A street that currently has no dedicated space for cycling is poised to become one of the most important bikeways in Portland.
New concept plans revealed last week by the Portland Bureau of Transportation show bike lanes separated with concrete medians, protected intersections, new bike-only signals, and more.
Southwest 4th Avenue is already one of the most high-profile and important streets in the city. Its southern end connects directly to Barbur Boulevard with a bridge over I-405, then it runs adjacent to City Hall and the Multnomah County Courthouse before crossing Burnside under the Old Town gates en route to a relatively easy connection to the Broadway Bridge.
Bicycle users currently share the road with car users and compete for space among five car-centric lanes (two for parking, three for travel). The only upside to riding a bike on 4th is that it’s got a slight downward gradient which makes it easy to gain speed and — once you know the trick — easy to hit all the green lights (thanks to PBOT’s strategy of timing lights downtown for bike speeds of 12-15 mph).
PBOT Project Manager Gabriel Graff presented the latest plans to the PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee last Tuesday (8/11). Here are some of the key takeaways.
This project is a major capital improvement. That’s PBOT-speak for something that isn’t just “paint and posts”. This means it will have more funding and higher-quality construction that includes concrete medians to separate bicycle users from everything else. The concept shows a bike lane adjacent to the curb, then a concrete curb/median, then parked cars or a bus lane, then car users.
4th Ave will go from a shared environment between bike and car users to a dedicated biking facility with ample separation between modes. This type of build-out comes at a financial (project estimated to be about $3.4 million) and procedural cost. This project was first planned to break ground in 2020, then it was late 2021, and now PBOT says it won’t begin construction until 2022*.
Right to Left
The existing bike lane on SW Barbur is on the right side of the street. In order to avoid high-volume right-turns onto Willamette River Bridges and other destinations, the new bikeway will be on the left. The crossover will happen at SW Caruthers (just south of I-405). This means PBOT won’t have to deal with the freeway off-ramp merge that currently exists at SW Lincoln.
In order to facilitate the movement of bicycle users from right-to-left across two travel lanes, PBOT will install a new signal. The signal will allow bike riders to cross the intersection only while car drivers (headed straight) have a red light.
Addition of Bus-only Lane
Since the CCIM plan was conceived and adopted long before Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s bus-focused Rose Lane Project, the 4th Avenue project didn’t include any bus-only lanes. Now it does. Plans show a new red-colored bus lane will run from SW Grant to SW Mill. This lane will carry six TriMet bus lines (the 9, 12, 17, 19, 43 and 44). The bus lane will be adjacent to the bike lane.
An existing bus stop currently on the right side of 4th near SW Hall will be relocated to the left side. PBOT plans to build a floating bus island at the northwest corner of Hall and 4th between the bus lane and the general travel lanes so bus operators won’t have to cross into the bike lane.
Onto the Sidewalk at Harrison
One of the trickiest intersections of the project is at SW Harrison where Portland Streetcar comes into play. With two sets of streetcar tracks running parallel on the left side of 4th Avenue for one block, it would be impossible to route the bike lane over them. PBOT has decided to avoid this hazard by routing the bike lane onto the sidewalk.
According to Graff, the new bike lane will be built adjacent to the existing bollard-and-chain fence (that keeps people away from tracks). A new building coming to that block will have a recessed facade so the sidewalk area is expected to be wide enough to handle bikers and walkers at the same time. “I wouldn’t say [putting a bike lane on a sidewalk] is the best-case scenario,” Graff said, and added that because there are no destinations on the other side of the bike lane (like car parking or a crosswalk), “We think it’s going to work reasonably well.”
About Those Left Hooks
While PBOT chose to put the bike lane on the left side to avoid right-turning vehicles, there will still be left-turning vehicles that will create left-hook hazards. PBOT hopes to mitigate these risks by building either protected intersections or installing a bike signal where they expect high left-turn volumes.
Protected intersections include a more robust concrete median that creates physical separation and better sight lines between vehicle users. They are also cheaper and come with less delay than traffic signals. On corners with buildings that come right up to the property line, PBOT says there’s not enough room to build in the protected medians so they’ll opt for signals.
The northern terminus of this project is at Burnside where PBOT will install a new bike signal to separate northbound riders from westbound car drivers. Once into Old Town, SW 4th is calmer and narrower. PBOT plans to end the protected bike lane at Burnside and will install sharrows north of there.
If you’re riding to the Broadway Bridge or the Pearl, your best option would be to head west before Burnside at SW Oak. A related project on Broadway will come with a new northbound bike lane that will start at Oak. That project is slated to be installed (with paint and posts) this October.
It’s exciting to see this project come together, I just wish it wasn’t delayed until 2022. Asked at the BAC about the potential to do a quick-build, paint-and-post implementation while we wait for the full project, Graff said they’ve considered it but it would be “challenging”. “Our traffic engineers are worried about some of the left turns,” he said.
Don’t despair! About six of the ten CCIM projects currently in the works are slated to begin construction this year. Stay tuned for updates on those in the coming weeks.
*UPDATE: Here’s more on why this project has been delayed from PBOT Communications Coordinator Hannah Schafer:
“This project began as a Fixing Our Streets I paving project that rose up as a key northbound bike connection during the Central City in Motion planning process.
As part of that process, we decided to combine the paving work and installation of a new protected bike lane into one project. More recently, we have been working with TriMet and the Rose Lane team to add include a bus lane extending from SW Grant to Mill streets. Resolving the myriad design challenges of incorporating all these facilities in a busy downtown corridor has proved more challenging than we anticipated, and our Concept Design phase has been extended.
Our current schedule has us bidding this project in fall of 2021 and breaking ground in December of 2021, with the majority of construction work occurring in 2022.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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