstanding policy to block making our streets safer.

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          • paikikala March 24, 2014 at 4:03 pm

            The most common type of emergency PF&R responds to is medical, not auto crashes.

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        • Paul Cone March 24, 2014 at 10:14 am

          Emergency response time goal not met,
          though PF&R strives for excellence

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        • paikikala March 24, 2014 at 4:19 pm

          ‘direct correlation’? So, in your reality, the most crashes happen on the fastest roads, freeways? Any evidence? I’ve tried looking for a direct link between speed and crash frequency, but can’t find one. Please enlighten us with your sources.

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          • Paul Cone March 24, 2014 at 4:27 pm

            Perhaps what PorterStout meant is there is a direct correlation between the speed of the vehicle that hits a person and the likeliness of the injury being fatal?

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            • paikikala March 24, 2014 at 4:45 pm

              So we can imagine PS meant severity when PS typed frequency, but I don’t see how you mix up those two words. While it might be closer to the truth, the reality is that crashes are very complex events.

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  • Todd Boulanger March 21, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    This is an important and often forgotten discussion to have internally in a City…We in Vancouver (WA) had this internal discussion back in 2000-1 and it was very important as it allowed us to add traffic calming to arterials that had once been “hands off”.

    There were two critical factors in adopting this policy change: (1) both public works and fire departments’ end goals were pubic safety/ injury prevention [in Vancouver <25% of all fire truck responses are for fires…as most of them were traffic related injuries] and (2) the adoption of speed cushions instead of speed humps was also critical (raised crosswalks were still allowed.)

    Plus the Fire Department leadership realized over time that slower streets with traffic calming allowed more drivers to effectively yield to their operators and by requiring a 5 minute response window be maintained they would be more able to protect stations from closure…you may need more smaller dispersed stations or substations to keep the response time window low.

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    • paikikala March 21, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Vancouver cushions are not very effective. The ones on 160th south of Mill Plain, 72nd south of Van Mall Drive, and Evergreen Blvd are pretty whimpy.

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    • paikikala March 24, 2014 at 4:23 pm

      What if all new structures were required to have sprinkler systems? How many multi-purpose fire trucks could we trade in for multiple, more efficient, fast response units to handle the 60% plus actual work load the fire bureau does – medical emergencies.

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      • maccoinnich March 25, 2014 at 12:55 pm

        Pretty much all new commercial buildings, including housing with 3 or more units, are already required to have sprinklers. The residential code, which applies to houses with 1 or 2 units, doesn’t currently require sprinklers, at least in Oregon. I tried to find statistics, but I don’t think there are enough new single family homes / duplexes being built in Portland every year to make a measurable difference.

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  • Todd Boulanger March 21, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    PS. And perversely the addition of bike lanes and road diets along many major arterials also helped improve response times by giving yielding drivers more space to pull over in less time thus improving response times.

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  • spare_wheel March 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    “Speed bumps alone (absent extreme woonerf-style traffic calming AND traffic diversion) won’t make the route comfortable enough for the interested but concerned,”

    Uhmmm…my “interested but concerned” partner rides 28th. While it’s one of her least favorite places to ride in Sunnyside she is still willing to tackle it when we are in too much of a hurry to walk (always our first active transport choice).

    “It’ll only improve things for bolder users. That’s not in keeping with the city’s goals.”

    Jennifer Dill conducted research and reported numbers that contrasted starkly with the ones Geller pulled out of nowhere:

    Strong and Experienced (most are not fearless):6%
    Enthused and Confident: 9%
    Interested but concerned who are comfortable riding in a bike lane: ~28%!

    I personally have argued for the buffered bike lane option but I would certainly take speed bumps, less severe traffic calming, and super sharrows over nothing and I think that at least 25% of portland would be willing to ride 28th.

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    • davemess March 21, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      What is the difference between the first two groups you mentioned?

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  • Sho March 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    This is ridiculous, how could you want to install speed bumps to slow traffic in order to protect pedestrians? Oh wait this is for cars, then we good.

    But in seriousness if money permits there are some much better options that don’t tempt cars to race around a cyclist between speed bumps on a narrow street only to have the cyclist catch up by the next speed bump and also allow for emergency traffic flow.

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    • paikikala March 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm

      Pedestrians struck at 20 mph have an 80% chance of survival. At 40 mph it’s 20%. Lowering auto speeds is one of the key tenants of a Safe System/Vision Zero program.

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      • Sho March 23, 2014 at 1:25 pm

        Cool, never said I disagreed with it. You can lower vehicular speeds by a multitude of methods. Its mainly just comedic how up in arms everyone got about the speed bumps or traffic calming aimed specifically at cyclists due to a failure to yield causing an unsafe environment for pedestrians but as long as it only affects the big bad car we who bike can go on in our way of feeling entitled instead of looking at the whole picture (or getting oh so bitter when called out on it) and holding similar standards of safety across the board.

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  • Adam March 21, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Has it ever occurred to the Fire Bureau, that the easiest way to speed up their response time, would be to cut motor traffic congestion in half?

    Perhaps by, say, oh, I don’t know! Traffic calming our streets, and making them more appealing to people walking, biking, and taking transit, so that motorists aren’t clogging up our arterials when the fire trucks need to get through?

    I know. What a crazy idea! Motor traffic backed up six blocks on Burnside doesn’t impede emergency response times at ALL I’m sure. But a two-inch high speed table – OH MY GOD. The victims will be dead before the truck reaches them because of THAT.

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    • paikikala March 21, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      Speed bumps and tables in Portland are 3 inches high with a 0.5″ tolerance.

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  • Adam March 21, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    And let’s not even get started on the topic of how almost a third of all emergency responses are to MOTOR VEHICLE CRASHES.

    Yes folks. Yet again, those pesky motorists sticking a wrench in the works of our public services.

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    • paikikala March 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      Where did you get that statistic? (I hope you washed after)
      The 2011 report says that in 2010 2% of responses were auto crashes, 2.6% were fires and 62% were medical emergencies (Table 1, page 10)
      Based on their own numbers, the big question is why the heavy emphasis in the PFR fleet on ‘do everything you can think of’, heavy, slow, fire trucks? The recent idea to add fast medical response units should be applauded.

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      • Rob Chapman March 21, 2014 at 5:46 pm

        Serious question here, out of the few actual fires that the Fire Bureau puts out, how many lives are saved and how many of those are extinguished in a way that doesn’t result in your home and everything in it being effectively destroyed anyway? Which goes along with wondering about all of the giant and expensive fire trucks.

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        • jim March 21, 2014 at 8:07 pm

          Are you serious?

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          • Rob Chapman March 26, 2014 at 4:58 pm

            Absolutely, do you have an answer?

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  • dwainedibbly March 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    If PBOT is going to allow speed bumps/humps/tables, they better specify some sort of cuts in them so that bikes can avoid the obstacle.

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  • jim March 21, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    There is nothing like cruising down the road at speed in the back of an ambulance with an IV in your arm and the driver hitting speed bumps every couple of blocks.

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  • Scott H March 21, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    I hate speed bumps almost as much as I hate gravel.

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    • jim March 21, 2014 at 11:03 pm

      At least it isnt those silly pedestrian islands that squeeze cars into the space where bikes are riding. They just had a roll over accident at one on Killingsworth.

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      • Robert Burchett March 28, 2014 at 10:06 am

        If a person rolled their car on a speed hump–I hope they are OK. I also hope that was their only car. A bit of walking and biking and bus riding will be just the thing for them.

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  • Barbara Stedman March 22, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    At some point there was a discussion about adding (Cornell like) speed bumps with gaps to SW Vermont as part of making this into a bike route (PBOT just started working on the sidewalk and bikelane construction between 30th and 35th). In one of the first community meetings PBOT said that Vermont could be the second road in Portland to get the divided speed bumps that they tested on Cornell. So I wonder if that’s still discussed for Vermont. After all it’s a steep hill so it’s easy to go beyond the speed limit downhill.

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  • pennyfarthing March 23, 2014 at 12:03 am

    In my experience speed bumps are a poor solution for traffic calming…they don’t even work for the most aggressive drivers…once those clowns figure out they can run them at well above the legal speed without damaging their cars those speed bumps just become a fun obstacle course where they get to launch their car. Motorcyclists really love them I have noticed…great fun!

    In my unscientific assessment the only effective means of slowing ALL the cars is the implementation of roundabouts. Roundabouts also have the added benefit of reducing the severity of collisions at that intersection when they inevitably occur because instead of getting struck at 90 degrees broadside most collisions are angling sideswipes that are far less violent. The whole emergency response time is a red herring with regards to speed bumps anyhow…I live on N Alberta and the cops haul ass at 50+ mph over the speed bumps…no slower than they did before the bumps were installed. Roundabouts with through cuts for the emergency vehicles are the best long term traffic calming solution…but it will never happen do to the higher cost.

    Something that is never discussed about speed bumps is the jarring noise they generate…every delivery truck with a loose loading platform, every landscaper’s trailer, every low front spoiler, every creaky suspension…CRASH!, K-BOOM!, SCRAPE!, CREAK!…all day and night…it is VERY noticeable and unavoidably intrusive…for the first month after the bumps were installed I was rushing to the front door daily thinking there were cars crashing in front of my house!

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    • Bald One March 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

      I used to live in front of a speed bump on a bikeway, also. You didn’t mention the inevitable screech of breaks and then roar of engine that typifies a car going over a speed bump (not to mention the extra puff of exhaust for any old car or diesel). Most cars do not try a steady slow speed over speed bumps, but rather race/brake for them.

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      • Bald One March 24, 2014 at 1:36 pm

        And one more thing, the Fire Dept (Engine 25) drove their water truck and ladder truck up and down this street all the time since their station house was a few blocks away on 52nd. Why did they go down this street with speed bumps, I never knew – since they had plenty of other streets on the grid to choose from. They went in both directions, both to (with lights/sirens) and from emergencies. PFD always used this street with speed bumps – by choice.

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    • paikikala March 24, 2014 at 3:57 pm

      You can’t build roundabouts at every intersection, if you actually mean a roundabout, and not a traffic circle. Traffic circles only affect speeds for about 100 ft on either side of the intersection, and cost between $5k and $20k. Modern roundabouts cost 100 times more. Speed bumps cost about $2500 each and can be placed anywhere along a street segment.

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  • jim March 23, 2014 at 12:42 am

    My favorite story was about a coast town where the state put in some bumps and the city came out with their bulldozer and took them out.

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  • John Landolfe March 24, 2014 at 10:11 am

    I was at a friend’s house on Stark & 38th across from the playground full of children yesterday and (having not read this story yet) said to my friend, “how the hell are there no stop signs or speed bumps on this street?” Did I mention there was a playground of children? There was a playground of children.

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    • paikikala March 24, 2014 at 3:54 pm

      Stark is the kind of street that traffic calming is prohibited on.

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      • spare_wheel March 24, 2014 at 9:56 pm

        this law needs to be changed.

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        • paikikala March 26, 2014 at 9:17 am

          It’s the City’s Transportation System Plan that designates Stark’s purpose in Portland. Looks like it could have speed bumps right now based on the current designations.

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          • Bruce March 27, 2014 at 10:59 pm

            What are you guys talking about? SE Stark is absolutely littered with speed bumps between 28th and Sandy.

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            • Paul Cone March 27, 2014 at 11:03 pm

              The part that is commercial with a lot of foot traffic and also a rather high speed limit (30 mph) is between 76th and 82nd, and further east.

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  • paikikala March 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    The whole emergency response time is a red herring with regards to speed bumps anyhow…I live on N Alberta and the cops haul ass at 50+ mph over the speed bumps…no slower than they did before the bumps were installed.

    Police cars are like fire trucks the same way walking is like biking. Police vehicles have lots of added extras so they can safely operate at high speeds. Fire trucks only started getting shocks in the last 10 years. The horsepower to weight ratio is significantly different as well. Thanks for at least alerting us that you’re unscientific.

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