Street by Street, Out of the Mud

Wearing my Planning and Sustainability Commission hat, I’ve been following for some time an effort by the Portland Bureau of Transportation know as Street-by-street. The intent is to address the many unimproved streets in the City (many in East Portland, and a few areas in NE and SE Portland).

The source of the problem is that under County zoning rules, developers were not required to improve streets before building homes. So when areas were annexed to the City, they included streets that were not up to City standards. It’s incumbent on the property owner to bring the street up to standards before the City will take over maintenance.

It’s phenomenally expensive to meet full City standards (including sidewalks, curbs and storm water facilities), so the result has been that nothing happens, and these streets stay gravel or dirt.

Street-by-street is an effort to define some alternate standards that are better than mud, but not as expensive as the full treatment, on the theory that we’re all better off with something useful, even if not perfect.

I first encountered this as part of the Cully Plan, where pilot treatments were proposed to address the large gaps in the street network there. More recently the Planning and Sustainability Commission got a complete briefing on the program, and today City Council had a work session on the topic.

Except that today, when it got to Council it was called “Out of the Mud (and Dust)”. I think I detect the Mayor’s messaging hand at work…

And I was happy to see that one of the recommendations from our Commission was included, lowering the target speed for “shared streets” (where a single 16-foot paved area is intended to serve people in cars, on bikes and on foot) from 20mph to 15mph.

You can check out the full briefing presentation here (PDF, 1.5M).

I know some pedestrian advocates who think settling for anything less than fully separated sidewalks is a bad idea, but I’m inclined to think that half a loaf (at less than half the cost), particularly on streets intended to serve 500 or fewer auto trips per day, is better than none.

What do you think?

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16 responses to “Street by Street, Out of the Mud”

  1. Agreed, half a loaf is better than none.

    The City could put some teeth in the 15-mph limits by encouraging motor vehicle diversion at one end of some of these blocks. Hard to go more than 15mph when there’s a pretty planter blocking your way at the end of the block!

  2. There are already many streets in Portland that are built this way. I ride my bike home on them every day in the Cully neighborhood. They seem to work fine, and I see pedestrians and cyclists on them all the time. Pave a 20ft ROW now, and add sidewalks later.

  3. Sidewalks are not at all necessary on low-speed, low-traffic streets. On my trip to the Netherlands I encountered lots of streets like that. They often also included “advisory bike lanes.” Basically you would stripe a lane on each side of that 16 or 20 foot street, leaving room in the middle for one car. If two cars have to pass, they have to negotiate. Surprisingly, it works really well and slows down traffic because drivers know they have to be careful.

  4. I think the requirement for the 7′ clear ‘parking’ lane is the downfall of these designs.

    When we look at big street cross sections, everything needs it’s place. A sidewalk, a buffer, a lane, a clear zone, a median, etc… But applying this concept to our local streets is excessive. It leads to overly wide streets, and encourages overly fast operation.

    These designs hint at the solution, which is to mix, or overlap, the different elements of the street. Their use of a 16′ travel area shows this, where two conventional travel lanes are overlapped within the same 16′ space.

    Because transportation occurs over distance, we can mix like this without much trouble, particularly at low volumes. This is the whole concept of neighborhood greenways.

    Surprisingly, the design overlaps the moving lanes for all modes, but refuses to overlap the parking lane. Specifically, they should be mixing the parking lane with the street trees and landscaping. This will help occupy the parking lanes with something other than air when the cars are out for the day.

    Their photo of SE Mill street does this beautifully, showing how it would work in practice. If the SE Mill trees needed to be pushed 4′ farther outside of the street we would loose the full canopy, loose the containment, and likely see increased travel speeds on the street.

  5. Nick- I totally agree with you! As long as the parking lane can allow trees in it and other amenities, the design looks good

  6. I’m fine with sharing paved streets. In my neighborhood (Montavilla north of Glisan), there are a lot of east-west streets that have been paved, but with no curbs or sidewalks and typically gravel on the shoulders. People walk in the street all the time and simply move to the side of the road when cars come by. If this has caused accidents, I haven’t heard about them. As long as the traffic volume is low, there’s no reason pedestrians shouldn’t use the street.

  7. I live in roseway/cully and my concern lately with some of these streets is that residents have been extending their yards out to the street reducing the safe space to walk. Recently one of my neighbors built a fence all the way out to where the curb should be preventing people from walking where the median/sidewalk should be as they go down the street. That particular street is paved but has not curbs or sidewalk so car speeds are often faster than 20mph. Anyone know if there are rules about fencing in this manner and who someone might talk to about it?

  8. I think LID’s should drive this. The City (all residents) can chip in, but the initiative (and the bulk of the dough) for a street treatment needs to come from the residents. And then those same residents should be able to work out a design that suits their block or blocks. It sounds like what this effort would do is set some minimum standard that would get you “City maintenance” (i.e. cleaning once a year and??)
    I grew up on SW Hume Street, one of Multnomah’s many rural streets…gravel, pot holes, dust/mud, but slow speeds, a place to play, walk, and bike, and a country feel. The LID idea came up from time to time, and I recall that my folks were not very interested. Then you got the full 36′ pavement with curbs…no sidewalks. It would have taken out our big Maple tree and possibly increased run off into our already wet basement, and speeded up traffic putting kids and dogs at risk (dogs ran loose, ours lounged in pot holes waiting for cars to chase, etc.). SW Hume west of 35th to 37th is still “rural.”
    Is there an ADA issue here? Can a partially paved street meet those standards? SW Hume then and now would not meet any ADA standard.

  9. think settling for anything less than fully separated sidewalks is a bad idea

    People and vehicles mix all the time in campgrounds and parking lots. They put a nice new walkway next to the railroad tracks in central Salem and part of it is also usable by vehicles to access some parking lots (or the next street).

    If walkers, etc want a separated path, mark (and maybe physically divide) off one side of the asphalt strip. All parking could be done on the other side if needed.

    In addition, blocks are often short so people often don’t have far to walk to reach a fully developed street if at least some streets are.

  10. It is absolutely laughable of the time and expense the City of Portland is going through to come up with a scheme…that is standard roadway design in practically every single city in Oregon with a population of less than 5,000.

    Is it really that difficult to spend 30 seconds and say “basic asphalt surfaces for low travelled residential streets are permitted”?

    For the amount of time and effort to talk about this new marketing scheme…Portland could have paved five miles of street.

  11. I’m wondering, what about unpaved alleys? There are a lot of them in upper Alberta (20s blocks), but they tend to be blocked by blackberries & other overgrowth, inadequately surfaced, etc… yet, when passable, they add another element to the pedestrian/bicycle/slow vehicle grid. Could we develop “green street” standards for alleys and include bringing them up to these standards as a part of any local LID also addressing unpaved streets?

  12. The culture in some parts of Philadelphia, especially here in Kensington and the River Wards, is that people actually park on the “pavement” (Philadelphian for sidewalk) as a matter of course.

    On some of our narrow row house blocks (essentially, alleys), drivers even just leave their cars right in the streets overnight, and make it impossible for anyone to even think of passing through. Vehicularly.

    This sometimes has the benefit of essentially creating car-free streets, actually, but sometimes is a public safety hazard, considering Fire Department stuff.

    But most of the time, Douglas K’s comment above pretty much sums it up. We just walk on the street in those instances, even if drivers don’t like it.

    Try E. Gordon Street here in Kensington, where the ‘road’ is sometimes 6 feet wide at certain points, and where street life flourishes amongst residents of the row house blocks there…

  13. Chris:

    I like a lot about this proposal. It’s good for developers who shouldn’t be paying for the “sidewalks to nowhere” and for street typologies that fit in with their surrounding context to be built. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a street without sidewalks that are quite nice.

    This is a good example of codes and regulations being extremely prohibitive of other street types being built.

    I hope that more common sense ideas like this are applied in making comprehensive plans and codes logical. Clearly you’re not asking to do away with sidewalks on downtown streets, but your plan asks for some logic to be applied in certain neighborhoods.

    Good work, this has been a long time coming.

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