Bureau of Planning Releases Burnside Couplet Critique

Today the Bureau of Planning released its response to the Burnside Couplet plan. Here are Gil Kelley’s cover letter and the analysis document.

The top line: BOP thinks a couplet is not the way to go on the west side.

I think the report actually raises some important issues, including the need for stronger planning of placemaking along the ‘link’ section (2nd to Park) and the need for stronger analysis and planning for linkages with the districts emerging along Burnside.

But of course, that begs the question: where was BOP with this analysis during the two 18 month planning processes we have already conducted? The plan could have been greatly strengthened if we had had the benefit of this level of analysis and thought during the process, rather than applying that effort as second guessing afterwards.

As to some of the recommendations in the analysis:

“Burnside … is one of the city’s few distinctively ‘big city streets’ …”

I think we could do without the kind of distinction that makes pedestrians avoid the street!

“Some reduction of capacity on Burnside might not be a bad thing.”

Gil, where were you when I was trying to remove one eastbound lane between NW 23rd and NW 15th?

The plan proposes intersection treatments and additional signalized crossings at 8th, Park and 9th as an alternative to the couplet. This does NOT provide a comprehensive answer to the left turn question.

It even goes on to suggest widening sidewalks by:

“…reducing the existing 11-foot travel lanes to 10 feet …”

Now astute readers will remember that the Freight Committee has bitterly opposed similar narrowing from the freeway to NW 23rd. This suggestion seems calculated to draw opposition to the central segment.

Indeed the capacity reduction suggestion is certain to draw opposition from PBA’s “portals” sub-committee, whose mission to to guard access to the central retail core. During the stakeholder process, PDOT was clear that the project could not reduce capacity. This restriction was a major motivator for the couplet, as it allowed traffic to be calmed and made compatible with pedestrians without reducing the capacity.

If I were feeling cynical – and since it’s almost midnight I’m tending in that direction – I might suggest that this report was intended to introduce a degree of uncertainty and doubt, and draw two important groups into opposition to the plan. Possibly a way to effectively kill the plan without having to come out in direct opposition?

But read the report – I will certainly be reading it again – and form your own opinion.

12 responses to “Bureau of Planning Releases Burnside Couplet Critique”

  1. I suspect if you asked the owners of freight operations whether they would choose wider streets or more thriving businesses to make use of their services, they would choose the thriving businesses. Unfortunately, those aren’t the members of the freight community that take the time to be at the table for these discussions. Instead you get freight operations managers whose primary concern, like the traffic engineers’, is moving vehicles easily and efficiently.

    It is not surprising that BOP does not try to inject itself into a process controlled by people who consider its concerns a nuisance. Its not clear at all that the plan would have been strengthened, instead those concerns would have been buried in a discussion of traffic counts and turning radii. The paramount concern for Burnside and Couch is what kind of community space is created, not how fast you can move vehicles through that space.

    Its good that BOP is stepping up and if their concerns kill the project so be it.

  2. 11′ lanes work very well on the repaved Greeley Avenue in North Portland where speeds are 45 mph plus!
    10′ lanes are plenty wide in a slow and busy arterial such as Burnside where speeds are or should be more like 25 mph.
    Curb extensions, elimination of free right turns, reduction of all Burnside to 2 lanes in each direction (including the Bridge) and more traffic signals will take care of making Burnside work for all, with no significant reduction vehicle through put and at much less cost.
    On Interstate Avenue, PDOT staff had to be pushed very hard between bike advocates and on-street parking folks to come up with a design…they really default to “moving vehicles” if left to themselves. As it is Interstate Avenue has vast stretches of pavement on which you cannot drive, park, walk or bike! A real lost opportunity.

  3. Ross and Lennie:

    As a member of the first CAC on this project, I have to say that PDOT staff was really trying to improve the pedestrian-friendliness of Burnside. Yes, Couch will change, but if the traffic is indeed moving at 25 mph on Couch (which the signals could be set to do), it’s really not that much of an impact. The original couplet plan went farther west, to 19th (?), but threats by the church there to use a federal law protecting churches put the kibosh on that.

    Based on the reality of not reducing traffic through-put (although speed could be slowed without reducing total vehicles through), the couplet was the best solution to how to get an improved environment for pedestrians as well as drivers in the area. There’s no way to get something amenable in 60 feet, with 4 through lanes. Yes, a setback is required for new buildings (unless you save an old “facade”, it seems), but there are a lot of buildings along Burnside that will be there a long time. We’ll have gaps for years to come. There are multi-story buildings that could be renovated/remodeled and make a great contribution to the street, if they didn’t have traffic 8 feet from the front door.

    I’m not willing to say we should let Burnside just be busy traffic in order to save one other mostly undistinguished street. Aside from the (deliberately?) uninformed folks in the Henry, I believe the effect on Couch would actually be positive, for pedestrians and businesses. Businesses like to have more traffic by their doors, as long as there’s on-street parking visible in front.

    I will admit that the motivation for extending the couplet from Park to the river seems to have been mostly the Old Town left turn issue, but it also does shorten the pedestrian crossing distances.

  4. Doug –

    There is clearly some NIMBYism in the opposition. But, on balance, I think the plan simply creates two pedestrian unfriendly streets where there is one now. Crossing Burnside at the Park blocks is not easy, even though you have an island in the middle. The couplet essentially creates a block wide island. That wide swath through the middle of downtown will only increase the division betwee the SW and NW parts of downtown.

    Traffic on couplets seems to inevitably move faster than on two way streets. Actual speeds of 25 mph are too fast to be pedestrian/bike/transit friendly when you have the kind of heavy traffic a couplet will attract. How that corridor is used will likely change and Grand/MLK is a good example of the kind of environment that creates.

    Creating a pedestrian friendly environment is only one part of creating a place people want to be. Taking away opportunities for place creation on Couch is not a price we should pay easily unless it is absolutely necessary and the benefits for doing so are certain. It seems to me that is not the case here.

  5. Ross:
    Grand/MLK is not an apt comparison for at least two reasons:
    1. Grand and MLK have 4 lanes each. (4 lanes in one direction!)
    2. Only a few intersections are signalized. This is especially true on MLK, where there are three signals between Burnside and the McLoughlin Viaduct. The Burnside/Couch couplet will have signals every block.

    Even NE Broadway/Wiedler has more lanes (I think it’s four on Broadway), and again, less signals.

    On balance, I believe that for the section from Park westward, Burnside itself will be 100 percent better for pedestrians. Couch will certainly not be 100 percent worse. I believe it’s worth it.

  6. Alder/Washington is much more comparable to the volumes that would be on a Burnside/Couch couplet.

    Ross, would you describe crossing these two streets as pedestrian unfriendly? They’re not quiet neighborhood streets, but neither do I find them to be problematic!

  7. Chris –

    Are Alder and Washington really signalized for 25 mph? The traffic rarely seems that fast on either one.

    I think it is unlikely that the Burnside couplet traffic volumes will be the that limited in any case. Burnside is a relatively slow throughfare right now with a lot of stopping and starting. Once the couplet is created it is going to be a much more desireable route.

    You folks spent a lot more time on this than I have and I am not really going to second guess the results in terms of transportation. My original point was only that it is not surprising that people interested in urban design do not try to inject their concerns into the transportation planning process. The transportation decisions really should be playing the supportive role, not the other way around. But that is not how transportation planners approach issues.

  8. Chris –

    Is there a specific place that they talk about traffic speeds. This is all I could find:

    “The traffic signals, while spaced close together in the couplet area on the east and west sides,
    are progressed to move traffic at consistent and moderate speeds.”

    I would be surprised if PDOT considers 13-14 mph to be moderate speeds.

    The comparison to Alder seems to be to the traffic volumes and speeds at 3rd and Alder, not to the entire length stretching further west which includes stretches with on-street parking, two lanes and narrower lanes.

    I’m sorry if I am suspicious whether the actual plans reflect the understanding of all the participants. Especially when those participants may not place the same value on moving vehicles as the traffic engineers who are running the process.

    Its difficult for me to imagine Burnside, which is used as a 45-50 mph freeway across the river, as a 13-14 mph street like Alder and Washington. Its not hard for me to imagine them synchronizing the lights for 25 mph through downtown which would allow speeds of 35 to 40 or more for short stretches when traffic was light.

  9. How many citizen volunteer hours and consultant billed hours went into this process before 20-20 hindsight was brought to bear on things? As someone who works with volunteers, I can say this kind of second-guessing hardly belies the sense by many that citizen volunteers are window dressing to city processes.

    I was at the Buckman Community Association meeting tonight where their board voted unaminously to support the entire Burnside plan. One of the reasons given was honoring the public process that occured.

    Ross, you say that you think BOP didn’t interject itself because it would be seen as a nuisance. Didn’t BofP had a staff person on the steering/planning committee? It seems they were represented and had a voice in the process, like many other stakeholders.

    From the complete shutout of neighborhood reps on the Freight Master Plan committee, I can understand that the Burnside/Couch process might not have been equally weighted, but I’m left with this sense of BofP acting passive aggressively, not dealing with the problem during the planning process but taking pot shots afterwards when it didn’t have to worry about its thoughts being tainted by a consensus process. As Chris states at the beginning: where was BofP when all the stakeholders were hashing this out over a multi-year period?

  10. ” It seems they were represented and had a voice in the process, like many other stakeholders.”

    “I’m left with this sense of BofP acting passive aggressively, not dealing with the problem during the planning process but taking pot shots afterwards when it didn’t have to worry about its thoughts being tainted by a consensus process.”

    I think the problem here is not the process. This was not a community planning process for what kind of place we wanted the corridor to be, it was a transportation planning process for how best to move vehicles through the corridor. That is certainly an important aspect of creating a place, but it should not be the central focus.

    If you ask the wrong questions you will often get the wrong answers. And a process controlled by PDOT and traffic engineers almost always is asking the wrong questions. That they involved a lot of people and got buy in from them doesn’t change that.

    The basic point of BOP concerns seems to be that you will have a hard time promoting pedestrian oriented development on a block that has two throughfares on either side with 25 mph traffic. Neither side will have an environment that is pedestrian friendly.

    “I can say this kind of second-guessing hardly belies the sense by many that citizen volunteers are window dressing to city processes.”

    It seems to me that is PDOT’s fault if anyones. We have a planning process that started with transportation instead of land use. They have been told that is a bad idea in the past, they have acknowledged it and yet they have approached the planning process in the same way again.

    Transportation needs to be subordinate to land use, but I think in bureaucratic terms that implies PDOT is subordinate to BOP. That is something they naturally resist. It seems to me if someone is being passive-agressive here it is PDOT doing a planning process without having BOP resolve the urban design questions first.

    It is also not surprising that the collective process came up witn a solution that matched in scope the level of time and committment put into it. It is extremely difficult to ask people to spend a year or more attending meetings and conducting open houses and then decide that the actual changes will be very modest. You don’t spend two years coming to the conclusion that nothing much should change.

  11. Ross, I think you’re off-base.

    The project was titled “Burnside Transportation and Urban Design“, and we had an urban designer (Lloyd Lindley) co-leading the process. There was lots of placemaking thinking going on. And BOP had as much opportunity to contribute as they wanted!

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