Burnside Transportation and Urban Design Plan

Over at commissionersam.com the Commish is blogging about controversy over the Burnside Couplet plan. I urge readers to attend the Town Hall mentioned to learn more about the project and put your views on record.

As neighborhood transportation chair in Northwest Portland I had the opportunity to participate in two year-plus-long planning processes around the Burnside corridor and I still represent my neighborhood on the stakeholder committee for this project. The project will be truly transformative for the central city and I want to take some space here to explain why.

The Problem with Burnside

Burnside is the street that provides the dividing line between North and South in our city and the street is also very much a physical divider. Different sections of the street provide different challenges such as narrow sidewalks and extraordinarily difficult intersections (for both cars and pedestrians). But the common feature of Burnside everywhere is four lanes of very fast traffic creating a huge impediment for pedestrians.

The speed comes from the signalization strategy – turn all the lights green and get as many cars through as possible before you have to stop traffic to let cross-traffic through. A driver has a built-in incentive to race down the street.

Burnside is also an access barrier for drivers. The need to propel so many cars through the corridor has led to the elimination of left turn movements. If you need to make a left off of Burnside, count on making a complicated right-hand jug-handle move instead.

What the Plan Does

The Burnside Transportation and Urban Design Plan has a number of elements that tackle the challenges of the street, starting on the eastside at 12th/Sandy/Burnside and crossing to the west side all the way to 23rd and Burnside.

  • Squares off the 12th/Sandy/Burnside intersection (making sort of a rectangular traffic circle) providing more understandable traffic flow and multiple safe pedestrian crossings.
  • Creates a couplet on the eastside from 12th to about MLK (the exact return street will depend on the Burnside Bridgehead final design) putting two lanes of eastbound traffic on Burnside and two westbound lanes on Couch. This means pedestrians only need to cross two – not four – lanes of traffic at once. Each intersection will also be signalized, creating a signal timing progression that move traffic along at safer speeds (and mean less time waiting at red lights) and creating signalized pedestrian crossing opportunities.
  • Creates another couplet with Couch from 2nd to 15th on the west side with similar characteristics and benefits.
  • The couplet between W 2nd and the Park Blocks also frees up a tremendous amount of right of way which will be reused flexibly as parking, a sidewalk promenade, festival space and potentially opportunities for building development.
  • A highlighted treatment (perhaps including a water feature) at the Park Blocks will help connect the North Park Blocks with Park Avenue area that will bridge to the South Park Blocks.
  • From 15th to 23rd, sidewalk widening and the ‘squaring off’ of the triangular intersections, along with more signalized crossing, will greatly improve the pedestrian environment
  • A parallel bicycle facility on Flanders, including a bike/ped bridge over the freeway, will provide important east/west connectivity through Northwest, the Pearl and Chinatown/Old Town.
  • Additional benefits of the couplets on both sides of the river are adding back parking on Burnside and allowing left turns again! Both of the these are crucial to facilitating the development of retail on a corridor where the possibility of drop-in retail has been virtually destroyed by the high-speed traffic and lack of parking.

This plan knits back together the neighborhoods that have long been divided by the street. It creates a much safer environment for all modes of travel and provides the necessary transportation prerequisites for the revitalization of Burnside on both sides of the river.

For all these reasons the plan has been endorsed by all the neighborhoods it touches:

  • Kerns
  • Buckman
  • Old Town/China Town
  • Downtown Community Association
  • The Pearl District
  • Goose Hollow
  • Northwest District Association


Of course, none of this comes cheap and the question of whether this is the best use of capital dollars at this time will be an important part of the public debate. Congressman Blumenaur has already secured some federal funding to help start the engineering on the eastside (Congressman Wu – are you listening?). And other parts must be rebuilt on the City’s maintenance schedule in any event (the portion near NW 23rd is literally falling apart).

About the Opposition

Opposition to this project is relatively recent and seems to be coming from property (condo) owners in the Brewery Blocks. The opposition has been characterized as asking whether it is in the best interests of Couch to ‘activate’ the street?

In my view, the street is already very activated near the Brewery Blocks (the congestion at 11th/Couch/Burnside is a good indication). Indeed, the improved circulation and signalization offered by the couplet might well ease some of the issues now seen in that area.

I suspect the concern about traffic volume is really a fear about traffic speeds. Speeds on a progressively signalized Couch will resemble those seen on Washington St. downtown today. Not a suburban cul-de-sac certainly, but a far cry from what pedestrians on Burnside most cope with now. And anyone who lives on Couch must encounter Burnside on a daily basis. The vast improvements on Burnside will more than make up for the increased traffic volumes on Couch. Residents of the Brewery Blocks will enjoy a much more vital and pedestrian friendly neighborhood when this project is completed!

Please excuse the length of this post, but I think the topic more than merits it!

19 responses to “Burnside Transportation and Urban Design Plan”

  1. I guess the Burnside Plan seems reasonable…
    but one way couplets make me nervous; they tend to be managed on the same principles that guide Burnside now, i.e. get the traffic through, and turn into some kind of urban freeway that is degrading to the street and streetlife.
    Burnside today is unique for its narrowness, its triangular intersections, its congested feel. It feels like a city! (Read William H Whyte…The City for his views on narrow sidewalks, etc.) East Burnside is coming to life without a big project.
    Why doesn’t PDOT just slow the traffic down…set the signals for 12 MPH, just like Downtown…, add a few curb extensions where possible, and have new construction set back a couple of feet for a bit more sidewalk (see 34th & Hawthorne for what a couple of feet will do!). This would cost a lot less money, preserve the dense, congested character of the corridor and make life easier for those of us on foot.
    Lenny Anderson

  2. Lenny, you can’t do progressive signals on a two-way street! That’s the key benefit of the couplet, you get to slow the traffic down, but you don’t lose capacity because you don’t hold it at red lights for long periods as you do now on Burnside.

    Having lived with the Everett/Glisan couplet and having helped uncouple Lovejoy/Marshall, I’ve come to the conclusion that the way to make couplets work for peds is to signalize every intersection (as on downtown streets).

    And the couplet planning DOES include curb extensions.

  3. Chris,
    I know you and many others worked really hard on this project, and it seems like it meets all the criteria for worthwhile multimodal projects, etc.
    But…cities need…and the great ones always have…streets or districts that are unplanned, chaotic, stressful even or intense. Burnside seems to come just about as close as anywhere in Portland to meeting these criteria. We Portlanders like things neat, clean, orderly…to a fault. Maybe one arterial needs to be left to its merry, crazy, gritty way where all modes meet, clash and churn there way to somewhere else.

  4. I would like to see a conversation about the big picture — one where transportation, development and planning meets the coming energy crunch.
    Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a petroleum geologist is co-hosting a major conference Nov. 10 and 11 on the impact of Peak Oil. One of the workshops will be “Land Use and Transportation Planning as if Peal Oil Mattered.”
    I’m not seeing any serious recognition of this issue yet but surely now would be a good time to start planning a more flexible and sustainable future. Does anyone here plan to attend the conference (Website http://www.apso-usa.com) and if so I would like to hear back from them. Thanks Helen Silvis

  5. I think the Burnside/Couch couple plan benefits the “big picture” with regard to peak oil… It opens up new pedestrian spaces, improves pedestrian access, and greatly increases convenience for local auto traffic and local business while only slightly impacting through traffic.

    If Peak Oil causes a sharp decline in VMT (I’m not arguing that it will), the additional pedestrian environment will already be in place along Burnside, helping businesses in that area survive.

    – Bob R.

  6. I wonder what will happen to the car traffic on Burnside…

    Any idea what % of cars using Burnside are just going through downtown either with a destination either on the East side of the bridge or over the hill towards Beaverton?

    If Burnside was no longer the freeway that it nearly is now, I wonder how many of those people would use Hwy 26 instead? Are there any traffic studies? Just curious.

    Oh and Lenny, I agree that Burnside does a good job of making Portland seem like other cities (unplanned, chaotic, stressful even or intense), and while I agree that some of that is good, I would say Boston is a lot like those things and it seems like a horrible city to bike in, and one that I wouldn’t want to live in. I agree that Portland doesn’t need to be pristine or dead silent, but I would much rather see bike friendly roads filled with an “intense” amount of cyclists, rather than a chaotic and dangerous road full of speeding cars.

  7. Burnside is currently a disaster which works neither for pedestrians or cars.

    It is terrible for cars because it is too narrow for the volume of cars that currently use it and for the turning lanes etc. which are necessary because it is two ways.

    It is even worse for pedestrians because it is very difficult to cross, because the sidewalks are too narrow, and the lack of a parking lane buffer puts moving vehicles too close to pedestrians.

    Oh yes, and a bicyclist would have to be CRAZY to ride on Burnside.

    The couplet is BADLY needed. It will make traffic flow more smoothly (not necessarily faster, but more smoothly with fewer stops waiting for cars to turn and more opportunities for drivers to make safe turns — speed can be regulated by the timing on the lights). It will widen sidewalks on Burnside and provide pedestrians with the buffer they need. It will help businesses by promoting pedestrian use AND by providing additional parking. In short, it is a “win-win.”

    Ask anyone who regularly walks from NW to either the Pearl or downtown whether they would rather walk on Burnside or on Everett, Glisan, Washington, Alder, Yamhill, Morrison or any one of the other east-west one-way streets. The answer will always be one of the one-way streets.

  8. Let me address some of the peak oil and overall traffic questions.

    Peak oil is going to force us to locate services closer together and make shorter trips, which can be made by more efficient modes (including foot power).

    Today Burnside is optimized for long trips (West Hills to east side) at the expense of short trips and local access (difficult for pedestrians and bikes, hard for autos to make left turns).

    The cleverness of the couplet plan is that it creates lots of opportunities for the short trips and access without significantly disadvantaging the longer trips (it calms them and progresses them rather than doing the crazy rush-stop-rush-stop pattern in use today).

    In fact the percentage of trips that go continuously from NW 24th to NE/SE 12th is relatively low. Most folks using the corridor enter or exit somewhere in between.

    In the first round of planning I did seriously pose the question of whether we could afford to lose an eastbound lane of traffic between NW 23rd and the freeway. This would have made possible parking and pedestrian opportunities that are not in the current plan. The case from a traffic point of view was marginal. It would likely have caused some traffic to divert to other neighborhood streets. In my mind this might have been OK, as many of these would have been trips that were really local to a small segment of the corridor.

    But PDOT was not willing to look at reducing theoretical capacity on a street classified as an arterial, so we’ll never know.

    I’ve made my peace with that choice and am looking forward to the tremendous set of benefits delivered by the entire project.

  9. Living just a little ways north of W Burnside, I see the couplet as a good idea. Burnside is a barrier to traffic, both turning left and crossing, and pedestrians. In fact, buses must often wait at the Ankeny signal on 5th, even though they just left Burnside on a green signal. My appoligies to people on Couch St, who will have their side street transformed into an arterial. In fact, I was just over at Whole Foods a few days ago wondering about how it would look as an arterial.

  10. Chris,

    All of your points are good. My question is: Are there other transportation projects that would put the money to better use? Such as: Finding new bicycle corridors? or, Extending the fareless area to encourage ridership on Tri-Met?

    I think it is disturbing that we are faced with so many new-and expensive- projects that will be paid for by: increased fares, parking fees, fines, and taxes or a bloated federal deficit. What happened to wringing the most out of what is already there?

  11. Ron, sure, there are lots of good projects out there. Determining priorities is what we have a City Council and regional processes like MTIP for.

    My experience is that a lot of the selection process is how much of a constituency the project develops. For example, are the property owners nearby willing to sign up for and LID to help support the project? Can revenue sources be developed from the area that benefits from the project?

    From what I have seen, a constituency is definitely coming together for this one. And that includes advocates for bikes and peds. After all the Flanders bikeway that is part of this project is on BTA’s top 10 list.

  12. “ut PDOT was not willing to look at reducing theoretical capacity on a street classified as an arterial, so we’ll never know.”

    So the only solutions on arterials are to make them bigger regardless of how many people that serves?

    I share Lenny’s suspicion of couplets and this is one of the reasons. You now have two streets that are classified as arterials where through traffic is a priority whether that makes up a significant amount of the traffic or not. This is what created the current Burnside freeway.

    I don’t know that much about traffic signalization, but it appears that couplets almost require that cross streets be congested in order to accomplish the throughput on the main stems.

  13. Ross, to be fair, PDOT’s position was “this project can’t reduce capacity”. At no point did anyone argue for increasing capacity.

    The couplet approach has been vetted through two rounds of stakeholder committees that have solid representation from the affected neighborhoods, property owners and modal advocates. Both BTA and WPC are strongly in support of this plan.

  14. In the Interstate Corridor an arterial had its cacpacity reduced, replaced by lightrail, and the aggregate of before and after traffic counts from 75 streets in the corridor is down 9%.
    Isn’t this what we should be trying to do or should be spending $ to do. Investing in infrastructure that reduces auto trips…for all the usual reason…air quality, congestion, and so on.
    Build it, and they will come. Remove it, and they will leave!

  15. Lenny,

    You presume the lightrail is the cause of the reduced traffic volume. Measured compared to what? When our economy was doing better 5 years ago?

    What alternative is there for Burnside? The next closest is Jefferson -> 26 which is really not a replacement.

    Those cars have to E-W somehow. Saying somehow people will “leave” is just not realistic.

  16. Maybe some of those people making longer trips on Burnside will move to closer in neighborhoods and buy a bike. That seems to be a trend; shouldn’t we encourage it?

  17. While there’s no shortage of worthy transportation projects in the region, a lot of the kind of funding you attract for projects like this is truly local – local improvement districts by adjoining property owners, urban renewal funds locked to the district, etc.

    Also, there are parts of Burnside (NW 15th west) that are falling apart as badly as the bridge is, in urgent need of reconstruction.

  18. “PDOT’s position was “this project can’t reduce capacity”. At no point did anyone argue for increasing capacity.”

    And yet, that is the result. At least if you consider adding right-of-way dedicated to regional transportation facilities to be adding capacity. Or if you consider an increase in the ability to move vehicles through the corridor an increase in capacity. I suppose you can argue these are only potential increases in capacity, but I am cynical enough not to think that distinction is meaningful.

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