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.

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