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Is it time for more bus-only lanes in Portland?

Posted by on May 11th, 2017 at 1:13 pm

Hawthorne Bridge traffic observations-3.jpg

TriMet buses idle in congestion on the Hawthorne Bridge heading into downtown Portland.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“It is time for @trimet and @MultCoBridges to open the outer lane on Hawthorne for transit only. This is utterly absurd.”
— Alan Kessler on Twitter

Transit riders all too often forgotten victim of Portland’s congestion crunch. While we frequently hear tales of woe from people who drive in the daily gridlock that plagues much of our city, for some reason the news media and politicians don’t have the same empathic ear for people who use buses.

Since buses (and to a lesser extent streetcar and MAX trains) share the same lanes as cars and trucks, these (potentially) efficient and egalitarian workhorses of our transportation system are made to wait behind single-occupancy cars. This is infuriating to many transportation reform advocates, urban planners, and people with a grasp of basic mathematics.

Traffic in Portland is especially bad this year not only because driving is still way too attractive (it’s free, perceived as very safe, and often the fastest option), but also because of numerous construction projects. Case in point is Multnomah County’s project on the Morrison Bridge which prompted The Portland Mercury to report that it would “ruin your summer” if you drive. “Your options,” they wrote back in March, “Begin riding your bike, or figure out at whom you should direct your outrage.”

A graphic on the Portland Bus Lane Project website.

Unfortunately, if traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge directly south of the Morrison is any indication, it looks like way too many chose the latter option.

The result has surely caused outrage — but it’s not just people in cars that are mad. The daily backups on the Hawthorne leading into downtown frustrate transit fans too. One of them is Alan Kessler. Kessler is a lawyer by day and transportation reform activist on the side. He’s an active volunteer with Bike Loud PDX and other groups. On May 4th he was biking westbound on SE Madison approaching the Hawthorne Bridge and posted a video to Twitter with the message: “It is time for @trimet and @MultCoBridges to open the outer lane on Hawthorne for transit only. This is utterly absurd.”

Kessler’s tweet sparked a robust discussion. So much that he’s decided to start a grassroots campaign to see if the idea has legs.

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Since his tweet, Kessler has launched the Portland Bus Lane Project. So far it consists of a website and an email list. A meet-up of interested activists is being planned2. He’s also invited Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson to meet him outside her office just a few blocks away from the bridge to take a closer look at the issue.

“Watching buses idle with a few dozen cramped people inside while another dozen individuals in cars block their path is just absurd,” he shared with me a few days ago. “The idea that this is a system that someone designed, that so many people subject themselves to daily, and that is killing our planet. It’s absolutely absurd.”

Hawthorne Bridge traffic observations-6.jpg

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This hierarchy was adopted by city council as part of Portland’s Transportation System Plan.

Kessler points to Portland’s adopted planning documents that are supposed to prioritize transit above single-occupancy cars. “But this is a painful example of that not happening,” he points out. And he’s not just thinking about the Hawthorne Bridge. Bus-only lanes have been pushed for by Kessler and others on Outer Division for many months now. Metro and TriMet tried to create “bus rapid transit” on the Powell-Division Corridor last year, but were too afraid to constrain single-occupancy vehicle capacity to do it and the plan fell apart.

“If transit really is at the top of the inverted pyramid [a reference to Portland’s “transportation hierarchy” adopted in the Comprehensive Plan], and cars are at the bottom, then it should be easy to find the room to make this happen.”

What might happen to all traffic on the Hawthorne if we made this switch? It’s hard to say because don’t have precise figures about the current split of cars and buses. Two years ago, in a story about how biking and walking traffic was bursting at the seams of the Hawthorne Bridge’s sidepath, we reported that about 10 percent of all the traffic on the bridge is bicycle users, another 10 percent are on foot, and about 30 percent are in transit vehicles (leaving about half inside cars). A former member of the Multnomah County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee told us, “We would like to see the council consider the possibility of lane reallocation.”

“I am certainly not against bus priority on the bridge, but I have always felt that Southwest Madison and Main are the more severe problem.”
— Jarrett Walker, transit consultant

Jarrett Walker of Human Transit, a highly regarded bus and transit consultant, told us this morning that attention should be paid to the streets that lead up to the bridge. “Bus only provisions are needed especially for bottlenecks. The urgent problem is often on the bridge approaches rather than the bridge itself,” he said. As an example, he added that MAX light rail on the Steel Bridge is “reasonably reliable” even when it mixes with other traffic. That’s because the bridge itself isn’t where congestion happens and the MAX has a dedicated path on the approaches.

“I am certainly not against bus priority on the bridge, but I have always felt that Southwest Madison and Main are the more severe problem,” added Walker.

If you’d like to get involved with Kessler’s project. You can sign up for his email list at Portlandb.us.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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Social Engineer
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Social Engineer

+1000. I realize that Hawthorne Bridge is probably on Alan’s daily commute and that’s the bridge he’s paying particular attention to, but eastbound Burnside Bridge has needed a bus lane for YEARS. It’s unacceptable the amount of delay that bus riders have to face when just trying to get past the queue of car traffic headed to I-84 via Grand Avenue.

Kate
Guest
Kate

Fully support this. I feel so badly for the buses as i bike them daily on Hawthorne- they are getting a raw deal. I never take the bus because there is really no time savings, i’d prefer to grind it out on my bike. However those less willing to bike would probably be convinced under our current construction-induced gridlock to take the bus if there was a time savings and travel time reliability to be had.

rick
Guest
rick

Yes. More town centers need them, too.

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

Transit needs priority. A bus full of people replaces a line of cars a quarter of a mile long — very relevant during rush where zero or one car often gets through on a light cycle.

I won’t ride transit in Portland. Way too slow as well as being packed. It would be more attractive if it were more efficient.

Doug Klotz
Subscriber

I think we might add on Jarrett Walker’s idea, and ask for westside bus-only lanes from SW 5th/6th down to/up from the bridge. And on the east side, the bus-only lane should start at 12th and Madison, not 10th. And perhaps other bridge approaches as well.

Free Market Economist
Guest
Free Market Economist

The answer: No, it is not.

Ben
Guest
Ben

YES.

Chris Anderson
Guest

Similar to Roberta Robles’ proposal for freight dedicated signals on the I-5 approaches. The idea being we can cut down on the number of SOVs in the center city and get Freight off of surface streets, if we dedicate I-5 to freight (or at least the approaches in Portland).

jeff
Guest
jeff

where did Alan and Jarrett move here from?

Bob K
Guest
Bob K

Walker grew up in Portland — http://humantransit.org/about

Bob K
Guest
Bob K

If the Powell-Division (kinda, sorta) BRT is really going to go over the Hawthorne instead of Tillikum, then a bus only lane should be a requirement.

maccoinnich
Guest

“As an example, he added that MAX light rail on the Steel Bridge is “reasonable reliable” even when it mixes with other traffic. That’s because the bridge itself isn’t where congestion happens and the MAX has a dedicated path on the approaches.”

The MAX shared with a lane with cars on the Steel Bridge prior to the construction of the Green Line and rebuild of the transit mall. For the last 8 years or so it has had dedicated lanes on the Steel Bridge, and no longer mixes with other traffic. The fact that the MAX isn’t delayed by traffic is an argument in favor of dedicated lanes for transit on the bridges.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

This seems like an initiative that has to be driven by data from both PBOT and TriMet. Buses are tracked by GPS, so TriMet should know where how many riders are being slowed down on each line at what time of day. PBOT knows car count at those spots and times. Isolate the spots where the most bus riders are being slowed down AND where a bus-only lane will not create an intolerable bottleneck to other traffic. Then mark bus-only lanes there, with enough signage and plastic wands.

Philosophically, I think the goal should be to thoughtfully speed up transit riders. The goal should not be to intentionally bottleneck drivers. Bottlenecking drivers may be a “cost” but should not be a “goal”. There is no reason to be malicious about making life miserable for people who have good reasons for driving – age, infirmity, time and family demands, distance to travel, inadequate transit coverage, etc.

Mumford
Guest
Mumford

We just built a carefree transit bridge with a transit-only viaduct that connects all the way to PSU. What they need to do is create a grade-separated crossing of the railroad tracks from SE 7th at Division to the Tilikum so buses, bikes and peds can easily cross without stopping for trains. The Hawthorne buses can then be routed south on 7th and over the Tilikum. It is slightly out of direction but the route would serve South Waterfront and the entire south end of downtown, including PSU. The buses would avoid congestion on the Hawthorne Bridge and delays due to bridge lifts.

Jerry H
Guest
Jerry H

We have visited Tucson a couple of times. On some of the main streets the busses and bicycles share a lane of their own. Pretty nice!

Nick
Guest
Nick

A resounding YES. Instead of biking to work for the past month, I rode the bus. It was packed (I’m glad it’s a popular transit method) but stuck in the same traffic as cars. It occurred to me that trimet would be even more popular and efficient if it had its own travel lanes, especially during peak traffic hours.

We need to incentivize low-cost, low-emission transportation solutions. Dedicated bus lanes would support the cause.

Matthew Denton
Guest
Matthew Denton

Where I see this is in the afternoon on NW Everett. The bus makes good time on 5th in a dedicated lane, but it takes 10 minutes to go 5 blocks and merge into bridge.

OregonJelly
Guest
OregonJelly

How many people is the road not moving in the 15 minutes between buses?
I don’t think the overall efficiency argument is a winning one.

lahar
Guest
lahar

Commute like you give a damn. Far too many people clearly just don’t give a damn.

I wish people would line our bridges and remind the multitudes that cars are the major cause of climate change, that they can do something about it right now.

But I am fortunate to live within 5 miles of work and can bike everyday.

Adam
Subscriber

Every single major collector in Portland should have bus-only lanes. Hawthorne, Burnside, Chavez, Sandy, Powell, Foster, Lombard, basically any street wider than three lanes. Remove parking if needed. This is how we get people to take public transport over driving alone.

I don’t have much faith this will ever get done, however, since we can’t even manage to plan a BRT line with dedicated bus lanes…

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

The carrying capacity of single occupant automobiles in tight urban places like the Hawthorne bridge and its approachs is pathetic. At best, 2000 people per hour can be carried per lane, while nose to tail buses can carry 20 times that number of people per lane. So. there is really no answer to congestion, other than removing travel by single person automobiles where ever possible. No matter how much an individual person may like or need the convenience of driving from a parking garage downtown to their house on Mt. Tabor, it has no future in a densifying Portland. At this point, it is nothing more than a nod to the nostalgic past and a short lived luxury for the privleged.

dwk
Guest
dwk

About half the people on buses could be on bikes.
A lot of car people could be too, but a lot of car people are hauling kids, etc.
Most Bus riders are just commuting by themselves (like cyclists) or are going somewhere by themselves (like cyclists), and just don’t want to do it.

Bill Stites
Subscriber

A huge YES to this!! Just signed up – thanks Alan for spearheading this.

Just as the question was asked recently about switching from single-occupancy vehicles [SOV] to biking when traffic gets so bad [25% shift?] … it should be obvious that many folks who are stuck in their cars and watching buses blast by in a bus-only lane will switch too!
People are inherently smart [and selfish] and will take advantage of a better way to commute … let that better way be transit in dedicated lanes.

We have also seen time and again that carmageddon rarely happens even with entire freeway sections obliterated, so some lane reallocation is a damn good idea. In fact, bus-only lanes ought to be very common; and in places where they are only needed during rush hours, let them be temporary [pro tem].

The buses should be laughing all the way to downtown.

rick
Guest
rick

There is a streetfilms video of people riding bikes on the rush-hour bus lanes in Seattle.

Andrew Margeson
Guest
Andrew Margeson

You can’t switch to a bus when service in your area is so infrequent, inaccessible and unreliable as to be non-existent. If we are going to dedicate lanes to bus service, TriMet should be forced to improve it.

Randy
Guest
Randy

More street cars and less buses = less air pollution.

Steve G
Guest
Steve G

I’m a big fan of this approach, too, and just signed up. Depending on how much throughput these lanes end up having with only busses, it might make sense to also open them up to freight delivery trucks, and maybe (again, depending on whether or not they’re at capacity) 3+ person carpools. And maybe even (gasp!) SOVs, as long as they paid a variable toll, to ensure that the lane keeps flowing at a pre-defined pace (e.g. 25 MPH). All toll revenues could be dedicated to adding more frequent bus service.

Bald One
Guest
Bald One

This is a bit of hyperbole. Current problems shown on Hawthorne are somewhat due to the issues with the Morrison Bridge closure – a 3 month closure due to a re-surfacing problems that the County brought on themselves with poor maintenance and poor oversight. Take care of the maintenance, take care of the contractor oversight. A three month fix horizon is ridiculous, what are we working on the job for a few hours a day, with a few people on the job? County needs to expedite this work with 24/7 work crews and shorter schedule. Get the job done.

Buses need to stay out of the bike lanes. The Portland transit pyramid shows bikes > bus, but the bus drivers all operate their vehicles in the bike lane as if the pyramid is structured the other way around. Buses should keep not pull over into the bike lanes, especially on busy arterials like the hawthorne bridge.

Free Market Economist
Guest
Free Market Economist

I’ll rewrite that to make more sense:

If you have a bus only lane, how frequently will buses go by in that lane? If not often enough, then it might make more sense if cars can use the bus lane when no bus is in it, but if a bus comes up behind a car the car has to move over to allow the bus to pass. And cars in the car lane would be required to give room for them to move over.

Catie
Guest
Catie

I’m glad more people are getting on board with this. It’s a shame that Trimet themselves are not advocating for these changes.

rick
Guest
rick

Then the westend of the bridge needs a protected bike/bus lane to keep out cars.

Todd Hudson
Guest
Todd Hudson

E Burnside would be a good candidate – not ODOT owned so they can’t hit their giant “NO.” button. Well it would work at least until the Gilham intersection (~67th), where it becomes two narrow lanes – dedicated lanes beyond that would require eliminating both parking *and* bike lanes (which are the only nearby bike lanes to get across 205) Though going right from that intersection sends you through the Gilham<Thorburn<Washington<Stark route, and there's ample lanes going way out into The Numbers.

RH
Guest
RH

Portland is choking in it’s own success. In 5 years, I literally envision 24 hour gridlock in Portland. 1/2 of the gridlock will be cars driving around trying to find street parking, road rage will jump 500%. The % of bikes commuting will drop in half because of safety concerns. We can’t widen or add streets to inner pdx. Yes, we can take away street parking to ‘add’ lanes, but car traffic will increase, gridlock, and lead to tons more bike/car conflicts. Please someone prove me wrong here!! We don’t have a housing affordability problem…we have a LIVABILITY problem! The days of cheap housing in PDX are gone. The city had decades to purchase very cheap vacant lots for affordable housing, change zoning to allow duples/triples…but didn’t. Mini-San Francisco here we come!

poncho
Guest
poncho

I’m curious what those on here think of bus-bike-taxi lanes? My first reaction was negative and that they don’t mix, though a recent trip to Paris where almost every street has one of these changed my mind (at least in Paris).

dan
Guest
dan

How about bus and 3+ person car pool lanes?