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!

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