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As big bike investments loom, the debate goes on: Which neighborhoods need most?

Posted by on August 4th, 2015 at 9:58 am

SW Portland bikeways-2

Southwest Portland’s bikeways need huge work. But is that work more important than improving areas that have immediate ridership potential?
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

The debate is familiar. But lately, we’ve been hearing an interesting twist to this story: there might actually be a way to resolve it.

Portland is getting ready for a burst of its biggest biking investments in years, and it’s prompted a creative proposal for confronting one of the stickiest issues in local politics.

The city is preparing to put $6 million toward its first high-quality downtown bike lane network. Next year, a $5.2 million upgrade of Foster Road will make that highway-style street much safer to walk, bike and drive on between SE 52nd and SE 90th. Another $4.2 million will create a 130s Greenway; another greenway running east from Gateway Transit Center; and bike facilities on Division Street as far east as 130th. The $2.4 million 20s Bikeway Project is being built piece by piece.

As those investments (all of them set in motion during the Sam Adams administration but followed through on by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick) get close to reality, they’re leading naturally to maybe the most fundamental dilemma in Portland biking.

How much should we spend to make good neighborhoods great, and how much should we spend to make bad neighborhoods decent?

Portland’s eternal question

Bike traffic on NW Broadway-20

With so many people already riding NW Broadway, modest investments could deliver a big payoff. But is any further investment in central Portland justifiable?

Similar questions came to a point last week when car2go said it was about to cut service to east-central Portland and St. Johns. And last month, we heard the latest hint of the discussion as it relates to bikes.

It came in a brief exchange on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud program. Host Dave Miller had two guests, Roberta Robles of BikeLoudPDX and Art Pearce of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. They had this to say:

Roberta Robles: Focusing in on downtown — while it’s helpful, we need infrastructure facilities out in northeast Portland as well. Downtown is great and all, but these outer burbs, they need help getting to the grocery store, getting to their schools.

Art Pearce: I totally agree. Foster Road is a $5.2 million project that’s coming up into design next year. East Portland Active Transportation to Transit, $4.2 million starts next year. We’re starting an East Portland Fund, $9 million. There’s a whole number of projects that are happening in Portland as well. The Central City project is just one piece of a larger package of investments the city is making.

Note that the two aren’t disagreeing. Both say that improvements are needed in all parts of the city. But they’re both acknowledging how hard it is to balance two different values:

  • improving downtown streets, which would probably result in a bigger jump to Portland’s bike-commuting rate
  • improving further-out streets, which would probably have a benefit to more people who get around without cars

The debate is familiar. But lately, we’ve been hearing an interesting twist to this story: there might actually be a way to resolve it.

The approach comes from another field that Portlanders tend to think about a lot: public transportation.

The ridership-coverage tradeoff

East Portland street scenes-5

122nd Avenue.

It’s best described by Jarrett Walker, a transit writer and consultant who grew up in Portland and lives here today. He calls it the ridership-coverage tradeoff.

Here is Walker’s key principle: you cannot simultaneously prioritize ridership on a transportation system and the expansion of that transportation system to serve all areas.

In the world of buses: You could spend $1 million a year to make the No. 6 bus come every 5 minutes, and you’d get lots of new ridership. Or you could spend $1 million a year to provide weekend and late-night bus service every 30 minutes to parts of Sherwood, Estacada and Forest Grove, and you’d be serving a relatively small number of people who would benefit greatly from the service.

When Walker advises public transit agencies on how to divvy up their money, he tells their leaders this: make a choice. Choose a percentage of any new money that will go toward maximizing coverage and a percentage that will go toward maximizing ridership.

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Michelle Poyourow, a longtime Portland bicycling advocate who works as a senior planner for Jarrett Walker and Associates, said Portland’s bicycle network choices face the same tradeoff.

“You spend a million dollars on a bikeway, and you get thousands and thousands of people using it in one place,” she said. “You spend a million dollars on a bikeway in another place and you get hundreds of people using it. Which is the right place? Well, it depends on whether you value ridership or coverage. There’s no correct answer to that question.”

‘A resilient plan doesn’t just say yes to everyone’

A Sunday ride-3

NE Tillamook Street.

Jessica Roberts, a Portland-based principal at Alta Planning + Design who follows Walker’s work, suggested during a public forum last fall that Portland could defuse some of the endless debate between these two values by setting a percentage — maybe 70-30, or maybe 50-50 — to allocate new spending on its biking network.

“Because we have nothing more than the change behind the couch cushions to work on bike projects, I think we’re seeing a lot of tension between I guess what you might call equity-based arguments and people who want to see us direct our resources to the parts of our city where we already have people biking,” Roberts said in an interview. “You’re both right! … You don’t really have to choose only one or only the other, but it behooves transit agencies and especially transit agency boards to have a really explicit conversation about why they run their transit system, what their goals and objectives are.

PBOT Lunch and Learn panel-2

Jessica Roberts, right, says Portland bikeway planners
could take a page from transit planning.

“I can’t help but wonder if a similar conversation can’t happen in the bikeway realm,” Roberts said.

Poyourow and Roberts acknowledged that the usual assumptions of mass transit — that service to dense, walkable parts of a city will usually tend to have the most ridership payoff — might be more complicated when it comes to bicycling.

But both consultants said it’d be useful for Portland’s biking policymakers to start thinking explicitly about the two opposing values.

Oregon Active Transportation Summit-22

Michelle Poyourow, right, says the approach helps
transit agencies make decisions less haphazardly.

“That is an idea that Jarrett developed after years and years of working with transit agencies and … after watching them get beat up no matter what they did, he said here’s a way that electeds and public officials can give really clear guidance to staff,” Poyourow said. “The first step to that conversation is admitting that those goals are in conflict, not trying to tell people that you can be everything to everyone. … A resilient plan doesn’t just say yes to everyone.”

After all, Roberts said, the choices between these tradeoffs are being made today — just not systematically.

“We negotiate these tradeoffs whether we do it in a smart informed high-level way or in really dirty politics,” Roberts said. “These decisions get made, and they will even if we have more money. so I guess the question is, is the way we’re making these decisions the best way to align our investments with our goals? Probably not. Would a ridership vs. coverage high-level conversation help? I don’t know. But it would be an experiment worth trying.”

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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ethan
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ethan

We should be improving the bike network everywhere!

But PBOT is so spineless, even the low hanging fruit is too hard for them.

rick
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rick

Why not ODOT’s highways? That is where many deaths and bloodshed take place. Just take Powell, TV Highway, BH Highway, and 99 W this year alone. It is time the outer parts of the metro area get an overhaul.

9watts
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9watts

“How much should we spend to make good neighborhoods great, and how much should we spend to make bad neighborhoods decent?”

Funny, I’ve never heard anyone say: How much should we spend to upgrade the bridges on I-5 heading South, and how much should we spend to install digital signboards all around the metro area?

Because of course ODOT did *both* with our money, when neither were necessary or of any special benefit, though of course they have their long list of justifications at the ready.

Ben Fleskes
Guest
Ben Fleskes

Years ago there was a plan to put Freeways all across the region and few brave people said no.

Now I’m left wondering, where is the broad master-plan for bicycles. Portland is at the point where single wide bike lanes are simply not adequate for the amount of bicycling we want for Portland that will sustain the quality of life we enjoy here.

To get there, we need to a broad network of bikeways 10 feet wide in each direction, protected from automobile and truck traffic. Such a network will serve as a network for people to access major destinations and very simply serve as the freeways of the future – only just for bicycles. Everything else seems to be minor half measures.

Please point me in the right direction. Where is the broad, high capacity, master plan for bicycle based transportation? Where will the 10 foot wide(in each direction) bikeways go? Once we know that, then it seems we can start filling in the details and smaller bike lanes for even more accessibility.

Bike on.

Evan Manvel
Guest
Evan Manvel

This sort of trade-off among priorities is what the City has been doing for years. See PBOT’s effort from 2011: http://bikeportland.org/2011/12/07/pbot-unveils-major-reforms-to-address-budget-crisis-63262

I’d slightly reframe what Jessica had to say: “Because we have nothing more than the change behind the couch cushions to work on bike projects…” as “Because we have many priorities and *we decide* to spend nothing more than the change behind the couch cushions to work on bike projects…”

I’m for boosting transportation spending overall (while, as many have argued, devolving more to the local level). But if we reprogrammed certain highway funds, we could completely fund the bike plan. It’s a choice we’re making.

Adam H.
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Adam H.

Before we can prioritize coverage vs. ridership, the city needs to prioritize bike transport. Currently, as you say, bike projects get “couch change”. This decision would be far easier if there was a decent pot of money PBOT could draw from instead of the scraps we get today.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Bring on the gentrification!

Jeff Bernards
Guest
Jeff Bernards

Couch Change needs to be addressed with funding ideas, gas tax? street fee? I’m not advocating for either here. But, you have to be outspoken as much about the problems as about possible solutions, as unpopular as they may be.

invisiblebikes
Guest
invisiblebikes

The first challenge to confront should be that we are spending that “couch change” on inferior bicycle infrastructure.
The city engineers need to stop “squeezing in” the infrastructure, stop painting white lines next to curbs and calling the space in between a “bike lane”

If we really want to improve ridership and/or coverage then we need to first make sure the infrastructure is not only safe but eliminate the “feeling of danger” that riders feel currently. Which in turn would make the infrastructure more appealing to new users.
This is the true issue that needs to be delt with first and foremost.

I will bet $100 right now that the “infrastrcture” they are planning for Foster will be very low use, because it will just be more narrow strips of white paint next to a curb. There are very few people that are going to tolerate riding within 2 feet of those angry, distracted and speeding drivers on Foster!

Aaron
Guest
Aaron

I live out on 139th, so this is going utterly against my self interest, but here’s what I have to say:

Screw the burbs. Focus on making good areas better, and great areas European. Even the best this city has to offer has vast amounts of room for improvement. A staggeringly accessible central city can show people how good transportation can be when cars are de-emphasized. It will do more for Portland’s rep, and the public will to make more areas like that, than putting every arterial from here to Sandy on a half-assed road diet. Let’s City Upon A Hill this SOB.

maccoinnich
Guest

“With so many people already riding NW Broadway, modest investments could deliver a big payoff. But is any further investment in central Portland justifiable?”

This caption seems to imply that there has already been substantial investment in central Portland. There hasn’t. With the exception of South Waterfront, which is slowly turning out to be pretty good, the Central City has been totally ignored. There is still no northbound route through downtown, or a southbound route through the Pearl. There is no continuous link between the Northwest and the waterfront, or westbound between Goose Hollow and the waterfront. Neither the Burnside Bridge or the Hawthorne Bridge has bike lanes extending for more than a handful of blocks into downtown. The Broadway Bridge has a continuous bike lane extending southbound, but until you reach PSU it’s very narrow and in the door zone.

Whether argued from an equity or a ridership perspective, the Central City has been left neglected. The tens of thousands of people who live there (and the hundreds of thousands of people who work there) need a safe to get to the grocery store and to schools as well.

Gary
Guest
Gary

Obviously like everyone else, I’d prefer to make the pie bigger rather than argue over how to divide up the slice we get. But that’s not the point of this topic–the issue here is how to make best use of (the unfortunate) reality, not dream about possibilities.

To that end, I’m not sure the conflict between ridership and coverage is real, at least not to the extent it is suggested here. I believe such a conflict would arise at some point of sufficient bike network saturation, but don’t think we’re nearly there yet. That is, e.g., a good bike route on Foster is going to bring increased ridership and substantial increased coverage. Yes, downtown projects aren’t going to increase coverage, but there are lots of projects that will achieve both objectives. Bike routes, to a much greater extent than transit, serve broad areas, not just those in the immediate few blocks of the expansion.

Thus, the real choice seems to me not whether to increase coverage or ridership, it’s the issue of who (where) benefits the most from it and equity issues.

kittens
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kittens

There is just no political will in the city to do anything slightly progressive on bike infrastructure at this point. I predict massive fail. Because the bike spending by its very nature shows mode favor they are allergic to it. Because we don’t have real leaders in the city and they are scared of the O for some reason.

Bart
Guest
Bart

I live west of 205 at the moment, but am in the process of grudgingly moving east of that marker. The phenomenal investment poured into inner-neighborhood infrastructure has increased the demand for the same, increasing prices and dislocating residents along the way. The inevitable outcome will be continued gentrification, with more and more ‘burb residents clamoring for the infrastructure that they themselves can no longer afford to live near.

I feel that we need to prioritize in-fill, ensuring a similar level of investment in all areas of our city. The funding balance idea is a good one (30/70, 50/50, etc), but we need to be careful to take into account the changing dynamics of the city when doing so, not to exclude one part of Portland for another.

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

The continued reduction of transportation tax revenues going the way it looks now, there needs to be a “COMMUTER TAX”. This would help support the conversion of parking lanes and driving lanes to sidewalks, greenways, and protected bike lanes. The parking garages would be happy to collect it and the meters just need a little upgrade. The reduction of traffic would make a fantastic difference.The change to 3 lanes for Barbur would be done easily with the shared middle lane. Guaranteed to reduce cars.

GirlOnTwoWheels
Guest
GirlOnTwoWheels

My biggest concern regarding the funding allocation between coverage vs ridership is that the couch change that we have access to will be insufficient for any notable projects in either bucket. To build both but at such a level they are less than the quality of infrastructure desired is a different compromise.

RH
Guest
RH

Fund projects for the downtown and bridges into downtown. It’s where people are going and has the most visual impact. Once people see what ‘world class’ bike infrastructure looks like, then it would trickle down to other outside areas.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

There is a lot of merit in making two types of core investment:
– facilities that allow a district to move past 10% bike share to 25% mode split [points at which the mode becomes sustainable]; and
– foundation investment to set aside links or points of access that a future facility would need [bridge crossings / arterial under crossings etc.] our in next tier districts. (Few remember how vital PDoTs early bridge access work in the 1990s was for the bike mode growth in the 2000s.)

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

All in all the City has to be serious and not let existing on-street vehicle storage trump new multimodal access or traffic safety. Often the efforts to appease on-street parkers (free parking typically) causes bikeway facilities to be much more expensive to build or be less convenient or less safe. [The recent multifamily development minimums parking issue is a related case in point that may become a domino of sorts for future bikeways.]

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

The city should move aggressively to implement road diets in east Portland. So many of these roads have excess capacity, and could be re-striped to add bike lanes and turn lanes. This relatively cheap change would help reduce motor vehicle speeds and greatly improve safety. It’s important to diet these roads now, before increased development adds more vehicle traffic, and diets become politically more difficult to implement.

q`Tzal
Guest
q`Tzal

() Considering the way that minorities are treated by the police
() and the fact that we have video evidence that some will lie to cover up misdeeds
() AND the fact that bicycle safety now seems to hinge on privileged bicycle riders with money to burn buying a front and rear facing GoPro

PERHAPS the best overall safety move…
… For bicycle riders, pedestrians, handicapped and persecuted minorities…
Is to put up live streaming cameras at every intersection that is wired for a traffic light.

Something everyone can use as evidence to prosecute hit and run drivers, misbehaving police and even serve a secondary visual identification source for red light cameras and their comedically bad arrest photos.

I hate ubiquitous surveillance with the fire of a thousand suns but the cro magnons of our species that feel the need to abuse their fellow man must be stopped.

If you are going to be a primitive hater and killer I have less sympathy for you than a cockroach.

oregon111
Guest
oregon111

put the bike improvements in rockwood…

because as portland gentrifies, it will be the only place that bicycle riding hipsters making min wage will be able to afford rent

gutterbunnybikes
Guest

I think honestly think you can have both. It’s just that the thinking has to change on what the system as whole is and should be doing. If we actually started connecting commercial districts instead of skirting them, you get both. But Downtown is the only commercial district the city wants to connect to the bicycle grid.

You will dramatically increase ridership numbers and geographic influence if you plan right. Instead of half-assed 20’s and 50s projects – why were these routes not taken 10 blocks west which would have put the bicycle access in the heart of the main east side commercial districts instead of 10 blocks away from where everyone wants to get to in them?

A route through the teens would have given riders direct access from the heart of Alberta through LLoyd, central eastside, Division/Clinton then on down to Bybee/ Sellwood. A route through the 40’s would have connected the heart of Fremont to Hollywood, to Hawthorne, to Division/Powell, and Woodstock.

And you wait because Foster does connect commercial districts – once implemented it will be a game changer for future planning. Foster (coupled with Clinton and Tillicum) is going to be huge, once completed it’s roughly 5 miles of near complete (other than Clinton being two blocks off Division) commercial access for bicycles from 90th to over the bridge to Downtown.

As long as no one is willing to adequately connect all the commercial districts, all the projects which aren’t central city will fall short. And at some point, without better access from outside of central city even those projects will fail in that no one will be able to get to them.

Joseph E
Guest

Fortunately, the Ridership vs Coverage debate is not as intractable for bikes as it is for transit.

Due to the low population and job density of Portland’s suburbs, good transit to everywhere would be very expensive without big changes in the cost and availability of driving, parking and housing. But the suburban density of the Portland metro area is OK for bikes already. Also, bikes mainly need capital projects. New bike infrastructure is mostly a one-time cost; the street maintenance expensive will be able the same with a bike lane. In contrast, a new bus or train route or more frequent buses require an ongoing subsidy with the current price of operating and paying for transit. Even better, bikes can still be ridden in places without any bike-specific infrastructure, if the street or road is low-traffic and speeds are low. This means we don’t even need to try to provide separated bike infrastructure to low-density areas (which are very expensive to serve with buses), because simple changes like lower speed limits can be effective.

If we had more money (eg the amount of money spent on bike infrastructure in the Netherlands), we could pay for the high-ridership AND coverage routes!

Dan
Guest
Dan

Does it cost more money for police to pull people over, rather than letting them slide with a 10-15mph cushion? Does it cost more money for police to write a ticket rather than give a warning? Does it cost more money to ticket the vehicle that is caught by a red light or speed camera, rather than the driver? Does it cost more money to hold drivers criminally responsible for negligence in operation of dangerous machinery, rather than always giving them the benefit of the doubt? Does it cost more money to NOT widen a road, and let congestion work itself out naturally? Does it cost more money to raise the gas tax to an appropriate level? How about even 1/10th of an appropriate level?

Kathleen Parker
Guest

As a member of Montavilla Neighborhood and long-time bike commuter and car-sharer, I use all services public and private mentioned in this thread. I did want to clarify to this listserve when discussing funding for these services areas based on heavy use, please remember that our suburbs are; Gresham, Beaverton and beyond,Clackamas County and Vancouver. Montavilla is the center of our city limits with a diverse population both ethnically and economically. It is not a place to not implement or cut services from private or public sectors. Luckily we have some bike infrastructure, a handful of zipcars, reliable MAX service, and Trimet is increasing service on several bus lines here and further east. There are rumours of road diets on NE Halsey and Glisan with added bike lanes. I used to think Montavilla was far out when I lived in Sabin, Buckman, and Albina neighborhoods. Then I bought my first house. I got to know the neighborhood. Now I don’t think it is far out anymore. It is reasonable that Portland residents want the same or similar bike signals, curb cuts, signage, and transportation options in all central neighborhoods. Private bike and car-share companies don’t have any long-term goals for equity in Portland, but our City supposedly does. Now is the time to lure responsible car and bike sharing companies and implement transportation policies and funding that serve all neighborhoods.

Chris Anderson
Guest

How ’bout we quit pretending this stuff is expensive to build?

KYouell
Guest

I know I’m a broken record, but we could have both an increase in ridership and equitable expansion by focusing on schools. Get the daily school commute more focused on safely biking and walking; schools are all over the city.

Make our Safe Routes to School a major priority (lots of diversion, increased fines & enforcement for drivers speeding on them or using them for cut-throughs, heavy-rotation educational campaign about why the increased fines & enforcement) and this could happen.

Chris Anderson
Guest

We won’t get there as long as Matt Garrett and his band of cronies are running ODOT.

Roberta Robles
Guest
Roberta Robles

I had know idea I was quoted in this article. Better late then never response. Thanks for listening and picking up on exactly the tension between the outer burbs and downtown. BikeLoudPDX had an internal conversation on this same subject, regarding this exact comment. We have a large portion of downtown commuters in our group. Generally the consensus out of the group is yes, we will support all bike facilities but let’s continue to support better bicycling facilities for the more vulnerable people out here. The downtown cycle track has a lot of supporters. Who is speaking for the underprivileged people? What about the families who could save a lot of money by going from a two car family to one car and a bike. I’m also speaking out of selfishness. I really don’t want the time and money expense of having to drive my kids everywhere. Self determination has everything to do with access to affordable transportation.

Jim
Guest
Jim

In transit, there is no productivity-coverage debate. It’s sustainability vs unsustainability urban sprawl. Many transit agencies are discovering costs rising and coverage is unsustainable. And why should transit or bike planners promote urban sprawl? Why provide commuter service to middle class whites in the suburbs and exurbs at the expense of poor minorities closer to downtown? Why give wealthy people who are promoting urban sprawl in the suburbs bike lanes so their lazy big a**es can get some nice exercise at the expense of more poor people getting killed downtown because of inadequate bike lanes that are not separated from traffic and poorly designed intersections putting bikes in danger of red-light running 2-ton killing machines? There is much more to be spent on bicycle amenities downtown before you should even think about building exercise lanes for well-to-do urban sprawl problem makers who will use these lanes significantly less than their poorer counterparts. Transit needs to fix their model as well as bike planners. I am getting so sick and tired of middle class planners spending so much time and tax money trying to solve middle class problems at the expense of both poor people’s safety and transportation accessibility.

Nathanael
Guest
Nathanael

The coverage/ridership distinction does NOT have the same effect with bike lanes — or sidewalks.

Why? Because there are no government operating costs. The maintenance is the same as the maintenance costs of the roads, and this is higher per person in far-out rural areas than in close-in urban areas — but without operating costs and with low maintenance costs, it becomes much easier to justify extending the network a long way out.

After all, you only need to build a bike lane or sidewalk once — it stays built, and just has to be resurfaced occasionally. So if you build bike lanes downtown, eventually you will have built bike lanes in all of downtown, and will need to move on to the next neighborhood. As long as you don’t do idiotic things like ripping the bike lanes out, or building them wrong and having to redo them, or redoing ones which were just fine already — etc.

In truly rural areas, it would probably be wisest to provide paved shared-use bike paths / sidewalks and dirt or gravel roads. Paved roads are $$$$$ to maintain.

Nathanael
Guest
Nathanael

One important lesson from public transportation, of course, is the network. Disconnected bits of bike lane which throw you into traffic in between are no good at all — like two bus routes which terminate a mile away from each other, so that you can’t transfer between them. You need a solid, connected path.