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?


29 responses to “Asking the Right Question About Burnside/Couch”

  1. If we could get Burnside down to two lanes from Broadway to 18th, I’d be all for that. I wonder how much traffic goes all the way through — from 23rd (or thereabouts) all the way to the east side. I also wonder — and this is bigger-picture stuff — if there would be any benefit to closing the I-405 interchange with Burnside and Couch. Would be be sufficient (from a commuter traffic perspective) for I-405 to intersect with downtown at Glisan/Everett, the Highway 26 entry/exit/interchange, and Fourth/Broadway?

    Looking at the opposition web site, I see a a lot of arguments against it, but what I DIDN’T see was a reasonable alternate proposal to make Burnside more pedestrian-friendly. Show me a better way than a couplet to put parking on Burnside and make it easier and safer to cross, and I’ll be all for it.

    For now, I still support the couplet. I come from the perspective of a pedestrian who finds it a bit nerve-wracking to cross Burnside at a lot of places, and not at all a pleasant place to walk.

  2. Sounds like a good place to experiment with tolling arterial streets using no-stop transponders to me.

  3. and then moving them in a slower but more continuous fashion by using progressive traffic signals on each block.

    Perhaps they could get this to work on the new Couch portion of the couplet (eastside) before expanding it and paralyzing the west side. The traffic lights do not appear to be synchronized at all and it’s a mess.

  4. The question you pose about how much traffic should go through the central city is a good one. Portland has embarked on major planning initiatives via the Portland Plan and the Central City Plan. In the midst of these major undertakings that will ultimately define the future of Portland, how does it make sense to move forward with a couplet project that is not viewed within the context of a comprehensive plan and is designed primarily to encourage traffic?

    Our Climate Action Plan seeks to reduce carbon emissions. Our Bicycle Plan seeks to encourage a mode other than the automobile. Our Portland Plan seeks to develop 20 minute pedestrian neighborhoods. The couplet plan contradicts Portland’s sustainable values and is merely a transportation project that is all about cars.

    We can do better than that! PBOT has studied an alternative plan that does not require a couplet. Unfortunately, in it determination to create a couplet, alternates have received little attention. It’s time to widen the conversation and expend more effort and creativity towards a sensible solution to enhance Burnside without the destruction of neighboring streets.

  5. re jeff f.’s comment, the lights on couch coming down from 12th are allegedly timed to 20 mph. my experience on a bike seems to confirm this. 12 mph would have been a better choice (as most north/south streets downtown are timed, south of burnside at least), but apparently this would exacerbate the backup at 14th.

  6. I don’t see why a couplet is so bad. I think if Burnside was 2 lanes going East and Couch was 2 lanes going west, it would be fine. the problem comes if Burnside is kept at 3 lanes all the way over the bridge.

    If we can put it on a road diet, I’m all for it. Although it caters somewhat to cars, not being able to time the lights (in both directions) on a major thoroughfare downtown is a hazard in many ways. Helping the cars out a bit would be okay. Would you rather them idling or moving?

  7. Whoa, Whoa, back the truck up! The opposition website says they won’t be increasing the sidewalk any along Burnside (which should be the most important part of this project).

    Is this true?,-95.677068&sspn=55.849851,114.169922&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Portland,+Multnomah,+Oregon&ll=45.522992,-122.680324&spn=0.006111,0.013937&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=45.522989,-122.680449&panoid=Y2UWZNeapSqB6-ZPpV7ZgQ&cbp=12,278.89,,0,2.3

    I’ve looked at the plan and all I see is some curb extensions to reduce the width of the street for the pedestrian.

    Regarding one-way streets, they are okay on some narrow streets especially for such a tight grid like Portland. But on wide streets like Burnside, it is my personal opinion they should be going in both directions.

    This helps retailers a lot.

    I can at least understand the couplet being used to compensate for streets that have a diagonal street bifurcating the roadways like Sandy does, but this project is beyond me at this point.

  8. The round one plan definitely called for sidewalk width increases. I’m going to wait until I see an official PBOT presentation before judging what the latest alternative is, but I know they have been trying to scale back the required $$$.

  9. It would be nice if these engineers provided some section cuts of the street with dimensions.

    Is that so much to ask for?

  10. Regarding one-way streets, they are okay on some narrow streets especially for such a tight grid like Portland. But on wide streets like Burnside, it is my personal opinion they should be going in both directions.

    Burnside isn’t “wide” west of Park Avenue, though. It’s a “narrow” street — four lanes of traffic with no parking and narrow sidewalks, having been converted from two lanes of traffic with parking and slightly wider sidewalks. It only become a “wide” street east of Park.

  11. Regarding the wide section:

    The original proposal called for making large plaza areas out of the removed westbound lanes. Thus, everything north of the tree/median strip would become flexible space to be used as parking or event space.

    Regarding the narrow section:

    About four years ago I proposed a compromise for upper west Burnside, which by slightly meandering the lanes as they progress through a block, allows for wider sidewalks at strategic locations (such as bus stops):

    Regarding the traffic light timing on the newly-completed Couch:

    I noticed a few weeks ago that the sequence was off two lights around 10th to 8th. I mentioned this to someone overseeing streetcar construction who was going to pass it on to someone overseeing Burnside-Couch construction. A few days later (don’t know if my message got through) the timing seemed to have been fixed.

    The real sticky point is the light which interfaces Sandy and 14th to Couch. Before the couplet, westbound Burnside drivers were penalized a cycle whereas westbound Sandy-to-Burnside drivers got to go in each cycle. Now it’s more like 50/50. A win for Burnside drivers, but not for Sandy drivers.

  12. WS –

    It’s true that sidewalks are not widened and the curb extensions are painted on the pavement, not true extensions. There is also virtually no provision for bike lanes other than a short stretch from 4th to the bridge.

  13. Douglas K:

    It’s wider than a lot but in terms of sheer volume of traffic it’s a major arterial — to which traffic going in both directions is vital.

    Also, this couplet does not address the area needed most:

    Near PGE park where it’s the most narrow and unsafe.

    All this does is re-route traffic around the widest part of Burnside where it can handle it and puts it all back on Burnside before I-405.

  14. Problems with having 2-way traffic on the “wide” section of Burnside. (I’ll set aside for a moment whether a couplet fully solves these or is worth the trade-offs):

    1. Wide distance for pedestrians to cross. If signals are timed sufficiently slow for an elderly person to make it in a single cycle, then this causes traffic backups at peak times.

    2. Left turns barred for autos at most intersections, requiring round-the-block movements.

    3. Timing of traffic lights on a two-way street is inherently difficult … if you favor one direction, the opposite direction suffers, and Burnside sees a lot of traffic in both directions.

    3a. Because of the pedestrian timing and two-way timing issues for Burnside, in order to maintain a sufficient green cycle for current east-west traffic volumes requires impeding north-south traffic.

  15. You could build a pedestrian bridge over the thing for far cheaper than entirely redoing two different streets, if pedestrian connectivity were truly the issue. I’m starting to think it’s not a big issue considering nothing is being discussed in regards to creating wider sidewalks (I read in a report the design is widening them a whopping 1′ in width, but I may be wrong).

    Any report or key points that I find regarding this project discuss so very little about pedestrians and more about other issues.

    The pedestrian solutions to this project are merely band-aids:

    “Painted extensions”? Really?

    I think too much of this project is seen as how to improve Burnside with little being discussed of its impact on Couch Street. Will Couch Street benefit from this in any way? I doubt it, it’s such a nice street as is especially considering it doesn’t have a bunch of junky traffic lights cluttering the streets and pedestrians and cars self-regulate themselves fairly well.

    I can’t say I’m against this project, but is this type of investment really worth it in the end?

    It’s like the entire CRC project. Why throw money at one big project when that money could go towards improving key areas around Portland instead?

    Maybe it’s time to accept that Burnside is messed up, and throwing money at it will merely make it minimally better, if at all.

    I do think this project should look at getting rid of the curb cuts on the west end of Burnside when/if those fast food stores get re-purposed for development. Minimal impact and lots of improvement on safety and traffic.

  16. You could build a pedestrian bridge over the thing for far cheaper than entirely redoing two different streets, if pedestrian connectivity were truly the issue.

    I don’t think this is the case… either you need to have some mix of elevators and escalators, for ADA access, or you need to keep the street level crossing open for those who don’t wish to climb stairs, in which case you’ve still got the original problems for pedestrians.

    If you are concerned about the clutter of “junky traffic lights”, imagine the clutter of a bunch of pedestrian overpasses, stairwells, and associated infrastructure.

    That said, I completely agree that “painted extensions”, if that’s the proposal, are a joke.

  17. Bob:

    I’m not proposing a pedestrian overpass, just illustrating that if the project were mostly about pedestrian safety and that the need was dire (at least a good portion of the entire project) and given the design and financial challenges of this project; that it would be at least suggested or optioned.

    All I can see from this is getting a few more parking spaces and some left turns on Burnside, while negatively impacting Couch for only for a few millions dollars when the city is going to be experiencing major financial hard times.

    What about one lane of traffic (each way) instead of two on Burnside (PGE area, not wider section) *but* with a protected left turn lane @ most if not all intersections. Most of the traffic I know on the west end of Burnside is caused by people waiting to turn left, to which they block an entire lane of traffic for x amount of time.

    Is that workable I wonder?

  18. The question is what will the couplet do for Burnside as a “place” as opposed to a street. We can get a feel for that as the eastside Burnside couplet gets built. It already has some “place” elements… interesting retail, distinctive architecture, anchored by the Jupiter Hotel.
    Will the new layout with wider sidewalks, curb extensions with swales, all day parking make it all work better. It might, but watch out for
    another risk…will the tidy new layout work so well that it drives up rents, kills the funk and makes it just another orderly “main street.” Burnside has bustle, chaos, grit…all of which official Portland seems to loath.

  19. I live in NW Portland, and walk in the area around Burnside a lot. I drive it a bit too, since it’s an easy way to get across the river and keep moving better than I-405 north to the Fremont back to US-30.

    I like the idea of a couplet as a pedestrian and a driver. As a driver I dislike the current Burnside for the lack of left turns, the risk of someone illegally turning in front of me (which has happened a lot), and the narrow feeling of the lanes on it.

    As a pedestrian, I like the idea of having some buffers between myself and the cars, and only needing to worry about them running me over from one direction at a time. Same with the bikes down there.

    I’d love to see Portland/ODOT lease out the airspace over I-405 between Burnside and Couch to help finance this though. It seems to be an area of high demand, and roads can be built over a freeway fairly easily. Even a park deck would be a nice addition.

  20. What about keeping Burnside somewhat as is (two-way), but slowing the traffic down big time through reducing lane widths to 10 feet, signaling for slower speeds and giving cross traffic and pedestrians more crossing time? Plus the addition of raised, textured intersections and maybe a few more street trees and trying to add a few more inches to the sidewalk. As far as I’m concerned the problem with Burnside now are the long timed lights that favor Burnside over cross streets which encourages traffic to speed. Burnside wouldnt be a problem if traffic just went at a slow speed like all the other streets in downtown Portland.

    The way I see it, the lack of left turns on Burnside is hardly a problem given the success of the Brewery Blocks and Pearl District. People seem to manage just fine without simple left turns from Burnside.

    9th Ave at Burnside needs a signal. 9th Ave could/would be a great North-South bike corridor connecting the South Park Blocks (and PSU) to the Pearl District, Broadway Bridge and Naito Parkway by Centennial Mill. NW 9th & SW Park/9th would be a better North-South bike corridor than the one-way Broadway bike route (would be two-way, continuous from PSU to the river, avoids the hotel drop offs).

    If there was one street in downtown Portland that needed curb extensions, Burnside would be it. I can’t believe the proposed aren’t even going to be real curb extensions.

    The stretch in Old Town is a complete waste. The decision was made that the median trees are staying so everything on Burnside to the north of the median is excess space, so much so that the designers essentially dont know what to do with it, hence you get that awkward parking plaza.

    All this does is re-route traffic around the widest part of Burnside where it can handle it and puts it all back on Burnside before I-405.
    Agree completely.

    On a related note, can we get a sidewalk added on Everett and Glisan over I-405? It shocking that there is only a tiny sidewalk on one side of the overpass (with dangerous missing connecting crosswalks).

  21. In fact, narrowing the lanes to 10 feet west of the freeway was part of the round one plan. It has two current problems:

    1) The freight community adamantly opposes it.

    2) The introduction of Streetcar as a possibility in round two complicates it. Streetcar’s dynamic envelope requires an 11 foot lane, so at least one lane needs to stay at 11 feet if we want to maintain a Streetcar option.

    Even narrowing the lanes to 10 feet only gets you 10 foot sidewalks, which are still inadequate under City standards.

  22. Dear Chris,

    The Bureau of Transportation website for Burnside/Couch was “under construction” because I was in the middle of a project to downsize our website. There were broken links at one point and I wanted to communicate that work was being done on PortlandOnline in case a user encountered one. It does not reflect a status change for the project.

    This was also true of many project and program pages beginning in March. Also, please expect to see more changes on our site in the next year and more “under construction” signs. However, it should be noted that most of these changes are indicative of website reorganization that should make our site smaller and more streamlined, but are not good measures of Bureau priorities. I apologize for any confusion this work may have caused.

    Please contact directly if you have any questions or comments.


    Dan Anderson

    Portland Bureau of Transportation
    Public Information Officer

  23. Painted curb extensions
    This is patently false; the plan is to include curb extensions at many locations, just like the eastside (and I would guess, better).

    Ped bridges over Burnside
    Why would anyone ascend 20 feet of steps/ramps/other in order to cross a street with ped signals at almost every corner? The idea of installing ped bridges at every intersection could cost $100M+, barely ever get used, and produce so much clutter with columns, stairwells, elevators, etc, and is just so bizarre.

    3-lane Burnside section
    This was considered for the section west of I-405, and as far as I know is still on the table. However, it would probably create a lot of congestion, and the freight community would likely have a fit. I think it’s a real tough sell.

    Signal timing, speeding, long cycle lengths
    These are direct consequences of the 2-way operation. This is exactly why the couplet is proposed – it solves each of these in a way that 2-way never will.

  24. Removing an eastbound lane west of the freeway was modeled and does not cause congestion. It probably would arouse the freight community. It’s also not compatible with adding Streetcar at some point in the future.

    One option would be to convert an eastbound lane to parking to help stimulate the retail, then convert it to Streetcar later.

  25. Regarding painted curb extensions, please refer to page 5 and Exhibits C, D, E, F and G of Preliminary Engineering and Estimate Report dated October 2009. Referring to the north side of Burnside from 2nd to Park…”this area would not be widened and curb extensions would not be raised. In place of raised concrete curb extensions, this latest proposal would use the NYC pedestrian delineation tools…”

  26. One more thing about those “curb extensions”: PBOT refers to them as “colored asphalt”. The ‘reduced scope’ plan is on PBOT’s website and it’s worth a look-see. You’ll be surprise at what’s missing. For example; real curb extensions, and wider sidewalks. Not one sidewalk on either Burnside or Couch is widened. The West side couplet is all about the automobile. I personally believe Portland deserves better.

  27. Thanks for the references Stan and Jackie. You are right, I am surprised at the way the plans have changed. This new concept does appear somewhat auto-centric in certain options….however, a look at the eastside project being built shows a much more pedestrian-focused design. Hopefully, the West Burnside designs will evolve in the same direction. Portland does deserve a well-designed street, whether it’s one-way or two-way.

  28. Also, I retract my comment about the curb extensions being patently false – I wasn’t aware the project had drastically changed. My apologies to Stan and ws.

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