It was after 6:30, so the bulk of the evening rush had come and gone. Clinton Street would be quiet, relaxing, exhilarating…like the olden days. Or so I thought.
Before I’d even ridden a block, I got the all-too familiar “Clinton Street Salute:” a car zipping around me too quickly and too closely. It presaged a glut of traffic the whole way, and along with it the nerve-racking claustrophobia that’s kept me away from Clinton since a group jaunt back in August.
Just a few years ago, the thought of going two whole months without setting tire upon Clinton Street would have been unfathomable to me. One of the best things about my job is that I get to travel throughout the city to look at roads and intersections, and Clinton has long been my superhighway to all points southeast. If you got there early enough, you could often go from Seven Corners all the way to Southeast 26th without seeing a single car. On my many ambles through the corridor I discovered the best cup of coffee in Southeast, the best corn muffins in the city, and the best hot buttered rum anywhere. I realize now that I developed something of a sentimental attachment to the street while riding eastbound all those mornings, mesmerized by constant stream of people cycling past me on their way downtown. Those sign-toppers really meant something back then.
Neighborhood Greenways, née Bicycle Boulevards, are among the most innovative of Portland’s contributions to bike infrastructure. Because Portland’s density is relatively low, and our city blocks are relatively small, we’ve got a decent number of streets that are naturally low-volume. By identifying some of those streets and making a few modest improvements to them, the city created a fairly robust network of comfortable bikeways, quickly and cheaply. Quintessential “low-hanging fruit.” These would never cut mustard as a substitute for high-quality bikeways along our busiest and best streets, but they could be an excellent complement to them. Certainly, they’d suffice in the interim while we built out all of that truly nice stuff.
While I savored those early morning rides along sleepy Clinton, change was happening quickly a block to the north on Division Street. As the recession eased and development picked up, Southeast Division began to densify as fast as any street in the City. Many hands were wrung regarding where everybody would park, but we forgot to think about where everybody would bike. All the while, car traffic on Clinton crept upward. When the Division Streetscape project hit, it was over. Though the project improved Division Street by adding curb extensions at the expense of automotive capacity, we forgot to plan for the impact to bicycling even though it was easy to see this coming. In the course of detouring cars around the construction, we introduced them to a route that they seem to be sticking with in lieu of a slower, narrow Division. The transformation of Clinton Street from a low-stress bikeway to a vehicular cycling boot camp is now complete.
When your bike plan consists of leveraging your low density and your growth plan is to densify, you run the risk of moving backward by standing still. We’ve seen that happen in real-time over the last few years on Clinton Street, and we’re starting to see it more and more clearly in the lagging indicators. The good news—in the case of Clinton, at least—is that the solution is easy and obvious: diverters. The traffic study to determine what to do and where to do it would be a cakewalk, and the cost of installing a few planters to do the trick would be minimal.
So what’s stopping us? My fear is that, with the 2030 bike plan now clearly relegated to “pipe dream” status, Portland lacks a vision for our identity as a bicycle city and how to move forward as such with determination. Bringing bicycling to the best streets is not happening nearly so quickly as we had hoped, which makes it that much more urgent to do what’s necessary to keep the greenways as a workable alternative in the interim. We must defend the fruits that we picked when they were low. We must, at the very least, not move backward.
A few planters could speak volumes. They’d definitely reduce them.