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What it feels like to ride Barbur Blvd for the first time (photos)

Posted by on February 11th, 2015 at 5:06 pm

to barbur

Seems easy enough.
(Photos Michael Andersen/BikePortland)

This post is part of our SW Portland Week.

Here’s a confession: though I’ve driven on Southwest Barbur, ridden the bus on it, and walked along it to reach a vigil for a woman killed while she crossed it, in four years of reporting on the street and its problems I’ve never actually ridden a bike on it.

Until this week.

During the summer, somewhere between 250 and 500 people per weekday use Barbur Boulevard to bike back and forth between the heart of Southwest Portland and the rest of the city. It’s not the only way to get in and out of Southwest, which is home to about 65,000 people within the city limits. But it’s the flattest and most direct. Also, it’s the way I usually get to Southwest by car or bus, so if I didn’t know anything else about the route it’s the way I’d naturally try first.

Furthermore, as you can see above, it’s pretty well-marked from downtown. So midday Tuesday I decided to ride it and see what I could learn. I headed down the Transit Mall until 5th Avenue became Barbur and followed the big arrow above. Here’s what I saw first:

sidewalk

Since there was nothing prompting me to turn right here, I didn’t. Only after getting across the next street did I realize that despite the arrow pointing left onto the sidewalk, I was supposed to have turned right and used the bike signal to cross the street. But thanks to the big highway sign pointing to Barbur, I realized what I was supposed to do. Easy enough after the first time.

Here’s the next corner:

two buses

As I waited behind these two buses — with so many wide highway-style lanes and onramps nearby, I didn’t feel comfortable pulling around them — another came up behind me. I stopped to take a picture of this bus stop from the side:

no bike lane

After I crossed Southwest Broadway (which is also U.S. highway 26), I rode in Barbur’s wide bike lane, probably about six feet. Parts were in the door zone of some street parking, but it seemed little-used so not particularly uncomfortable. Further south, it became curb-tight, which was downright nice. Here’s a shot from about a mile south, approaching the mostly undeveloped section of Barbur that I’ve recently been hearing people refer to as the “Barbur Woods”:

wide bike lane

Another half-mile south, I got to the one “intersection” in the woods: the overpass of Capitol Highway.

capitol highway overpass

There’s a fairly steady stream of cars moving smoothly into this right-turn lane. Two did so as I approached, and the second didn’t bother with a turn signal. After that I glanced behind me; despite the green paint and the sign telling people driving to yield to me, I would have yielded to them if there hadn’t been a break in traffic.

Across the intersection, I pulled over to take a picture of this bus stop:

terrible bus stop

Next came the hardest part of riding Barbur, and the focus of most of our coverage of the street for years: the two bridges, slightly narrower than the rest of the street, that don’t have room for bike lanes unless at least one of the general travel lanes were removed. So the bike lanes go away.

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Last year, the Oregon Department of Transportation scraped the pavement off these bridges and repaved it. Though the agency decided not to restripe the street, warning that doing so might lead to significantly slower auto traffic in 2035, it did add asphalt ramps up to the 3.1-foot wide maintenance walkway.

ramp

With the bike lane merging into a 45-mph general travel lane, my first instinct was to ride up the ramp, which I was pleased to find was comfortable and smooth. But once I was on the walkway I reconsidered whether it was actually safer. Here’s a sense of its width:

narrow walkway

I decided I was better off taking the lane to my left. So I waited for another traffic break and swung back into the street, taking the middle of the travel lane across the bridge. I also did this on the second, similar bridge, less than a mile to the south:

car passing me on barbur bridge

This fellow, who pedaled past a little while after I did, chose to hug the right side of the same lane.

lonely biker on barbur bridge

I’d heard that although few people would ever linger on Barbur today, the southern bridge offers a particularly nice view of the Willamette River and the city. Here it is:

vista

South of the bridges, the posted speed limit falls from 45 mph to 35 mph. Just before the stoplight that ends the Barbur woods section, ODOT has installed an LED sign that detects and displays the speed of passers-by. I stopped in the bike lane, straddled my bike and pointed my camera at the sign as people passed me around this corner.

42mph

43mph blur

36mph bus

43mph

The sign seemed to give the actual speed for everything below 45 mph. Above 45 mph, it just switched to a faster flash of the words “Slow Down.”

slow down red truck

Both of these cars got the faster flash:

slow down 2 cars

Around this corner is the stoplight that signals the end of Barbur’s hairiest section and the beginning of its commercial area. Though this part of the road isn’t anybody’s idea of a biking paradise, it came as a relief.

south of woods

Tomorrow, we’ll be taking a closer look at the progress and possibilities for improving the commercial stretch of Barbur.

Would the northern, wooded section of Barbur get easier to ride with a little practice? No doubt. The reason Portland’s bicycling advocates have been so adamant about improving the wooded section isn’t that it’s the worst place in the world to ride. The reason is that because of the nature of the street — no real intersections for two miles — the existence of passing lanes doesn’t actually increase the road’s capacity. They merely make it easier to speed. Because the traffic bottlenecks are the signals at north and south, restriping to add continuous bike lanes on this wooded stretch would have little effect on congestion.

I’ve heard many people say that this is a difficult concept to explain to the media and the public. I can only assume that most of those who think we shouldn’t bother trying have never ridden a bicycle in or out of Southwest Portland.

We’ll be here in Southwest all week. And join us Friday afternoon for a BikePortland Get Together and social hour at the Lucky Labrador Public House in Multnomah Village (7675 SW Capitol Hwy) from 4:00 – 6:30pm.

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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rick
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rick

SW Barbur needs cycle track-style multi-use paths.

danny
Guest
danny

I won’t ride Barbur going south; Terwilliger is so much nicer and safer, and one gets a “fitness bonus” as well with the extra climbing. But I often ride Barbur going north since it is so fast to get downtown. But those bridges are one of the scariest places to ride in the city — perhaps rivaled only by the portion of Barbur a mile or so to the north where the street splits at 4th Ave. and the ramp down to Naito. Most people in cars there pay no attention to people on bikes, and riders face significant risk as they attempt to cross traffic lanes to stay on 4th toward downtown.

Curtis Roth
Guest
Curtis Roth

As I posted yesterday (?) on a different string, I ride Barbur every day. Sure, it needs improvements. But to me it’s the best choice to get to and from work in close-in north Portland. I think Broadway (South bound through downtown) is scarier, with its door-zone bike lane.

rick
Guest
rick

Please explore SW Slavin Road; the Red Electric Trail will link from the Hillsdale town center to that quiet road in order to connect to SW Corbett.

PeeJay
Guest
PeeJay

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ODOT has blood on their hands. It’s criminal.

Kyle
Guest
Kyle

We need leaders at the city and state levels who aren’t afraid to buck the clickbait opinions of the media that so many people seem to latch onto. Leaders who will make some tough decisions and face some initial backlash knowing that they’re saving lives and improving the quality of life for a large number of people. Leaders who know that decisions as simple as re-striping in the near-term can bring long-term benefits through increased active transportation.

9watts
Guest
9watts

We all own Barbur. The folks with the zippy cars have had their day (for about eighty years now). Now it is our turn to have a lane. Thank you.

Rduk90
Guest
Rduk90

Great article, I plan on giving Barbur a spin soon.

David Lewis
Guest

One thing I’ve noticed since I came back to the states a few years ago is the total consistency of state and federally owned roads to be hideously bad for every single mode of transportation except one: privately owned automobiles. And even then, they’re not great.

The unfortunate solution is to transfer ownership of roads like this to municipalities, who often have dynamic and modern traffic engineers who want to improve things. When a bureaucrat decides a road like Barbur is some sort of escape route for when we’re attacked by pirates during an earthquake, their grip is too strong to let it go.

So we’re left with a city like Portland that self-congratulates regularly on its bicycle friendliness but has veins and arteries running through it that are lethal and aggressive to bicyclists and owned by someone else. The activists typically don’t bother with challenges and we’re left with bike routes that look suspiciously like a specific person’s route to work.

We need a political constituency, and act as a bloc. I do not think activism has been productive in Portland, because what I see for bicycle infrastructure in Portland is not nearly enough. Go to any German city and you’ll see what I mean.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“…The reason Portland’s bicycling advocates have been so adamant about improving the wooded section isn’t that it’s the worst place in the world to ride. The reason is that because of the nature of the street — no real intersections for two miles — the existence of passing lanes doesn’t actually increase the road’s capacity. They merely make it easier to speed. …” andersen/bikeportland

The two main lanes in each direction make passing slower vehicles legitimately possible, when the slower vehicle is traveling significantly slower than the posted speed limit. The lanes do not merely make it easier for people to drive in excess of the posted speed limit, which above five miles over posted, they should be receiving citations.

It’s obvious from the pictures bikeportland’s Andersen has taken of Barbur’s digital speed readouts in action, that electronic equipment can accurately monitor speeds of passing vehicles. The sensible thing to do next, is accompany that monitoring with photo radar of the vehicle, its license plate, and if possible the person driving. Automatic citation in the mail. Watch the rate of excessive speeding incidents drop.

At three feet wide, I think many people, including transportation dept officials, would likely agree that the sidewalks across the bridges are easily about two feet shy of what they should be. In other words, at least a five foot wide lane should be provided. Reconfiguring the road’s four lanes plus bike lanes, to allow that additional width to the sidewalks, likely would be far more readily accomplished than is making a convincing case for the road diet, primarily to allow the road’s main lane level bike lanes to be continuous across the bridges.

Roger Averbeck
Guest
Roger Averbeck

“when the slower vehicle is traveling significantly slower than the posted speed limit.” wsbob

This mainly happens during the southbound PM peak rush rour… bikes can start at the traffic signal at Hamilton and catch up to and pass dozens of cars south of the bridges to the signals at Miles and or Terwilliger. To a lesser extent the same is true in the am peak inbound to downtown, north of the flyover ramp.

RE the speed reader board: From personal observations during off peak hours, I have witness a lot of car breaklights go on when the speed reader lights up. It is helping, but I like the suggestion to do some automatic citations. Perhaps a strategically placed northbound speed reader is also needed?

Adam
Guest
Adam

So… BASICALLY… the Trimet bus was the only vehicle on the road obeying the speed limit.

Shocking!!

*end sarcasm*

Trebor
Guest
Trebor

Jonathan–what route did you take after you crossed Terwilliger? I ask because, flawed as the Barbur Woods section is, the rest of Barbur is far, far worse. I agree wholeheartedly that the Barbur Woods portion of Barbur needs complete bike lanes and a road diet, but I also argue that such a change needs to be accompanied by much more far-reaching infrastructure further south.

With little interruption, the rest of Barbur all the way to Tigard features numerous curb cuts and heavy traffic. At the Multnomah Blvd. overpass, the bike lane drops once in the southbound direction and twice northbound The first northbound lane drop is particularly tricky because it occurs on a deceptively challenging hill just before many cars turn right to head toward the Sellwood Bridge (I ride from NE to PCC Sylvania 3-4 days per week and my legs have consequently made their peace with hills, and yet that hill is the one I look forward to with the least enthusiasm).

Other options from the Terwilliger intersection are little better. Terwilliger northbound is ok as SW PDX goes, but if ones going from downtown to that area one might as well just take Terwilliger all the way. SW Bertha is a bit better, but, it heads straight to Hillsdale which one can more easily–or at least equally easily–access via Terwilliger. Meanwhile, what seems to me to be the most useful connection to Barbur–Multnomah Blvd.–requires cyclists to climb a not-so-nice, curb-cutty section of Barbur to a point higher than Multnomah.

In sum, I am all in favor of fixing the Barbur Woods section, but I also contend doing so should be done in conjunction with a larger series of projects aimed at rendering that important connection useful to those other than the “strong and fearless.”

groovin101
Guest
groovin101

I’ve never ridden Barbur myself, but this article did a great job of giving the uninitiated some perspective. Nice coverage!

Trikeguy
Guest
Trikeguy

Everytime I think a flatter, longer ride into town might be nice I come down to Garden Home/Multnomah/Barbur and then realize that climbing the hill over Fairview is always preferable.

John Lascurettes
Guest

Jonathan, that shot of the other rider crossing the bridge must be flipped. You mention him hugging the right – but he’s hugging the left (and riding on the wrong side of the road) if this photo isn’t flipped.

K'Tesh
Guest
K'Tesh

When it comes to riding over those bridges… TAKE THE LANE!!!

If you hug the right hand side, some ASSHAT is going to try to squeeze between you and the car to its left. If you don’t give them the space to do it, they’ll wait, or merge. Now that the bridges are resurfaced, there’s no reason not to.

Inbound, typically, I’ll stay in the bike lane until I see a break in traffic, then I get in the lane, and I maintain position until I cross the OTHER bridge. Motorists can see you from a long way off, and realize that you’re not moving over, so they merge with traffic in the left lane, leaving you to ride in peace.

Outbound is different (it’s uphill) so I’ll move back into the bikelane between bridges.

Electric Mayhem
Guest
Electric Mayhem

I’ve ridden Barbur nearly every day for the last 4 years from Naito to 99W in Tigard. Thats about 1000 times in each direction. I’ve found that the bridge sections are actually the safest. I take the lane for the entire south bound section so that cars have a lot of time to see me and change lanes. The only scares I’ve had are when pissed off a-holes tailgate me. That doesn’t make me any less adamant that there should be a road diet. It doesn’t really matter whether the road is actually dangerous or just feels that way. The result is that it doesn’t serve as the vital bike corridor from SW to downtown that it should. The photos of the cars speeding through the speed limit sign is very typical, even when the entire road had reduced speed limits for construction.

I find the rest of Barbur to be a lot more dangerous. There are lanes crossing the bike path and lots of driveways and streets. Recently there has been a lot of construction on North Bound Barbur which has resulted in lots of barricades along the street that act like blinds so that you can’t see the cars waiting to pull out. Cones and construction barriers block the bike lane with no warning.

There are alternate routes that might be slightly safer, but at 55 minutes, this commute (from NE Portland to Tigard) is almost too much to fit in my schedule.

Curtis Roth
Guest
Curtis Roth

I ride the sidewalk on the bridges. And when I don’t ride the sidewalk, I don’t “take the lane”. Instead I ride near the curb. I’m too afraid of the drivers who aren’t looking out for a slow moving bike. I wear bright yellow (vest or jacket) and have two bright rear flashers, day or night.

Michelle
Guest
Michelle

I’m so glad someone took the time to document this. I biked Barbur every day from PSU for about 2 1/2 years to and from the Burlingame area, and I lost count of how many times I got cut off or almost hit by drivers of motor vehicles. This route is absolutely designed for drivers only, and the design does not take into account the safety of anyone not in a motor vehicle. This is an equity issue when cars are the only ones that can access these routes.

Paul Johnson
Guest
Paul Johnson

Amazing how Portland manages to get pavement markings backwards in bike lanes, but inconsistently so. “BARBUR TO” makes as much sense as “ZONE HOTEL SLOW”. At least the older markings still get it right with things like “◊ BIKE ONLY ⬆”