A closer look at the new bus/bike lane on SW Madison

The new treatment — meant to speed up buses and make cycling safer — starts at 4th and lasts four blocks.

The new treatment — meant to speed up buses and make cycling safer — starts at 4th and lasts two blocks. (Scroll down for full gallery and video)
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

When the Portland Bureau of Transportation revealed their plans for SW Madison last week, there was at first rejoicing. Many of us are desperate for any change to our streets that makes bicycling and transit safer and more efficient. Dedicating a wide lane solely for transit and bike riders on a major downtown corridor is an exciting step in the right direction.

But almost as soon as we posted about the project, there were concerns about how this new lane would be shared by people operating such dramatically different vehicles.

PBOT crews implemented the $160,000 project over the weekend and Monday’s afternoon commute was its first real test. I rolled over to take a closer and ask staff from PBOT and TriMet a few questions.

The details

“It’s all about balancing the needs of everyone.”
— Hannah Schafer, PBOT

PBOT has restriped three blocks of SW Madison from 4th to 1st. On two of those blocks, 4th and 3rd, they’ve separated a bus/bike only lane from other lanes with plastic wands and curbs. The roadway is 36-feet wide from curb-to-curb. It used to have a standard, unprotected bike lane, two other vehicles lanes, and a lane used for on-street auto parking. Now there are two, 11-foot wide vehicle lanes, and one 15-foot wide bus/bike lane. The bus/bike lane is striped with what PBOT says is a “passing lane” for bicycle riders to the left of the curbside lane.

PBOT has also prohibited right turns for drivers at SW 3rd. This is the same corner where a truck operator’s right turn led to the death of bicycle rider Kathryn Rickson in 2012.

Driving space wasn’t reduced for this project. Buses will now get through faster with a carfree lane. Bicycle (and scooter) riders have a flexible space that is either five feet when passing a bus, or 15 feet if there’s no bus around.

Asked how they came up with this cross-section, PBOT spokesperson Hannah Schafer said, “It’s all about balancing the needs of everyone.”

The buses

Bus operators are generally more skilled and predictable than typical drivers. But the size of their vehicles makes them much more intimidating. The concerns about sharing this lane with buses is understandable. As you can see in the image above and video below, the space between the plastic wands/curbs and the bus is very tight and it feels stressful.

It’s worth pointing out however, that the condition shown in my video are not common. Usually the bicycle riders are either in front or behind the bus operator. TriMet Public Information Officer Tia York shared with me yesterday that 93 buses (from five different lines) use SW Madison between 1st and 4th avenues between 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm each weekday. I asked if they’d received any special training about using the new lane and she said no.


A few more things I noticed

Two people turning right where they aren’t supposed to. Note the small sign with flags in the upper right.

– Some drivers still turn right at 3rd. The only thing PBOT has done so far is posted a “No Right Turn Except Bicycles” sign up on the corner. PBOT Project Manager Gabe Graff said they’ll continue to monitor the behavior and make adjustments if necessary. One big step would be to color the entire bus lane red; but because red lanes aren’t officially sanctioned yet, PBOT would need to request permission from the Federal Highway Administration before doing so (something a few cities have already done). Red would become known as space only for buses, much like green has come to symbolize bicycle-only space.

– Despite technically having 15 feet to ride in, most bicycle riders filed all the way over the left whether or not a bus was present.

– PBOT plans to extend this treatment one block west to SW 5th once the construction zone adjacent to the Portland Building is gone.

– There’s no protection on the block between 2nd and 1st because PBOT said bus operators would have had a hard time maneuvering around them to continue onto the Hawthorne Bridge.

– The plastic wands and curbs have the added impact of slowing down the turns of drivers as they enter Madison from 4th and 3rd. This is a good thing. The street feels narrower with the plastic material in the middle of it, so people make sharper, more cautious turns while driving.

More photos

The block between 2nd and 1st is where bus operators cross back over the bike lane.

The protection and size of the lane is wonderful when no buses are around.

I found it interesting how people rode all the way to the left even when no buses were present.

These riders were stopped at a red signal with the bus. As they gained speed (it’s slightly downhill), they moved over to the left to let the bus operator pass.

Somehow this driver missed the huge “BUS BIKE ONLY” sign on the pavement.

When the protection ends (at SW 2nd), PBOT has added green coloring to encourage riders to use it.

I didn’t talk to a lot of riders, but a few folks yelled out at me as they went by: “It’s wonderful,” said one. “Best thing ever!” said another. “So dumb!” said one guy, shaking his head.

Have you ridden it yet? If so, how did it go? What do you think?

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

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