Opinion: Let’s make it easier to create safer ‘narrow residential roadways’

(SW 19th Ave in the Markham neighborhood is a showcase for narrow residential roadway treatment. Photos: Lisa Caballero/BikePortland)

“Narrow residential roadways” come in different flavors—unpaved, unimproved, poorly paved, well-paved—and most, maybe all of them, don’t have sidewalks. As defined in Oregon statute (ORS 801.368) they are less than 18-feet wide and the speed limit is set lower than on wider residential streets. In the competition for safety funding, NRRs don’t have a high priority because they aren’t wide, high-crash corridors with posted speeds above 35 mph. But there are hundreds of NRRs in Portland, and when looked at in total they form a critical component of how we get around. Many of them need a small improvement, like a chicane, or speed bumps, to truly become places that people feel comfortable walking and rolling.

We need creative, inexpensive designs to reassert the right of people walking and rolling to have a place in the right-of-way.

I say, let’s take a page from the Portland transportation bureau’s pandemic response, their Safe Streets – Healthy Businesses program (which brought sidewalk and street dining to restaurants), and activate neighbors to improve these narrow streets themselves. PBOT already allows residents to paint their streets and close them for block parties, why not let residents select an appropriate treatment from a slate of low-cost PBOT designs, apply for a permit, and install it. Realistically, it is probably the only way to scale-up improvements to these low-priority streets, citywide.


A couple walk along SW Burlingame Ave, a candidate for traffic calming.
Design for a chicane on SW Burlingame Ave.
(Source: PBOT report on project submitted by neighborhood.)

For example, in the Hillsdale neighborhood, SW Burlingame Avenue neighbors have clamored for traffic calming for two decades. Although narrow, Burlingame runs along Ida B. Wells High School, and connects Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy to Barbur Blvd. Drivers speed along it. The street was the subject of a PSU student’s Capstone project, and the student’s design (at right) was reviewed by a PBOT engineer. My understanding is that Burlingame Avenue is currently on a PBOT short list for traffic calming, although I don’t know if this would be the design. In the spirit of improving our city, I’m going to use this project as a paper tiger.

As you can see from the graphic, this design relies on a large burden of plastic wands. According to the reviewing engineer, each one of those wanded wedges requires a yield sign—in each direction! Additionally, each wedge should have an advance “road narrows” warning sign, although given “current low speed and volumes,” a “generic warning north and south of the test site” could be used. The price tag ends up being around $8,000.

That’s a lot of signs and plastic for a little street.

Chicane created from street plantings in Seattle. (Photo source: the the Queen Anne Greenways and Pushing the Needle twitter feeds)

Instead (and in the spirit of thinking outside the box) I imagine the clever designers at PBOT drawing up five or so inexpensive treatments for various street scenarios. A treatment could be as simple as a basketball hoop on the side of the road, or as elaborate as the chicane created from planters in the road (at right). Neighborhoods could apply for a permit to calm their narrow street, and select a PBOT-approved design. The process could include having the approval of some percentage of the residents. Grants could be available for neighborhoods which need financial assistance with materials.

East Portland

Maria and her four children walk home from the school bus stop.

People have noted that southwest and east Portland face similar infrastructure inadequacies, and that is true. But I have yet to see a street in east Portland where I thought I might bump into a Hobbit, the way I often feel when I am in the Multnomah neighborhood. So a few weeks ago, I spent some time on 117th, between SE Market and Stark.

I didn’t measure the road, but it seemed narrow. I met Maria, who walks the roadway every weekday to pick up her two eldest children from the bus stop. She told me the road was awful to walk on and that “cars drive too fast and don’t slow down” for her. Unfortunately, that’s not surprising. Everything about this road tells the selfish driver that it belongs to them. As I stood on the shoulder a driver honked at me, maybe it was a warning honk, but it was loud enough to be a “why are you breathing my oxygen” honk. Nothing about the street says that Maria has a right to be there too. She deserves a promenade, or at least a row of trees, but that is a bigger project than a group of neighbors can support. We need creative, inexpensive designs to reassert the right of people walking and rolling to have a place in the right-of-way.

The statutory speed limit for a NRR is 15 mph, but Portland Ordinance 188774 directs PBOT to post non-arterial streets in residence districts at 5 MPH slower than their statutory speed, which would be 10 MPH. As we’ve urged before, they should do that.

When it comes to a relative easy way for us to address Vision Zero, give Portlanders a stronger connection to their neighborhoods, and create more people-centered streets — narrow residential roadways are Portland’s low-hanging, live-saving, fruit.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero is on the board of SWTrails PDX, and was the chair of her neighborhood association's transportation committee. A proud graduate of the PBOT/PSU transportation class, she got interested in local transportation issues because of service cuts to her bus, the 51. Lisa has lived in Portland for 23 years and can be reached at lisacaballero853@gmail.com.

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David Hampsten
David Hampsten
2 years ago

SE 117th from Burnside to Division is a collector street, not a local residential street (the NE portion on the other hand is local, full of gravel and potholes on some of it). PBOT traffic engineers were told by neighbors as recently as 1997 that they didn’t want sidewalks – and as you know, the engineers hold all the money at PBOT. SE 117th north of Stark is in the Hazelwood NA; south of Stark to Division it’s in the Mill Park NA. SE Harold in Powellhurst-Gilbert, SE Main in Centennial, and NE San Rafael in Parkrose Heights Russel are similar streets.

SE 136th used to be just like 117th, but after spending $18 million over 11 years, it’s now barely up to standard.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
2 years ago

Local residents hate 122nd as it is a high-crash corridor and use parallel streets like 117th and 136th because they are perceived as safer for car drivers. But I agree, pass-through traffic should be using the main streets and not collectors – on the other hand, PBOT and the neighborhoods want road diets and traffic slowed on 122nd too.

When PBOT first started discussing this, SE Mill from 82nd to 89th in Montevilla was often used as a prime example: https://www.google.com/maps/@45.5100641,-122.5728438,3a,75y,270h,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s-ZhV5JIg04FOiR_W-xhDVQ!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

Or SE Clay in Hazelwood: https://www.google.com/maps/@45.5133279,-122.5545063,3a,75y,344.12h,90t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sX1gPxCg62LI0ORXH0Y1F8A!2e0!6shttps:%2F%2Fstreetviewpixels-pa.googleapis.com%2Fv1%2Fthumbnail%3Fpanoid%3DX1gPxCg62LI0ORXH0Y1F8A%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D348.7238%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i13312!8i6656

2 years ago

Yes to 10 mph! Yes to NRRs! Yes to inexpensive ways to slow drivers and, more importantly, foster people streets! Let’s stop pouring concrete everywhere (or, saying we can’t afford to do so), and instead use our ingenuity and resourcefulness to create a built environment people can enjoy in peace and community.

Thank you for writing this.

2 years ago

I’m a little confused. How does the role of sidewalks/no sidewalks play into this conversation? Is the suggestion that no sidewalks are better because the road is less improved, the road is likely narrower, pedestrians are more often on the road, and therefore traffic should be slower?

My concern is that unless traffic is slower, pedestrians should not be (or should be concerned about being) on the roadway. I don’t think pedestrians using the roadway should be relied upon to encourage drivers to go slower. Which comes first – slower traffic or more pedestrians? The old chicken and egg problem.

I know there was more to the article than this point, but I was interested in clarifying this detail.

Doug Klotz
Doug Klotz
2 years ago

One point to be kept in mind when doing any improvements in the ROW is, are they safe for all users? There has been no mention by PBOT (or many others) of how a person who is visually impaired, or blind, will be able to use these “Pedestrian Shared Streets”, like SW 19th. There is no place that’s even relatively safe for the visually impaired. Their guide to where the edge of the street is seems to be parked cars on one side, and the edge of asphalt on the other. They have no way of telling where an oncoming car is in the roadway. Of all the “Alternative Pedestrian Walkways” in the new Design Guide, only the Protected Safer Shoulder (with a raised strip to separate the modes), the “separated walkway”, or the “sidewalk on one side”, are usable by more than the able-bodied and sighted population. As far as lower speed limits, how fast are cars going on your street? Are they all staying at 20 MPH? If the answer is no, how fast will they go on a 15 mph street?