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Opinion: Willamette’s new bike lanes are already outdated


Hang in there buddy. You’ll be smiling on that street someday.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Despite the fact that Portland has fallen way off the pace when it comes to building physically protected bike lanes, we continue to build “new” bikeways with nothing more than paint and hope.

That’s why I’m so ambivalent about the new striping on North Willamette Blvd.

Putting my cherished people on streets where I know far too much about the evils and dangers that lurk within, brings up a complicated mix of emotions.

I was very happy when the Portland Bureau of Transportation responded to neighborhood residents and reconfigured the lanes on the street last month. The move was clear sign that PBOT thinks space for people using bicycles is a higher priority than space for people to park cars. It was a good step forward.

In the past few days PBOT finished the striping with a nice, thick outer buffer line to the bike lanes. I wanted to take a closer look, so a few days ago I picked up my six-year-old from school and we pedaled over.

One way to shift your perspective on street design is to imagine how a six-year-old would feel using it. This is part of what drives the “8-80 infrastructure” movement, which says we must create streets and cities where our young and old residents can be confident and comfortable. As a father of three (I also have a 15 and 12 year-old), I’ve done this a lot over the years and it has had a tremendous influence on me. Putting my cherished people on streets where I know far too much about the evils and dangers that lurk within, brings up a complicated mix of emotions.

On Willamette the other day I figured I’d snap a few photos and take video of Everett in the new bike lane and then we’d go home. I might want them for social media posts or a future story, I thought. No big whoop.

But as he pedaled in front of me with people zooming by at 30-plus miles per hour, I felt frustrated. Why do we still build unprotected bikeways? Why haven’t we done more to slow drivers down? If preventing deaths and injuries is our top priority, why do we still install bikeways that put people in this vulnerable position?

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Willamette is crucial to the bikeway network. But like countless streets in Portland, it has been overrun by people driving cars — many of them simply looking for a faster cut-through instead of using larger, nearby arterials. If we want to avoid even more people choosing to drive, we must defend streets like this, tame the auto traffic, and make a better bikeway here (and everywhere).

“As an advocate, I’m unsure whether we should be supportive that new projects are going in or we should oppose projects that fail to meet these guidelines.”
— William Henderson via a recent BikePortland comment

And this isn’t just a crazy-activist-blogger-dad talking. New guidance from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) suggests that physical protection is needed on Willamette. Their publication just released this week, Designing for All Ages & Abilities: Contextual Guidance for High-Comfort Bicycle Facilities, says a two-lane, two-way street with a 30 mph speed limit and about 6,000 cars per day like Willamette should have more than just paint between riders and drivers.

And Willamette is far from the only street in Portland where this story could be told.

Portland resident William Henderson summed up my feelings in a comment on our last story about Willamette’s new striping. “I know a lot of great and dedicated people at PBOT are working hard to make protected bike lanes a reality, but we keep building new projects that are obsolete the day they go in. As an advocate, I’m unsure whether we should be supportive that new projects are going in or we should oppose projects that fail to meet these guidelines.”

I feel you William.

Fighting incrementalism is very tough in our “Portland nice” culture. People see you as a whiner, as unreasonable, as someone who’s always yelling and angry, or as someone who’s simply “never satisfied”.

It’s complicated, but we must create the public and political urgency to move the needle faster. As Bill McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone a few days ago, “Winning slowly is the same as losing.”

And this isn’t PBOT’s fault. I’m done pointing fingers. We’re all in this together. It will take all of us to protect our streets, our bikeways, and our future.

— I also posted this video on our Facebook page and Instagram. The comments — ranging from support and encouragement, to admonishment for even allowing my child to bike here — are very telling.

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

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