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As festival season begins, Naito’s bike lanes are walkers’ only refuge

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Not the best place for a stroller.
(Photos: M.Andersen/BikePortland unless noted)

Another summer is on the way, and the story is familiar: Waterfront Park has become such a success that people on foot are spilling onto the bed of Naito Parkway, the five-lane street that runs beside it.

During festivals like the Cinco de Mayo event that wrapped up Tuesday, the park is fenced off by barriers that are typically dragged right up to the curb, forcing the many people walking to the festival to use the bike lane — and forcing the many people biking on Naito directly into car traffic.

But though the problem isn’t new, more people seem to be wondering this spring if something could be done about it.

Just Tuesday, Mayor Charlie Hales tweeted about an idea he’s mentioned several times: a physically separated path that could replace the rightmost northbound traffic lane on at least part of Naito, presumably north of the Hawthorne Bridge where auto traffic is relatively light.

Hales isn’t the only one. At the invitation of Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick’s office, I stopped by Naito during rush hour on Tuesday to check out a phenomenon one of Novick’s policy advisors had identified as worrisome.

The advisor I was meeting, Timur Ender, had reached out after getting some photos of his own over the weekend:

(Photos: Timur Ender)

Festival visitor’s take on Naito: “I hate Portland”

Ender says the city has been hearing from some constituents, too. He forwarded this note that local attorney Scott Kocher sent to Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz on April 30:

Is there any way your bureau could ask the Cinco de Mayo folks to move their cyclone fence a few feet back from Naito Parkway downtown so that there is room for people to walk on the grass (or, really, the goat path that serves as a sidewalk) instead of in the bike lane?

Festivals make cycling on the Esplanade waterfront path impassible. Considering the waterfront path is (I suspect) the most heavily-used cycling corridor in Oregon, that’s kind of a big deal. But, it’s fine. When there are crowds, people walking along the water should get priority. This darned fencing, however, blocks people from walking along Naito, and forces people who are on foot into the bike lane. That forces people on bikes into the vehicle traffic, which is dangerous. That is the situation right now.

Thank you for this sort of attention to detail that will make Cinco de Mayo safe and comfortable for everyone, and make it possible for the thousands of people who ride bicycles along the waterfront to use the Naito bike lanes instead of the Esplanade waterfront path, as your bureau’s recently-installed signage asks.

Standing on Naito late on Tuesday afternoon, I started asking a few people in the constant stream walking between the fence and street what they thought of the situation.

“I hate Portland,” said Meagan Seibt of Tigard, who was visiting the festival with two friends and walking in the crowded space along the fence. “Too many people, too many cars.”


An unexpected demo

Then, while I was there, a frightening thing happened: inside the festival, someone was shot. First responders pulled into the rightmost traffic lane beneath the Morrison Bridge and proceeded to set out orange cones in the rightmost lane all the way south to the Hawthorne Bridge to prevent any conflicts with their work.

Fortunately, the victim survived. And purely by coincidence, Portland had just created a temporary live demo of what Naito Parkway would look like during rush hour if its rightmost northbound lane were converted to a mixed-use path.

People didn’t quite know what was going on, so they still tended to hug the curb. But you could see in people’s body language that the lack of cars passing three feet away made it a dramatically more comfortable experience.

What about the auto traffic?

North of the Hawthorne and south of the Morrison, it turned out that one lane was plenty of room for northbound cars to queue up during each signal cycle without spillover. The real question, I realized, was what would happen to traffic where the lane closure started. So I walked down to the south side of the Hawthorne Bridge. Here’s what it looked like there, looking south:

As you can see, the right lane of Naito south of the Hawthorne Bridge is taken up largely by people waiting to turn right. For those who aren’t, the rightmost lane only appears after the Hawthorne onramp — so it doesn’t add any capacity to this chokepoint. North of the Hawthorne, the second auto lane is mostly just a passing lane.

I walked back and talked to some more people about the temporary road change.

“As a cyclist it’s great,” said Alejandro Savransky, pedaling northbound on Naito. “I know that people won’t be walking in the bike lane or if they are, I can go around them.”

Luis Juarez, walking to the festival ticket booth with a young girl who I assume was his daughter, had a slightly different take.

“It’s going to be good for people walking, but not for the traffic,” he said.

I asked Juarez whether, on balance, he’d rather keep the lane dedicated to walking and biking or return it to an auto lane. He considered for a moment.

“I would say leave it like it is,” Juarez said in thickly accented English. “You’ve always got to look for ways for people to walk.”

A history of experiments

Tuesday’s brief traffic pattern change wasn’t the first time Naito has been temporarily improved. Back in 2009, expansion of the Saturday Market led to a short-term barrier-protected path in almost the same space.

(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

It’s clear that Commissioner Novick and Mayor Hales are looking urgently for a solution to the current Naito problem and are hoping to come up with some ideas in the next few weeks, ideally in time for the Rose Festival CityFair that begins May 22. Ender sent this statement on Wednesday from Novick’s office:

We are very concerned with the conditions we saw on Naito this past weekend. Kids in strollers and seniors were within inches of 35mph traffic without any physical protection. The environment on Naito did not conform to the vibrant pedestrian atmosphere the city is trying to foster for our visitors and it failed to meet a minimum level of safety for the traveling public. Our office has already started the process of communicating with Rose Festival to ensure the same issues do not repeat themselves later this month.

This is pretty strong and clear language from the commissioner’s office. It’ll be interesting to see exactly what he’s got in mind to make things better on Naito.