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Portsmouth neighborhood intersection gets pop-up safety treatment


A community-led demonstration project has been installed at the intersection of North Portsmouth and Willis. As we reported back in July, the project is the result of a collaboration between the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University, tactical urbanism nonprofit Better Block PDX, and the City of Portland transportation bureau. Community partners included the Portsmouth Neighborhood Association, and Community Cycling Center, who works with the nearby Cesar Chavez School.

Traffic safety has been a grave concern for this community for years. After a student was struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking across the intersection in 2020, former Chavez School teacher Sam Balto responded to the PSU TREC/Better Block project pathway program request for proposals with ideas on how to improve safety. The project was accepted and a team of PSU urban planning students went to work on it. They led a design and public process with the goal of installing a temporary pop-up project that could be followed up by permanent infrastructure.

Their public process scored three design options: a mini-roundabout, bump-outs (a.k.a. curb extensions), and raised crosswalks. The mini-roundabout got the highest-score.

View from N Portsmouth looking southbound toward N Willis.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

When I visited the installation this morning I expected to see the roundabout. But it wasn’t there. Portsmouth Neighborhood Association Land Use and Transportation Chair Paul Buchanan was. He was disappointed PBOT wouldn’t sign off on the roundabout. I too was crestfallen that the roundabout got cut, but I watched several bus operators (both TriMet Line 35 and yellow school buses) negotiate the intersection and I can understand PBOT’s concerns.

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I asked PBOT what happened. Spokesman John Brady said Better Block and other project partners all agreed on the decision. “The intent of the project was to improve pedestrian safety but the roundabout didn’t quite achieve improved safety beyond the fully controlled intersection it already is,” Brady explained. He also said they wanted the demonstration to be something that could become permanent, and there’s no funding or capacity to commit to a roundabout long-term. The short length of the pop-up was also a problem, Brady added, because they’d need more than a few days to analyze the roundabouts impacts on driver behavior.

Even without the star attraction, the pop-up includes several important elements:

After observing the intersection this morning, it felt like the idea and concept was solid, the but the execution left something to be desired. It feels like a work zone, not an exciting vision of what a future – safer – intersection could look like. These pop-ups are meant to inspire users and create urgency for a permanent solution. The barrels are ugly and they don’t work well as a bike lane protector/median material in my opinion. The bike lane transition is abrupt and there’s one car that is parked way too close (it’s an abandoned car but has yet to be towed), so it partially blocks the bike lane when combined with a barrel. There’s also nothing that communicates to road users what’s going on.

A volunteer with Better Block PDX said the project is an exciting first for the PSU Pathway program. It’s also the first time PBOT contractors installed the traffic elements (instead of volunteers doing it).

The pop-up will be installed through the end of this coming Monday, so get over there and check it out and let us know what you think. There will be a post-mortem analysis that helps inform the future permanent design. Stay tuned.

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