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Bus-only lane advocates have a proposal to improve SW Madison

The parking on the left would be removed, giving this bus its own lane.

Physical separation is to bicycling what reliability is to transit. If we don’t have it, the masses will never switch from driving and our transportation system will never reach its potential.

That’s why an idea for a “pop-up” bus-only lane is worthy of your attention.

Our friends at the all-volunteer Portland Bus Lane Project have pitched an idea to Better Block PDX that would reconfigure SW Madison Street between 5th and the Hawthorne Bridge. Their idea comes in response a request for proposals that Better Block launched back in July.

PBLP was hatched in May by a group of transit advocates that are frustrated with how auto-congestion during peak hours is killing bus reliability. Their solution is to create dedicated bus-only lanes which they see as an inexpensive way to prioritize mass transit and improve bus reliability while getting more people to their destinations on time.

Their proposal is currently being vetted and considered by Better Block and they’ve given me permission to share it with you.

The proposal

Portland Bus Lane Project’s idea is to create a week-long, temporary pop-up dedicated bus lane on SW Madison from 5th Avenue eastbound to the Hawthorne Bridge. They’ve targeted the Hawthorne because it’s the busiest transit bridge in Portland (with about 12,000 daily passengers) and it falls victim to gridlock every day during the PM peak.

Five different bus lines converge on the Hawthorne via Madison and they serve about 12,000 daily passengers. The street is also a major city bikeway used by about 3-4,000 eastbound bicycle riders a day. And according to City of Portland data about 7,600 motor vehicle users drive eastbound on the bridge during on a normal weekday. All this traffic means buses coming from the transit mall on SW 5th and 6th often must wait through several light cycles just to go a few blocks. “Delays approaching the Hawthorne Bridge have a ripple effect throughout the transit system as these lines remain delayed until the end of their trip,” reads the Portland Bus Lane Project proposal. “These delays cause riders to miss connections and prevent transit from being a reliable option.”

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The current cross-section has three lanes between 5th and 4th — two are multi-use lanes and one (on the left side) is an auto parking lane. Starting at 4th the cross-section includes a curbside bicycle-only lane on the right. Portland Bus Lane Project wants to try something different: Make the parking lane a multi-use lane, convert one of the multi-use lanes into a bus-only lane, and extend the bike-only lane all the way to 5th. The design would also prohibit right turns for motor vehicles the length of the project.

Here’s the current cross-section, followed by the proposed new one:

Current conditions.

The proposal.

Keep in mind that beyond better transit efficiency and reliability, this design could be safer due to the prohibition of right turns from Madison. You might recall that Kathryn Rickson was killed at Madison and 3rd back in 2012 when a man turned his large truck across her path.

Also note that while not in the official proposal, the founder of Portland Bus Lane Project, Alan Kessler, says he will push for bus islands in the final project. The islands would be between the bike and bus lane in order to prevent leap-frogging that occurs when bus operators swing into the bike lane to service curbside stops. Kessler says if they can’t get islands past city engineers, they’ll try combining the bus and bike lanes into a shared environment. That’s what these pop-ups are all about — experimentation.

What’s next

Better Block is currently reviewing this and other proposals and the chosen projects should be ready for implementation by this spring. Bus Lane Project members are eyeing the Southeast Sunday Parkways in May as a potential time to try it out.

As for the future, project organizers are eager to try other spots if this works out on Madison. “We hope this project serves as as a proof of concept that temporary and permanent bus lanes are feasible, effective, and efficient,” they say. “If the concept proves as successful in Portland as it has elsewhere, we plan to use this data to advocate for additional bus lanes throughout the city.”

We’ve seen how effective these temporary “pop-up” projects can be. Better Block can be credited with them leading to real and permanent changes on SW 3rd (the new buffered bike lanes and plaza near Burnside) and eventually Better Naito. By simply giving something like this a try it allows the city to envision possibilities that would otherwise only materialize after years of process and hand-wringing. As Portland grows and we fall further behind on our climate change and transportation goals, we must be willing to try new things.

And for what it’s worth, better bus transit has considerable political momentum at the Bureau of Transportation right now. PBOT is pushing an Enhanced Transit Corridors program that does exactly what Portland Bus Lane Project wants to do on Madison: Give buses more priority so they can operate free from congestion. At an invite-only panel discussion last week (more on that in a separate post), PBOT’s Policy, Planning and Projects Group Manager Art Pearce said, “Unless we make hard decisions around how our roads are going to function, prioritizing transit, we are leaving TriMet stuck in more and more traffic.”

Is this something worth trying? Let us know what you think.

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

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