New developments in bicycle-friendly Portland, Oregon, can be useful to serious cyclists in cities everywhere as they try to improve their streets for bicycle travel. The great, good news is that the new Vancouver Avenue bridge is open. Cyclists again have full access to the Vancouver Avenue-Williams Avenue corridor for their commutes through northeast Portland. It’s a trip I ordinarily make once or twice a week, all year around.
For most of the distance, Vancouver is one-way south and Williams one-way north. Each street provides a wide bike lane, a limited number of intersections with traffic signals, and, for the most part, automobiles traveling at moderate speeds. Bicycle facilities like these suit me exactly right.
The bridge was closed to autos and trucks because of serious damage to its understructure. In early May 2010, it was also closed to bikes and pedestrians. All of this time, everyone has had to find new routes for their journeys over the Columbia Slough. Thanks to PDOT and taxpayers, a fine new bridge is now in place with wide traffic lanes for motorists and 12-foot wide bike-pedestrian lanes on both sides. The new railing is a highly decorative addition to North Portland’s public art.
Balancing my delight because of the new bridge is my anxiety over plans now being projected for redeveloping much of N Williams Avenue. A serious proposal would create a dedicated bike lane—a “cycle track”—between the existing sidewalk and the line of parked cars on the east side of the street. It would closely resemble a short stretch of SW Broadway as it passes through Portland State University.
As a frequent cyclist on this downtown experiment for increasing bike safety, I am unfavorably impressed. Intersections are the place where things don’t work. Longtime bike engineering guru John Forester has made this point repeatedly in his writings.
In a normal layout, cyclists have a clear view of the upcoming intersection, especially on the traffic side. They can easily see what’s coming and take appropriate action. They also can pay attention to parked cars, unexpectedly opening car doors, and pedestrians stepping down into the street. These “hazards” all come from the same direction and, again, precautions can be taken.
On the Broadway cycle track, I now find pedestrians appearing suddenly from two directions instead of one. I have to cycle more slowly, which works against the hope that cycling will become a means of serious transportation when I want to go someplace in a time-efficient way. And, of course, I also have to be looking up at this very same time, instead of at the street, crosswalks, and sidewalks, in order to watch the traffic signals high over head.
A study of recent Portland experiments, including the SW Broadway cycle track, was published January 14, 2011. The following paragraph from the executive summary describes problems that I encounter. (My consistent practice, by the way, is to adhere to regular traffic controls when cycling with as much fidelity as when I drive my car.)
Cyclist and pedestrian conflicts are high. Although nearly 90% of pedestrians surveyed indicated they understood where they should wait for a “Walk” sign to cross SW Broadway (on the curb), a plurality (42%) expressed concern about the impact of the cycle track on crossing Broadway. Nearly a third of cyclists surveyed stated that they encounter pedestrians jaywalking across the cycle track 25% or more of the time. Combined with cyclists’ low compliance in stopping at a red signal, there are many opportunities for collisions between cyclists and pedestrians. Over 40% of cyclists stated they had been involved in a near-collision with a pedestrian, while 12% of pedestrians stated they had been involved in a near-collision with a cyclist. One cyclist and two pedestrians surveyed stated that they have been involved in bicycle-pedestrian collisions on the cycle track. Video observation data confirms the risk – in situations where pedestrians were present while cyclists rode past on the cycle track, nearly one in 10 resulted in potentially unsafe interactions. These include instances of a cyclist or pedestrian having to stop or change direction as a precaution (3.5%) or an emergency (1%), or instances in which a cyclist rode within two to three feet of a pedestrian walking or standing on the street (4.5%).
It may well be that N Williams Avenue needs improvements in order to increase its safety and practical value for motorists, pedestrians, merchants, and cyclists. As a frequent cyclist, who tries to drive his bike as though it were a car, I hope the redesign is modest, cautious, and easily, inexpensively improved on the basis of experience. (Note: As this early morning photo shows, a few details are still being completed for the bridge. When all is done, and in full daylight, it will look much better.)