Asking the Right Question About Burnside/Couch

It would appear that the debate over the future of West Burnside and Couch is about to re-ignite.

This will be round three. I participated in round one, back in the middle of the last decade, when I represented my neighborhood in NW Portland on the stakeholder committee. There was broad consensus during that process that a couplet with Burnside and Couch on both sides of the river was the best answer to how to tame the traffic on Burnside.

Round two occurred after newly-elected Commissioner Sam Adams was given control of the Bureau of Transportation and with both PDC and the Bureau of Planning expressing concern about the couplet, conducted a complete review. The result was that the eastside couplet received a greenlight, while the westside was closer to a draw, with City Council giving direction that a couplet could only move forward if a streetcar were included (on the theory that the couplet harmed Couch, but that harm could be offset by the addition of a streetcar). The couplet was also terminated at 16th (rather than 18th) as a result of advocacy by the parents at the Cathedral School. PBOT was directed to further refine the options, including a non-couplet option.

Now it appears that Mayor Sam Adams is ready to take up the issue again. An ‘under-construction’ PBOT web page links to the prior couplet proposal and what appears to be an updated version of the ‘enhanced existing’ (non-couplet) proposal.

The opposition also now has a web site up and appears to have used the 3-year hiatus to get organized. Round three looks like it could be a spirited debate.

Which leads me to wonder if we are debating the right question. The couplet design was premised in part on the assumption that we could not reduce the amount of auto traffic on Burnside. Given that constraint, the couplet was an attractive option to split the traffic in half, putting two lanes on each street (so a pedestrian did not have to venture a crossing of four lanes of fast-moving cars) and then moving them in a slower but more continuous fashion by using progressive traffic signals on each block.

I am doubtful that Burnside will ever be very pedestrian-friendly if we must maintain the current traffic flow in the same right-of-way. But I’m also confident that if we were willing to reduce the amount of traffic, Burnside could be a very nice place indeed without needing to shift traffic onto Couch.

So I would propose an alternate question for Round Three: how much traffic should Burnside carry for it’s desired role in the Central City’s future?

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