Safety advocates raise alarm at plans for SE Powell crossing at 79th

A bicycle rider waits for a chance to cross SE Powell at 79th. View is looking south. (Aaron Kuehn/Instagram)

Doing it right is more important than getting it done quickly. That’s the message road safety advocates have for the Oregon Department of Transportation after learning about imminent plans to finally build a new crossing treatment on Southeast Powell Boulevard at 79th.

Crossing marked in red.

This crossing (see map at right) has always been risky. It’s not just the four lanes of fast, state highway traffic on Powell you have to worry about. 79th is also a small, forgettable road at this location and on the south side it emerges from a frontage road. At just 700 feet west of roaring 82nd Avenue (another state highway), most drivers barely notice 79th at all, much less a person waiting to walk or bike across it.

That’s why a new crossing was first identified and funded in 2013 and neighbors have been pushing for years for a safer way across. And now, with a major investment coming to 82nd Avenue and the importance of 79th as the designated route of the 70s Neighborhood Greenway, this key north-south route is more important than ever.

It’s also why last week, three local nonprofits sent a letter to the three agencies that have a say in what happens here: the Oregon Department of Transportation, TriMet, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

“We are writing to convey our concern that current designs for improvements at SE 79th and Powell will not create a crossing that is direct, safe, and comfortable for all users,” reads the letter, signed by leaders of Oregon Walks, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), the Vestal Elementary Bike Bus, and BikeLoud PDX.

The groups point out that SE Powell is one of the deadliest streets in Portland and that plans on the table don’t go far enough to help people get safely across it.

As you can see in the images, the crossing currently has no marked crosswalks. According to the letter (based on plans obtained by BikeLoud PDX via public records requests), ODOT plans to install a “Crosswalk Closed” sign on the eastern corners. That closure would limit crossing options for walkers and bike riders and would, “Add out-of-direction travel and increase pedestrian exposure to traffic by requiring up to three separate crossings to reach the bus stop at the southeast corner of the intersection,” the letter states.

BikeLoud says they’ve asked ODOT, PBOT and TriMet to explain why the closure is necessary, but have not heard a satisfactory response.

Making matters worse, TriMet’s plan for the crossing appears to differ from ODOT’s (TriMet has oversight due to their Powell-Division Corridor Safety plan), and would have bike riders cross at an angle, northeast across Powell. “If professional planners disagree on how the design will be used, it is unlikely to be clear to ordinary road users, either for cyclists using the crossing or for drivers watching for crossing cyclist,” reads the letter.

ODOT plans to install a flashing beacon on the western crossing of the intersection, but advocates say a four-lane state highway with a record if crashes like Powell requires a full signal or some other treatment that requires drivers to stop on a solid red phase.

In addition to a stronger crossing treatment, the advocates say both crossings must remain open. They also want the agencies to get together and hash out a better plan.

“The time for action is now, the current plan would continue to reinforce the car-first design of the Powell corridor, and building it as currently envisioned would lock in that compromised design for decades to come.”

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Aaron Kuehn
3 months ago

If you are concerned and want to help, write to PBOT, TriMet, ODOT, and contact your state legislators to ask for a redesign that doesn’t close a crosswalk, and truly keeps people walking, biking, and taking transit safe. You should cc bikeloudpdx@gmail.com to have a record of your communication documented.

Dave W
Dave W
7 days ago
Reply to  Aaron Kuehn

Thanks for the reminder re: state legislators. Because three different agencies are involved, creating a diffusion of responsibility, perhaps external state-level leadership will ultimately be required to make it happen.

dw
dw
3 months ago

I’ll definitely be writing some emails about this one. I use 79th every week to bike and get groceries at WinCo. During an 82nd ave open house, I was told by a PBOT employee that they were going to put in a half-signal, similar to the one at 41st and Hawthorne or 16th and Hawthorne. I thought that was a good solution because it gives an explicit red signal. RRFBs are fine for some applications, I think, but drivers seem to get upset about people on bikes using RRFB crosswalks.

idlebytes
idlebytes
3 months ago
Reply to  dw

Drivers seem to get upset about people on bikes using crosswalks.

I had someone honk at me and pull over to yell at me the other day because I had the nerve to use an unmarked crosswalk. It was stop and go traffic so it’s not like I was holding them up or anything. That’s definitely not the first time either. As you said they even get upset about marked crosswalks.

dw
dw
3 months ago
Reply to  idlebytes

I don’t think most drivers understand the concept of unmarked crosswalks. PBOT needs to put up some “every intersection is a crosswalk” billboards or something. The number of times I’ve been chided to go down the block to “use the crosswalk” is mind numbing.

donel courtney
donel courtney
3 months ago
Reply to  dw

They don’t. And there hasn’t been any publicity about it for a while. Back in the early 2010s I saw an ad about it on a bus stop shelter in the rose quarter area.

Seemed like they had a less schizophrenic approach those days. With the whole “unmarked crosswalk” thing, the government has to be either all-in or nothing. A half-assed approach creates danger and confusion.

Dave W
Dave W
7 days ago
Reply to  dw

I’m also planning on doing a short email to WinCo, letting them know that I spend significant amounts of money there, and asking them to support having a safer crossing so I can continue to be a customer.

Kangas
Kangas
3 months ago

Well, that’s certainly one way to avoid coordinating with the Powell Street Station property owners about impacts to that one unfortunately located service driveway. They might push back and likely have the means to make things awkward.

MontyP
MontyP
3 months ago

I always wonder with this kind of stuff why we can’t have both something done quickly, and then something done right? There are SO MANY places around town where a painted crosswalk would really help do SOMETHING. Instead, we wait around for a “solution” to be planned and get nothing. Obviously many areas need a whole lot more than a crosswalk, but why have nothing during the period while something is being designed/planned/funded for a decade +?

Steven
Steven
3 months ago
Reply to  MontyP

There’s an unfortunate myth among traffic engineers that painted crosswalks create a “false sense of security” among pedestrians. The myth has persisted for the last half century despite a lack of evidence.

MontyP
MontyP
3 months ago
Reply to  Steven

That’s an interesting read. I would say that very few, if any, crosswalks in Portland actually provide any real, physical security from speeding vehicles. Even a concrete island/curb isn’t going to do much to stop the average SUV. Now, if the crosswalk had giant steel bollards that rose up out of the pavement and stayed up until I was safely across, that would be a whole lot more of a true/real sense of security!

Watts
Watts
3 months ago

I frequently cross Powell at one of two crosswalks on foot and by bike that have a flashing beacon. I strongly prefer these to other crossings I could choose from that have a full signal because the flashing yellows come on immediately. Drivers are very compliant, and if you wait until it is clear they will stop, there is no real danger at all.

I’ve never detected any heartburn from drivers when I cross on my bike.

TriMet’s bike route depends on drivers respecting the stop bars, which most do, but not always. ODOT’s bike route depends on riders choosing an unnatural path, which none will. This aspect of the proposal needs improvement. Closing the crosswalk seems unnecessary, and is not based on any safety issue I can discern. I suspect it’s primarily a cost issue.

OregonRainstorm87
OregonRainstorm87
3 months ago
Reply to  Watts

a woman was killed at a crosswalk 2 summers ago, walking her dogs in Lents. I would disagree that there is no real danger…

https://www.kgw.com/article/news/local/lents-holgate-hit-and-run-crash-pedestrian-two-dogs/283-6d509fdc-bf5b-480b-aeca-d701dd5ced4b

Watts
Watts
3 months ago

That type of crash could happen at a red light as well.

OregonRainstorm87
OregonRainstorm87
3 months ago

I (independently) contacted PBOT two weeks ago about this very issue. we live south of Woodstock so pretty much have to cross Powell to get anywhere and frequently use the 70’s greenway. the fact that the city has for DECADES deemed this as an acceptable crossing is horrifying.

qqq
qqq
3 months ago

I’m not surprised ODOT wants to close a crossing. It’s become infatuated with erecting CROSSING CLOSED signs. Its policies encourage closing crossings. If a crossing, say, lacks ADA accessibility because of median curbs or lack of curb ramps, ODOT sees closing the crossing entirely as a reasonable alternative to improving it.

maxD
maxD
3 months ago
Reply to  qqq

PBOT does this too, it is infuriating

qqq
qqq
3 months ago
Reply to  maxD

Yes, I see PBOT ones all over also.

What I like least about them is that each one is like a billboard proclaiming, “We’ve heard you, drivers. The reason there are so many pedestrians getting killed is because they’re crossing where they shouldn’t, so we’re cracking down on them, to keep them out of your way!”

Kw
Kw
3 months ago

In the plan it looks like they are closing the left turn lane and filling in the median? Is that correct? If that’s the case. That seems like a huge improvement. I don’t really see a huge issue with closing the walk way. Perhaps the bus stop moves west of the 79th frontage road pull out so it one less street to cross to get to the bus stop. It’d be nice to get more context of what’s happening with south bound bike traffic south of Powell. Will there be some type of cycle track to get on to 79th Ave.?

I don’t mind the flashing signals as long as it oriented perpendicular to cross traffic( Not like 52nd and Woodward…so awkward) people generally stop and it comes on instantly.

.
.
3 months ago
Reply to  Kw

Yes, I read it as filling in the median not just in the former left turn pocket but it appears that the median runs all the way through the intersection. That’s likely why TriMet has the weird bike lane angle, because people on 79th will now only be able to make right turns off 79th. I notice there are trees sketched in as well.

Watts
Watts
3 months ago
Reply to  .

I notice there are trees sketched in as well.

ODOT needs to keep planting trees so they can come along in a few years and cut them down.

Eric
Eric
3 months ago

This is timely…last week my 12 year old daughter and I walked to Winco from around the Holgate library. When we got to Powell, I looked down Powell both ways and it seemed like there was nowhere to cross. We ended up walking down to 82nd to use the light. Does 3 blocks sound far? No, but it sure feels far when you are standing there and have groceries and you see cars speeding down 4 lanes and realize, oh no one one cares if I can cross this street or not.

qqq
qqq
3 months ago

One thing that jumps out to me is that the crossing that’s proposed to remain open looks much worse for people crossing going south than it is going north.

When you’re at the curb on the south side ready to go north, it’s easy for eastbound traffic to see you at the curb, and easy for you to see approaching traffic.

But when you’re crossing going south, you’re way back from traffic due to the bus stop indentation. It’s harder for westbound traffic to see you, and harder for you to see vehicles approaching. It looks like you need to walk 10′ into the street before drivers notice that you’re ready to cross.
https://www.google.com/maps/@45.4974828,-122.5816235,3a,75y,267.77h,104.58t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s_Pg7nYGDoYEFt9kkTWiUtQ!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?entry=ttu

The BikeLoud graphics in the article are too nice. The colored arrows show the “good” direction–crossing south to north, obscuring the problem.Even the use of the conventional north-is-up orientation of the graphics minimizes the problem. I think the crossing looks much worse simply by flipping the orientation to south-is-up:
https://www.google.com/maps/place/SE+Powell+Blvd,+Portland,+OR/@45.4974061,-122.5818151,93a,35y,180h/data=!3m1!1e3!4m6!3m5!1s0x5495a035c6f906e3:0xe2ccfec4a09f76ca!8m2!3d45.4973346!4d-122.5709682!16s%2Fm%2F076v12j?entry=ttu

The eastern crosswalk–the one proposed to be closed–is the reverse. Crossing southbound looks safer than crossing northbound, because of the bus indentation on the south. It makes me wonder if one reason ODOT wants to close the east crosswalk is because they noticed that issue for people crossing north, but didn’t notice that the west crosswalk has the same issue for people crossing south. It also makes me wonder if the bus indents should be reconsidered.

Jeff
Jeff
3 months ago
Reply to  qqq

Insightful comment, thanks for pointing that out.

blumdrew
3 months ago

ODOT loves closing crosswalks so much, even if it makes no sense. At 21st and Powell, the west leg of the crossing was closed in 2018 – but the signal is still timed in a way that would allow for a crossing with no adjustments (there are fully separated signals for 21st heading north and south). I walk from my apartment in Brooklyn to People’s (and other places on north of Powell and west of 21st) almost every day, and am forced to do a triple crossing for seemingly no reason.

There is no benefit for cars – since the crossing could be added back without any real adjustment to the signal phases. There is certainly no benefit for people walking – since it forces you to wait for longer at a horrible intersection. ODOT just categorically does not understand what it’s like to walk places, and it really shows when they create designs like this.

Watts
Watts
3 months ago
Reply to  blumdrew

And they closed one leg of the unsignalized crossing at 22nd. It just seems arbitrary.

The reason given for closing the crosswalk at 21st is that it had low crossing volume and allowed ODOT to shorten one phase of 21st’s green time. But since the signal only gives a walk phase when a button is pressed, it may only save time when someone would want to cross there, which isn’t all that often.

So yeah, it doesn’t really compute.

blumdrew
3 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Well it does allow drivers to go very marginally faster down Powell, the only metric that really matters to them evidently. It’s so frustrating

Kate Corrays
Kate Corrays
3 months ago

They say perfect is the enemy of good. I suppose we can add APANO, the Vestal Elementary Bike Bus, and BikeLoud PDX to the list as well.

Matt
Matt
3 months ago

The design requiring 3 crossings to reach the bus stop is absurd. The “Crosswalk Closed” seems squarely unjustified. And the competing concepts underscores the lack of common sense and collaboration shown by these agencies.

These are fundamentally inadequate proposals. And while some may favor the immediacy of flashing beacons, I’d hope that future treatments such as 79th on Powell would implement a full signal. I’ve never been a fan of having to cross my fingers at at crosswalk. And I don’t mind the wait.

Charley
Charley
3 months ago

The Crosswalk Closed treatment is infuriating and paternalistic in a specific way that makes me so, so, so angry. I feel similarly to the occasional bike path or bike lane treatment that puts an obstacle in the way, in order to slow us down or dictate a certain way of riding (like the intentionally backwards acute angles at bike path railroad crossings).

We will never get to a higher mode share if we treat pedestrians and riders like wayward children, incapable of judgement, while often allowing drivers to kill us, in the name of speed and throughput.

Watts
Watts
3 months ago
Reply to  Charley

so, so, so angry about the occasional bike path or bike lane treatment that puts an obstacle in the way

Yet, presumably, you don’t feel the same way about lane treatments or obstacles for car drivers who share the same emotional response systems.

I’m not trying to “get you” (I’m inconsistent on this myself), but I do think it is helpful in understanding the reaction that many people who drive cars feel about the infrastructure some cyclists advocate for.

If we really value safety*, why do we get so frustrated at infrastructure that prevents us from killing ourselves if we use bad judgement or make mistakes? Isn’t Vision Zero fundamentally an exercise in making infrastructure more “paternalistic”?

*I believe that we, collectively, value safety a whole lot less when it slows us down rather than impeding someone else. I see cyclists every time I ride (including me) choosing expedience over safety. That’s our revealed preference.

Charley
Charley
3 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Of course I just want to get everywhere as fast as possible with no delays, no matter how I’m getting around.

But I don’t feel the same way about obstacles for cars because the two forms of transportation are so different in terms of mass, maximum speed, stopping distance, operator sound and sight lines, etc.

The two forms of transportation have wildly different unintended consequences, so not only does the government have reason to engineer their facilities differently, but also to dis-incentivize the more dangerous, deleterious one (driving).

The consequences of policies prioritizing freedom and speed are very different, as well! For driving, it’s a lot of death and injury; for cycling, I suppose you could say it would be increased mode share.

Would removing the bike sized speed bumps on the Hawthorne Bridge really cost lives? Would allowing for 90 degree track crossings really suck so many more riders into the wheels of death?

I’ll grant that some non-zero amount of increased injury might follow. But I really believe that the trade would be pro social, because the increase in bike/walk mode share would be of great health and environmental benefit in the aggregate.

This is all marginal, of course… but it’s one of those little things that can make a person feel either like a welcomed user, or an inconveniently risky liability.

Watts
Watts
3 months ago
Reply to  Charley

Ironically, the gates and zig zag paths around the train crossing at 8th and 11th and 12th are there in part due to the advocacy of a pedestrian and bicycle activist, who was asking for that treatment to improve safety.

Charley
Charley
3 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I guess that activist and I have different opinions on the best way forward. 🙂

Charley
Charley
3 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I should also say: you’re right that it does help to understand how drivers might feel about bike infrastructure. Sometimes, though, I think drivers appreciate bike lanes and paths because they don’t have to drive slower behind us.

I’m very aware of this when I commute into Portland on SE 17th. The stretch from Tacoma north to 99 is nerve rattling sometimes. When someone is revving behind me, I just wish they’d call the City Council and advocate for a bike lane, rather than taking out their stress on me!

But of course that would entail removing some parking spaces…

MontyP
MontyP
3 months ago

It is my hope that the entire 70s Greenway gets elevated in importance as it is so close to all the businesses, employment, housing, etc. on and near to 82nd Ave. I also hope that more funding is found for the gaps in it, either from the state/ODOT, the 82nd Ave improvement project, or within PBOT.

The 80th and Glisan crossing was originally part of the 70s greenway and had a flashing beacon. Then it was cut from the greenway due to costs. Now, it is coming back as PBOT found funding for it from a Safe Routes to Schools grant. Hopefully the 70s Greenway can now use 80th all the way up to Multnomah, and then beyond to the new mini-roundabout planned at 80th and Halsey.

I think we all need to keep an eye on these crossing projects and make sure they don’t get watered-down or compromised, as they are key to making this major north-south route safer and more accessible.

Advocacy Leads to Safer NE Glisan at 80th – Montavilla News