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A closer look at PBOT’s SW 1st and Main project

The view of the new striping from SW 1st and Main.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The City of Portland has completed a project on SW Main that repaved and restriped the road between 1st and 3rd Avenues. The project illustrates how the Bureau of Transportation is often limited in what they can accomplish with a paving project, and how those constraints frustrate advocates who want better bus and bike access.

As the westbound outlet from the busy Hawthorne Bridge, SW Main is a major entrance into downtown for bus riders, auto users, and bicycle riders. Its previous configuration dumped bike riders onto a potholed mess of a street where all the modes jumbled together. It was an extremely rude welcome into downtown.

With about $500,000 from the Fixing Our Streets program, the Bureau of Transportation flagged this section of Main for repaving and changes in paint striping that would improve conflicts between users. Much of the cost was due to a concrete pad necessary for the bus stop between 1st and 2nd that serves 4,400 passengers daily.

The street is now much smoother and the striping is vastly improved. There’s a green-colored bike lane and bike box at 1st Ave with hashed striping across the intersection and a green bike lane the length of the block to 2nd Avenue. PBOT has installed a left-turn box at 1st Ave to help people who want to go southbound. Between 2nd and 3rd there’s now a buffered (non-colored) bike lane where there was no dedicated biking space before. Between 3rd and 4th PBOT has installed a sharrow.

While observing the street this morning, I noticed how inconsistent the bikeway treatments are. In just four blocks, riders go from a separated path on the Hawthorne Bridge to a green-colored, curbside bike lane. Then they transition to a green bike lane between a bus lane and a standard lane. Then they return to the curb in a buffered bike lane which then transitions into a shared lane with a sharrow.

Buffered bike lane between 2nd and 3rd.
Welcome to downtown! Enjoy your sharrow! Note that the man in this photo opted for the sidewalk instead of sharing the lane.

It’s counterintuitive, but the bikeway gets progressively weaker as you get further into downtown.

Another thing I noticed was that conditions remain a bit chaotic between 1st and 2nd. The primary cause of this is bus and motor vehicle operators that swerve between lanes because they’re either servicing the bus stop or getting into the right-turn only lane at 2nd.

This auto user is in the bus only lane.

Because the lanes are only painted and there’s no physical separation of the lanes, people do all sorts of different behaviors. Many auto users illegally drive in the bus only lane despite clear “Bus Only” pavement markings and signs. Other people don’t use the mid-block break in the bike lane to make the merge. And bus operators, who did as best they could given the conditions, still end up blocking the bike lane when they service the curbside stop and wait for red lights at 2nd.

When we shared these plans back in September, transportation activists were disappointed that the project didn’t do more to improve bus and biking conditions. On September 15th, Portland Bus Lane Project wrote a letter to PBOT Commissioner Dan Saltzman and PBOT Director Leah Treat. They asked for two things: a ban on right turns at 2nd for auto users and the relocation of the bus stop one block west.

When neither of those changes ended up in the final project, PBLP volunteer Alan Kessler did a records request of PBOT emails to learn more about why the opportunity was missed.


In an email on September 17th to PBOT project managers, traffic engineers and staff, Director Treat wrote:

“We’re continuing to get blowback on our 1st and Main design for not doing enough for bikes and transit. If we can’t do better than what we’re proposing, we need to communicate differently.

I know I pushed back on you already, but I’m just checking in again to make sure we’re following our modal hierarchy. Can we do better for transit and bikes? If this is the best use of the limited space, we need to do some outreach with constituents.”

In response, PBOT traffic engineer Jamie Jeffrey wrote that,

“While there are options to consider, they require some capacity analysis to evaluate the impact of losing a travel lane to accommodate a different bus/bike configuration… Unfortunately, the Main Reconstruction project did not include the cost or timeline for a broader system analysis.”

And City Traffic Engineer Lewis Wardrip added,

“We did look at other more impactful options but they were outside of the scope and schedule of this project. One option was a transit island which would eliminate the bus bike weave but it would have required public outreach and traffic modeling that was beyond the scope and timeline of the project.”

The context here is that, from PBOT’s perspective, this was only a repaving project first and foremost. That means there wasn’t money in the budget for a more holistic approach like a floating transit island, changes to turning movements, lane reconfigurations, and so on.

PBOT says they could take another crack at this segment of Main as part of the Central City in Motion project that’s ramping up in 2018.

In related news, this coming May PBOT, PBLP, and Better Block PDX will do a one-week trial project that will create a bus-only lane on Madison from SW 5th to the Hawthorne Bridge.

Do you ride this stretch of Main? What do you think of the changes?

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

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