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‘Sidewalk closed’: Portlanders fend for themselves amid building boom


brian rod
Rod Yoder, left, and Brian Davis are both looking for long-term solutions.
(Photos: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Portland’s official policy is that when push comes to shove, making it safe and efficient to walk is a higher priority than making it safe and efficient to bike, which is a higher priority than making it safe and efficient to drive.

So why is it that when construction closes part of a street, sidewalks are so often the first to go?

On Thursday, a local engineering consultant led a walk through downtown Portland to show that it doesn’t have to work this way.

The walk (part of Walktober, the annual festival of fun on foot by Oregon Walks) was led by Brian Davis of Lancaster Engineering. Earlier on Thursday, Davis laid out his argument in a midday tweetstorm:

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When we gathered Thursday evening, Davis was joined by a pair of volunteers for Oregon Walks who’ve been working with the organization (and with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, which has been trying for years to make inroads on this issue) to convince the city to adopt a single, clear policy for what builders need to do when their project spills onto a sidewalk or roadway.

Our first stop was this year-long project on SW Stark and 3rd, where a construction project has taken over not only the sidewalk but a right-turn lane. This has removed the mixing zone that’s supposed to give people driving a chance to cross over the green bike lane without risking a collision by suddenly turning right in front of a bike at the corner.

People on foot, meanwhile, have to wait through two extra 24-second light cycles to walk down Stark. Davis said that though a sidewalk on only one side of the street is tolerable in downtown Portland because most streets are narrow and most corners have safe crossings, he thinks it’d be unreasonable on a larger street that lacks marked crosswalks.

In the case of this street, Davis said, it’d be easy to preserve mobility on Stark Street by removing the one block of auto parking during the project. Davis estimated that this would cost the city about $200 per day in lost revenue, which could simply be charged to the developer. (If the developer didn’t want to cover that cost, it might tell its builder to find a more space-efficient way to store its trucks.)

From there, we walked to 2nd and Pine, where a project had removed a general travel lane set up the sort of temporary barrier-protected sidewalk that’s common in some other cities. Because traffic is so light on this part of 2nd despite many lanes of traffic, Davis said it didn’t cause any auto congestion issues.

Further north on 1st and Couch, a closed sidewalk pushes many people into the narrow space between the MAX train tracks and curb.

Davis chose the downtown route because there were so many examples within walking distance. But this obviously isn’t a downtown problem only, and indeed it’s probably a bigger burden and greater danger in other parts of town.

Can anything be done? We talked about the fact that Portland has empowered many different agencies to issue permits for construction work that blocks roads, but given clear and consistent instructions to none of them. That means the solution is basically a matter of bureaucracy.

Oregon Walks Executive Director Noel Mickelberry said that if anyone is interested in helping advocate for the same sort of changes to Portland’s rules that Seattle just announced — that sidewalks should only be closed for construction as a last resort after other lanes have been temorarily removed — they should email her: noel@oregonwalks.org.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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