Safe cycling on city arterials

August 31, 2013
Glisan Street Ready for "Road Diet"

Glisan Street Ready for “Road Diet”

Whether cycling or driving my car, I travel on city arterials rather than on side streets and alleys. They take me to places I want to go by reasonably direct and time-efficient routes.

Along with everyone else, I grumble about stop-and-go traffic, chafe while waiting for vehicles making left turns, and worry about problems related to cars that are trying to park. I keep hoping that traffic engineers will come up with simple and modestly priced fixes that will make driving and cycling smoother and safer.

Many of the proposals, however, especially those that cost a lot of money, are seriously flawed. As the report issued earlier this summer by the City Club of Portland notes, some of the new bikeways under consideration provide only “the veneer of safety.”

Because of my discontent with some of these ideas intended to improve the streets for cyclists, I am drawn to an article published in the August 15, 2013, issue of the Portland Tribune: “City hopes ‘road diet’ improves livability.” The lead paragraph summarizes the story, which was written by Steve Law.

“Starting this week, the city is reducing the number of traffic lanes on stretches of Division and Glison streets, and is debating similar treatment for Foster Road. Such road diets can lengthen car commute times, but the tradeoff may be fewer accidents, more walkable streets and commercial districts, plus room to add on-street bike lanes.”

An important feature in the restriping is that a third lane would be added “as a refuge for turns and left-turn pockets.”

According to the reporter, merchants and residents along these sections of Portland arterials support the revisions. Arterials that serve primarily to take people from far away through a neighborhood don’t add much value to the neighborhood. Slowing the traffic a little, they say, encourages motorists to pay attention to restaurants and other businesses along the way. Real safety for pedestrians and cyclists will increase.

Commuters, however, fear that reducing traffic lanes from two to one in each direction will increase the time it takes to drive through. That’s right, the engineers estimate—perhaps by three minutes in each direction. The cost benefit for motorists, however, is an estimated 20% reduction in the rate of rear-end collisions.

The major benefit for cyclists like me—people who use their bikes for transportation to go some place—is that these revisions give us a little more room than we have now, without compromising our safety as some of the pricier proposals do.

Engineers estimate that these revisions will encourage more cyclists to leave their automobiles at home and bicycle to places they have to go. On one of the proposed routes, they think, cyclists would increase from 200 a day now to 3,000 a day in 2035.

As road re-building costs go, these changes are relatively inexpensive, and with high pay off: safer driving, safer cycling, safer and more pleasant walking, improved local business, and happier neighborhoods. Who knows some of the commuters will use that extra three minutes thinking about how nice it would be to live close in so that they can leave their cars at home.

This is a good way, it seems to me, for cities to spend the people’s money—making the city a better place to live.