Bicycling in Downtown Portland: How to Make it Better?

For over a decade, bicycle planners have been grappling with various concepts for how to make it easier to bicycle downtown. It is a consistent complaint of potential cyclists throughout the region that downtown is a frightening place for cyclists. A recent Bicycle Transportation Alliance member survey revealed dozens of suggestions, some contradicting each other, some unlikely. I propose that we need a comprehensive look at bicycling in downtown.

Yes we have Waterfront Park and the Eastbank. What a great loop! Soon we will have bicycle lanes on Naito Parkway. We have bicycle lanes on much of SW Jefferson and SW Broadway, and a piece of SW 3rd. The question of bicycle lanes on other streets is a big one. The traditional location of a bicycle lane, in between the right-most travel lane and the on-street parking (as on SW Broadway), may not make the most sense given that there are parking garage driveways on so many blocks, a high level of on-street parking turnover, and heavy right-turn movements every other block. It makes sense on SW Broadway because it has enough of an uphill grade to create a speed differential with cars. But on 2nd, 3rd, 4th? The left side has the same issues. Placing the bicycle lane in between the middle lanes may work, but is contrary to current practice and may be confusing.

Many say we don’t need bicycle lanes at all in downtown; bicyclists should just share the lane. Confident cyclists know that traffic signals are timed at 12 mph or so, such that you can bicycle in the middle of a traffic lane (“take the lane”) and hit all the signals. Personally I prefer to bike in the middle lane on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, avoiding the conflicts with right and left turning vehicles. But “taking the lane” only works well for very confident cyclists, not the new cyclists we are trying to attract. Bicycle lanes would also allow bicyclists to bypass traffic in congested conditions, a very attractive proposition signaling that bicycling is a better way to navigate downtown.

Another emerging concept is that of a “shared lane marking,” or a bicycle stencil placed in a travel lane to indicate that bicyclists and motorists are to share the lane. At least this would let motorists know we belong. But a) it’s not a standard marking yet (nationally or in Oregon), and so would need to be accompanied by a lot of education and outreach to help people understand its meaning, and b) which lane to put it in? Cyclists seem to distribute themselves evenly between all three lanes on 2nd, 3rd, 4th, even Broadway. Shared lane markings in all three lanes?

What about the bus mall? The new bus mall will have a continuous travel lane that cyclists can share; how well will that work? What about the east-west streets? Connections and routes in Old Town & the Pearl? How to connect it all together to form a cohesive network?

These questions are not easy to answer, and will require a collaborative approach between the City, the downtown business community, and cyclists, among others. The potential payoff is huge. Already there are almost 9000 daily bicycling trips over the downtown bridges, with many hundreds of additional trips from neighborhoods west. These trips have translated into improved health, and have had positive impacts on available downtown auto parking and traffic. Tourists visiting Portland seek opportunities to rent bicycles and enjoy the City by bicycle. The challenge is on: how do we make downtown Portland more bicycle-friendly so that we attract new daily bicycle riders?

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