A recent Oregon Department of Transportation project in north Portland has helped tame an urban highway, but it came at the cost of a key bike crossing. It’s a trade-off we shouldn’t have to make.
I’m talking about the project that brought new pavement and a new cross-section to NE Lombard (U.S. 30) between St. Johns and the Kenton neighborhood. The new buffered bike lanes and other changes have made the once-unthinkable-for-cycling street into a viable route. I’ve ridden it several times in recent weeks and drivers go much slower and it actually feels OK in the bike lane.
But what ODOT did at the North Delaware Avenue intersection is not OK.
The project removed a traffic signal that could be instantly activated via push-button on either side of Delaware. For southbound Delaware bicycle riders, the button was right near the curb and could be pushed without having to roll onto the sidewalk. Now there’s a rapid flashing beacon on just one side of the intersection, which means if southbound bicycle riders want the protection of the crossing, they have to cross over a lane of traffic twice.
“It is also really annoying and potentially unsafe,” one mom who bikes her kids to school and parks on Delaware told us after the changes went in. “It’s a huge pain for cyclists… Definite downgrade from what was there before,” said another. Both people wanted to know why ODOT did it.
The first thing I did was confirm the design with one of the ODOT engineers who worked on the project. “Yes, this is the final design,” they said. “Southbound or northbound bike riders would need to either treat the Delaware approach like a vehicle or a pedestrian.”
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I learned more about why they made this decision. It seemed like an interesting example of how arcane federal engineering guidelines can have an impact on our everyday experience on our bikes.
Here’s what I learned:
- The old signals were “half signals.” This is where the signals only stop half of the intersection — in this case the signals stop the major street in favor of the smaller side street without a signal. The Federal Highway Administration’s all-powerful Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a guidebook (more like a bible) used by state traffic engineers, strongly encourages their removal, “because of the issues such designs cause when the interruption of the major-street traffic flow by a pedestrian actuation is used by side-street drivers as their opportunity to turn onto the major street, in conflict with the crossing pedestrians,” reads the FHWA website.
- ODOT didn’t opt for a new traffic signal at this location for several reasons. First, it would have added cost to the project that wasn’t in the budget. But even more importantly, the MUTCD requires a specific amount of cross-traffic before a signal can be installed (this is known as “meeting signal warrants”). An ODOT spokesperson told me the traffic volumes on Delaware would have to be 3-4 times higher during peak hours to event come close to meeting signal warrants.
- A HAWK (“high intensity activated walk”) signal couldn’t be used here because those are typically only used at mid-block crossing locations. * UPDATE, 11/3 at 8:47 am: To further clarify, ODOT prefers to not use HAWK signals at intersections, but that’s not the case with PBOT. The two agencies differ on this issue.
So that’s why the crossing of Delaware and Lombard is worse for bicycle users today than it was before ODOT’s project. It’s a clear example of how arcane federal engineering guidelines can impact your bike route to school.
The good news is that the City of Portland manages Delaware and they have a much less rigid interpretation of the MUTCD. And since it’s such an important and popular route to schools and parks and other destinations, I won’t be surprised if PBOT manages to add some bike-friendly crossing features back to this intersection as part of an upcoming neighborhood greenway project. Stay tuned!