It’s been almost two years since the Portland Bureau of Transportation decided against building bike lanes on SE Hawthorne Blvd, a move that disappointed local advocates who’d pined for a radical reconfiguration of the street. Sinced then, the city finished a repaving project on Hawthorne that brought some safety benefits, but has largely been seen as a lackluster solution to the problems that remain for bicycle riders.
This past Saturday, PBOT Planner Zef Wagner joined the Southeast Chapter of Bike Loud PDX to lead a tour of upcoming greenways around Hawthorne. Wagner is leading PBOT’s plan to build several new greenway routes intersecting with Hawthorne in an effort to make the area more bike-friendly despite the lack of bike facilities on Hawthorne itself.
There’s no animosity between Bike Loud members and Wagner (he’s attended several of their rides), but it was evident from this weekend’s ride that people haven’t entirely moved on from the Hawthorne decision.
The area surrounding the bustling commercial main street is rife with car traffic in a way that’s inhospitable to people biking and walking, and it spills onto the nearby greenways. People attempting to cross at the newly upgraded crosswalks appear anxious and rush across the street even when they have a green light.
When I’m riding through the area by myself, I might overlook some of the major issues on Hawthorne, but riding with a PBOT staffer and a group of passionate bike advocates, they were impossible to ignore.
Even though some greenway upgrades are better than nothing, they pale in comparison to what advocates think is necessary in order to make this area better for biking. And this focus on Hawthorne-area greenways brings back the same debates that were present when PBOT first decided against bike lanes on the street, citing the nearby Lincoln/Harrison and Salmon/Taylor greenways as viable alternatives.
Portland’s greenways – previously known as “bike boulevards” – make up a network of neighborhood streets that prioritize people biking and walking. The greenways were initially known as “bike boulevards” back when the city began to establish the network in the 1980s after inner eastside residents asked for more diversion to push car traffic off their neighborhood streets.
These days, Portland’s greenway system is made up of more than 100 miles of neighborhood streets citywide which are supposed to provide people a safe, low-stress network of routes they can use without having to deal with a lot of car drivers.
Think of the greenway system is as a shadow network of the city’s “major” streets – a.k.a., the ones filled with shops and restaurants. This means people on bikes don’t have direct and easy access to destinations, and bike traffic is largely hidden from the non-biking public. If you were sitting outside one of Hawthorne’s many coffee shops or strolling between its thrift stores and boutiques, you might never see a bike rider. And if you did see one, it might seem sketchy to ride without a dedicated bike lane next to so many cars. It’s not exactly a great advertisement for cycling.
Even PBOT Bike Coordinator Roger Geller thinks this is a problem. In February 2020 he told the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, “If there was a big green bike lane next them as they were driving with a lot of people biking on it, they might say, ‘Oh, I can see the way to bike. Instead of driving these streets, I just get on my bike.’ But that’s not the case because the neighborhood greenway network is rather hidden, especially to people who are newer to town.”
On Saturday, ride participants pointed out that most people aren’t privy to the greenway system shadowing Hawthorne. Heat map data shows people using bike and scooter share often travel along more dangerous corridors instead of taking the detour to greenways – how much of that is because they don’t know the greenways even exist? This could be an opportunity for more wayfinding along the Hawthorne corridor so people – in cars and on bikes alike – actually know where the good bike streets are.
Wagner said there’s potential for more of this, which could come in the form of special toppers (a.k.a. “rider signs”) on street name signs (at right) or more green crosswalks to indicate bike crossings. These might be good places to start, but in my opinion, a lot more needs to be done to make sure people are aware of Portland’s greenways.
Because most greenways are just residential streets without destinations, a new Portlander may not discover them if they don’t know what to look for, and therefore may not know about the bike network the city has spent so much time and money to develop. And if you never see anyone riding a bike, you’re probably not going to feel compelled to take up cycling for the first time. That’s just basic marketing, and it results in a self-perpetuating downward spiral of bike riders.
When I first learned about the push for bike lanes on Hawthorne, I thought it was a bit overblown: I lived a block away and didn’t have much trouble navigating the greenway system. But I’ve realized now the strong feelings around this topic go deeper than that. I was already a frequent bike commuter when I moved to the neighborhood and so I was willing to go out of my way to figure out the best routes to get around by bike. Not everyone is going to do that. And that’s exactly the problem.
If we continue to hide our best biking streets, we’ll never find the increase in ridership we desperately need.
If one thing was clear from the Bike Loud ride, it’s that the community fire for Hawthorne bike lanes is still burning.. So who knows? Maybe the saga isn’t over yet.