PBOT maintenance staff ask council for support while union organizer says strike isn’t off the table

“We get a lot of thank yous from downtown, but those thank yous dry up when we ask for more money, and we’re suffering.”

-Andrew Sterling, PBOT and Laborers Local 483

The people who work in the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Maintenance Operations department do the nitty-gritty work of keeping this city moving — and their work is especially valued by those who rely on clean bike lanes and bright crosswalk stripes for their safety.

Their work is inherently laborious, but maintenance staff used to feel like it was worth it. The city benefits were good, yes – but employees also found a sense of satisfaction and pride in their work. But now, as staff shortages force employees to work excessive hours of overtime without reaping the same benefits or competitive hourly wages public employees used to receive, they’re calling on the city to repair their relationship or face a serious crisis.

As PBOT leaders often remind us, the agency has been dealing with a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog for decades, which they hoped to finally get a handle on with a 10-cent local gas tax in 2016. Portlanders voted in favor of the gas tax again in 2020, but the extra funding hasn’t been the maintenance game-changer it was meant to be. And the lack of upkeep is showing.

A tangible result of PBOT’s maintenance problems. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

As we’ve pointed out, this situation is frustrating for people who bike and walk in this city. Nobody likes riding on greenways full of bumps and potholes or bike lanes littered with glass, trash or leaves. (A recent Bike Loud PDX policy ride with PBOT Maintenance Operations manager Jody Yates provided an insightful look into the importance of street and bikeway maintenance.)

Maintenance staffers are aware of community gripes, but claim they don’t have the resources to fix them.

Deteriorating working conditions reveal cracks in the pavement

Andrew Sterling is a PBOT traffic crew leader and the Vice President of Laborers Local 483, the union that represents PBOT maintenance staff. Yesterday, he took employee concerns to the public stage when he addressed City Council to ask for their help to negotiate improved working conditions.

While Sterling’s main job description concerns doing things like striping bike lanes and maintaining crosswalks, staff shortages and recent emergency weather events (like the April snow storm) have interfered with day-to-day operations. In order to get it all done, crew members have to put in a lot of overtime.

“We worked entirely through Covid, in person, on-site every day,” Sterling said. “Many of my coworkers and myself work 70 to 80 hours a week during weather emergencies. Then we have to pick up where we left off for maintenance operations.”

Sterling said these conditions have made it difficult for the maintenance division to retain and recruit employees. He said people working in this department in the city are making less money than they would if they worked in the private sector, and they aren’t seeing the kinds of benefits city employment used to bring. 

“Our retirement has been defunded. Our benefits have been in decline in the last 15 years,” Sterling said. “What I’m asking of you today is to support us and our day-to-day operations. We get a lot of thank yous from downtown, but those thank yous dry up when we ask for more money, and we’re suffering.” 

“The city is responsive to crisis, and our folks are willing to make themselves a crisis.”

-James O’Laughlen, Laborers Local 483

In response, PBOT commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty issued words of thanks, but didn’t make any promises about changing the situation for these employees.

“Folks who work for maintenance have been in the lead on many of the crises this community has experienced over the last few years,” Hardesty said. “I just want you to know that your commissioner in charge absolutely appreciates the work that you do every single day with the limited resources we have. I also know it’s not your fault we have a $4 million [sic – it’s actually “billion”] maintenance backlog.”

James O’Laughlen, Field Representative & Organizer for Local 483, told BikePortland that the city’s transportation system is suffering as a result of these problems. If something doesn’t change soon, this backlog will only get worse.

“Having so much emergency work without the necessary workers crowds out the infrastructure improvements we’re all focused on, from achieving Vision Zero to meaningful ADA compliance on our sidewalks,” O’Laughlen said on a phone call this morning. “This work only happens because people go above and beyond. They show up for voluntary overtime because they know if they don’t, the backlog is going to grow and grow.”

Employees are keeping their options on the table

Union members have been involved in contract discussions with the city since March, and although their old contract expired at the end of June, they haven’t yet come to an agreement on the terms of the new one.

O’Laughlen told BikePortland the two main things they’re looking for in the new contract are wages and safety. They want to bring back the working standard public employees used to be able to count on that made arduous public sector jobs competitive.

“What we need for our members is to create an environment where people aren’t aggressively overworked, where they are protected from conditions that have been deteriorating and getting compensation for it,” O’Laughlen said on a phone call today. “It’s hard to recruit and it’s hard to retain in a low-morale environment. It’s hard to perform the work.”

If Local 483 and the city can’t come to an agreement soon, the next step will be to bring in a mediator. If they don’t work out a deal after that, there’s potential for a strike after a cooling-off period.

“There’s a reticence to do it, but our members have communicated strongly that they’re willing to go that far. It’s based on wanting to perform this public service work.” O’Laughlen said. “They know that that the city is responsive to crisis, and our folks are willing to make themselves a crisis.”

Have PBOT’s changes to SE Hawthorne made a difference?

Looking east on SE Hawthorne from 30th. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, with its plethora of artsy thrift shops, cafes and bars, may be one of the first streets to come to mind when you think of quintessential Portland. Hawthorne is always buzzing with activity and people walking up and down the street, perhaps enjoying a cup of coffee from Grand Central Bakery, lugging bags of books to sell at the Hawthorne Powell’s outpost or simply grabbing groceries at Safeway, Fred Meyer or New Seasons.

But for the amount of foot traffic Hawthorne gets, navigating it while walking, biking or rolling isn’t always a breeze, and its safety problems have had deadly consequences. In 2016, 15-year-old Fallon Smart was killed by a reckless driver while crossing Hawthorne at 43rd ave. At the time, there was no dedicated crossing at that intersection or anywhere nearby. After Smart was killed, the Portland Bureau of Transportation installed a crossing at that intersection – but advocates said more was needed to avoid another tragedy.

PBOT’s big response came in the form of the ‘Pave and Paint’ project they debuted last fall on Hawthorne from 23rd to 50th avenues. In addition to a full repaving, the project brought new crossing treatments with increased signage and visibility measures to the street, as well as a reduction in the number of lanes and reduced speed limit (to 20 miles per hour).

While significant, the project was a letdown for many who wanted PBOT to go even further and add dedicated bike lanes.

But how successful are the treatments PBOT did make? I went over to Hawthorne yesterday to ask people what they think of the new streetscape almost a year after it was completed.

“I don’t want to push [my son] out in front of me. It doesn’t really feel super safe. But it’s an improvement.”

-Sarah, a neighbor in the Richmond neighborhood

Though opinions differed, the general consensus was that the new Hawthorne is better than the old one – but it could be a lot better. The first person I talked to, Emily (and her dog Owen), was heading into Safeway at Hawthorne and 28th. Emily has lived in the area for several years, and she said she avoids walking on Hawthorne except when she has to.

“Cars don’t stop,” Emily told me. “People will see me standing [at a crosswalk], but like three cars will pass by before anyone stops for me.”

Sarah, who was walking while pushing her young child in a stroller further east on Hawthorne near 36th, told me she likes the median treatments at the crosswalks, which give people crossing a chance to safely rest and look both ways before crossing the street. But that’s only if people driving actually stop for her – and that’s not a given.

“Most people just don’t want to stop,” Sarah said. “I don’t want to push [my son] out in front of me. It doesn’t really feel super safe. But it’s an improvement.”

Though I watched and waited for a while, I didn’t see very many people biking on Hawthorne. This isn’t unusual – it’s often a very unpleasant experience to even cross the street by bike, let alone attempt to ride any substantial distance on it. I did spot one person biking on the sidewalk: Zach, who works nearby and bikes this street often. He spoke highly of the Hawthorne bike lane concept, and said he’d recently been hit by someone driving a car on the easternmost part of the street, injuring his leg.

“Bike lanes would’ve helped, 100%,” Zach told me.

Finally, I chatted with Sierra, who works as a nanny in the neighborhood and was crossing Hawthorne with two babies in a stroller. Sierra said she walks around the neighborhood with the kids every day, and she would like to see more designated crossings on the street.

“As a driver, It’s annoying [to have all these crosswalks],” Sierra said. “But as a walker, I need it.”

Up until a few weeks ago, I lived one block south of Hawthorne on Cesar Chavez Blvd, and I echo the thoughts of people I talked to today. Over time, I grew more confident when dealing with the people driving who didn’t want to stop for me – but the most I had to protect (other than myself) while crossing Hawthorne is ice cream from Fred Meyer, not kids in a stroller.

You shouldn’t have to be a seasoned traveler to feel empowered enough to use your right-of-way at a crossing on a street like Hawthorne. It should be a no-brainer that people driving will stop. Unfortunately, that’s not the case – even at intersections with medians and very visible signs. And especially after PBOT redesigned the street with a specific focus on pedestrian safety.

Just ask 38-year old Portlander Nicole Funke. Just two weeks ago, she was walking across Hawthorne at 38th and was hit by a driver. “The driver took PBOT’s fancy new zebra crossing as a suggestion, I guess,” she posted to Twitter from the hospital while forcing a smile behind a mask and neck brace.

Hawthorne is a street for strolling. Someone living nearby can get the majority of their needs met in less than a 10 minute walk, and yet people driving cars still feel entitled to dominate the road. And if this street, located in a walkable (and wealthy) part of Portland, still has these kinds of problems, where’s the hope for improving big arterials in east Portland like 82nd or 122nd Ave?

That’s the question I asked myself as I watched people navigate Hawthorne.

What do you think of the changes on Hawthorne? How do you think we can further improve this street for people walking and biking?

Starting next month, car parking in the Lloyd will cost more during big events

The Lloyd Event District map. Eventually, the whole area outlined will be included in the fee increase – but for now, PBOT will stick to just the area colored blue. (Source: PBOT)

PBOT says this is to “encourage less driving and more use of public transit, biking, and other means of transportation.”

There are many transit options people can use to travel to the Lloyd District and attend a Trail Blazers game at the Moda Center or an event at the Convention Center. The Lloyd is one of the city’s top transit hubs – all MAX light rail lines pass through the area and it’s a hotspot for TriMet buses and the streetcar . Yet people still choose to get to their by car. With a new increase in parking fees, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) hopes to change that.

Starting in September, PBOT will implement an event parking area in the Lloyd, raising the price of on-street car parking from $1.20 to $3 an hour during large events with more than 10,000 people in attendance, such as concerts and basketball games. PBOT says this is to “encourage less driving and more use of public transit, biking, and other means of transportation” and “relieve pressure on people who live in the area, reducing traffic, and making it easier for residents and other visitors to find on-street parking.”

The event rate will apply from 8 am to 10 pm during large events that start at 5 pm or earlier and from 5 to 10 pm during large events that start after 5 pm. Right now, parking meters in the Lloyd east of NE Grand Ave only run until 6 pm, including during large events, so people who park on that side of Grand to attend an evening basketball game may be able to park for free. The increased rate will also apply on Sundays when there is an eligible event – right now, meters in the Lloyd don’t run on Sundays at all.

However, the new policy will also change the meter hours on non-event days to end at 6 pm in the entire district, including in the area west of Grand Ave, which currently runs until 10 pm. It will also increase some meter parking windows in the district from 2 hours to 5 hours.

Event district parking has been in place around downtown’s Providence Park since 2011, where it costs $4 an hour to park a car on the street during Portland Timbers and Thorns games. Proponents of the Lloyd District event parking area have been advocating for the same treatment to the area surrounding the Moda and Convention Centers for years, but Portland City Council only agreed to go forward with it this past April.

Local car parking reform advocates say the Lloyd District is particularly egregious for its abundance of car parking, both on and off the street. While this fee increase won’t solve every car parking problem plaguing the area, advocates say this kind of demand management is necessary for pushing people toward alternative modes of transportation.

But some people weren’t thrilled about the parking fee increase. In April, Oregonian editor Brad Schmidt prompted an impassioned Twitter discussion when he tweeted about the event parking district plan, calling it a “money grab.” From Schmidt’s perspective, PBOT should have first tried simply increasing the meter hours and charging normal rates from 6-10 pm and on Sundays before increasing the fee to $3. Others had the opposite opinion and called on PBOT to increase the fee even more.

PBOT is open about using parking revenue to manage the bureau’s budget deficit. In July, parking fees citywide were raised $0.20, with extra revenue devoted to funding a new Transportation Wallet program to increase access to multimodal transportation for low-income Portlanders. The extra revenue generated from parking in the Lloyd District will also go toward this program.

Another point of contention is due to the fact that the fee increase in the Lloyd District will apply to everyone who happens to be using on-street parking during applicable hours, not just the people attending the events. To mitigate some of this concern, PBOT will allow Lloyd Center residents with vehicles to opt-in to a no-citation list with parking enforcement during event days.

Regardless, the new fee increase won’t send people scrambling. The Lloyd District is rife with parking garages and lots: if residents or frequent visitors of the transit-rich, walkable area feel they need to drive a car, they’ll still have a place to put it.

Like UCLA urban planning researcher (and father of the modern parking reform movement) Donald Shoup foretold, the numbers show that pricing on-street parking according to demand – instead of subsidizing it like cities have been doing up until now – can be an effective tool for reducing car dependency. People won’t like it, because they’re used to parking their cars for free or very cheap. But if we want to get people out of their cars and onto transit, bikes and other sustainable modes of transportation, something’s gotta give.

The first event that will activate the event district parking fee increase is the Rose City Comic Convention on September 9th. After that, the rates will be in effect about 90 days a year – you can check out PBOT’s calendar of events that will trigger the fee increase on their project website.

PBOT: There will be only three Sunday Parkways events in 2023

Sunday Parkways on N Willamette Blvd in 2014. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The Portland Bureau of Transportation has new plans for Sunday Parkways – and they may be disappointing to fans of the annual open streets event. This summer marked Sunday Parkways’ return for the first time since the pandemic began, but instead of the usual five in-person events held throughout the summer, there were only two this year.

At this month’s Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, PBOT Programs Manager Renata Tirta announced there will only be three events in 2023.

Slide from PBOT shown at August 9th BAC meeting.

Other than hesitancy about Covid transmission, one of the concerns Tirta shared whether or not they would have enough staff and volunteers to keep things running smoothly. And after the road rage incident at the final Sunday Parkways event last weekend, PBOT may face further challenges recruiting volunteers for big open streets events in the future.

In a follow-up conversation after the meeting, PBOT Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera told us the bureau wants to move toward different programming and allocate limited funds differently, which will mean fewer Sunday Parkways events and more smaller open streets festivities happening across the city.

Despite its huge success and total lack of opposition or controversy, budget issues have long plagued Sunday Parkways. Just one year after its debut, PBOT had to crowdfund to help cover costs. Then in 2010 the City Budget Office declined PBOT’s request for help paying almost half of the program’s $500,000 (five event) budget. They felt other “basic services” were more important. In 2012 former Commissioner Dan Salzman also didn’t see the value in funding Sunday Parkways over “other transportation priorities.”

And most recently, in PBOT’s FY 2021-2022 budget, the Parkways program funding (which is one of five programs in the Active Transportation & Safety Division along with Vision Zero, Safe Routes to School, Transportation Demand Management and the E-Scooter Pilot that has a total budget of just over $7 million) was cut again. PBOT had three events planned for 2022, but the budget allowed only for two.

Going forward, PBOT seems to be planning for an even more budget-constrained reality and will double-down on what they see as a more local approach to this event.

Instead of rotating routes annually, they plan to hold three events with different routes around the city and repeat them for three years in a row so people can get comfortable with the layout. This may mean people who live in parts of Portland far from the Sunday Parkways routes will decide to opt out three years in a row, but Rivera said the benefits are meant for the people who live in the communities they’ll target.

“Repetition is helpful for familiarity,” Rivera told BikePortland. “It helps neighborhoods become familiar with experiencing Sunday Parkways.”

Specifics about next year’s events — or the events PBOT is planning to fill the Sunday Parkways void — aren’t yet available. But Rivera said they’ll focus the locations on parts of Portland that have been traditionally underserved by active transportation planning, especially as the city’s bike network expands into these areas and PBOT wants to show off new projects.

“We will continue to inspire the public in those areas to embrace that infrastructure as a way to incorporate biking and walking into their everyday lives,” Rivera said.

These changes beg the question: what should Sunday Parkways do for Portland? PBOT wants the events to serve a larger purpose in our city’s transportation system and culture by encouraging people to get out into their neighborhoods and try different modes of transportation in a comfortable, carfree setting. But if they’re starved for funding, it will be hard to move the needle in that regard (a similar situation to our bike share system that has lofty goals but a lack of funding and bikes severely limits its potential).

Five Sundays a year is already a far cry from the weekly carfree “ciclovia” events in Bogotá, Colombia that inspired Portland’s first Parkways in 2008. Reducing it to three days a year widens that gap and is a step in the opposite direction from what many Portlanders dream of. “Bummer to see this program get smaller in scope instead of more ambitious over the years,” said one former Bike Advisory Committee member when we shared this news on Twitter a few weeks ago.

If PBOT doesn’t find more sponsors or city funding, maybe Portlanders will find a more DIY approach. Perhaps these changes will inspire even more community-organized events in the style of big Pedalpalooza rides or the ‘Sundays on Going’ events Bike Loud PDX has organized all summer.

Whatever happens, the future of Sunday Parkways after 14 years isn’t quite what we hoped for. On the bright side, it’s still alive and kicking (at least for now).

Portions of this story written by Jonathan Maus.

City will seek federal grant to study southeast train crossing delays

View of the tracks looking west from Bob Stacey Crossing toward SE 12th Avenue and downtown Portland. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

People are fed up with being at the mercy of Union Pacific trains that rumble through inner southeast Portland every day. The trains create an impenetrable barrier (unless you risk hopping through them) and long traffic delays that have frustrated locals and everyone who uses nearby roads and bike paths for many years. Now, thanks to a new federal grant program with funding to mitigate the impacts of problematic railroad crossings, something might finally give.

The problem

(Map: BikePortland)

How big of a deal is this? This summer a Brooklyn neighborhood advocate led a Pedalpalooza ride and published a website about it to share tips on how to avoid it.

The tracks come into Portland from the southeast via Brooklyn Yard and follow SE McLoughlin Blvd up to SE 17th Ave, then line up with the Willamette River’s eastern bank until they veer north up to Vancouver (or vice versa). The portion of the tracks north of Powell Blvd and south of Stark St causes the most disruptions, with frequent blockages for people trying to go north-south through the area. Recently, the problem has worsened because of changes in Union Pacific operations to increase train lengths, making it much more difficult to get around them.

This area also lines up with heavily-used bikeways and obstructs what would otherwise be some of the smoothest bike routes in the city. For example, you might have an uninterrupted ride west on the Clinton Street greenway toward the Tilikum Crossing before having to stop at the tracks. People traveling from south of the tracks might have easier access to the Tilikum, but they suffer the same fate when trying to go north.

While people biking and walking have more options for crossing the tracks compared to someone stuck in their car these options aren’t always available. Most notably, the Bob Stacey Overcrossing elevators over the tracks at SE 14th are notoriously unreliable, making it impossible to use for people who can’t climb the stairs and/or lift their bikes up them.

People using public transit suffer as well. I’ve watched the MAX orange line train depart from the Clinton and SE 12th Ave station without me because of an unrelenting freight train, and passengers on the TriMet bus lines that run through the area are stuck in the same situation as people in cars. And TriMet’s $175 million Division Transit Project to bring faster bus service to the Division corridor opens next month on a route that will use the Tilikum Crossing to travel from inner southeast to the south waterfront. Major train-related blockages are incompatible with an “express” bus route.

“The train blockages encourage unsafe behavior. Drivers might try to beat the gates if they see a train might be sitting there for a long time, and people walking and biking will sometimes hop the trains, which is really unsafe. We have a high level of community concern [about this].”

-Zef Wagner, PBOT

The advocacy

A train rolling north near Water Ave and SE Taylor Street. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

Last year, members of the Central Eastside Industrial Council and Hosford Abernethy and Brooklyn Neighborhood groups put together a Change.org petition asking the Portland Bureau of Transportation to address the frequent train blockages, saying railroad intersections in this area “need major improvements to keep the roads safe for all and easy to commute, and address concerns of  increased carbon emissions.”

In the comments section of the Change.org petition, people recounted their experiences waiting at the train tracks with real emotion and said it hurts local businesses and impacts where people decide to live.

“I moved to SE Portland thinking it was a reasonable commute from work. That was because I had been lucky enough to avoid the train the first couple times I visited. Now I plan pretty much every trip around avoiding this train, which adds time driving longer routes or through construction zones. It’s ridiculous. Can’t wait to move out of this area for this reason.” one commenter said.

“This regularly impacts my travel and more recently I am just avoiding this area and nearby businesses altogether due to chance of being stuck behind trains,” another person wrote.

Mobility in the central eastside is on a roll right now with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry District plan, the new Blumenauer Bridge, and renewed interest in the Green Loop. Unpredictable and long heavy rail crossings could pull the brakes on all that momentum.

The solution?

At Tuesday night’s City of Portland Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting, PBOT planner Zef Wagner said the city hears these concerns and are working to tackle the problem – or at least start to figure out how.

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year includes a grant program for railroad crossing elimination projects across the country, providing funding for “highway-rail or pathway-rail grade crossing improvement projects that focus on improving the safety and mobility of people and goods.” This is a $600 million national competitive grant program with $18 million allocated to planning studies, which PBOT wants to snag $1 million of to conduct the Central Eastside Railroad Crossing Elimination Study.

Josh Hetrick (in black) led a ride about the tracks back in April. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

“We think this would be really competitive for this program, because those train blockages encourage unsafe behavior. Drivers might try to beat the gates if they see a train might be sitting there for a long time, and people walking and biking will sometimes hop the trains, which is really unsafe,” Wagner said at the meeting. “And we have a high level of community concern [about this].”

With this study, PBOT would look at the feasibility of more grade-separated crossings or undercrossings, as well as potential non-infrastructure solutions like wayfinding to give people information ahead of time about when trains are coming. Grant applications are due in early October, and Wagner asked the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees to consider writing letters of support for the project.

Brooklyn neighborhood advocate and self-appointed train track crossing educator Josh Hetrick has advocated for more access across the train tracks. He said he sympathizes with people aggravated by this problem and has felt it himself, too.

“When long blockages occur, there are tons of cars idling. Our neighborhood already has some of the worst air quality in the city (due to highways, the rail yard, heavy freight traffic, a TriMet garage, and other industrial sites) and idling emissions just compound that,” Hetrick told me. “It’s just one more thing to deal with each time you leave the house and need to cross the tracks. You don’t have to wonder ‘Can I use the road today?’ with most other roads.”

Pedalpalooza ride explores what’s ‘in motion’ for north Portland

Riders stopped to take a closer look at diverters on North Willamette Blvd. (Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)
NPIM project planner Mike Serritella.

For many people who live outside of north Portland, the idea of getting up to the peninsula can seem daunting. Despite many destinations (the stunning St. John’s Bridge and Cathedral Park are particular standouts), this area may as well be a different city altogether for those who don’t want to make the trek.

Distance is one factor, but the inadequate state of active transportation infrastructure also plays a role. The Portland Bureau of Transportation hopes to change that with its North Portland in Motion (NPIM) plan to improve biking, walking and public transit facilities in this section of the city.

On Saturday, PBOT Planner (and north Portland resident) Mike Serritella led a group of about a dozen people around the Kenton, Arbor Lodge and Overlook neighborhoods. This was the first of three NPIM Pedalpalooza rides, with another one venturing further northwest this Thursday.

PBOT launched the NPIM project in 2021, making it the most recent section of the city to be selected for the ‘In Motion’ planning treatment. The approach is to analyze the existing network, get as much feedback as possible, then develop a project list for near-term implementation.

Last December, PBOT asked north Portland residents or frequent visitors to participate in an open house survey to help identify the scope of NPIM projects. The results of that open house will be available to the public this month, and PBOT will then seek more public input for the next phase of the project.

Kenton, Arbor Lodge and Overlook will be a key part of NPIM. The neighborhoods house art galleries, cute coffee shops and beautiful parks that are destinations in their own right. And they’re also a gateway to the peninsula.

We began the ride on Denver Avenue (Kenton’s main street) then headed south to Arbor Lodge and Overlook, stopping several times throughout the ride to check out notable sites. One of these places was the carfree stretch of N Delaware Ave between Arbor Lodge Park and Chief Joseph Elementary School (right), which has been turned into a little plaza with covered bike parking. Serritella said PBOT wants to make further changes to this plaza so it’s accessible to all and a nicer place for people to hang out.

“This is an example of how PBOT can help enhance both the parks and school experiences,” Serritella said.

We also took a look at some concrete planter diverters on Willamette Blvd between Jessup and Ainsworth streets. Installed in 2019, these diverters slow drivers down, reduce cut-through traffic, and beautify the neighborhood with their vivid paint and plantings.

Serritella was enthusiastic about the Willamette Blvd Active Transportation Corridor plan to add three new miles of protected bikeways to Willamette, creating a complete bike connection from MLK Jr. Blvd all the way to St. John’s. PBOT has received more than $4 million in Metro funding for this $6.1 million project. While it’s not technically under the NPIM umbrella and isn’t scheduled for completion until 2026, PBOT says they’ll for ways to get it done sooner than that.

“Willamette will unlock the whole peninsula,” Serritella said.

I was pleasantly surprised by the buffered bike lanes on N Denver in Kenton, which I felt were quite pleasant to ride on compared to some painted bike lanes in other parts of the city. For folks who don’t like the unprotected feel of these lanes (which PBOT wanted to make parking-protected but changed the design due to concerns from nearby residents) PBOT plans to turn nearby N Delaware Ave into a greenway as part of NPIM, in order to provide another option for a north-south connection in the area.

Dreaming of new greenways and other bike network upgrades is why these “In Motion” plans are so exciting — they give us a relatively blank canvas to create an ideal active transportation vision. Unfortunately, the projects rarely come with funding attached.

Another barrier to getting work done through NPIM in particular is the Oregon Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction over Lombard Street, a major east-west arterial that bisects the peninsula.

ODOT has recently added unprotected bike lanes to a key stretch of Lombard (stay tuned for coverage!) and made other changes to slow down drivers, but the jurisdictional inconsistency will continue to play a role in the future of NPIM and other changes the City of Portland wants to make in this area.

If you want to learn more or play a role in that future, join Serritella on more NPIM rides this Thursday and Saturday. And stay tuned for more coverage.

Where have all the Biketown bikes gone?

Street with empty bike share station
Street with empty bike share station
An empty Biketown station downtown. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Business at Biketown, Portland’s electric bike share program, is booming. Since rolling out its electric bikes in 2020, the service has expanded across the Portland area, and June 2022 was the highest ridership month in its history, with 50% more rides than the same period last year.

Biketown’s diverse base of users can be attributed to this expansion. So too can the Biketown for All program, which gives people who qualify for low-income government programs like SNAP free ride credits. As we’ve pointed out, high gas prices may also be encouraging people to ride the bikes. These are all good things – we want as many people on bikes as possible!

Unfortunately, it appears the program is having trouble keeping up with demand.

“Bikes parked away from stations are significant operationally. They add to time and effort needed to replenish the stations.”

– Dylan Rivera, PBOT

The last time Biketown added more bikes to its fleet was in 2020 when it went from having a fleet of 1,000 regular bikes to 1,500 e-bikes. Gauging from the empty bike docking stations around the city, however, 1,500 is no longer enough, especially now that the service area has expanded.

Even if there is a bike or two parked at a station, there’s no guarantee it will be charged. And if you’re with a group, good luck. Finding one charged bike is hard enough, but finding two or three near each other can seem an impossible feat.

While biking near SE Division and 34th Avenue the other day, I noticed a couple standing at the Biketown station looking confused. Neither of the two bikes parked at the station were functional, although they were showing up as available on the app. The nearest bike was half a mile away on Hawthorne, and it was hot outside. They told me they didn’t have anywhere they needed to be – they just wanted to try out the bikes they’d heard so much about. This could’ve been a chance for two people to learn how fun and useful electric bikes can be, but since they couldn’t find one to ride, they decided to skip it.

Bike share bike parked to a pole on a sidewalk.
Out-of-station parking jobs like this one are straining the system, PBOT says. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

I took to Twitter to see if more people had stories to share about their recent Biketown disappointments, and received many disheartening replies.

“I had several friends visit Portland and they couldn’t find five bikes relatively close to the restaurant we met at for lunch so they chose to drive instead,” said Portlander Nick Hodge.

Stories like these are concerning to advocates. A great bikeshare system could be a real game changer for getting people out of their cars. An inadequate one could push people even further into car dependency.

Transportation advocate Tony Jordan, who said he has trouble finding a charged bike near where he lives in Sunnyside, told me via Twitter that while he loves Biketown, he now hesitates to recommend it to people who aren’t already carfree.

“If they have a bad experience, they’ll give up forever,” Jordan said.

Dylan Rivera, Public Information Officer at Portland Bureau of Transportation, said although the trouble people are having with Biketown is real, the program isn’t planning on expanding its fleet in the near future. He attributed the trouble people are having with Biketown to its surge in popularity, along with the fact that people don’t always return bikes to stations, instead parking them in a more convenient location and eating the $1 out-of-station fee.

According to Rivera, 45% of all Biketown trips are ending outside stations, and it’s straining the program.

According to PBOT, 45% of all Biketown trips are ending outside stations, and it’s straining the program.

“The option of parking outside of a station is a super convenient feature of our system,” Rivera said. “But bikes parked away from stations are significant operationally. They add to time and effort needed to replenish the stations, and therefore add to the operational cost of the system.”

I have been guilty of locking Biketown bikes to any old bike rack, and I think it’s reasonable you’d want to do this – the $1 fee doesn’t seem so bad if you’re in a hurry and you can’t find a station right by your destination, or you just don’t want to walk from a station in the heat. But though I wouldn’t shame someone else for doing it, I’ll think twice about parking outside a station now.

I’ve seen the wonders of Biketown in action. When my mom came to visit me in April, I felt completely comfortable knowing we could get around the city without renting a car because of this service. We rode bikes from the Alberta area to Richmond to downtown, and it was easy, convenient and fun.

But Biketown’s fickleness is most impactful for people the organization set out to help with the Biketown for All program. People who rely on public transportation have been unable to depend on TriMet during its bus driver shortage – and now the service intended to mitigate the impacts of inequitable transportation planning is leaving people hanging as well.

It’s unclear if Biketown will impose harsher penalties on people who park outside of stations, or if they have a plan for dealing with this problem at all.

The politics in Portland when the system was first funded required elected officials to promise that “no public money” would be spent on it. But that was then, and this is now: Biketown is a successful public transit service that deserves to be funded as such. We cannot and should not continue to starve this system — especially while Portland’s car use rates skyrocket and transit service plummets.

When the program first switched to electric bikes almost two years ago, the city planned to have a fleet of 4,000 by 2024. Hopefully we’ll see more orange bikes around the city sooner than that.

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?”

Sunday Parkways returns this weekend!

A scene from a Sunday Parkways event in 2018 in north Portland. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)
A map of the NE Cully Sunday Parkways route for June 26, 2022
Map of the Northeast Cully Sunday Parkways loop. (Credit: PBOT)

This Sunday, six miles of streets in Portland’s northeast Cully neighborhood will be free of cars and open to people walking, biking and rolling. That’s right: Sunday Parkways, Portland’s beloved annual summer open streets event, is back in-person after two years off and it’s almost time for the kickoff.

During the last two summers, the Portland Bureau of Transportation made Sunday Parkways virtual to keep people safe during the pandemic. They came up with some innovative ideas to try to fill the hole, but nothing beats the real thing, so we expect people will be raring to go this summer. And not only does will this Sunday hold Portland’s first big open streets event since 2019 – it also marks the start of the 15th annual Summer Parkways season. Combined with Pedalpalooza’s 20th anniversary bike summer in full-force, there’s a lot for Portland’s active transportation enthusiasts to celebrate this year!

From 11 am to 4 pm on Sunday, people can take over carfree streets and enjoy free activities while hopping between four parks in Cully – from Roseway Parkway on NE 72nd to Fernhill Park on NE Holman and 37th, and K’unamokwst and Wellington Parks in between. There will be food vendors, live music, community mural-making, free bike tune-ups and more.

Don’t have a bike, or want to ride an electric one for the day? Biketown is offering unlimited free 60 minute rides. You can rent a Biketown e-bike free of charge for the whole event – you’ll have to lock it back up within the hour, but you can start another free trip right away.

Adaptive Biketown will be on the scene too, along with Every Body Athletics,  CHAP and White Cane Safety, to help people with disabilities who want to check out some of the different mobility devices they have on offer.

Other items on the agenda include a community walk organized by Oregon Walks and Multnomah County REACH that will leave Wellington Park at 12 pm, and the Cully neighborhood’s Andando en Bicicletas y Caminando (ABC) group will be meeting up to ride a portion of the event route with Community Cycling Center.

This is one of the two Sunday Parkways days this summer – the other one will be on August 21 in east Portland. In pre-pandemic summers, there have been five Sunday Parkways events, but we’ll take two over none. Check out some of our stories about past Sunday Parkways to see how cool these open streets days can be.

“This year’s Sunday Parkways events will have a role in reconnecting neighbors, and in celebrating our shared values of health and mobility for all Portlanders,” PBOT Transportation Director Chris Warner said in a press release for the event. “After two years of not having many opportunities to come together as a community, I can’t wait to reconnect and roll with Portlanders on the open streets of NE Portland.”

You can check out the full event program and details here. Keep in mind that it’s poised to be a hot one (almost 100 degrees) this Sunday – so wear sunscreen, drink lots of water and don’t overdo it. (A free Biketown rental could save you some sweat!)

See you there!

Roundabout at SE Harold among ideas to make 122nd Ave a safe ‘civic corridor’

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“We are looking at a more significant change to the streets.”

– Bryan Poole, PBOT

A plan to update 122nd Ave in east Portland has taken a big step forward. After almost a year of collecting feedback, the Portland Bureau of Transportation has released the 122nd Ave draft project plan. It includes our first look at concepts for a roundabout and other significant changes that could finally tame this street.

122nd Ave is one of the most dangerous corridors in Portland for people walking, biking or taking transit. PBOT readily admits there are major safety concerns on the street: in the draft plan, they state “the wide roadway has inadequate infrastructure and its large intersections are among the most dangerous in the city. Significant changes are needed to save lives and reduce life-altering injuries.”

Right now, 122nd is on PBOT’s High Crash Network, and is generally unpleasant to walk or bike on. PBOT’s goal is that 122nd Ave would not only be a safe place for people walking and biking, but also that it would become a “civic corridor,” which the city defines as a street that is “attractive and safe for pedestrians while continuing to play a major role in the City’s transportation system.”

PBOT identified four recommendation categories in the plan:

Safety, which will involve “redesigning 122nd to achieve safe driving speeds, safe intersections and better separation between users” and include projects such as implementing more street lighting and pedestrian and bike crossing and improve speed management

Multimodal and Access Enhancements to “improve the areas where people walk, roll, bike and wait for transit” with projects like protected bike lanes, access management and increased Biketown stations

A map of heat-related deaths in Portland between June 28th and July 7th, 2021. (Source: PBOT)

Transit Performance and Experience to “ensure buses operate on time even during congested periods” with bus stop and access improvements and transit priority treatments to allow buses to move through car traffic

Develop 122nd Avenue as a Civic Corridor to “exemplify the benefits of green infrastructure and minimize urban heat island effects, while also being enjoyable places to live, work, and gather” by widening sidewalks, increasing tree canopy coverage and studying the potential for a bus rapid transit service on 122nd Ave

As we reported back in March, tree canopy coverage was a particularly important issue to survey respondents. Shade from trees is essential in pavement-heavy areas like the 122nd Avenue corridor. During last year’s heat wave, some parts of east Portland recorded temperatures of up to 124°F.

For the sake of this plan, PBOT has split the long corridor into three parts. Within the northernmost segment, which stretches from Marine Drive to San Rafael Street, PBOT has unveiled plans to make major changes near the Sandy Boulevard (Hwy 30) intersection.

Currently, there are two free-flowing slip lanes from 122nd south of Sandy that provide access to NE 121st. PBOT suggests closing off those lanes to create T-intersections. The concept shown in the draft plan also calls for new sidewalks and marked crossings.

Below is the current view of this intersection and PBOT’s conceptual design:

Another notable recommendation is in the southern segment of 122nd, where PBOT wants to reduce the space available to drivers.

We outlined PBOT’s potential design options for this southern stretch in a recent article, but the draft plan brings something new to the table: a roundabout at the intersection of 122nd and SE Harold made possible by a reduction in driving lanes.

“We are looking at a more significant change to the streets,” PBOT planner Bryan Poole said in a June 14 Bicycle Advisory Committee presentation. “Because the volumes are lower, we’re proposing doing a road diet here: reducing the number of vehicle lanes from five to three, providing space to really improve bike facilities and also adding trees along the corridor, which is something we heard a lot about.”

Here’s how it would look compared to current conditions:

PBOT’s design drawing shows how drivers would face a much more narrow roadway than they do now, which would dramatically reduce speeds and improve safety for everyone. Median islands and extended corners would slow drivers down as they enter the roundabout. The bike lanes are shown as being raised to sidewalk level and would cross adjacent to pedestrian crossings.

Roundabouts on major streets are extremely rare in Portland. Sharing this concept shows PBOT is willing to take bold steps to change how our streets are used and who will feel safe using them.

A list of “future plans” includes converting TriMet Line 73 to bus rapid transit (BRT) and establishing standards that would require raised and protected bike lanes for future developments.

The next step is for PBOT to find more money to implement these recommendations. You can help create urgency for that by sharing your feedback via the 122nd Ave Plan online survey. Find the full plan and learn more about the plan on PBOT’s website.