“I’ll admit if we could go back and do it over, I wish I’d included a middle option and evaluated it along with the others.”
— Zef Wagner, PBOT
When the Portland Bureau of Transportation came out with its evaluation of options for a redesign of Hawthorne Boulevard earlier this month, cycling advocates were crestfallen to say the least.
Bike lanes on this marquee commercial corridor have been a dream for years — not just to improve convenience for bicycle users, but to add some humanity to the beloved street and begin to create the conditions our climate and transportation plans envision.
Unfortunately, PBOT’s analysis (PDF) clearly favored an option without bike lanes. The way they presented the two options seemed to be, “intentionally stacking the deck in favor of a design that deprives Hawthorne of much-wanted, much-needed—and long-planned-for bike lanes,” is how one activist described it to me. Adding salt to the wound was the claim that the addition of bike lanes would be bad on climate change and racial equity grounds.
How? PBOT models showed that bike lanes on the street would lead to bus and auto user delays of 8 to 16 minutes. One PBOT project manager said the bike lanes would lead to a “pretty major traffic breakdown with queues stretching several blocks.” That added trip time wouldn’t be fair to transit users from east Portland (an equity focus area for PBOT) and it would cause some of them to drive instead.
Many people were concerned that PBOT’s framing was unfair and that it pitted bike lanes against climate change and racial equity.
Something didn’t add up.
In follow-up conversations with PBOT project staff at meetings of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and Bike Loud PDX, we learned the source of this delay was a single intersection. Speaking at the Bike Loud meeting on September 16th, PBOT Project Manager Zef Wagner said, “The primary reason for the delay in the traffic analysis was the reduction of capacity at Cesar Chavez.”
In other words, a single intersection between SE 24th and 50th would cause the transit delays that made the bike lane option score so poorly in PBOT’s evaluation.
“If you present a new option that’s good for equity and climate with improved transit times, and the only compromise is a mixing zone where the conditions for crossing will be better than currently exists — I think that’s a really great compromise that a lot of people will be happy with.”
— Zach Katz, Healthier Hawthorne
Activists wondered why PBOT didn’t consider a mixing zone at that intersection which would likely eliminate the transit delay. A mixing zone is something PBOT does at busy intersections where the dedicated bike lane ends and bicycle users share the space with others (see lead image for example).
Turns out PBOT didn’t evaluate the mixing zone option because it’s considered a substandard cycling treatment. “We wanted to look at carrying a bike lane all the way through with no mixing zone or anything like that, because we thought it was important to evaluate sort of a pure option that actually meets our design guidelines. Mixing bikes and cars and buses is not a preferred option,” Wagner said.
After hearing feedback, PBOT now says they’re willing to consider a hybrid option that would include bike lanes on most of the street and a mixing zone at Cesar Chavez.
“Very often in a planning process, you present these sort of idealized alternatives, and then you see if there’s a way to kind of combine elements of them together. So there might be something in between,” Wagner shared. “I’ll admit if we could go back and do it over, I wish I’d included a middle option and evaluated it along with the others,” he continued. “At the time we it would seem like we were pre-compromising and the criticism would be, ‘Why are you doing that?’ But I can see the concern and frustration.”
Zach Katz with Healthier Hawthorne is among the local activists who pushed for this option and is happy that PBOT will be more flexible than their evaluation report suggests. “I think a lot of people were misled,” Katz said to Wagner at the Bike Loud meeting, “because they don’t want to rank something higher, that says that it’s gonna be bad for equity and climate. But if you present a new option that’s good for equity and climate with improved transit times, and the only compromise is a mixing zone where the conditions for crossing will be better than currently exists — I think that’s a really great compromise that a lot of people will be happy with.”
Keep in mind that even if this hybrid bike lane/mixing zone option alleviates transit delay concerns, tough conversations about tradeoffs likely remain. PBOT has made it clear that the myriad demands on Hawthorne — based on its classification in city plans as a Major Transit Priority Street, a Civic Collector, a Civic Main Street, and a City Bikeway — make compromises inevitable.
If you haven’t shared your feedback yet, please take the online survey which closes today (Wednesday 9/30). You can also email HawthorneRepave@portlandoregon.gov.
PBOT plans to come out with a recommendation in December.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.