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.

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