One rider’s Twitter crusade shows the ‘City that works’ what doesn’t

Posted by on January 27th, 2015 at 10:23 am

Vanlue on the job.
(Photo: Asta Chastain)

Maybe the All-Powerful Bicycle Lobby had something to do with it, but the day Will Vanlue decided to start delivering for SoupCycle was an especially good day for the rest of Portland.

As a courier for the Portland-based soup delivery service, Vanlue — a former BikePortland contributor and Bicycle Transportation Alliance communications manager, a talented photographer and one of the most courteous and mindfully upbeat biking advocates in town — spends many of his daytime hours traveling the city’s streets in an upright city bike with a trailer full of fresh soup.

Also with him: a smartphone camera he’s been using for months to share street design shortcomings on Twitter.

Interspersed with Vanlue’s Instagram posts about family, beer and funny road signs and various good questions about infrastructure in general, he’s singled out the new design of North Williams Avenue for particular dismay.

Here’s one of his first tweets on the subject, from last fall:

Another construction shot from a few days later:

Later in November, he started using a new hashtag for the series, #4thBestBikeCity:

In November the BTA, which has been on a multi-year campaign to get Portland to create a formal, multi-bureau policy about detours and other road work issues, sent a formal letter to the city about problems with the Williams construction work. Vanlue kept finding problems:

The day after Vanlue shared the series above, a man driving north just south of Fremont during rush hour, just outside New Seasons, collided with a woman biking north. She had been merging right out of the bike lane and into the busy shared travel lane to make a right turn.

At the time, Abraham Sutphin, owner of a bike shop across the street from this collision, wrote in an email to us: “Williams has been nuts since the lane switch… I think it would be prudent to report on the chaos. I’ve never seen or heard of a crash for the 4 and a half years of sitting on this corner.”

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Around that time, Vanlue started including the Twitter handle for the Bureau of Transportation, @PBOTinfo, so they would see his comments as he made them.

To the bureau’s credit, it responded in less than half an hour:

The pattern continued through the construction process, with Vanlue now including PBOT as well as BikePortland and the BTA in many tweets, and PBOT (among others) responding and often taking action:

Vanlue got to the heart of the matter with this one, 15 minutes after his close call:

His public reports continued into January:

And most recently, from two weeks ago:

And Vanlue’s crusade goes way beyond Williams. Most recently he’s focused his cameraphone at SE Division:

Is Vanlue’s point here that Portland is a terrible place to bike, or that it doesn’t care about its streets? Of course not. In the U.S. context, the prompt attention he’s received from the city’s official channel is remarkable.

The problems Vanlue identifies here aren’t vast or existential, either. On the long-term scale, there are lots of reasons to believe that by making the right choices now, Portland can overcome its current lull and keep on using bikes to improve the city for everyone.

What seems to be maddening to Vanlue, and probably to many people who use Williams and the other streets he tweets about, is that the problems here are relatively small and solvable.

It takes effort to communicate to contractors that comfortable biking and walking is more important than automotive speed when designing detours — but not that much effort. It requires tradeoffs to avoid sending bikes and cars into the same chaotic mixing zone at the busiest point on the most important biking artery in the country’s would-be biking capital, but not insurmountable or totally ridiculous tradeoffs.

It’s clear that city leaders want cycling to be comfortable for riders of every age and ability. And it seems equally clear that without people like Vanlue, who have so much faith in their community that they mount campaigns like this one, the city could convince itself that their current street designs are already working fine for everyone.

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39 Comments
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    Todd Boulanger January 27, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Additionally, the sitution on Williams is more stark due it its importance as a north bikeway. If platinum cannot be accomplished on an arterial with 3k bikes a day then where?

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    Phil Kulak January 27, 2015 at 10:39 am

    Sheesh. I don’t see it at all. Sure Williams was a bit shakey during construction, but now it’s much better than the right-side lane that was 100% in the door zone its entire length. Now it’s on the left (every car has a driver, only some have passengers, and cars are more careful when they turn left, and can see that way better) WITH a large door-zone buffer built in, and usually another buffer on the right between you and the traffic. I ride N. Williams home every day and think it’s FAR better this way. I think some people just like to be victims of something.

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      Phil Kulak January 27, 2015 at 10:41 am

      Oh! And this way you don’t have to play hopscotch with every bus. At night. In the pouring rain. I have no desire to go back to doing that!

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      Jonathan Gordon January 27, 2015 at 10:56 am

      Sure Williams was a bit shakey during construction Stop right there. This is what Will and Michael are talking about. You think you deserve that pain but you don’t. It is possible to engineer road construction/repair that doesn’t put people on bikes in danger. Until PBOT starts making that a priority, we will continue to get “shakey” results. We deserve better and I’m glad there are people advocating for it.

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        Clark in Vancouver January 27, 2015 at 11:37 am

        I totally agree.
        There are policies and procedures from detouring cycle lanes around construction that have been figured out and work in many other cities. Portland just needs to adopt them and let construction companies know what is expected of them.

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    MaxD January 27, 2015 at 10:44 am

    This is especially painful after getting my less than tepid response for my request improvements along N Interstate Ave. I requested the striping of a motor vehicle lane in stretches with excess lane width to slow traffic and buffer the bike lane in places where it was possible. The response? “That striping was ‘designed’ by committee when the MAX went in so it must by as good as it can be, why don’t you ride on Williams?”

    If anyone is interested, check out these stretches of Interstate and let the City know if you think there is a room for a motor vehicle lane and a buffer to the bike lane:

    NB Interstate Ave:
    1. Tillamook to Albina
    2. Greeley to Fremont

    SB Interstate Ave:
    1. Fremont to Greeley
    2. Russell to Clark (paint the through lane across the portion of the road widened to accommodate large turning movements from WB Russell)
    3. Tillamook to the Larrabee Viaduct

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      Justin Gast January 27, 2015 at 11:45 am

      Interstate also completely lacks designated bike lanes from N Rose Parks to N Willamette (Interstate SB) and N Killingsworth to N Dekum (Interstate NB), but those areas pale in comparison to the lack of adequate bike lane space on Interstate from N Tillamook to N Larrabee.

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        Todd Boulanger January 27, 2015 at 12:16 pm

        I agree…now that its been 13 years since Interstate was 1/2 done as a bikeway (as-builts less than initially proposed due to compromises with businesses at the time) this summer would be a great time to fill in many of the bike lane gaps, such as:
        – the north and south bound blocks adjacent to Interstate Bowling
        – the south bound block by the 76 gas station
        – the south bound lane along Disjecta
        – North Denver viaduct (pavement overlay on the bike lanes)

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        MaxD January 27, 2015 at 4:14 pm

        I agree Justin! It is pretty weird. I have been told that the original idea was that these would be “business districts” and bikes would take the lane. If that is true, then paint them out with sharrows!

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    Alexis Peterka January 27, 2015 at 10:45 am

    I live on NE 11th and Fremont and my office recently moved from SE to downtown. I avoid Williams like the plague.

    On my way in, I ride 7th to Broadway and over the Broadway bridge. Going home, I take the Steel bridge, right on Weidler, and a Copenhagen left onto 7th. Dealing with the Russian roulette of exiting I-5 traffic taking a right onto Weidler is less fraught than hanging a right off of Williams.

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    James January 27, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Huge thanks to Will Vanlue for documenting and bringing attention to all of this! And for the cleverly biting hashtag #4thBestBikeCity.

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    pdx_tea January 27, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I just started bike commuting on Williams again a few weeks ago after giving up on it until the construction was finished. To me, now, it feels about as safe/unsafe as it did before, with more close calls due to last minute lane changes when cars realize they are in a turn-only lane (especially at the intersection at Broadway), fewer doorings and an equal number of cars parked/parallel parking in the bike lane. It will be interesting to see what happens in the summer. . .

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    Patrick Barber January 27, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Clearly the city has plans in place to communicate with vendors, suppliers, and construction companies to keep roads clear in primary travel lanes. Doing it for the bike-centered areas of the roadway should be no different. But we’ll never… etc… etc.. until…. etc… etc…. blah blah blah. And so, onward, vehicular cyclists.

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    Reza January 27, 2015 at 11:30 am

    I tend to ride Williams in the off-peak so I haven’t encountered many of the aggravating construction closures. Surprisingly the left turn/shared lane has worked pretty well in my limited experience. Most of the time it ends up as the de facto bike lane unless a motorist is parking or taking a left. It’s much better now than the door zone lane that used to be there. The biggest problem with the completed Williams project is at Stanton, that left turn drop lane is nasty. Hopefully the City will revisit that area and look at improvements to reduce conflicts there.

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    soren January 27, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Creating infrastructure that encourages motorists to veer into and out of a mass of vulnerable road users is an unfathomable mistake.

    I urge cyclists to “take the bike lane” and actively discourage drivers from entering the poorly-designed and dangerous Williams mixing zones.

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    Justin Gast January 27, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Myself, I enjoy the new N Williams configuration except for two spots:

    1). Close calls from traffic entering onto Williams from New Seasons. WAY TOO MANY cars don’t pay attention to cyclists leaving the NSM parking lot because they’re just looking out for the next opening in the vehicle lane. Cars will pull out, sometimes block the bike lane completely, or almost almost clip cyclists. Also, PBOT should have installed a flashing crossing lights (similar to those in front of UP) at that crosswalk, because crossing Williams at Ivy does not appear to be safe for pedestrians.

    2). The mess from N Emerson to Killingsworth, which I’ve ranted about in here before.

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    yoyossarian January 27, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I seriously have not experienced this kind of situation at all since all the work began. My opinion (which is open to being changed) is that everyone has been riding the classic right side bike lane for years and was very use to it’s inconveniences and dangers, so they prepared and reacted to them accordingly. Familiarity with use breeds a sense of safety. Same for motorists on this stretch.

    Suddenly we have a radically different layout and everyone freaks out, which is both justified on some respects, but I think not in most. Once everyone adapts to the new design things will become far more humdrum, but there are some legitimate concerns:

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      yoyossarian January 27, 2015 at 11:41 am

      Hit submit too soon by accident. Ugh. To continue:

      Legitimate concerns are definitely:

      1) lack of respect for bike riders by construction crews in regards to detours

      2) the ridiculous choke points before and after the intersection with Fremont

      3) the lack of consistency in design. The constant changes are the equivalent for someone on a bike to someone in a car being forced to go from a highway, to a winding country road, to an alleyway, to a congested city street, all in the course of a couple of miles. That to me is the most unacceptable aspect of the whole thing.

      That all being said, I do think it’s overall better and more safe then the old tiny right hand lane, or at least will be once everyone adapts to it.

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      Cairel January 27, 2015 at 12:11 pm

      You touched upon my great concern with the attempts at development of infrastructure in this city: lack of consistency. It seems to me that things are not planned in a cohesive, city-wide plan. Instead, some small project gets funding and there is a desire to “test” new treatments rather than create a comprehensive and holistic approach. So while most of the bike lanes in the city are on the right, here we have the novel experiment of putting them on the left. Sure, regulars will get used to it, but we have lots of tourists and residents moving in the replace the ones moving out. Infrastructure should be so easy to use that you don’t even realize you are using it– you are just riding your bike. And that benefits motorists, too. City-wide consistency is a key part of that objective. Using tried-and true solutions (ahem, real, separated lanes) defeats the need for these experimentations.

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        davemess January 27, 2015 at 12:29 pm

        I would actually go further and say that state-wide, and Country-wide consistency is a HUGE problem.

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    RH January 27, 2015 at 11:42 am

    When riding N. Williams near New Seasons, I get very anxious as I have seen many cars try to turn left into their parking lot and ignore the bikes in the bike lane. I’ve seen it happen numerous times.

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    Terry D-M January 27, 2015 at 11:54 am

    Good work and keep it up, Will. Nice pic of my bike, I was confused since I never park on Williams, so when I relaized it was at Hopworks….I know now to the afternoon when it was taken.

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    ac January 27, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Jonathan Gordon
    Sure Williams was a bit shakey during construction Stop right there. This is what Will and Michael are talking about. You think you deserve that pain but you don’t. It is possible to engineer road construction/repair that doesn’t put people on bikes in danger. Until PBOT starts making that a priority, we will continue to get “shakey” results. We deserve better and I’m glad there are people advocating for it.
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    I disagree. There will always be compromise. It’s part of living in a city. The city is too complex to engineer to perfection. There are no perfect solutions (it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, tho). Go to central city or nyc or sf and look at the interruptions in the ROW made by construction of buildings, road improvements, or even delivery vehicles, taxi dropoffs etc. They will NEVER solve those interruptions; it’s a sliding puzzle. It IS part of life in the city.

    Many of the photos above are temporary conditions during the course of construction. Yes, they unduly affect bikes more than cars…no doubt about that. But the cyclists just gained a permanent larger lane on Williams and shunted down potential car volume by half. That is ridiculously HUGE, but maybe not perfect…

    Vanlue should keep pointing these out because it increases safety awareness by the contractors that perform this work, but expecting no discomfort during a major project is unreasonable.

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      Jonathan Gordon January 27, 2015 at 12:41 pm

      Why should the compromise be driver convenience over bike safety? You mention central city or nyc or sf, but why should I consider them as the gold standard? How about the Netherlands?

      http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/road%20works%20vs.%20the%20dutch%20cyclist

      Here’s a great example: During construction, they close the road to cars (fine of 140 euro) but allow public transit and bikes:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6gRZPYP_Mk

      They compromise different. I don’t believe anyone is suggesting that there not be discomfort during construction. However, when compromises are made, we are asking that safety for vulnerable road users be given a higher priority than car traffic throughput.

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        ac January 27, 2015 at 1:49 pm

        I didn’t suggest what the compromises should be, just that they are inevitible. Compromises are just that…and they have them in NED too.

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    davemess January 27, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    Glad I live in SE.

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      9watts January 27, 2015 at 2:20 pm

      But Foster… 🙂

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        davemess January 27, 2015 at 2:43 pm

        Hopefully this is the year!

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    groovin101 January 27, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    I wonder what the outcome’d be if every person did this kind of advocacy on their personal commutes to work?

    I can think of a handful of things on mine that would be worth sharing, including pre-existing design that I’d like improved as well as gaps or potential tweaks/improvements that were overlooked in new design.

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      Tom January 28, 2015 at 11:17 am

      How can we gamify advocacy? At this point, too few of us get the spark and take action too rarely. Kudos come in the form of BikePortland coverage, the Alice Awards, and…a high-five from mom. Which is great, but it would be fantastic if a mechanism were put in place that rewarded active transportation advocacy in some visceral way that would appeal to a huge number of people.

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    Tim January 27, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Whenever I have had to perform work within the City of Portland streets I have had to obtain a permit and pay a fee. The permit required that I have a traffic control plan that included bicycles and pedestrians. Closing a bike lane was just like closing any other lane of traffic. Depending on traffic speed and volume, the closure could require, signing, cones to continue the lane through the work zone, or flagging. We had one funny (in hindsight) incident where the rather large ex-con flagger got into it with a lady who thought she would go through the work area by driving on the sidewalk.

    From what I see, the rules are there for those who care and if you don’t care you can do whatever you want, because no one will stop you once you pay your permit fee.

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    Brad January 27, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    I’m glad that last picture of the crosswalk on the north side of 17th and Powell was included in this. I really don’t feel safe crossing there. The curve looks like it was designed for speed, like a highway on ramp. Then, 3/4 of the way around the curve, drivers suddenly see a pedestrian crossing in front of them. Bad planning.

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    matt January 27, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    I see plenty of signs, plenty of cones… All I hear is a whiny, entitled guy with not a whole lot else to do… Yeah, Williams sucks, but there are far bigger flaws than just a couple trucks parked in the bike lane…

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      Ted Buehler January 28, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      “but there are far bigger flaws than just a couple trucks parked in the bike lane…”

      I beg to differ.

      * It’s one of the busiest commuter bicycle corridors in the city.
      * It didn’t have car-bike crashes in the past, now it has them routinely.
      * Car-bike crashes are the sort of thing event that will eventually result in a dead bicyclist if they are not addressed.
      * A pattern of trucks or other barricades in a busy bicycle lane in a corridor known to be a potential fatality location is a REALLY BIG PROBLEM.

      Got a bigger flaw? Let’s hear it.

      Ted Buehler

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    Ted Buehler January 28, 2015 at 12:22 am

    Nice work Will. Thanks much for being the public voice of all the rest of us folks that need to deal with these hazards.

    I love the #4thBestBikeBity tagline.

    Ted Buehler

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    Nag January 28, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    Another issue with the pictured crosswalk near 17th and Powell occurs during morning rush hour when cars line up to merge onto Powell. If there’s enough room cars that want to go North at 12th will pull into the bike lane as if its a second auto lane and ignore the crosswalk. If you’re crossing there and a driver has stopped for you, look further back to make sure someone behind them is not pulling the bypass in the bike lane maneuver.

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    Mark July 28, 2015 at 11:29 am

    I was surprised that I haven’t seen more recent articles about N Williams other than collision reports. I’ve used this street and the adjacent Vancouver hundreds of times over the past dozen or more years. While building and construction causes many problems that will go away when that concludes, I find the new “left side” bike facilities far less safe and predictable than before. The only winner in that re-design seems to be TriMet. All we have done is trade right-hooks for left-hooks and created many more options for those in cars to be hostile toward cyclists.

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    Mark July 29, 2016 at 10:46 am

    I think the last comment was mine from a year ago. It took just a year until my sense of a lack of safety was confirmed by a near-miss, left-hook collision at Skidmore. The driver of the Providence Heatlh van trotted out the usual, “I didn’t see you,” followed by the “Didn’t you see my turn signal?” excuses. Truth be told, I hardly blame him. North Williams in its redesigned state has created the kind of conflicts that we’re seeing. This has nothing at all to do with the construction currently under way. It’s just a lousy design that makes few of us satisfied and pedestrians and cyclists less safe.

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