A Painful Conflict

Over at BikePortland.org, Jonathan reports on a conflict brewing between streetcars and bikes in the new South Waterfront development.

As a multimodal alternative transportation advocate, it pains me greatly to see two modes that I love in conflict with each other. I serve as chair of the Portland Streetcar Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) and as regular readers know, care deeply and write frequently here about cycling issues.

The conflict stems from trying to make too many things happen in a small space. While many have expressed dismay that we couldn’t get this right “on the blank slate of a new signature development” the reality is more complex. The two streets in this area, Bond and Moody, are not new. There is critical infrastructure, dating back to the ’60s, already in place, including a high-pressure water main in Moody.

Another part of the puzzle is that the ‘middle section’ of South Waterfront is developing first – the northern section continues to be operated as a barge plant by Zidell Marine. This has forced the streetcar into single-track operation between RiverPlace and Gibbs, and forces two-way traffic on a key block of Moody street (otherwise Moody and Bond operate as a coupled set of one-way streets).

The tragedy is not the conflict – this was inevitable – but rather that the information did not surface until very late in the design process. As someone with a foot in multiple constituencies, I don’t find it useful to point fingers, but the bicycle community certainly has a right to be very concerned that after having a compromise design at Lovejoy and 13th on the original streetcar alignment, here we are again being forced into serious compromises.

I agree with Jonathan that the left- (or perhaps more accurately middle-) running bike lane is not an acceptable solution, and I will be working hard with all the stakeholders to find a better solution in the midst of schedule pressures to get these streets built this fall.

Looking to the future, we clearly need to do better. Part of this is a matter of organizational linkages, part is a matter a design vocabulary. I have already secured agreement from Commissioner Adams’ Office to appoint representatives of both the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy communities to the Streetcar CAC so that the right questions can be asked sooner and more frequently.

But if we think about how we design streets in Portland, we ask the right side of the street to do a lot of things. We load buses there, we paint bike lanes there, and we board streetcars there. We are painfully learning that at least the last two seem to have systematic conflicts.

Having just returned from Europe – where the design vocabulary includes streetcars in the center of the street – it’s clear that there are other solutions to these problems. But they have their own trade-offs, and as a community we need to grapple with these. It behooves both rail and bicycle advocates to work together to do this.

The common goal is to reduce dependence on single-occupancy automobiles, and the less time we spend arguing with each other, the more effective we can be at our common goal.


7 responses to “A Painful Conflict”

  1. It does not surprise me that PDOT has failed to adequately plan for bicycles in South Waterfront.
    *there are bike lanes in the Rose Quarter only because of the threat of a lawsuit.
    *bikelanes were removed from Interstate at two MAX stations in order to provide more on street parking, but at last count PDOT could deliver only two parking slots on a 200 foot block face at Killingsworth.
    *the proposed Burnside/Couch couplet has no bikelanes…just a “separate but hardly equal” unfunded bridge over I-5 for Flanders.
    Is there a pattern here? Yes,
    Under the lack of leadership of the former Transportation Commissioner, PDOT staff defaulted to its old habit accommodating motorized traffic and lost sight of Portland’s multi-modal vision. Let’s hope that Mr. Adams can correct that, but it needs to be more than “we want to be Platinum.” It has to be…
    *finish the bike network! fill the gaps! everyday on my commute, I ride a nasty stretch of NE 7th Avenue where wide parking strips and on-street parking are judged more important than a bike rider’s health and safety.
    *initiate a landmark bikeway project like North Portland Greenway…comparable to the Eastbank Esplanade.
    *get the damn bike network signs up…I’ve been waiting 10 years for signs on NE Tillamook.
    *put bikes at the top of the list with transit as the desired mode in transportation and development projects in Portland, especially on Main Streets corridors, centers, close in neighborhoods, etc.
    Some like to beat their chests about Portland being a great bike city, but of late this has had a hollow ring. Where is the civic leadership’s response to the recent media assault on bicyclists? Where is the clear direction to PDOT engineers that bikes will be accommodated? Where are the signature projects that close the gaps and make a clear statement that this is a bike town? Platinum, my eye!

  2. Whats wrong with the bike bypass around the streetcar stop at Lovejoy & 13th?

    Plus isnt the long term plan to have a bike path along the river in SoWa? Personally I hate bike lanes and I like to bike, give me an off-street bike path or an empty road.

  3. Chris, thanks for the good distillation of the streetcar/ bicycle conflict. But I’d opine that the problem with the initial streetcar line from PSU to Northwest isn’t just the the Lovejoy / 13th streetcar stop design, which works well enough for cyclists as a sort of jerry-rigged afterthought design, but all of 11th & 12th Aves. through downtown, not to mention Northrup & Lovejoy.

    Streetcar tracks and bikes are a bad mix, and the closer they get to parallel travel direction the worse they are. Truth through anecdote, in the grand tradition of Ronald Reagan: sitting in my car at a light on 12th (left-most/non-track lane) at Burnside, a few months after the streetcar opened. A couple of cyclists waiting for the light to change (yes, it’s true), so I roll down my window and ask them what they thought of the streetcar, & whether it posed any problems for them. Both cyclists said they’d crashed on the tracks — apparently they’d learned from experience & were now riding in the left lane — and dinged themselves up quite a bit. One added that his girlfriend had also taken a dive on the tracks.

    I realize this isn’t conclusive evidence of anything, & perhaps any problem that may have existed has abated as cyclists learn through cruel experience about exactly how nasty streetcar tracks — or any rails — can be. But I’d bet that if anyone was interested in looking into it they’d find that it’s a very real safety problem for cyclists; unfortunately, my impression is that the people associated with the streetcar prefer not to look a the creepy crawly things under that particular rock…

    And Lenny —- good rant! One historical point, though: the only bike improvement around the Rose Garden arena that can possibly be attributed to the BTA lawsuit is on Multnomah, around that lovely crown sculpture island, where a bike lane was wedged in. The rest (bike lanes on Broadway, Larrabee, & Interstate Ave., along with the rest of Multnomah) were already part of the planned design before the BTA lawsuit.

  4. Jeff,

    Having just gotten back from Amsterdam, where bikes and rails are both EVERYWHERE, I’m not prepared to accept that simply having bikes and rails in a parallel direction is unacceptable. I think some of this is a matter of learning and adapting to the environment (and I say that as someone who has toppled on regular rail tracks at a couple of diagonal crossings).

    What does seem clear to me is that squeezing bikes between rails and curbs, as we do with the platform design we use in Portland currently, is very problematic.

    The paradigm in Europe is to put the rails in the center of the street. This seems to work very well in Europe, but creates more challenges than we typically do here for pedestrians, and definitely has ADA problems. Streets in Europe are not nearly as wheelchair friendly as our sidewalks are.

    So my take-away is that we need to have a very deliberate and thoughtful effort to create street designs where bikes and streetcars can co-exist. We clearly have not done that yet.

    P.S. The streetcar is on 10th, not 12th :-)

  5. When Streetcar was new, I found its tracks with their new smooth roadway & few cars…to be a great bike path! Just had to stay between the “lines.”
    The problem Chris poses…Streetcar stops and bikelanes…exists as well for bus stops. Curb extensions with bus stops work great for just about everyone (not counting impatient motorists) except for bicyclists. NE Broadway at 12th is a good example; I have yet to figure this one out.

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