ODOT to close 82nd Avenue bus lane for safety reasons?

ODOT is considering getting rid of the bus lane on SE 82nd Avenue, between Monterey and King, for safety reasons.
Outside the transit mall, the Portland metro area has very little bus-specific traffic infrastructure. Virtually all busses run in mixed traffic, with little or no signal priority or other enhancements designed to improve their reliability. There are a few exceptions to this, and one of the most notable is the bus lane on northbound 82nd Avenue north of Clackamas Town Center.

Unfortunately, ODOT considers the bus lane a safety hazard (for motorists), and is considering its closure.
The 82nd Avenue bus lane runs in the outside (curb) lane of 82nd from SE Monterey Avenue (the street used to access the CTC Transit Center from 82nd) to SE King Road. It is located between the curb and the northbound bike lane (and separated from general traffic by bikes); two general travel lanes in each direction, a turning refuge, and a southbound bike lane make up the remainder of the street’s configuration. Three bus lines–the 31, the 71, and the 72 (the busiest line in the system), which combine for up to 10 busses per hour, use this stretch of 82nd (at King the 31 and the 71 head west where the 72 continues north). Traffic in the area is frequently a parking lot, so the bus lane gives TriMet and its riders an important efficiency and reliability advantage.

Safety concerns

However, this particular stretch of ODOT has been identified as a safety hazard, and a project to improve traffic safety in the area is potentially part of the 2014-2015 STIP (State Transportation Improvement Program). Unfortunately, the proposed project calls for the removal of the bus lane, on the grounds that sideswipe collisions between busses and cars were a frequent danger. The project proposal is unclear as to whether or not the bus lane would be replaced with nothing (leaving 82nd with four traffic lanes, two bike lanes, and a turn refuge), a third northbound lane, parking, or whatnot. The project description goes to great lengths to emphasize that bus service in the corridor would continue, just without a dedicated lane.

I consider safety to be an important concern, and outside bus lanes such as this are frequently a less-than-ideal solution. Outside bus lanes (meaning those on the right in North America) frequently come into conflict with turning traffic; and right-turners have a tendency to be less cautious about their business than those turning left. In addition, the lane isn’t as exclusive as one would like–cars may enter it to turn right, and autos doing so may find themselves blocked by pedestrians in the crosswalk. (Jarrett Walker goes into more detail on these and other issues). Simply eliminating the bus lane is a low-cost solution to the problem (the project has a fairly limited budget, and might not be done at all), though one that will–in this case–have severe impacts on the speed and reliability of a key piece of the TriMet system.

However, this does sound like a case of an auto-focused agency dealing with a motorist problem by short-changing transit. In the collisions that occur, it’s invariably inattentive motorists colliding with busses in the bus lane, not inattentive bus drivers running over automobiles. Were autos instead side-swiping bicycles, the powers that be probably wouldn’t be considering elimination of the bike lane–at least not in Oregon. (In other parts of the country, such incidents would be blamed on cyclists gettin’ in the way). A better solution to the problem, one that took transit concerns seriously, would involve improvements such as access consolidation, traffic control devices to mediate conflicts between busses and motorists, and a more substantial barrier between the different modes than a line painted on the street.

But there’s a bigger opportunity potentially being missed here.

Doing it right

Another part of the project attempts to deal with left-turn conflicts, and there are plenty. An excellent way to deal with left turn conflicts is to limit left turns–replacement of turn lanes with medians and limited left turns to signalized crossings (with U-turns being permitted as well) is a time-honored way of improving safety on high-volume arterials like 82nd. And indeed, there are such design elements in the project (and two others in the STIP which are centered around King and Sunnyside) with numerous turning movements being restricted by the installation of physical barriers and left turns being limited to major intersections.

But think for a moment–if traffic engineers decide to replace a turning refuge with a no-turning barrier, and are simultaneously considering getting rid of a curbside bus lane because of right-turn conflicts–what is an obvious solution that not only kills two birds with one stone, but improves transit outcomes rather than making them worse?

How about—a bus lane in the median?

Or, since there’s both a turning refuge and an existing bus lane being replaced, upping the ante and building two bus lanes–one per direction–in the median?

Median bus lanes, as opposed to the curbside variety, have several advantages, including:

  • no turning conflicts at other than signalized intersections
  • Less intimidating to pedestrians, bikes, and other smaller road users near the curb or on the sidewalk.
  • The bus service is more prominent and seems more reliable when located in the median. Whether or not such psychological cues ought to matter, they do.
  • Assuming stops are placed near intersections, easier pedestrian access to the bus (two half-crossings of the street rather than one full crossing on a given round trip).

Of course, median busways don’t really make sense with local-stop service; they work best when the bus can travel some distance between stops, and when given other BRT treatments. A busway with stops at King, Causey, and Monterey–and improved pedestrian access to make up for the longer stopping distances–would provide the same safety advantages and make transit through the area even more reliable than it is now.

This proposal would no doubt cost more than the limited-scope restripe-and-erect project being proposed by ODOT (which is priced at less than $200k), and a good argument can be made that it isn’t really worth it for a half-mile stretch of road. However, for transit outcomes, even doing nothing is better than the proposal which is on the table. (And were this extended north to Johnson Creek, or even further, so much the better).

Public comments on the proposal may be submitted to ODOT here. If you comment, make sure you select the radio button for “82nd Avenue at SE Causey Road” under Safety Projects… and be polite.

19 Comments

19 Responses to ODOT to close 82nd Avenue bus lane for safety reasons?

  1. Michael, Portland Afoot
    September 21, 2011 at 9:50 pm Link

    Wow, great reporting, Scotty.

    How’d you get onto this? Can our east-county contributor or I discuss this with you, or get references for other folks to talk to?

  2. Erik H.
    September 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm Link

    As a bus rider (albeit not on 82nd Avenue) one of my biggest challenges as a pedestrian is getting off of a bus that has pulled into a stop at a right-turn lane. Inevitably, there is a motorist who also wants to turn right – sees the bus stopped there, and simply goes around the bus and into…my path (crossing the street).

    Solution? Move the bus stop past the right-turn.

    On Highway 99W and Walnut Street in Tigard, it’s a bit more difficult since it would involve taking out a gas station (while personally not much of a problem, it would certainly add to the expense of the project because TriMet would then have to buy out the entire gas station, shut it down, and then sell off 90% of the acquired land at a loss) – but on 82nd Avenue it’s a piece of cake since TriMet already has the land past the cross-street.

    So…why isn’t TriMet getting actively involved for the support of its bus riders?

    Imagine if we had spent $160 million to create BRT on 82nd Avenue instead of WES – with all new “Streetcar” style bus stops, a dedicated lane in each direction (even if shared with right-turning automobiles – a small price to pay)…ODOT and the City of Portland would also receive, essentially for free, a streetscape project because all of the sidewalks and curbs would have to be redone. Overhead utilities could easily be undergrounded at the same time. Access to/from businesses could be streamlined; many of the left turns could be eliminated.

    Alas…TriMet is quiet, ODOT has no money, and who loses? The dedicated bus riders on TriMet’s single most financially successful transit service – the 72 Killingsworth/82nd Avenue bus line. But it’s OK – those few WES riders need to money. It costs TriMet 1,700% more per passenger to operate WES than the 72 bus – TriMet’s only single route that operates in as little as a five minute headway (imagine the cost savings that could be achieved with low floor articulated buses).

  3. EngineerScotty
    September 21, 2011 at 10:52 pm Link

    Just browsing ODOT’s website; I’ve got no inside info on the project that isn’t available online. Nor do I have any inside sources or tips–some things are hidden in plain sight. There were a few other STIP items that might have negative transit impacts–a proposed safety enhancement on Scholls Ferry Road includes building a bus pullout, and as we all know, bus pullouts are for the benefit of the cars and not the bus. :)

    @Erik,

    One additional advantage of median bus stops is you generally don’t have the problem of motorists turning in front of the bus and running into its passengers; the turning motion that would conflict with the bus is a left turn, and in that case a) the cars are on the same side of the bus as the door (assuming standard busses), and b) left turns are generally made more attentively than right turns.

    At any rate, there are many things which would have been more worthy of $160 million than WES (though a dedicated lane BRT down 82nd might well cost more than that). While it’s nice to think of what might have been, I find it constructive to be forward-looking. We’ve got WES and are more or less stuck with it.

  4. Douglas K.
    September 21, 2011 at 11:10 pm Link

    We’ve got WES and are more or less stuck with it.

    Yup. Dump another couple hundred million into improving it and it might actually be worth something someday.

    Or not.

  5. zefwagner
    September 22, 2011 at 1:13 am Link

    I haven’t studied it, but WES seems flawed as a concept. Commuter rail is usually successful because it gets a bunch of commuters from point A to point B very quickly and directly with no tranfers. That is the whole appeal to a group of people who normally would always drive. For any WES riders headed to Portland or to Hillsboro, it is a point A to B to C ride, with the need to transfer to MAX. I’ve never really heard of a commuter rail system anywhere else that didn’t go directly to the major downtown in the region.

  6. Chris I
    September 22, 2011 at 6:56 am Link

    Eric H,

    Why would Washington County invest their resources in BRT infrastructure on 82nd? After all, WES was initiated by Washington County, not Trimet…

  7. Jim Lee
    September 22, 2011 at 9:21 am Link

    Very good, Scotty. I use that part of 82nd several times a week, on foot, by bike, riding the 71 bus.

    The northbound bike lane is a dangerous joke. Bike traffic is sparse there, and most opt for the sidewalk. From CTC to Winco I take a back route; easier, quicker, safer. From Winco north to Trader Joe’s it is (sub)urban cowboy on the sidewalk all the way. While the Green Line was being built the 205 path was closed, so I scoped a truly ingenious parking lot route among the strip malls on the east side of 82nd.

    It can be done, but ODOT’s current solution for cyclists is worse than useless.

    And how about making the 72 line, the part from Killingsworth to Clackamas Town Center only, a dedicated trolly service in the middle of 82nd? It certainly has the patronage to justify that.

  8. Chris I
    September 22, 2011 at 9:56 am Link

    What about shifting the lanes east and adding buffered bike lanes? Looks like you could have a 6′ lane with 3′ buffers both north and south.

  9. EngineerScotty
    September 22, 2011 at 9:59 am Link

    In considering “safety” projects, it is worthwhile to consider Smeed’s Law, which holds that while technology and infrastructure improvements may increase things like speed and capacity, they don’t do much about safety–as driver behavior changes to compensate. Alon Levy writes about Smeed’s Law here and its selective use in traffic engineering.

    In short, this appears to be a capacity project in disguise. (As are several others in the STIP). A great way to improve safety is to remove impediments to traffic flow (such as turning conflicts, here between an auto lane and a bus lane); but when you do that, speeds go up, and the crashes that do occur become more severe.

  10. JHB
    September 22, 2011 at 10:30 am Link

    Portland really needs to take control of the ODOT roads within the city limits. ODOT is stuck in another era. The worst most dangerous roads in the metro area are all ODOT – 82nd Ave, Powell Blvd, McCloughlin Blvd etc.

  11. Jason McHuff
    September 22, 2011 at 11:10 am Link

    If vehicles turning right in front of/into buses is the problem, why not make the bus-only lane a right turn lane in the sections before driveways/intersections? People would be encouraged to merge into the lane instead of trying to cross it.

  12. Chris I
    September 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm Link

    It’s kind of funny that that the grounds for this bus lane removal, the fact that placing it to the right of right-turning motorists is a safety hazard, while this is the road standard ODOT has utilized for bike lanes. Hmm, maybe “funny” is not the correct word…

  13. Erik H.
    September 22, 2011 at 9:39 pm Link

    One additional advantage of median bus stops

    And one very significant disadvantage of median bus stops is the extremely increased chance of pedestrian-vehicle interaction.

    Why would Washington County invest their resources in BRT infrastructure on 82nd? After all, WES was initiated by Washington County, not Trimet…

    The primary funding source for WES is hardly Washington County:

    http://trimet.org/pdfs/history/railfactsheet-wes.pdf

    $58.7 million from the feds (which would have been fully available for BRT projects)
    $35.3 million from the State (which would have been fully available for BRT projects)
    $69.2 million “local” – which includes Metro and TriMet funding (which would have been fully available for BRT projects). I believe Washington County contributed about $25 million, which would of course have been off-limits for an 82nd Avenue project (being that it isn’t in Washington County.) Wilsonville chipped in somewhere around $5 million that again wouldn’t have been available for an 82nd Avenue project, but Wilsonville could buy some shiny new MCI D4505 buses for express runs to Portland and Salem instead of the cutaway buses that aren’t exactly designed for high speed highway use.

    If vehicles turning right in front of/into buses is the problem, why not make the bus-only lane a right turn lane in the sections before driveways/intersections?

    It already is. As I stated before, the problem is when the bus is stopped in the right-turn-only portion of the lane that is shared with other vehicles – the other vehicles have a tendancy to pass the bus causing the conflict. By moving the bus stops out of this part of the lane it would eliminate it. However a quick scan on Google Earth shows that most of the bus stops are located precisely where the lane is shared with autos making right turns.

    If the bus stops were just moved about 150 feet to the north, this would solve 99% of the bus-auto collisions.

  14. Robert
    September 22, 2011 at 10:52 pm Link

    As a note Erik, you think it would solve “99%” of the problems, but that’s not to say its accurate. People have a tendency to do dumb things to get around buses no mater what the end result it and it doesn’t matter if the bus is just waiting at the light or servicing a stop.

    Also I would say its a “significant” disadvantage to have a median stop as many people have to cross the road to get a bus stop anyway and you are actually cutting the distance in half on crossing the road as well.

  15. EngineerScotty
    September 22, 2011 at 11:18 pm Link

    If you assume a round trip, the amount of crossing is the same with either median or curbside stops. If the stop you usee to go to work is right in front of your home, the stop you use to come back is probably across the street; whereas with a median stop you are doing two half-crossings. Half-crossings are generally safer than full crossings (that said, a good pedestrian improvement is installation of pedestrian refuges in medians, so people can have half-crossings regardless of where the bus stops, or even regardless if their trip involves a bus or not.)

  16. Daniel L
    September 25, 2011 at 11:53 pm Link

    I live near in this area and I think it’s a terrible idea. The bus lane isn’t really a bus lane it’s signed as a right turn and bus lane not just at intersections but at several areas.
    It makes it safer for pedestrians crossing side streets by giving motorists a place to wait out of traffic. It may not be an ideal solution but I’ve never heard of any bus-auto accidents because of it.
    As for the bike lane, it’s in a horrible spot, but Fuller is more or less parallel and the I-205 path is only 9 blocks away.
    If ODOT should make any improvments in the corridor it should be in the form of constructing a continuous sidewalk on the west-side of 82nd. In the supposedly most urbanely developed section of Clackamas County, it’s not right that people should still be walking through mud on the side of the main arterial road.

  17. Carl
    September 27, 2011 at 1:25 pm Link

    Got excited for a second, there. I thought the headline was, “ODOT to close 82nd Avenue for safety reasons?”

  18. Erik H.
    September 30, 2011 at 11:04 pm Link

    People have a tendency to do dumb things to get around buses no mater what the end result it and it doesn’t matter if the bus is just waiting at the light or servicing a stop.

    If it’s predictable, you won’t have the “dumb things” except by totally clueless idiots that have no business having a license to drive.

    When it’s unpredictable, is when you have the “dumb things” because the person doing the “dumb thing” doesn’t know what to expect.

    When you see a bus pulled off in a right turn lane…what do you expect? Is it going to turn? Is it stopped for a pedestrian? Is it letting people on or off the bus? Is it just parked? Is it just going to be stopped for a moment, or is it deploying the ADA lift and be there for a couple minutes? Is it a timepoint and is the bus running six minutes hot? You don’t know, and so you decide to go around the bus and turn right in front of the bus, because if you wait behind the bus you block the lane and people will honk at you.

    BUT…if you put the bus stop on the opposite side of the intersection (where ordinary motorists wouldn’t drive) you eliminate the conflict. If the bus is stopped, you know it’s stopped for the traffic light and NO OTHER REASON. Not to let passengers on. Not to wait for pedestrians. Not because the Operator had to run into the gas station and take a whiz. Because there’s a freakin’ big bright RED traffic light – and it’s the same red light that everyone else travelling in the same direction is stopped for. And when it turns green, the bus – and everyone else – will go.

    Problem solved – traffic flow is predictable and everyone knows what to expect. Stopped buses don’t interfere with traffic, mainline traffic moves smoother, pedestrian safety is improved, and buses aren’t competing with automobiles as much. Cost to implement: the cost to install new bus stops (and since TriMet doesn’t spend crap on bus stops, it’s the cost of moving the bus stop signs – and a couple bus shelters.)

    And best of all, it doesn’t require any blue ribbon commission, no new Director of Safety, no Metro 25 person six county panel, no Environmental Impact Study, no lawyers…which in our region, the simplicity of it all makes it ridiculously impossible to implement despite the huge benefits to everyone involved.

  19. EngineerScotty
    September 30, 2011 at 11:28 pm Link

    Does anyone know what TriMet policy is concerning placing stops before or after intersections? Out here in Beaverton, there are plenty of examples of both.

    That said–I’m not sure that many motorists, especially those who don’t ever ride the bus, are savvy enough to look across and intersection, observe a bus stop, and deduce “aha! The bus next to me is simply waiting for the light; so I better not pull in front of it”.

    Plus, at least one intersection nearby (that of Murray and Brockman, heading northbound on Murray) has bus stops on BOTH sides of the light. The one before the light is for the 92, which turns right on Brockman; the one after the light is for the 62, which continues on Murray.

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