The 20's: A Bikeway in Name Only
An editorial by Terry Dublinski-Milton; commentary on "The 20's: A Bikeway that Isn’t, through Two Vulnerable Pairs of Eyes"
Why did I portray the experience of Mary and Jane the way I did? Why was their day so difficult when it should have been relaxing?
While designing the “20's Bikeway” (hereafter known as “the 20’s”) the City has consistently chosen the least robust option available by code at every stage of the planning process. Where conflict between modes or stakeholders arose, PBOT has only prioritized cyclist's needs when strictly required by policy. When neighborhoods requested more robust, or more cyclist-friendly, safety measures, PBOT consistently rebuked them.
If the 20’s meets all safety guidelines as mandated by City policy, then why do I obviously consider the proposed bike route a failure even by City policy standards?
Above all, bikeways need to be safe statistically and also perceived as safe if we as a society are to elicit changes in behavior and reach our active transportation mode share goals. “Statistical safety” and “perceived safety” are two different frames of reference which require different criteria. As portrayed in the story about Mary and Jane’s experience, the 20's will undoubtedly be perceived as not safe. As a result this bikeway will not attract the “interested but concerned” demographic the neighborhood greenway network is supposedly designed to entice. In order for the 20’s to live up to the greenway standard, motor vehicle traffic needs to be calmed and volumes reduced, or it needs to be physically separated. Five years of greenway research and outreach have led me to this inevitable conclusion. While attending many meetings and speaking with hundreds of “interested but concerned” potential cyclists, I have realized that it almost always comes down to the same constraint: diversion at regular and predictable locations is a psychological requirement for a greenway to feel safe to the person riding it. The 20's is currently designed instead to the lowest common denominator allowed by volume and speed guidelines, and because PBOT has insisted on following the letter and not the spirit of the law, that one vital aspect of what makes for a perceptibly safe greenway, diversion, is grossly lacking. This is not how we change a behavioral pattern and cultural mindset that has been a fundamental part of the American cityscape since the takeover of the Model T.
We are battling several generations of embedded psychology best embodied in the 1973 Academy Award-winning George Lucas film, American Graffiti. Watch it through a Vision Zero lens and try not to squirm.
I dare you.
This 1960s coming-of-age story depicts a world where the romanticizing of the automobile is culturally paramount; a world where the characters have an uneasy acceptance of auto violence. These are teenagers moving off to begin their lives in a world where they feel death on the streets is a simple fact of life. In today’s modern America, this embedded feeling is still omnipresent, a feeling that for all our work toward safer, more livable streets, the ideal of “Vision Zero” is nothing but a pipe dream.
In the 21st century are now trying to replace the psychology of American Graffiti with a Vision Zero culture akin to that found in many Western European cities. This new culture does not accept traffic violence; fatalities are preventable and their occurrence should prompt outrage and demand change. Under this new culture, constructing an objectively successful bikeway cannot be accomplished merely by quantifying auto volumes and ensuring all the route’s segments meet “minimum standards” as currently defined by PBOT. Any product built to those minimums will make some cyclists feel comfortable. However, to be declared successful, the bikeway needs to feel safe to the majority of current and potential cyclists. Every new major bikeway project should encourage a new group of citizens to get out of their cars and onto their bikes, otherwise we will never meet our mode share goals.
The 20’s fails this basic standard of creating a route perceived as safe by the “interested but concerned” demographic, and here is a blow-by-blow as to why:
Visualizing the route from the Springwater Corridor heading north:
SE Crystal Springs Blvd: This stretch of road currently sees between 2000-2500 ADT (Average Daily Traffic). The city plans call for speed bumps but no diversion along this stretch. Are those cars going to wondrously disappear from just speed bumps and sharrows? It did not work on 53rd, but maybe it’ll magically work this time. The proposed design may bring the ADT down to minimum standards, but the 1000 or so cars will just move over to other residential roadways as this is a grid. To really make them disappear they would need a neighborhood-wide diversion plan.
I guess by disappear PBOT really means scatter.
SE 32nd Pl: Originally the greenway was to be located on SE Reed College Pl which has a center median planting strip that is park-like in character. City regulations and the 2030 Bike Plan would both define it as an ideal road for a greenway, but the route was moved to 32nd due to the high volume of turning movements at SE Woodstock at the college entrance. Bikes will share this roadway with Eastmoreland's only residential bus line, and this segment will not receive so much as speed bumps. The Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association has called for the route to shift to Reed College Pl south of Woodstock as soon as the street grid allows, but the city has decided to keep it on the bus route until Crystal Springs. Why would PBOT intentionally direct bikes and buses to share the same roadway when there is a classic greenway ready street one block over? Whether TriMet’s bus drivers can safely and courteously navigate around cyclists is less relevant than the fear of cycling in the same lane as a 15-ton vehicle. Hence, this stretch fails the psychological test.
On SE Woodstock, sub-standard four-foot bike lanes currently run alongside one row of on-street parking; PBOT has agreed to remove the parking from SE 28th to SE 32nd so as to create NACTO-compliant protected bike facilities. Originally, parking was to be removed on SE 28th south of Woodstock to Bybee, which would have made the route much more direct, but Eastmoreland vetoed that proposal, resulting in the current, indirect route. The silver lining is four fewer blocks on high-ADT SE Crystal Springs. Crystal Spring residents want traffic calming so let us use bikes as natural diverters!
We are not human shields.
SE 28th between Woodstock and Holgate: These narrow door-zone bike lanes were not planned to be modernized from the start. Theoretically, the city should be forced to bring this lane up to NACTO design standards, but the original committee did not want to take on parking removal. City policy now dictates when it is time for a grind down and repaving, reallocation of roadway space will happen.
Well, at least the sightlines are good for the time being.
Crossing SE Powell Blvd: The planned crossing at 28th and Powell is a much-needed pedestrian and bike facility. I am a firm believer that every neighborhood should have a greenway grid so all have access to the quality of life and safety benefits they offer. This should be part of the standard neighborhood urban form. We also need high-quality bicycle commuter routes. In approving the SE 28th crossing at Powell Blvd, an ODOT-controlled road, ODOT is requiring PBOT to remove the commuter bike lanes on 26th. PBOT may oblige without a clear path forward for designating a replacement commuter route.
At least ODOT is giving them one-to-two years to make a case for keeping them, else to build an alternative.
The Commercial stretch from SE Stark to NE Sandy: By now the story of how the local businesses on 28th Avenue petitioned to get PBOT to back down from the original proposal of removing a lane of parking for a high-quality protected bike lane is legendary.
Even though multiple studies now show that local business activity actually increases after bike lanes are added, the city decided that it was not worth the education effect to get the local business community on board. Instead they pitched a more convoluted, circuitous greenway route starting at SE 28th Ave then SE 28th Pl, to SE 29th, to SE/NE 30th, then back to NE 28th Ave at the last possible moment at NE Oregon St to access the overpass over I-84. There is a nearly-perfect street grid here so why can we not have even a single street without parking?
It must be that cyclists are not important enough for our own space.
Though the crossing at SE 30th and Stark as currently designed creates a natural northbound diverter, the intersection requires a new traffic light, which combined with similar crossing upgrades at Powell and Burnside have added significant costs to the project. I am not saying these intersection improvements are bad ideas, but they financially stressed all the other project elements. The Burnside crossing is particularly troubling as there is no plan to add physical protection in the form of a cement curb or barrier in the center median. The crossing will feature a HAWK signal combined with a short cycle track to correct for this off-set intersection, but a few cement barriers would go a long way to improve safety both structurally and visually while also preventing left turns onto the greenway.
The new traffic light at SE Stark will allow for controlled automobile crossings from the south. Thus, instead of waiting at the traffic light when congested drivers will clearly be directed to the 28th Avenue commercial corridor and keep some of them out of the neighborhood. This is a good thing, but is clearly an auto capacity increasing traffic light. Paying for this out of the scant transportation funds allocated to bikes while local auto parking is free to the user, is deceptive at best and will be viewed to many as a slap in the face of the cycling community.
The proposed crossings at SE Powell, SE Stark, and E Burnside are sorely-needed pedestrian improvements, but the addition of the three traffic lights added a minimum of $500,000 to the 20’s price tag. Considering the project is budgeted at only $2.5 million, we are spending 20% of the project budget to increase auto capacity on SE 30th northbound and to retain non-metered parking on SE/NE 28th between NE Sandy and SE Stark.
The result? A meandering, substandard route lacking commercial bike access that harms both cyclists and the businesses that would have benefited from their patronage.
It is not like cyclists spend money at local businesses anyway… sigh…
Crossing Sullivan’s Gulch and I-84: The proposed bridge configuration will look like a complex weave of vehicle and bike lanes, with one northbound bike lane on the east side of the bridge, and a northbound/southbound cycle track on the west side. The southbound bicycle route should be intuitive, but the presence of two northbound lanes will cause confusion. It should be noted, I and other cycling advocates fought hard to keep the eastern bike lane to provide cyclists safe access to the Fred Meyer shopping complex to the north. The original proposal from PBOT was for northbound traffic to cross 28th to access the cycle track on the west side before the bridge, ride north across the bridge, then cross back to the east side to get to the shopping complex. Why? To avoid motor vehicles turning in and out of the dialysis center just northeast of the overpass. However, as this dialysis center currently has multiple points of entry (including two on NE 28th less than 150 feet from each other), the more practical solution would be for PBOT to work with the business to reconfigure the entrance.
Alameda Ridge: From NE Multnomah heading north, there is a complete lack of diversion up to and over the steep hill on NE Regents Dr over a mile away. More troubling is that the six foot uphill bike lane on Regents that mounts Alameda Ridge is being positioned in the door zone along a steep, curvy street that also happens to be yet another bus route. The reasoning behind this questionable engineering choice is that local residents wanted to maintain parking on the south side rather than the north side of the street. It should be noted that most, if not all, homes along this road have driveways and/or garages, which means on-street parking is only minimally utilized, and yet PBOT is going to intentionally install a door-zone bike lane to preserve surplus on-street parking. At six feet the bike lane is allowed under City code, but it is not best practice and in my opinion a terrible idea.
Lack of diversion in Concordia: The Concordia Neighborhood Association voted 19 - 0 to support the idea of diversion in their stretch of the 20’s Bikeway, even offering to forgo installation of speed bumps to help budget for diverters. They requested four locations with the crossing at NE Prescott as their number one priority. PBOT is giving them none. Why? PBOT has cited the recently-released Greenway Report, stating the report does not call for diversion at these locations given current ADT. This is not a matter of cost; it is a matter of PBOT’s unwillingness to implement diversion. First they tell us, “build up local support,” then they tell us, “the technical data does not call for what you have requested.” The 20's Bikeway travels through some of the most-complete street grid patterns in the city. If PBOT is not willing to integrate local service street diversion here, where it would have minimal impact on local connectivity, then where will they?
PBOT is using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of the law.
City Hall and PBOT engineers/planners need to understand that using solely quantitative data in designing a bikeway will not encourage more people to start cycling if the qualitative requirements behind the psychology as to why the “interested but concerned” are not already cycling are not addressed. This project does not address the qualitative issues that studies have shown deter people from biking.
Psychology that tells us people are not intuitive statisticians; even with dozens of positive experiences, we will remember that one speeding truck or that one aggressive bus driver… that is the story of American Graffiti. Parents are not going to rationalize, "well, the City says the 85% speeds on this road are acceptable so I should not worry about letting my children cycle there!” Diverters are calming: they reassure psychologically while also physically blocking auto traffic: especially when they at predictable intervals. This is why the North Tabor Neighborhood Association unanimously approved diverters on our greenway network, but have been forced to settled for a handful of speed bumps because that is all PBOT will give us. We will take the crumbs even as they say what we think is needed, is not. In denying Concordia their request, PBOT is playing a condescending and patronizing parent.
“Hush now, we know what is best for you.”
Given the above critiques, what can we still do to improve the 20’s Bikeway even at this late stage?
For the northernmost stretch of the 20’s, there are simple opportunities for diversion that could have been designed from the get go, but which we may yet have time to integrate. Curb extensions are already in the works on NE Fremont, NE Alberta and NE Killingsworth to create safer pedestrian crossings. If they were extended by a few more feet, they could become entry diverters. The below diagram is of the current NE Killingsworth curb extension design. Expand the curb extension five feet into 32nd on the northeast corner, and you have an entry diverter. The south side could be designed this way as well, as could similar curb extension projects at NE Alberta and NE Fremont, greatly reducing cut-through traffic along the entire north stretch of the bikeway.
While curb extensions that bulb out into major auto-oriented streets benefit the pedestrian network, they also preclude the possibility of easily and cheaply adding bike lanes to that street later. As a result of zoning, nearly all commercial corridors and nodes in Portland are found along such major streets. Thus, the message the city is sending bike riders yet again by prioritizing curb extensions over bike lanes is that cyclists have no need for safe commercial access.
The stretch of NE Ainsworth where it meets up with 32nd has a large median planting strip, meaning there is ample room for a bicycle/pedestrian crossing island to be added at a later date. The intersection with NE Glisan is a similar situation, although Glisan currently features a middle turning lane rather than a planting strip. SE Belmont, another prime candidate for diversion and/or crossing improvements, could have been designed with one from the start. The current design creates a pinch point similar to the one recently added to SE 53rd and Stark; thus a median diverter could easily be integrated into the intersection. The Sunnyside Neighborhood requested a flashing beacon at this location, but were informed by PBOT that it was not needed. As was the situation at N Michigan and Rosa Parks, diversion can be added later if we complain loudly enough.
Why do we always have to complain and protest?
Concordia Neighborhood Association has declared NE 32nd at Prescott as the highest priority for diversion in the neighborhood due to motor vehicle back-ups at the traffic light at NE 33rd eastbound. However, the 60% design being implemented does not call for anything other than painted pedestrian crosswalks at this location. This means Concordia's highest-priority intersection is getting the least improvements.
What was PBOT’s rationale? The curb ramps for pedestrians are already ADA-compliant, hence the city is not doing anything to improve the intersection other than crosswalk striping because they are not required to according to Federal pedestrian ADA regulations. What if PBOT were to at least offer Concordia a $5000 northbound median diverter as a consolation prize? That would be the cost of only two speed bumps Concordia has stated they are willing to forgo to offset the cost of diversion. Locals voted in favor of diversion over speed bumps 19-0, but unlike Eastmoreland's request to not have speed bumps, which PBOT gladly granted, Concordia has been told a definite “no” on diversion. Is this discrepancy in response to neighborhood requests because Concordia’s request costs money, or is it because PBOT does not want (or refuses on principal) to do the outreach involved in diverter installation, or perhaps it’s because Eastmoreland has more political clout? Regardless, the situation gives the impression of neighborhood favoritism, and begs the issue of equity.
Considering the multitude of traffic counts that will be required on an ongoing basis along much of the route to ensure that the 20’s Bikeway continues to meet minimum motor vehicle volume and speed standards as our city grows and congestion worsens, it would actually be cheaper to just include diversion in the first place.
My cynical side would say that this project is just a long term work program for PBOT planners.
Where the 20’s crosses NE Broadway, E Burnside, and SE Hawthorne, the plan calls for HAWK signals that could have been designed with entry diverters like the crossing at E Burnside and 53rd; this would legally disallow motor vehicles from turning onto the bikeway from the intersecting arterial street. This safer bicycle centered design requires more curb extensions or median islands and costs a bit more. SE Hawthorne and 29th, next to the Safeway, is particularly glaring as traffic lights are found on nearby SE 27th and SE 30th to allow for local and neighborhood auto access. SE 29th makes perfect sense for a bike-centered crossing to parallel the auto-centered crossings, but has been deemed not important enough for a crossing designed just for cyclists.
It is not like we would want to take our family safely to the grocery store by bike. Oh, the horror of packing groceries in a cargo trailer!
Then there is the lauded “NE/SE 28th commercial shared-use” alternative to the meandering and expensive greenway on NE/SE 30th. Many people were excited about a mixed-mode commercial corridor akin to a European shopping street, but PBOT has neither funding nor plans for its development at the present time. There is the argument that when similar shared-use streets have been tried in other countries on streets with similar traffic volumes, the projects have failed under Vision Zero standards. Hence, I found this shared commercial concept to be a red herring, a deflection tactic used to cover for the businesses’ lack of understanding about community needs. I personally have not spent any money at businesses along this commercial stretch since the Laurelhurst Theater rallied nearby businesses in opposition to the plan. I am sure though that the Montavilla and Belmont business districts I have since been patronizing have been happy to gain my family as customers.
Continuing south, the bikeway’s crossing at SE Powell is one of the project's bright spots. This is going to be a very robust crossing for pedestrians and cyclists heading to Cleveland High School, but will be a congested, chaotic headache for bike commuters at the beginning and end of the school day. SE 28th is also much steeper than 26th, and as such does not make for a good commuter route; many current cyclists insist that they will continue to ride on 26th rather than switch to 28th for this very reason, bike facilities or no. Since ODOT is at this time requiring the removal of the bike lanes on 26th, a high-end commuter route north-south on parallel SE 21st needs to be built as an alternative. 21st makes sense as an alternative: it is flat, already popular among neighborhood cyclists, and connects directly to employment centers, the Lafayette overpass and the Orange MAX Line, and Ladd's Addition. It is already partially built, with some sharrows, speed bumps, a full traffic light at Powell, and has recently had bike lane extensions west from SE Gladstone. PBOT though has no plan, and no known funding to get 21st from Gladstone to Division up to standard at the present time. Until proper facilities on 21st are implemented, the bike lanes on 26th cannot be removed without danger to the public. We could also use this as an opportunity to begin the conversation about bike lanes on SE/NE 20th/21st connecting SE Holgate to NE Broadway and points north, but such a project would require complete parking removal, and who thinks that this administration has the gumption to push for that? Do we believe in the transportation hierarchy or not? Here is where we can put our pedal to the road, be it bike pedal or gas pedal, and prove where our priorities lie.
Finally, what improvements can be made to the 20’s south of Powell? The northbound diversion at SE Holgate is a solid first step, but traffic lights act like magnets. This one will attract southbound drivers east of 26th. Without an additional southbound diverter at Gladstone, 28th will be congested and unsafe from the onset of its construction. Have we not learned anything from SE Division and 52nd? Diverting southbound traffic could be accomplished through either pairing a Gladstone southbound diverter with paving a few blocks of SE Cora to allow for local access, or by adding a southbound protected bike lane on 28th. But again, this would require creative thinking and more money.
Then there are those sections of SE 28th south of Holgate where parking could be removed but won’t be, resulting in a narrow door-zone bike lanes until the time comes to repave the street (thankfully, I have heard this may happen in the next few years). Further south the route through Eastmoreland meanders, shares a roadway with buses, and has inconsistent traffic calming. The obvious solution is directing the route onto SE Reed College Pl. Passing up easy opportunities like this is not how you build a route where a 12-year-old girl will feel safe.
The 20’s Bikeway will be the first major cycling project to get on the ground following City Hall ratification of the Greenway Report and Vision Zero, and over a year’s worth of activism to get two diverters on Clinton. My reaction? Lots of nice pedestrian crossings, a few bike improvements, some new green striping, more expensive auto capacity at SE 30th and Stark, but few major decisions in favor of bikes were actually made except those directly required by city code.
This is a bikeway in name only. It fails the test of directness, it fails the test of consistency, and it fails, in my opinion, the ideal behind Vision Zero. This project cannot stand up against the historical legacy and ingrained culture of “American Graffiti.” In every case where the City needed to stand up to the neighborhood, business coalition, state agency, or even their own coffers, instead of educating the public and conceiving creative and novel solutions, this project rolled over and played dead. Dead is also where our transportation mode share goals will be if we do not bump up our game and build world class active transportation infrastructure that feels as psychologically safe as PBOT’s engineers have assured us it is statistically.
Terry Dublinski-Milton, speaking for himself
North Tabor Transportation and Land Use Chair, Southeast Uplift Board of Directors Triple B.S., UW-Madison in the Social Sciences; Graduate work in Urban Studies and Planning, PSU BikeLoudPDX founding member
I would like to thank Jessica Engelman for her always-helpful comments; BikeLoudPDX for their hosting, activism and work; plus Kirk Paulsen for his professional insights into Northeast Portland traffic patterns and the many meetings we have sat through together. I would specifically like to thank the editors of BikePortland, Jonathan Maus and Michael Anderson, without whom this article would not have been possible. Also of mention are the diligent employees at City Hall and PBOT; they do a lot of great work which should not be minimized by this critique.
I would also like to thank the many hundreds of Portland citizens I have talked to over the years. Keep up the good work and see you in the streets!