There’s one less lane for driving on East Burnside between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and NE 12/Sandy. That’s because the Portland Bureau of Transportation has installed a bus-only lane and a bike lane on the southern side of the street as part of their East Burnside Bus and Bike Lane Improvements project. The project broke ground last fall and is nearly 100% complete, so I figured it was time for a closer look.
The project is part of the Central City in Motion plan adopted by City Council in 2018. The goal is threefold: speed up buses on three busy TriMet routes (lines 12, 19, and 20); make driving less attractive (as per our climate and transportation goals); and improve bicycling from downtown into the central eastside. The project also completes an east-west transit-priority couplet with NE Couch, a street one block to the north that got its bus-only lane one year ago.
Beyond the big, red lane; the star attraction of this project is a new traffic signal at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd that gives separate phases to bicycle, bus, and car operators. This signal (and associated no-right-turn-on-red provision) aims to prevent right-hook collisions between people turning south onto MLK Jr. Blvd (a one-way street) and people trying to walk and bike across the street.
The signal is also a tool to manage traffic volumes and mitigate congestion, as we shared in this 2015 post where some expert sources proposed almost the exact configuration PBOT ended up with.
Of course, with any project that relies solely on paint and signage to enforce behavior, its success will depend on people following the laws. And in my observations, compliance wasn’t that great. Delivery trucks are parking in the bike lane, drivers are using the bus-only (and sometimes even the bike) west of MLK Jr. Blvd, and some folks are just disregarding the signals. If you’ve been around a while, you know this happens every time PBOT does one of these projects. The good news is that the city watches these projects closely and make adjustments as time goes on, and people also adjust their behavior as the changes become more familiar.
Another reason people are driving into the bus and bike lanes is because the project has increased traffic backups considerably. When I was out there last Friday, it was bumper-to-bumper from SW 3rd all the way to NE 12th or so. As I stood mid-span on the Burnside Bridge I could feel peoples’ frustration and impatience as they sat in traffic right next to a wide open lane. (This is one reason it’s imperative that we get more folks on bikes and buses. When PBOT does high-profile lane changes like this one, and folks don’t see the new bus/bike space being used, it just fuels their rage and erodes political and public will to make more changes.)
PBOT has a history of under-designing projects, then they have to react to drivers’ lawlessness after-the-fact. That seems to be what they are doing here as well. The first time I observed the approach to MLK Jr. Blvd, the new bus lane was unpainted. When I returned a few days later I noticed PBOT has put up traffic cones to help reinforce the concept. And then yesterday, crews were out adding red paint to the lane.
“We are tracking some compliance issues with the new lane configuration approaching MLK,” PBOT Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera told BikePortland on Thursday. The right turn lane is in a new location, so it will take some time for folks to adjust and the additional work over the next two days is to make the lane configuration even more clear.”
The rest of the route seemed to be working pretty much as planned.
From a cycling perspective, the bike lane is now painted green (it was unpainted before) and instead of cycling next to cars and trucks, we get to ride next to a (mostly open) bus lane. This is a nice buffer from other traffic lanes. Unfortunately the bus stops are still on the curb, so there is some leapfrogging. But since it’s uphill and cycling speeds are a bit slower, and with an extra lane of space to use, it’s easy and safe to navigate around a stopped bus.
With a better bike lane on Burnside, we now have a much stronger connection to NE 7th, which gets riders to the Blumenauer Bridge (north) or the Ankeny neighborhood greenway (south).
Speaking of Ankeny, one of the other selling points of this project was a new bike lane on MLK Jr. Blvd that would create a stronger connection between the Burnside Bridge bikeway and the greenway. When we last shared about this project back in October, PBOT’s plan was a new bike lane on the east side of MLK Jr. Blvd and then some median islands on Ankeny to improve safety and strengthen the connection.
But they’ve changed that plan and the bike route is now on the west side of MLK Jr. Blvd. From what I saw, it’s a very underwhelming connection (see below). I didn’t see much markings or signage; but I think they want bicycle riders to roll up onto the sidewalk/curb extension on the southwest corner of Burnside and MLK Jr. Blvd, and then there’s a new paved ramp back onto the bike lane (a former parking lane). If a bike rider misses the ramp and tries to go right in the lane of MLK, they will be just inches from exposed streetcar tracks. And right now, the bike lane striping ends just prior to Ankeny where you would make a two-stage turn to orient yourself from south on MLK Jr. Blvd to east on Ankeny. I expect PBOT to add more pavement markings, green paint in the bike lane, and a stronger connection to Ankeny to make this work better.
But as I thought about it, I think the vast majority of people might just feel better staying on Burnside a few blocks and taking 6th or 7th to connect to Ankeny — so maybe the bike lane on MLK Jr. Blvd isn’t really that important. We’ll see how it all shakes out. I’ve asked PBOT for an update and will update this when I hear back. (UPDATE: I’ve realized that one major reason the bike lane was kept on the west side of MLK was because of how it creates a better connection to the Central Eastside Industrial District (which makes total sense). So, if you want to get into the CEID (Wayfarer, Produce Row, skate park, etc…), you should use this MLK bike lane. If you want to continue further eastbound on Ankeny, better to cross MLK and then cut over on 6th or 7th.)
Overall, this feels like a good upgrade to Burnside. Whether or not it moves the needle (which everything we do must at this point!) will depend on how well PBOT and the Portland Police Bureau manage the scofflaws who violate the lane assignments. As long as drivers are able and likely to swerve into adjacent lanes and/or delivery drivers park in the bike lane, the cycling environment will be stressful, the project will not reach its potential, and it will not attract new riders or entice drivers out of their cars — both of which we desperately need.
Stepping back a bit, it’s exciting to see all the bike and bus connections coming into focus! Each new piece of the network adds exponential value to the existing ones.
What do you think about this? What’s it like to drive on? Will it improve your cycling experience? Have you noticed better bus service as a result?
Don’t miss the video I shared about this project to our Instagram yesterday.