At long last, the Portland Bureau of Transportation will take steps to redesign a stretch of Northeast Ainsworth street that will make it less stressful for bicycle riders. At a meeting of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association Thursday night, the City announced plans to add 11 speed bumps (technically called “speed cushions” by PBOT) to the street between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and 15th.
The new speed bumps will have a channel for emergency vehicles since Ainsworth is an emergency response route. The proposal was met with pushback from some people at last night’s meeting, but PBOT project manager Scott Cohen was well-prepared and deftly answered every concern raised.
Ainsworth east of MLK has a long history of annoyance for bicycle riders. Despite it being a designated bike route with a (relatively new) speed limit of 20 mph, this local street is used as a cut-through by many drivers — and most of them drive way too fast. The street itself is split by a very wide, park-like median and the presence of parked cars leaves very little space for traveling.
This difference in vehicle speeds and expectations between drivers and bike riders has created a lot of tension over the years.
In 2008 a pair of cyclists was riding on Ainsworth when they were passed closely by a Portland Police officer in a patrol car. They gestured to the officer out of fear and were then given nonsense traffic citations that were later dismissed by the courts. The PPB ultimately promised to train the officer about the legal rights of bicyclists.
In 2010 we shared the community’s desire to reimagine Ainsworth as a more human-friendly street. Then in 2011, we covered a neighbor’s attempt to encourage bike riders to stay off the street. And in 2018, someone was so mad about the new 20 mph speed limit they tried — and failed — to organize a revolt.
So here we are in 2023 and PBOT has this section of Ainsworth on their list of traffic calming projects to be completed this year. “We’ve heard that people drive too fast on NE Ainsworth and too many people are using the street as a cut-through instead of using more appropriate streets like Killingsworth or Rosa Parks,” PBOT’s Cohen told a few dozen people at the hybrid online/in-person meeting. He added that the goal was to make it a “more neighborhood-friendly street.”
Cohen is in charge of the project and spent most of Thursday night’s meeting addressing concerns from residents.
The list of reasons why some neighbors don’t want the bumps include: their opinion that speed bumps are ineffective, that the bumps slow emergency response times, are expensive to install and maintain, make driving less safe, and that bicycle riders don’t like them.
Cohen went through a presentation showing the impacts of speeding on death and serious injury. Then he laid out how PBOT traffic analysis shows there’s way too much speeding on Ainsworth and that speed bumps are their best tool to reduce that behavior.
According to PBOT speed measurements taken back in March, the prevailing speed at NE Ainsworth and 9th is 32 mph — that means the risk of death or serious injury is four times higher than if people were going 20 mph. And 300 vehicles per day travel 35 mph or more at that location (at 40 mph or more, there’s an eight-fold likelihood of death or injury compared to 20 mph).
At Ainsworth and 7th, PBOT data shows that over 26% of drivers — or 1,717 people per day — drive 30 mph or faster. He then compared that with a nearby section of Ainsworth that already has speed bumps and showed that just 245 vehicles per day are driven 30 mph or faster. He also showed results of traffic studies as other locations around the city where the installation of speed bumps led to a significant reduction in speeding.
But it wasn’t enough to convince one guy who stood up to make his comment.
“I saw your numbers. I saw your graphs. But my real world experience is vastly different from that,” the man said. “I think the only thing speed bumps do is make it untenable, a drastically lower quality of life for those people that live on the street and are subject to the noise of larger vehicles and smaller vehicles that are braking and speeding up to go over at a speed where it causes their equipment to bounce…”
Cohen calmly replied that PBOT can never make 100% of drivers follow the law. “Speed bumps, as I said, are our most effective tool. Yes, there are still some people that are going to go too fast. But instead of it being 1,700 vehicles a day, it’s going to be 200 or so. It is just our best tool.”
“If the data shows relative ineffectiveness? Is there a mechanism in place for removal [of the bumps]?” the man asked.
“We have yet to remove bumps, as far as I know, because they were ineffective. So that would be that would be the first time,” Cohen replied.
Faced with the concern that bicycle riders don’t like the bumps, Cohen pointed out that they are already standard practice on the City’s vast neighborhood greenway network — streets made specifically for bicycling.
Faced with the concern that the bumps would divert drivers to nearby streets, Cohen said that really doesn’t happen. “We very rarely see diversion from speed bumps. Diversion happens usually from diversion [median diverters and such]. Speed bumps just lead to lower speeds and not a change in the number of vehicles that use the street.”
Faced with someone who felt the design of the speed bumps wouldn’t work and that they’d be problematic for first responders, Cohen said, “I’m very confident in our traffic engineer who design this project and who’s got 25-plus years of experience doing traffic calming. And we came up with with this agreement with Portland Fire & Rescue.”
And then, he added this zinger:
“We consider something like this project, one that is reducing speeds, to be an operational project. It’s not something that we have a vote on. The voters voted on this project in 2020 with the Fixing Our Streets program with close to 80% support and it included this program for traffic-calming on neighborhood cut-through routes.”
Now that’s how you frame these type of projects! Cohen’s style of kind confidence should be a template for how PBOT handles neighborhood meetings. We will never achieve our goals if we allow opposition to basic, proven safety measures to draw out and/or derail small projects like this.
PBOT is ready to move forward to construction and the speed bumps should be installed during this construction season (before winter).
Ainsworth is poised for even further evolution with a neighborhood greenway treatment west of MLK that was recommended by PBOT in the North Portland in Motion plan.