Portland’s top traffic signal staffer takes bike advocates for a ride

PBOT Signals and Street Lighting Division Manager Peter Koonce pointing out spots for people on bikes to stand while waiting for the light to turn green across Naito Parkway. (Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)
Taking a look at a bike signal headed across Moody in the South Waterfront next to the Tilikum Crossing bridge.

Good urban planning means the average person traveling around a city doesn’t need to know anything about what went into designing it – they can just get around intuitively. Peter Koonce, who manages the traffic signals and street lighting division at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, is keenly aware of this. Koonce and his team oversee signals many people use without much thought. But that’s okay with him, as long as they work.

On a ride last Thursday, Koonce led a group around Portland’s central city to talk shop about a few of the 1,200 traffic signals he manages. It was just the latest “policy ride” hosted by local bike advocacy group Bike Loud PDX that give the urban planning-curious a backstage look at what’s going on with projects around the city.

When it comes to signal operations, they’re much more complex than you think, especially when you take into account all the different transportation modes that need to function together. Koonce and his team at PBOT do take all these modes into consideration. And since private cars are at the bottom of Portland’s transportation hierarchy, PBOT always has an eye toward using signals to improve safety and be easy for non-drivers to use.

One way PBOT uses traffic signals to make it safer to walk and bike is to install a lot of them.

“We actually manage the speeds of traffic by using the signals frequently,” Koonce said.

The more signals there are, the more traffic will have to stop, unless people are going a safe speed. Most signals in the central city are timed to reward users with a string of greens if they’re going about 11-12 mph. That happens to be an average cycling speed. It’s also fast enough to get around, but slow enough to prevent calamitous crashes.

Making our way downtown, riding fast, relying on traffic signals to keep multiple transportation modes functioning correctly.

While some of Portland’s traditional signals are programmed with bicycle riders in mind, there are also bike-only signals installed specifically for them.

Koonce talked about a particular kind of bike signal they’ve imported from the Netherlands. It lets people on bikes know their presence has been registered and then offers a countdown so they know how long they’ll have to stop. In the gallery below, you can see a new signal on Naito Parkway on the left and a close-up of a similar signal installed on Broadway at North Williams Ave in 2020.

Using imported bike signals is not normal for American traffic engineers. PBOT’s Koonce happens to be an exception to the rule. He’s also a national expert who travels the country sharing insights about what we do here in Portland. His motive for encouraging other cities to try bike-friendly signal treatments, he said at the ride, is a roundabout way of influencing national signal standards (something he also gets to do in a direct way as an executive board member of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a Federal Highway Administration advisory body).

“When Portland does something that’s new and innovative, [the FHWA, who authorizes new treatments] will say, ‘oh, that’s just Portland. That’s not in New York. That’s not LA. It’s not Boston. It’s just Portland,'” Koonce said. “So we’re hoping other cities will actually use them so it’ll become a more of a de facto standard.”

Koonce by a traffic signal box in the South Waterfront.

Koonce is known to push the envelope with what the (traditionally very conservative) FHWA allows, so he and his team have to carry out federally-mandated experiments when implementing signals like the ones used on Naito. They monitor data and usage patterns for the new signals, then report back to the feds. Recently, OSU and PBOT have partnered to analyze the Better Naito Forever bikeway and upcoming SW 4th Avenue Improvement Project to evaluate “bicycle safety and comfort, especially with respect to conflicts between turning vehicles, buses, and bicyclists at signalized intersections.” 

The Bike Loud group looked at several different signal types on the ride. The one I found most compelling was on the new Naito Parkway protected bikeway at the intersection with Morrison Street. At this crossing, walkers need to cross the bike traffic lanes to get to the pedestrian beg button, which is on a concrete median island between the lanes (see image below).

While we were there, two passersby became unwitting participants for us to observe. Koonce pointed out they were good subjects because they did what PBOT doesn’t want people to do at that intersection: After crossing the bikeway to press the beg button on the island, they moved back to the curb they started on to wait for the signal (so they ended up crossing the bike path three times instead of just once).

Two people walking downtown gave us a chance to see human behavior in action.

“They’re walking out, not feeling comfortable waiting out there and walking back,” Koonce said. “We were actually worried [people would do that.]”

This was an important scene to witness because it demonstrates one of the most vital parts of Koonce’s job: to understand human behavior. Good signal design shouldn’t force people to do things that aren’t natural based on the transportation bureau’s agenda. That can lead to low compliance and dangerous outcomes. Koonce instead aims to constantly tweak the system so it achieves the city’s goals while also being intuitive. And he’s a sponge for data, always asking for more input.

“We’re ironing out those kinks, and so continue to give us feedback as you experience Better Naito,” Koonce said. “We’re always debating: Is this really going to work for people? How do we communicate to people? And how do we make things better?”

Why the City of Portland is hosting a dance to celebrate new traffic signals

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Let’s dance!
(Actual graphic from official City of Portland even flyer.)

Some days it’s impossible not to love the City of Portland, where transportation geekery and fun often intersect in memorable ways.

Remember that new signal at NW 11th and Couch we told you about last week? To celebrate it’s activation the bureau of transportation is hosting a dance. A barn dance to be exact. And it will happen in the intersection.

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New bike signal north of Moda Center adds green time for southbound biking

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The new southbound bike signal at Wheeler Avenue and Winning Way gives a little extra green time to people biking without interfering with people in cars.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

One of Portland’s busiest bike crossings will flow a little more efficiently thanks to a new bike signal activated last Thursday.

The signal gives a green light to people biking southbound on Wheeler Avenue, preparing to curve around the Moda Center into the Rose Quarter Transit Center area. Northbound bus and bike traffic here has a green signal phase of its own, but that doesn’t conflict with southbound bike traffic.

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Right-hook risk drops with flashing “Yield to Bikes” sign on NE Couch

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The right-turn warning at NE Couch and Grand is the only such sign in the country.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

As Portland edges closer to possibly adding protected bike lanes to its downtown, a new study has found that one of its most unusual bike-lane intersection treatments seems to be working.

The LED sign above the intersection at NE Couch and Grand that flashes “Turning Vehicle Yield to Bikes” seems to have reduced right-turn conflicts by more than 60 percent since its 2011 installation.

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On the podcast: The ‘invisible urbanism’ of traffic signals

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Portland’s traffic signal guru, Peter Koonce,
in our podcast studio.
(Photo J.Maus/BikePortland)

When you change something about a traffic signal, people don’t notice. They simply obey.

Well, mostly.

Maybe that’s why signals have quietly become one of the most important and unique ways that Portland has made itself a better place for walking, biking and driving cars at reasonable speeds rather than at noisy and unsafe ones.

In this month’s episode of the BikePortland podcast, Jonathan, producer Lillian Karabaic and I interview one of the wizards behind the curtain of Portland’s unusually safe streets: Peter Koonce.

Koonce, the division manager for Portland’s signals and street lighting division and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in municipal government, talked with us about all the tricks in the city’s signal system that you never even noticed. And as always, we close with a transportation tip of the month, Lily’s favorite tweets about TriMet and the uncannily appropriate song that Lily found for the subject of the show.

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Study: Half of Portland bike riders don’t know how to trigger green lights

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The place to place the wheels.
(Image by J.Maus/BikePortland)

The pavement marking to the right, which is supposed to tell people where to place the wheels of their bike to trigger a green light, is illegible to about half of Portland bikers, a new study (PDF) finds.

Even worse: Those figures don’t include many people who rarely ride, suggesting that interminable red lights are a particular burden on new bike riders.

Stefan Bussey, a PSU civil engineering student who conducted the survey, said he came up with the idea when he noticed that people ahead of him at the long Seven Corners traffic signals on Southeast Division would regularly stop a few feet away from the traffic signal stencil.

“It would happen three or four times a week,” Bussey said.

Bussey’s research confirmed it: even in Portland, about 55 percent of bicycle riders surveyed don’t know the meaning of the pavement marking.

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City staffers: Here’s how to use blog comments effectively

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“I respectfully disagree with you on the topic of traffic signals and support the dialogue on speed limits.”
— A good opening line to a blog comment.

I say it a lot in private conversations, but perhaps not enough here on the Front Page: I believe the most valuable part of BikePortland isn’t the words and pictures we share, but the comments that appear below them. Since the early days, the comments are what have given this site its mojo and they’re what has given me the excitement and energy to keep on blogging.

I could write a book about all my blog comment thoughts and practices, and all the crazy/amazing things that have happened in our comments section. But today, I just want to share one that was written a few days ago by a City of Portland staffer. And not just any staffer, one of a select few Division Managers who actually run things and make important decisions about transportation policy and projects in our city. Peter Koonce is the Manager of PBOT’s Signals, Street Lighting, & ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) Division. He is not only a national leader in how to make signals work better, he also “gets it” when it comes to engaging with the public he serves (and his personal, yet work-related blog isn’t too shabby either).

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PBOT experiments with ‘intelligent’ new indicator light

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One smart light.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

One unsung area where Portland is doing some very cool stuff for bicycling is with traffic signals and “ITS” — which stands for Intelligent Transportation Systems. The field of ITS encompasses all sorts of high-tech ways to make our streets smarter. From sensing vehicle patterns with RFID, to software that manages complex signal systems.

Around Portland, some of the most innovative examples of traffic engineering fall under this category. ITS is how PBOT managed to improve bike access on the NE 12th overcrossing without upsetting nearby freight-dependent businesses. It’s also how they dealt with the notorious right hooks on Broadway at Williams (with bike-only signals).

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See PBOT’s latest tweak to Broadway/Williams bike signal

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PBOT crew at work this morning.
(Photos © J. Maus)

A Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) signal operations crew was out at the new Broadway/Williams bike signal this morning. The new signal was installed on October 13th to try and decrease the amount of right-hook collisions that have plagued the intersection for several years.

After over two months, even after some initial tweaks to make it work better, some motor vehicle operators are still not complying with the “no right turn on red” sign.

At issue is a curbside bike lane that is to the right of two right-turn only lanes. PBOT’s new bike signal gives the bike lane its own green light, but the problem is that people in the right-turn only lanes would see the green indicator and assume it was for them — and then make an illegal turn that put non-motorized traffic in danger.

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