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Planning Commission members question PBOT’s Hawthorne bike lane decision

Posted by on February 24th, 2021 at 12:19 pm

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

There was a notable debate at the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission meeting Tuesday night on a topic near and dear to our hearts: the Portland transportation bureau’s recent decision to re-stripe Hawthorne Boulevard without bike lanes.

The 10-member PSC is the steward of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan, Climate Action Plan and Zoning Code. While it’s unusual for them to weigh in on a maintenance project like the Hawthorne Pave and Paint, member (and former city council candidate) Chris Smith feels the potential of creating bike facilities should not have been passed up.

At the meeting, Smith proposed a sending a letter to Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Chris Warner that would clarify how the decision imperils mode split goals and doesn’t align with several adopted city policies.

As we’ve detailed in great detail, when given the chance to reconfigure Hawthorne from four general lanes and a parking lane to a design what would include bike lanes, PBOT did not seize the opportunity. Instead, they chose a cross-section of three (wider) general lanes and two parking lanes. In the process of making their decision, PBOT didn’t adequately engage their own Bicycle Advisory Committee and key transit delay data remains hidden from the public.

In making his case to fellow PSC members last night, Smith acknowledged the chosen cross-section will have some advantages for safety and traffic flow. “But,” he added, “in not doing the bike lanes we are missing a huge opportunity.”

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“We’ve all observed over the last decade how congested auto traffic has gotten… So anything we can do to improve the bicycle [mode] share is important”
— Chris Smith

Smith’s case rested on several pillars including adherence to the Climate Action Plan, Transportation System Plan (TSP) and Bicycle Master Plan, as well as helping bring more customers to Hawthorne Boulevard businesses.

He pointed out that Portland declared a climate emergency back in July. “If you have a situation where you can have one climate-friendly mode on the street, or you can have two climate-friendly modes on the street,” Smith said, referring to transit and bikes, “I think, you obviously want to try as hard as you can to get two climate-friendly modes.”

And Smith is worried Portland won’t meet its 25% bicycle or transit mode split goals by 2035 as outlined in the TSP because streets will become increasingly clogged with car drivers. “We’ve all observed over the last decade how congested auto traffic has gotten and that’s because our TSP strategy and mode shifting is not happening. So anything we can do to improve the bicycle share is important,” he said.

Smith also disagreed with the idea that bicycle riders are already “well-served” (Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s expression) on Hawthorne because of good conditions on side streets.

“The thing [relying only on neighborhood greenways] doesn’t do is address land-use. It doesn’t give you a way to get to your final destination. And in fact, the Bicycle Master Plan is clear that we have to provide direct access to destinations people want to go to,” Smith said. That’s also reflected in Comp Plan policy 9.19 which states, “Create conditions that make bicycling more attractive than driving for most trips of approximately three miles or less.”

Before asking his colleagues for feedback, Smith pointed out that “People who shop via bicycle have every bit as generous of wallets as people who do so in their cars, and by keeping those folks and their wallets off Hawthorne we’re doing a disservice to those merchants.”

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PSC members appreciated Smith’s expertise and were somewhat persuaded by his arguments, but they were uncomfortable with a letter focused solely on Hawthorne and bike lanes.

“How do we get to achieving our climate goals in a scarce right-of-way when everyone has a lot of hopes and dreams?”
— Steph Routh, PSC member

PSC Member Steph Routh (a former executive director of nonprofit Oregon Walks) was the most persuasive voice against Smith’s letter. She said PBOT “nailed it” with their decision when it came to addressing pedestrians — the mode that sits atop the city’s transportation hierarchy pyramid (which puts driving at the bottom). She also said Hawthorne is at its core a, “maintenance problem” and worried about scope creep if the PSC was to look at every maintenance project. She acknowledged the Hawthorne debate as an important catalyst for a conversation about PBOT’s challenge in meeting the 25% bicycle mode share goal, but she feels more comfortable with a letter that mentions Hawthorne while urging PBOT Director Warner to engage the PSC on a conversation about the general lack of progress on mode shift.

“How do we get to achieving our climate goals in a scarce right-of-way when everyone has a lot of hopes and dreams?” Routh said. “How do we get there?”

Other PSC members appreciated Smith’s opinion, but ultimately agreed with Routh’s suggested path forward.

Vice Chair Ben Bortolazzo, an architect who personally prefers to take side streets while biking, said “This item is not really within our charge and this is really about the bigger picture.” PSC member Jeff Bachrach, an attorney, concurred with Bortolazzo.

PSC Chair Eli Spevak, a housing developer (Cully Green among others), agreed with Smith. Spevak expressed concerns about staying silent as PBOT goes backwards on its transportation goals. “It worries me because I wonder who else is going to raise their hand in this city when we backslide and we don’t try and take action against it?”

“Who else is going to raise their hand in this city when we backslide?”
— Eli Spevak, PSC Chair

When Spevak asked what happened when this project was brought to the Bicycle Advisory Committee, Smith said, “It was very frustrating. The Bicycle Advisory Committee really wanted to weigh into that [PBOT analysis] and work through it to see if they could apply some creativity, but at the meeting where the Bicycle Advisory Committee was expected to do that, PBOT showed up and communicated their decision without getting their input. So I think there’s a little process fail here.”

Smith also pushed back on the idea that the project falls out of PSC’s jurisdiction. The PSC played a key role in crafted the Transportation System Plan and Smith said they have every right to speak out when the goals within it are not being achieved. He also pointed out how the PSC is involved in related decisions that impact Hawthorne: “If you build a new apartment building on Hawthorne, we’re going to impose an obligation to put in the bike parking whether or not we put a bike lane in front, so I think there’s a little bit of an obligation to come back and provide the bicycle facility to make use of that parking. I think it all works together.”

At the end of the meeting, Smith agreed to re-write his letter to make it clear there are issues specifically with the Hawthorne project, but that in the end, “It’s about the broader question of when do we get to provide direct access to destinations as a necessary step to achieve our bicycle mode share goals and our climate goals.”

But Bachrach disagreed: “My problem with that is you’re presupposing a policy answer that we need to provide better [bike] access, which in turn will help serve our mode split goals. And as a Planning Commission, we haven’t had that policy discussion.”

“That’s not true!” Smith replied. “This body adopted the Bicycle Master Plan in 2010. I was on the committee we had a hearing. We recommended that one of the three key strategies is provide direct access to destinations.”

Then Bachrach backtracked, “OK at some point in time we did acknowledge it as an important policy. I’m just saying, sitting here today, I hadn’t gone back and read it…”

The final vote to re-write the letter was unanimous. The PSC meets again March 9th. I’ll share the letter as soon as it’s available.

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

My question is why do we have to have cars on Hawthorne? Talk about being well-served by parallel routes…

Josh Berezin
Subscriber
Josh Berezin

Is that such a radical idea? It feels completely reasonable to me to at least try converting a major street to a pedestrian/transit/bike street. We claim to have these goals around mode share and climate, so let’s actually do something that might help us meet them.

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

I think it’s a great idea, but maybe instead of full time they close the street off on weekends during the holidays or some such “limited” time. I can only imagine that even then the neighbors on those side streets wouldn’t be too happy with all the extra traffic and parking (as if it already isn’t a nightmare).
I had family who lived a block south of Hawthorne in the 90s near the movie theater and they weren’t too happy when people parked in front of their house blocking their driveway so they couldn’t park their vehicle.
No easy solutions, but I think it sure would be more inviting if the street was closed off at the holidays as I think that could be fun walking shop to shop (and I’m not even a big shopper).

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

The easy solution to find space for PBLs is limiting SOV traffic through the district via bus/freight only signs at major crossings (eg 39th, 12th, 20th). We assume this is a radical decision, but limiting commuter car traffic would be an easy change, and still allow local traffic on Hawthorne.

drs
Guest
drs

Sounds like your family had a problem with a lack of parking enforcement. Portland doesn’t do much to prevent people from storing vehicles in places that obstruct driveways. Encouraging more people to operate SOVs on major arterial streets is not going to fix the problem. That’s what parking enforcement is for, and/or better regulations that increase the mandated gap between the edge of driveways and the legal parking spaces.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

That’s what I came here to say. Something like Sunday Parkways…close Hawthorne one weekend a month and see what happens to the traffic patterns.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Are there parallel routes that provide vehicular access to Hawthorne to a similar degree that Salmon and Harrison do for cyclists that have the capacity to handle the vehicular demand?

drs
Guest
drs

Powell, Division, Belmont, Stark, Burnside… How many do you need? All of these streets have easier grades than the comparable greenways and they don’t require jogs or redirections, unlike Lincoln/Harrison/Ladd or Salmon greenways.

People trying to access the Hawthorne business district by bicycle would have to go several blocks out of their way if they were forced to travel on Salmon or Lincoln (Lincoln is the designated greenway route east of SE 30th Ave). The Hawthorne business district is roughly 1/4 or 1/3 mile from either of those streets. Given that the median bicycle trip length is roughly 2.8 miles (https://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Dill-and-Gliebe-2008.pdf), that’s 10% of the trip being taken up just going from the parallel route to the destination.

Considering that a few blocks of out of direction car travel for residents living on Lincoln St was considered to be absolutely unacceptable and a deal breaker for the entire Lincoln/Harrison/Ladd neighborhood greenway improvement project, requiring major backtracking and redesigns from PBOT, why would out of direction travel ever be acceptable for bicycle travel?

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

It would only be out of direction travel for folks starting their journey between Hawthorne and the adjacent greenway, right? And then probably only for those who are going far enough that it makes it worth the hassle to deal with a bike on Hawthorne (finding a place to lock it, theft, etc.)

As much as I abhor out of direction travel, are we talking about a big universe of trips?

To be honest, it would probably be less disruptive to make Division car free than Hawthorne. But either way, if the locals are on board, I’d support it.

drs
Guest
drs

I think my bigger beef regarding the out of direction travel is the lack of bike lanes on Hawthorne. I work downtown and live in the SE and I find it irritating that Portland’s bike system is set up such that if I want to ride on dedicated “bike infrastructure,” I have to scurry off onto back streets that are “protected” by sharrows and nothing else, because it is too politically fraught to install a diverter here or there.

Can we just get substandard 4.5′ bike lanes on arterials? I feel like we’ve gotten to a point where there’s a zero sum game in which bike lanes either have to be super wide and gobble up entire travel lanes and parking spaces in the mold of N Williams, thus necessitating endlessly combative public campaigns, or we can’t have any dedicated bike infrastructure at all.

I mean, I very much admire the treatments that have been pioneered on Rosa Parks and BH Hwy. Concrete curb separated bike lanes with vertical wands feel like ideal solutions that should be aimed for whenever possible. But having a robust grid of bike lanes on arterials seems like an even more important first step. Why no bike lanes on Sandy? Why no bike lanes on Hawthorne? Why are we relying on the quaint little system of neighborhood streets for bikes but not doing the hard work that it would take to actually make our greenways safe?

Fred
Guest
Fred

You have my vote for comment of the week.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

I understand the sentiment and frustration, but disagree strongly. There is ample evidence that standard (unseparated) bike lanes are actually more dangerous than no bike lane at all. One of the few things I agree on with PBoT is their tendency to include physical separation on some of their designs. For a lot of other reasons standard bike lanes are awful. Portland actually has a LOT of standard bike lanes (162 mi) which offer very little benefit as evidenced by our declining mode share and record death rate (57 in 2020) since 1996.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

What the article you linked to says is that with painted bike lanes, drivers pass more closely. This does not necessarily mean the situation is more dangerous; it could be that passing closer but with a clear delineation between the cyclist’s and driver’s space is safer than greater berth with more ambiguity.

The article also says that “more bicyclists make roads more dangerous” and that “bicyclist behavior is a huge factor in collisions with nearby vehicles.”

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

I’m not sure if 4ft bike lanes really work anymore. Now that every dudebro dad drives an F250 or Yukon XL, and people park camping trailers and vans on the street, corridors like Burnside (between Mt Tabor and I205) are becoming increasingly sketchy to ride on. There are so many vehicles hanging over into the bike lane, that the only way to ride safely is to basically be on the white line. NE Tillamook in Hollywood also comes to mind here.

maxD
Guest
maxD

add the bike lanes on SE 7th to your list of non-functional bike lanes. This is part of my daily commute. There are ,many cars impeding the bike lane, and cars are parked so close to the intersection that if you ride somewhat fast in the bike lane, people at cross streets can’t see you coming. I ride down the middle of the lane to avoid being doored or sideswiped.

Josh Berezin
Subscriber
Josh Berezin

Belmont and Division are only 3 minutes away from Hawthorne by car; Powell is only 5 minutes away. Those seem like reasonable delays for people who choose to travel by car to this dense retail neighborhood.

A large proportion of traffic on Hawthorne is not headed to Hawthorne, though, and those travelers have even more options designed for their safe and convenient east-west travel.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

Exactly. Much of the car traffic on Hawthorne is entirely unrelated to Hawthorne.

soren
Guest
soren

People who have been displaced out of inner Portland by this community’s racist and classist policies typically have no other alternative than to drive. And, frankly, I value their need to drive far, far more than I value the desire of economically-secure inner Portlanders to bike to their favorite bar/cafe/restaurant on SE Hawthorne.

Caleb
Guest
Caleb

A possible interpretation of your last statement is that you like that the displaced need to drive far. I assume you meant you prioritize their needs over the other group’s desire, though.

Alain L.
Guest
Alain L.

Correct me if I am wrong, but these “plans” (CAP, TSP, BMP) are aspirational? As opposed to legally binding. That is, they do not function like an Environmental Impact Statement. It boggles the mind, how PBOT’s Hawthorne proposal is suppose to addresses any of the Plans in a robust fashion. I’ve been riding a bicycle in Portland for over 30 years, and while I can say it’s better, every day I have close calls with drivers who just don’t seem to care. The current road design creates entitlements, and if you’re on a bike, or walking, you cannot help be notice/feel the disregard for other modes. I’d consider myself a confident rider, so for anyone who is less confident, or new to riding in the city, the current road design will not suit you. Too many gaps in the network, lack of direct access, and too many places where riders/walkers are left exposed. Thank you to those PSC members for speaking out. Where’s the outrage or concern from Metro, or Council? How do we hit the targets when we – Portland – keep sliding back from 6% bicycle mode?

Chris Smith
Guest

The TSP (Transportation System Plan) is adopted by ordinance. It is a law, not an aspiration. And the latest version of the TSP incorporated substantial policies and network classifications from the Bicycle Master Plan

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

Chris, thank you for your action on Hawthorne. I lament your recent loss. Run again please!

Alain L.
Guest
Alain L.

Thank you, Chris, for the clarification/details. If PBOTs “maintenance” proposal is out of alignment with TSP, or BMP, then who holds PBOT accountable?

Alain L.
Guest
Alain L.

Would you say PSC has that authority, but in this particular instance, PSC was not in total agreement? Honest questions here, hoping to better understand. Thanks.

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

Thanks Chris (and Steph) for your continued volunteer work in these important areas.

I agree that this committee should not dip into ‘maintenance issues’ … but the major allocation of street space and how it fulfills council adopted plan objectives is very different and not a ‘maintenance issue’ (other than the funds paying for the striping come from that pocket of funds). The PPSC needs to forcefully raise this issue with PBoT as a citywide issue or the 2035 Plan will go the same way as the 2030 Plan…kicked down the road.

Hawthorne as a facility currently fails ALL users. I hope it gets much better for cyclists…and if it cannot have a bike lane – due to parking ‘needs’ then there needs be an equitable investment – and the budget – to offset this decision. (It will likely require MORE parking loss on parallel routes.)

soren
Guest
soren

“then there needs be an equitable investment – and the budget – to offset this decision”

Hawthorne is a major ped street and a major transit route but not a major bikeway according to the comprehensive plan so this kind of demand is more than a little divisive.

I’m far more upset that PBOT casually dismissed rose lanes as an option than I am about the bike lane decision.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Typo (missing clause):

“The thing [relying only on neighborhood greenways] doesn’t do is address land-use. It doesn’t give you a way to get to your final destination. And in fact, the Bicycle Master Plan is clear that we have to provide direct access to destinations people want to go to,” Smith said. He was referring to And that’s also reflected in Comp Plan policy 9.19 which states, “Create conditions that make bicycling more attractive than driving for most trips of approximately three miles or less.”

What was “He referring to”?

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

Definitely not “nailed it” for any mode, let alone pedestrians.

“How do we get to achieving our climate goals in a scarce right-of-way when everyone has a lot of hopes and dreams?” it’s pretty simple if you remove “storing empty cars for free” from the equation, really.

SD
Guest
SD

PBOT’s longstanding blind spot is their limited consideration of factors that influence behavior. One of the more powerful influencers of behavior is simply that people do what they see other people do. PBOT’s plan for a hidden bike network that is not visible from places where people like to spend time outside, like Hawthorne, is a lost opportunity. And, it’s not necessarily about converting car drivers to bike riders, it is much more about moving 20% bike trips to 30 or 40% and 90% to 100%, or having someone strolling on Hawthorne see other people biking and thinking “I can do that.”
We won’t reach our mode share goals or broader climate goals if the reflex to drive is not continually disrupted by cues not to drive.

SD
Guest
SD

***…it is much more about moving *each individual* from 20% bike trips to 30 or 40% and 90% to 100%…

drs
Guest
drs

Comment of the week

Zach
Guest
Zach

Exactly. We need to get people out of their cars, and if we don’t do that now, when will we? PBOT predicted a transit delay on Hawthorne in 1997 and they did it in 2021. They will ALWAYS be able to predict a transit delay as a reason to not build bike lanes – but the bike lanes are the best chance we have at reducing cars on the road, thus speeding up transit in the long term. No one seems to be talking about this. Maintaining or marginally improving existing bus speed with Alternative 2 will not get people out of their cars in any meaningful way, while bike lanes can.

eawriste
Guest
eawriste

Right. And hidden in that “transit delay” prediction based on traffic counts is the assumption that 1) maintaining the current level of car capacity and parking is a requirement for any project and 2) to divert SOV traffic is unthinkable. One can look at a traffic count and say “Ok, let’s work on reducing this number because we need a safe street” or “That amount of traffic is necessary and (unfortunately) precludes any other modes.” PBoT uses an objective measure to make an ideological decision. That decision is what commissioners receive in their reports and subsequently assume to be the best design.

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

I thought getting more people in buses was a goal too? Also, subtracting a lane from each direction would create less traffic. Personally, I would rather drive on Belmont. Cycling, I never found a great reason to be on Hawthorne because even if you removed all the cars and buses, there would still be too many people for my taste and while people seem to bust on the many greenways in that neighborhood, they have served me mostly well. An upgrade would be a stop sign on SE 30th/ Salmon.

Matt
Guest
Matt

I thought that part of the point of Greenways is to suggest that these are good streets for riding a bike, to hopefully concentrate riders there, which will ultimately signal to drivers that there are better places to drive…..like Hawthorne. Where do we want the cars to go?

Zach
Guest
Zach

We want the cars to disappear by encouraging people to ride bikes instead of driving, which is more suitable for most trips (something like 90% of trips are <3 miles). As studies have shown, the only way to do this is to give people entirely car-free places to ride bikes (which even the Greenways don't provide).

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

which is more suitable for most trips

More suitable for you. Not necessarily for others.