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What’s wrong with SW Jefferson? Plenty, if you ask Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Fish

Posted by on July 11th, 2018 at 2:59 pm

Drivers heading west on SW Jefferson get backed-up between 18th and I-405. There’s one westbound lane for driving where there used to be two (the right lane is only for turning).
(Photos: Jonathan Maus)

“I bike that every day and I believe it’s made the biking situation worse.”
— Ted Wheeler, Mayor of Portland

Yesterday a City Council Work Session on the Bureau of Transportation’s Vision Zero program turned into a sharp critique of recent striping changes SW Jefferson Avenue. Commissioner Nick Fish interrupted a presentation by outgoing PBOT Director Leah Treat (her last day is Friday) to share his concerns that a new lane configuration has made conditions worse. Mayor Ted Wheeler, who said he bikes home on the road every day, agreed with him.

Back in April, PBOT repaved Jefferson (a one-way street) from SW Park to 20th and used the opportunity to update the striping. Their aim was to, “reduce conflicts between buses and people driving and biking.” East of I-405 they improved the bike lane by adding protective plastic wands and using green coloring to designate the cycling space. West of I-405 the bike lane is buffered (on the right side next to parked cars) until 17th. Then the bike lane becomes shared (via a sharrow) and moves to the center to make room for a right-turn only lane at 18th (where the MAX line runs). At the intersection with 18th, the bike lane is colored green and there’s a bike box. From 18th to 20th, the right lane is dedicated for buses and bikes only.

Previously, Jefferson had two general lanes and a standard bike lane west of I-405. The bike lane used to end just after 17th to make way for a right-turn only lane. West of 18th, two general lanes continued toward an on-ramp to Highway 26.

Commissioner Fish thinks PBOT has “over-engineered” the street.

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Intersection of Jefferson and 18th.

“I love the idea of dedicated bike lanes and bus lanes, but there are virtually no bikes and buses running at the time when there’s heavy congestion.”
— Nick Fish, Portland City Commissioner

Fish lives in an apartment high up on SW Vista Drive and he uses Jefferson (most often as a Lyft passenger) to get home. “It’s now one lane, which pushes traffic all the way back to I-405 and creates a lot of very dangerous behavior,” he shared with PBOT staff seated around a table in Council Chambers yesterday. “Cars go down the right-hand lane thinking it gives them access to Highway 26, but instead they have to cut back in.” During the evening rush-hour Fish says the bike lane, right-turn only lane, and dedicated bus lane is empty. “I love the idea of dedicated bike lanes and bus lanes, but there are virtually no bikes and buses running at the time when there’s heavy congestion,” he shared.

“Mu unsophisticated take is that we ended up over-engineering the street,” Fish continued. “And by taking the lane out, now what we’ve got is a traffic mess which is encouraging bad behavior.”

Wheeler agreed and shared his own concerns. “I bike that every day and I believe it’s made the biking situation worse,” he said. “Now you have to cut across a lane of traffic to get to the center bike lane at the very end. That feels like a very dangerous maneuver to me. I’m not convinced we made it better. We made it worse and I’m curious what problem it was we were trying to solve here.”

Wheeler (left) and Fish at the work session.

PBOT Director Treat said she didn’t have the answers to their questions off the top of her head and she promised to follow-up. PBOT Active Transportation Division Manager Catherine Ciarlo chimed in to say her team analyzes changes like this before and after new striping is installed and she assured the mayor and commissioner that the Capital Projects Division had done the same thing with Jefferson.

It’s worth noting that these recent changes are likely to be short-lived — but not for the reasons Fish and Wheeler might expect. PBOT has big plans for making Jefferson (along with Columbia) one half of a “signature multimodal east/west connection between Goose Hollow and downtown” as part of their Central City in Motion project. The current proposal would create a protected bike lane on the left side of the street, a dedicated bus and turn lane on the right side, and two general vehicle lanes in the middle from Naito to 17th.

I checked out Jefferson yesterday during rush-hour to see what all the fuss was about. Commissioner Fish is right about one thing: The auto users get backed up for several blocks. But I didn’t see any of the dangerous behaviors he mentioned. I did, however, see a fair amount of bicycle riders using the new lane.

Do you ride on Jefferson? What do you think of the changes? Should PBOT consider going back to the old design as Commissioner Fish suggested?

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

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71 Comments
  • John Lascurettes July 11, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    “I love the idea of dedicated bike lanes and bus lanes, but there are virtually no bikes and buses running at the time when there’s heavy congestion,” he shared.

    If the cars are still just standing in two lanes instead of one because of congestion, it’s an even greater waste of space. For every bus that goes by, it represents dozens of cars that would have otherwise been blocking that lane — one bus. Just because he doesn’t see it at the moment doesn’t mean it’s not efficient. How about enforcing the the people missing the lane to cut back in? If you make a mistake, go around the block. One would not make that mistake again, no?

    I remember seeing a video somewhere of a Copenhagen bike lane that carries 8x more bicycle traffic than the auto lane next to it; however the bike lane appears “empty” while the car lane is backed up. Perception is not always reality. If I find the video again I’ll post the link.

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      • Glen Bolen July 16, 2018 at 1:13 pm

        That’s great!

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    • David July 11, 2018 at 3:52 pm

      I want to emphasize one segment here “If the cars are still just standing in two lanes instead of one because of congestion, it’s an even greater waste of space. For every bus that goes by, it represents dozens of cars that would have otherwise been blocking that lane — one bus. Just because he doesn’t see it at the moment doesn’t mean it’s not efficient.”

      It shouldn’t be understated that the increased space efficiency represented by buses and bikes means that space reserved for those modes will not be “stuck” in traffic as often because they aren’t in a car or truck. Even in the transit mall where a couple dozen bus and Max lines come together it’s easy for that corridor to appear pretty empty and inactive when there are hundreds of people being moved around.

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    • rick July 11, 2018 at 7:46 pm

      Well then. Let’s get rezoning done for SW Canyon Road to get more bus service and a cnonversation with ODOT. Get rid of the angled car parking by 17th. Convert more streets into two-way in Goose Hollow.

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  • Scott Biersdorff July 11, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    It is worth noting that there is only a one lane onramp to HWY 26 at SW Jefferson. Before this re-striping the pinch point was at the intersection with 20th where the two general purpose lanes merged down to one. Quite frequently this led to cars blocking the SW Jefferson and 18th intersection and MAX trains. I think PDOT figured that queuing cars between 15th and 18th was better than have the 18th and SW Jefferson intersection blocked.

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    • paikiala July 12, 2018 at 8:59 am
    • Chris I July 12, 2018 at 9:41 pm

      Bingo. And this is why we should leave traffic engineering to the engineers, not the politicians. This new configuration is an improvement. I

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      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty July 12, 2018 at 11:58 pm

        You sure? Engineers came up with the Rose Quarter Expansion, and we’re appealing to politicians to do something different.

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  • Blake July 11, 2018 at 3:34 pm

    How do I get the Mayor and Commissioner Fish to ride MY route to and from work so they care about all the terrible conditions I have to face? Are they Commissioners of their commute or supposed to represent the whole city? Seems like a questionable use of their positions to spend time questioning the outgoing PBOT director on staff decisions on a specific (relatively minor) project that happens to impact them personally.

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    • Blake July 11, 2018 at 3:36 pm

      For example, they could ask why PBOT has botched the installation of a 2-way separated bike lane on Greeley so badly that it will be delays 2 YEARS from the initial timeline.

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      • paikiala July 12, 2018 at 9:00 am

        You, technically, can’t botch something that hasn’t occurred yet.

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      • oliver July 12, 2018 at 1:06 pm

        The concept of putting 2 way bike traffic on the east side of Greeley is botched.

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  • PeaDub
    PeaDub July 11, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    “Cars go down the right-hand lane thinking it gives them access to Highway 26, but instead they have to cut back in.”

    You mean exactly like they did before the changes? The right lane was a turn-only lane at 20th before any of these changes were made, and people used to drive up the right-hand lane and cut back in ALL THE TIME. Same argument applies to Ted’s statement – you always had to merge across a turn-only lane at some point, riding up Jefferson.

    Not to mention the arrogance of interrupting an unrelated presentation to bitch about this. How obnoxious.

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  • Toadslick July 11, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    Now you have to cut across a lane of traffic to get to the center bike lane at the very end. That feels like a very dangerous maneuver to me.

    This is what happens all over the city (and the rest of the country) when a curb-side bike lane has to cross a right-turn lane for cars. People who ride bikes have been complaining about such dangerous designs for decades.

    If conflict-causing turn lanes aren’t good enough for our commissioners then they’re not good enough for the rest of us.

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  • Glenn F July 11, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    more NIMBY complaints…

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 11, 2018 at 10:35 pm

      NIMBY?

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      • Sigma July 12, 2018 at 8:43 am

        NIMBY is shorthand for anyone who has an opinion different from your own. It stands for “Nobody I’ve Met Believes You.”

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        • paikiala July 12, 2018 at 9:01 am

          Not In My Back Yard

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          • Hello, Kitty
            Hello, Kitty July 12, 2018 at 9:59 am

            Not in this case. Sigma’s definition seems more appropriate in this case (and in most applications of the word in these forums).

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        • soren July 12, 2018 at 11:36 am

          more like not [change] in my backyard because i’m exceedingly happy with my home-equity status quo [ca-ching!] and i don’t give a damn about the marginalized and lower-income people my status quo is harming and displacing.

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          • Hello, Kitty
            Hello, Kitty July 12, 2018 at 12:51 pm

            If it were that, people would want their zoning changed so they could sell to a developer (displacing any renters in the way). Ca-ching!

            But it’s not. Nice try, though.

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            • soren July 12, 2018 at 2:48 pm

              why would a homeowner want a looming sun-blocking monstrosity near their folkloric and historic bungalow? after all, i’ve been told many times that renters are a blight that bring down property values, create litter, engage in debauchery, and park in decent portlander’s parking spots.

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              • Sigma July 12, 2018 at 3:40 pm

                There is a lot of hatred in your heart.

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              • Hello, Kitty
                Hello, Kitty July 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

                If your thesis is right, which is that it’s all about the money, property owners would want a monstrosity next door so they could sell to a developer to turn theirs into a monstrosity as well. Cash in! Screw the neighborhood!

                Maybe people want to retain the character of their neighborhood because they like it and chose to live there, and want to continue to live there, even if it hurts their wallet in the long term. I don’t know who you talk to, because the folks I talk to do not believe renters are a negative for the neighbrohood; in fact many people I work with are fighting against those policies like RIP that would force more renters out, faster. We want economic diversity, a good mixture of renters and owners. And, as a personal note, I’d like to see a bit more debauchery in general. It’s good for the soul.

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              • Toby Keith July 12, 2018 at 10:04 pm

                Soren: please knock it off with your attacks on home owners okay? We are not your enemy and it’s really gotten old. Whatever you bone you have to pick is with your heroes in city council.

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              • Dwk July 12, 2018 at 11:12 pm

                So supposedly, trolling is not allowed on bikeportland….
                Soren brings clicks, pretty much every post is a slam on home ownership as if it
                relates in any real way to real bike issues….
                JM is a home owner. I can list dozens of bike shop owners and workers who own homes.
                Is it all for the clicks?

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              • soren July 13, 2018 at 11:03 am

                The status quo is displacing tenants.

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              • Hello, Kitty
                Hello, Kitty July 13, 2018 at 11:36 am

                Are you sure? If that’s true, the proportion of renters to owners should be shifting. Is it?

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              • rachel b July 13, 2018 at 8:18 pm

                Yay, debauchery! Booooo, RIP! Tell it, HKitty! 😉

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  • SD July 11, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    The problems with incrementalism very obvious downtown. The lack of a network of safe-feeling infrastructure leaves orphaned changes underutilized.

    If Ted and Nick want to complain about SW Jefferson they should start from the waterfront where construction has been blocking the bike lane.

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  • David Hampsten July 11, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    Wow!!!

    You have elected city officials who can actually see bikes and bike lane (reconfiguration) changes. Like many US cities, we have some bike infrastructure and cyclists, including a lot of people on LimeBikes, but our elected officials somehow fail to ever “see” them.

    No wonder Portland is Platinum – we’re still stuck in the Bronze ages.

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  • Buzz July 11, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    PBOT often over-engineers so-called multi-modal streets. The downhill section of Jefferson doesn’t need bike lanes, they are narrow and dangerous to use at the speeds cyclists are able to achieve going downhill here.

    OTOH, additional delays for motorists are not a reason to fail to provide bike infrastructure in places where it makes sense, this just isn’t one of those places.

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    • Johnny Bye Carter July 11, 2018 at 8:32 pm

      Yes, it does need bike lanes, even though it’s downhill. Where else will you be able to quickly pass the backup of cars?

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      • Branden Shelby July 12, 2018 at 12:15 am

        Lane split/filter up, once you get comfortable with it it saves a lot time.

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        • Branden Shelby July 12, 2018 at 12:16 am

          *lot of time

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        • paikiala July 12, 2018 at 9:05 am

          Another argument in favor of bike lanes. Lane splitting is unhealthy behavior. Better road users is one of the strategies of Vision Zero, and lane splitting is unsafe. Putting what you want (convenience, less delay) ahead of others needs (safety) is excessively selfish.

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        • soren July 12, 2018 at 9:34 am

          “lane split”

          nothing is preventing you from doing this now. so can you please explain why you, apparently, do not approve of the bike lane?

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    • soren July 12, 2018 at 9:41 am

      because buzz does not need a bike lane, no one needs a bike lane.

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      • Buzz July 12, 2018 at 9:55 pm

        Once the state repeals the mandatory sidepath statue, the city can build all the unsafe bike infrastructure it wants, until then I will remain opposed.

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  • Bus rider July 11, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    We should hope that when PBOT evaluates this at the Mayor’s request, they make sure to report what the transit time savings are by getting cars out of the way.

    In fact, while they’re at it, they should evaluate removing cars from all the transit lanes downtown, most notably the streetcar lanes and the bus lanes which are currently mistaken for general purpose lanes by motorists. 😉

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 11, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      I’d rather have the vehicles in the streetcar lanes, so I can pedal past them without fear of crashing on a rail.

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    • PeaDub
      PeaDub July 11, 2018 at 11:25 pm

      I also hope they tell him how much money this post-implementation evaluation based on the mayor whining cost taxpayers… as if they didn’t evaluate it when they were DESIGNING it.

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  • Johnny Bye Carter July 11, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    “It’s now one lane, which pushes traffic all the way back to I-405 and creates a lot of very dangerous behavior,”

    You’re telling me that it’s not bad drivers breaking the law, but rather the lines on the street itself that’s forcing these otherwise law-abiding citizens into a life of lawlessness?

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 11, 2018 at 10:42 pm

      Street designs have to take into account human behavior. Tut-tutting won’t make us safer.

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      • rachel b July 13, 2018 at 8:21 pm

        No, but ticketing will.

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  • Eric Leifsdad July 11, 2018 at 9:38 pm

    Have the Director and Active Transportation Division Manager of PBOT actually ridden this stretch? I can understand being unprepared to answer questions about it, but can’t accept that they have never ridden it. Also disappointed in the ignorant cars-first perspective from Fish (though it’s not surprising) and the supposedly biking mayor of a supposedly biking city not having a more informed take on what looks to be basically a green version of the status quo.

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  • Keith July 11, 2018 at 9:43 pm

    I ride Jefferson often, but not during PM peak. I really like the wider bike lane from I-405 to 18th because it previously was not comfortable going downhill with on-street parking, people crossing from behind parked cars, etc., and so little room to work with. The bus/bike only lane west of 18th is a big improvement – no more cars tailgating me in the right lane to 20th. Ultimately, the cars headed for the 26 on-ramp have to go down to 1 lane after 20th anyway. Maybe the design or signal timing need some tweaks, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    The main problem is if we design streets for no congestion during the PM peak, there would be no bike lanes. All space would have to be devoted to auto throughput. Is that what we want? It’s not becoming of a supposedly Platinum bike city interested in fighting climate change.

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty July 11, 2018 at 10:45 pm

      Are we really still “platinum”? Does that honor expire, or is itlike Obama’s Nobel, an ongoing embarrassment to those who bestowed it?

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      • David Hampsten July 12, 2018 at 5:58 am

        Yup, you still is – numero uno for cities over 500,000. And quite an inspiration to cities nationwide, even here in the South. Yeah, we all want to drink the kool-aid, be just like cool affordable Portland, where jobs are easy and rents are cheap.

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        • Hello, Kitty
          Hello, Kitty July 12, 2018 at 11:05 am

          And you can make a living starting a food cart!

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          • David Hampsten July 12, 2018 at 12:49 pm

            Yeah, and marijuana is distributed for free at your local supermarkets. You’d be amazed about some of the urban myths I hear about Portland out here from our local slackers. A few of them even move there, no doubt some of your clueless irate drivers who ride their bikes the wrong way on city sidewalks without a light wearing dark clothing, like they do here.

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            • rachel b July 13, 2018 at 8:23 pm

              Whee. Just who I want. 🙁 I hate that we’re the purple magic unicorn of cities, where all your dreams come true.

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  • Kittens July 12, 2018 at 12:04 am

    Fantastic that SW Jefferson is getting all this attention because here are no other streets I can think of off the top of my head which deserve this level of scrutiny.

    That it just happens to be on two of the councilors’ commutes is mere coincidence I am sure.

    BTW I am all for bike lanes, but even I can see this is a tremendous waste of road space. How about removing parking and allowing two through lanes and a bike/bus lane instead? Too courageous for Leah?

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    • Gary July 12, 2018 at 8:13 am

      They can even put up signs dedicating the second car lane “The Honorable Ted Wheeler Cars-Waiting-To-Merge-Appear-to-Be-a-Good-Use-of-Public-Space Expressway.” His contributions to this issue will forever be memorialized.

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  • Leann July 12, 2018 at 8:33 am

    I ride this section frequently and here is my before and after take:

    Before: It was very dangerous for cyclists from 18th past the car dealerships until the two lanes merged into one. I always thought odds were not in my favor to ride this sketchy section so frequently. I had many close calls with right hooks and people driving past me within inches. That problem is solved with the new configuration.

    After: Much safer for cyclists but it has turned it into a mess for drivers. I can see where they get frustrated. I’m not sure there’s an easy solution because it’s an intersection where there is a lot going on: a roundabout to the left, MAX trains coming and going which leads to longer than normal stop lights, a couple of bus stops, and lots of pedestrian traffic with Lincoln High School students and commuters catching MAX and buses. Oh, and the angled parking on the left side of Jefferson is a nightmare. There’s a pizza delivery place there and it’s super dangerous with cars trying to squeeze their way out into an already jammed up lane. It definitely adds to the craziness in the car lane.

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  • John Liu July 12, 2018 at 9:03 am

    I’ve no opinion on SW Jefferson but note how unusual it is for a major US city to have a mayor who cycles to work.

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  • RH July 12, 2018 at 9:41 am

    It’s simple. Cars are ruining cities.

    The end.

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  • I wear many hats July 12, 2018 at 10:07 am

    20 people in SOV’s , 1 on a bike, and 40 on a bus, looks like the cars should not take priority over the mass transit options no? I ride this intersection frequently, and its loads better than it was. I don’t feel like I’m fighting against irrational aggressive drivers to use the street. Its a huge improvement.

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  • X July 12, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Huh. Street design becomes interesting because two commission voters travel on it? Sounds like reason to have maybe 9, or 11? votes, elected by district.

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  • nate July 12, 2018 at 11:00 am

    I live overlooking this stretch (above the Starbucks on the left) and occasionally watch the disaster below, just for kicks. The new alignment is vastly superior, in my opinion, but there are still some serious flaws:

    1) A handful of drivers don’t think the laws apply to them and just go straight from the clearly marked turn-only lane.

    2) Those angled spots on the left are crazy to watch people try to get out of when traffic is backed up (the Starbucks and uber-popular ice cream place next door are actually much bigger drivers of this traffic than the mediocre pizza place).

    3) Delivery vehicles block the bus/turn lane. With the old alignment, delivery trucks would block the right hand turn lane, but with two through lanes it wasn’t that big of a deal. Since they moved the Biketown docks into this space, the right turn lane is blocked by a large delivery truck for 30-60 minutes at a time 2-4 times a day (often around 6:30pm, the tail end of rush hour). Then even the folks trying to turn onto 18th have to cut back in (across the bike lane), creating a real hazard.

    The biggest problem BY FAR is the number of cars using this as a cut-through to get to the Sunset Highway (US26). Just two blocks over from Jefferson is Clay, the main route out of town to get on 26W. But there are a number of commuters who have decided that it’s faster to cut through a residential neighborhood (Goose Hollow) to shorten their commute. Under the new alignment, it’s clearly no longer faster, but people have been slow to adapt to this new reality. The only people who should be using Jefferson to get on 26W are people starting west of 405 already, but 95% of the traffic on Jefferson is coming from east of 405, and the overwhelming majority of those are continuing straight onto 26W.

    The whole point of a new alignment like this is to get cut-through traffic off Jefferson, while removing obstacles to transit and bikes. As noted above, when working properly, this lane SHOULD be free of traffic most of the time. If the right lane was just as full as the left lane then the busses would be stuck in traffic just like the cars. If the city could find a way to rectify the three points above, I truly believe that the SOV commuters will slowly wake up to the new reality that their clever “shortcut” is now taking them twice as long and change their behavior. While problematic at the moment, it should improve over time (and frankly, has already in just the past couple weeks), and I think this could potentially even be a model for how to handle transit-only lanes going forward.

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    • Chris I July 12, 2018 at 9:49 pm

      Once Google/Waze accounts for the added congestion, this problem should go away somewhat. It does sound like those angled spots need to go, though.

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    • Daniel July 13, 2018 at 10:36 am

      I don’t know the area myself, but this analysis makes perfect sense from looking at the map. If traffic is backing up to I-405, then a significant proportion of it MUST be from people using it as a cut-through to avoid traffic at the Clay on-ramp. Most of them are likely using Google/Waze, which will just route people onto the cut-through until it’s backed up to there regardless of the number of lanes available; if there’s an extra lane it will also fill with traffic from east of I-405 as long as it technically lets you get on the freeway “ahead” of the traffic entering from Clay.

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  • Casey July 12, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    Maybe Commish Fish should take a new mode of transportation that is more efficient; he already listed two in his complaint…Trimet & Bikes.

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    • X July 12, 2018 at 4:40 pm

      He did identify the problem: Not enough buses.

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      • I wear many hats July 13, 2018 at 8:06 am

        He could bus directly to city hall. He just mentioned more buses to support his argument for more SOV and Ride Sharing space. BTW, this intersection is empty at 730 AM. It was great, pleasant, and safe riding this AM.

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  • Andy K July 13, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    We typically think of a large speed differential being scary for cyclists when they’re being passed at a high rate of speed, but the opposite can be even scarier.

    At rush hour, fast-moving, descending cyclists (who may not be used to going this fast) are braking and moving over to the center bike lane in the exact same spot slow-moving drivers on both sides of them are changing lanes across their path.

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    • Buzz July 16, 2018 at 1:13 pm

      IMO, putting the bike lane to the left of right turn only lane is one of the few things PBOT got right in this design.

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