2022 has been a big year for advisory bike lanes in Portland. We first reported on projects that would receive the new(ish) treatment back in May, then followed that up with a video about recent installations on NE 43rd and 53rd, and then earlier this month the Portland Bureau of Transportation had an open house to talk more about it.
Now we know why PBOT is so bullish on these treatments, and where they are likely to show up next.
First, let’s back up: Advisory bike lanes (or advisory shoulders, which is what PBOT calls them on streets without sidewalks) are a type of road striping where drivers in both directions have just one center lane to negotiate and PBOT creates a light version of bike lanes on each side. Instead of the solid white line to separate the bike lane, they are striped with broken, hashed lanes. When two drivers come at each other and there is no bike rider present, they can legally drive into the bike lane to pass. When a bike rider is present, the normal rules of a bike lane apply, and the drivers must wait, slow down, and figure out how to pass once it’s safe. You can see how they work in the video below…
PBOT loves this design for many reasons. First and foremost they are a cheap (and relatively non-controversial) way to improve access for bike riders and walkers onto narrow streets where adding dedicated space for them would require less space for car users. Advisory bike lanes require no one user to give up too much in terms of access (two-way car traffic can remain and parking is often be maintained) and at the same time they have significant safety outcomes.
From PBOT’s perspective, advisory bike lanes tick all the boxes and could be a quick and cheap way to build out their bike network as they ramp up to have 25% of all trips made by bike by 2030. So why are we hearing so much about them right now? After all, they were passed as a recommended treatment in the 2009 Bicycle Plan, but PBOT had only tried them in one location in the last 12 years prior to 2022.
The main reason PBOT had been tentative to install them is because they aren’t allowed by the Federal Highway Administration (there were only 30 advisory bike lane installations in the entire country up until 2019). In order to promote consistency nationwide, everything city traffic engineers do on their streets must follow strict rules laid out in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). a federal standards guide. If a city does something outside of the MUTCD, they run the risk of legal liability in the event of a crash and no engineers want to go up against the FHWA. Thankfully, the FHWA offers a way for more progressive cities like Portland to do new things. It’s called a “request to experiment” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. A city can ask the FHWA for permission to try something new, even if it’s not yet adopted into the official MUTCD guidebook.
PBOT is no stranger to this process. It’s how they forged ahead as a North American pioneer on things like bike boxes, green bike lanes, red transit lanes, blue bike detector lights at signals, and so on.
And that’s exactly what they’ve done with advisory bike lanes. PBOT filed a request to experiment with the FHWA back in January and has received permission to install them on a trial basis citywide.
Reached for comment about the FHWA partnership today, PBOT Public Informations Officer Dylan Rivera said, “We’re constantly looking to make cycling safer and more comfortable for more Portlanders. So we are eager to try new techniques that we have seen in other cities in North America or Europe.”
The 10-page request (PDF) lays out PBOT’s case for the treatment:
“Advisory Bike Lanes and Shoulders are included as a facility type in [Portland’s citywide pedestrian plan and the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030] but have not yet been implemented due to outstanding questions about traffic control device guidelines, application criteria, and experimental status with FHWA…
… the city also has many neighborhoods with narrow streets, often lacking curbs and sidewalks or pedestrian facilities. Many of these substandard streets are characterized by narrow pavements and rights-of-way, steep or environmentally-sensitive sideslopes, and streetside constraints like buildings or retaining walls, and it is either infeasible or financially prohibitive to install sidewalks or conventional bikeways in the near future. Nevertheless, these streets serve as the access to homes, transit, and other destinations in these neighborhoods, and warrant solutions to provide safe access for people walking and bicycling.”
As part of this experiment, PBOT hopes to test five new locations:
- NE San Rafael St. from 122nd to 148th
- NE Sacramento St. from 132nd to 148th
- SE Ellis St. from 84th to 92nd.
- SW 40th Avenue, Wilbard to Huber
- SW Talbot Road, Fairmount at Gaston to Fairmount (Fairmount is a loop)
Rivera says that while PBOT believes all of these locations are good candidates for advisory bike lanes, there will still be some engineering and public outreach to get into the nitty-gritty details before they install the new striping and include them in the test.
As per the terms of the partnership, PBOT will keep FHWA apprised of their progress and conduct detailed before/after analysis at each location. If all goes well, at the end of the three-year trial, PBOT will be able to install them without federal oversight and the treatment would be considered for official adoption into the MUTCD, which would open the floodgates for cities across America to implement them.
— Check out the advisory bike lane page on PBOT’s website to learn more.