Requiem for a Greenway

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.


34 responses to “Requiem for a Greenway”

  1. Thank you for this. I wish I lived closer to Clinton or I’d be “pace-biking” in the middle of the road every day. I’m not really so strong and fearless, it’s just that my ebike will lock into exactly 20mph if I hold the throttle and pedal hard. And I’m happy to use that trick to teach motorists how not to speed.

    But I shouldn’t need to roll “the people’s diverter” even on the not-yet-overrun Greenways like Going St. It’s certainly a shame that the prototype route which inspired the Greenway network isn’t taken seriously by the city.

    The new Rodney diverter only cost $5,000, so by my calculations we’d be able to divert all existing 50 miles of Greenway every 3 blocks for about $2 million dollars. While that’s not free, it’s practically in Kickstarter range. What are we waiting for?

    • Oh man this would be epic as a kickstarter!!! We as a city really need to figure out how to just get a step up on making our neighborhoods even better with a few diverters here and there and get coordinated with the city. The fact of the matter is PBOT is overworked (largely dealing with the plethora of issues with also being underfunded) and the city often wants to do things like build out diverters in places like this. Maybe if we could get some “temporary” diverters, with some big ole’ glorious planters like on Multnomah Cycle Track we could prove out the reality of fixing Clinton and then…

      …we’d just leave them in place. ;)

      In that case, forget a kickstarter, I’d be happy to buy some giant planters for this specific purpose!!

  2. To some extent this seems like a problem that could be solved by just having more people biking there- once you have a critical mass of cyclists, it would be impossible for cars to aggressively pass them. But unfortunately, without some sort of help from the city, we’ll never reach that critical mass and new cyclists will be turned off the experience.

  3. The 2030 plan, like bike share here in Portland, has become an embarrassing, depressing, disappointment. I’m starting to wish it would just go away, officially, so that we could stop deluding ourselves.

  4. ….a car zipping around me too quickly and too closely.

    >>>> Just like you bicyclists do to pedestrians on the sidewalk.

    • Can we assume, for the sake of civil debate, that the types of drivers who buzz bicyclists and fail to yield pedestrian aren’t posting on this forum. And also that the type of bicyclists who buzz pedestrians aren’t posting here either.

      Or are *you posters* just here to rile up a meaningless fight rather than engage in constructive conversation?

      • Umm, this is the comment section of a blog that deals with difficult issues, so I’d say it’s the former?

        Even tho PT is more thoughtful/less insane in the comments area than most, folks here can and do focus on the hyperbole and leave the facts and analysis behind. Especially when the topic is TriMet or bikes.

        • @joebobpdx: When Brian complained that a car zipped by him Clinton St., all I did was point out that cyclists do the same to pedestrians.

          The reactions were interesting. But then again, I am not surprised.
          Anytime I post a truism about biking or light rail, I expect to get flamed.

    • Ah, yes, the old “bicyclists-as-scofflaws” meme. It’s as inevitable that this comment would be left as it is unfortunate.

      I used to think that this was simply a lazy, naive analysis that betrayed a lack of thought and understanding regarding the logistics of asking people walking, bicycling, and driving to all share space to some extent. I used to think it was simply indicative of a mind too small to allow observations to shape its opinions.

      I was wrong, of course. It’s just common prejudice, masquerading as stupidity.

      I’ve been writing about this almost as long as Clinton Street has been awful ( Carl Alviani wrote the smartest piece to date on the topic that I’ve read ( So there’s plenty out there to educate yourself if I’m wrong.

  5. Experience is the best teacher. In my experience as a pedestrian, bad behavior by bicyclists (like buzzing pedestrians) is far more common than bad behavior by motorists.

    So I have already been educated.

    • Actually experience can be quite a poor teacher, due in part to fundamental attribution error as Alviani describes is the article I linked. That’s why we rely instead on data to tease out the relative dangers of travel behaviors, which of course tell a far different story than your limited experience.

      The world is round, humans evolved from apes, and scofflaw drivers pose a far, far greater threat to drivers than scofflaw cyclists. All of those things are equally and unarguably true, and we know all of them for the same reasons. #science

    • Let’s say that your experience is convincing, that it trumps the reams of evidence that show that motor vehicles are a far greater danger to pedestrians than bikes, in both frequency and magnitude, and that you haven’t compartmentalized the hazards cars present to you as ubiquitous but because bicycles are less numerous they are more noticeable. Let’s also say that you are experiencing bad behavior by people on bikes on an actual Neighborhood Greenway, which I assume is the case, because that’s what the article is about.

      In light of this, let me pose the question: what could we practically do to minimize conflict between people on bikes and people on foot? One way might be to reduce the danger people on bikes experience when they travel in the street. That way, there would be less incentive for them to flee to the relative safety of the sidewalk.

      Maybe you haven’t noticed, but everybody walking, everybody driving, everybody on foot, are all people. They are motivated by the same things, they want to get to where they’re going, and they all take advantage of the space they are given. People on bike and people on foot are given the least space, and have the least safety. People in cars have almost the whole road to themselves, and carry their own multi-ton safety cages around them. When car traffic makes it less safe for people to ride their bikes in safety on the street, it can squeeze them into conflict with people walking, but never forget: that conflict is caused by the cars.

      • Thank you for making this argument so much more articulately and level-headedly than I’ve been able to, and showing how related it is to the topic at hand. Very well put; while I don’t excuse bike intimidation of peds any more than I do motorist intimidation of bikes (I walk at least as often as I cycle), it’s hard not to see how infrastructure contributes to this.

      • @ peejay – There’s no “like” button on this blog, but if there was, I’d push it for your response. Well put!

    • I would throw in “absence of lighting” as another bad behavior. If Motorist A has to go eight miles in Portland to get from Point 1 to Point 2 (due to the fact that Portland has traditionally been a western style city and rather spread out) when it is dark and rainy, how does anyone figure he can spot unlit bicycles among all the other objects (lit and unlit) on his path?

      The laws on bicycle lighting are very antiquated—-stemming from when most cyclists were schoolkids unlikely to be riding at night and when traffic was not near as congested as 2014 Portland. We need new laws on bicycle lighting statewide and required helmets, too. It’s only fair with the higher level of activity we have now.

      And please stop the constant bleating on infrastructure….at least until it can be accomplished in a reasonable way with reasonable costs. What is cheaper—changing the law or building new infrastructure? We need some upgraded laws so psychlists can be better protected from harm.

      • You are correct that a well light object is easier to see. But Oregon’s basic speed rule requires you to drive slow enough for conditions, and that includes things like children playing after dark (with or without bikes / lights), drunks wandering in the street (probably unlit), etc. So from a driver’s perspective if all bikes were well lit, it wouldn’t reduce the duty to pay attention.

        I agree we should require new bikes to be sold with adequate lighting for nighttime riding, this is how it is done in countries that take biking seriously.

        On your other point, it’s more or less well established that “helmet law” is dog-whistle for “please stop biking.” If you are new to the question, there are plenty of online resources. Here’s one perspective from a place with experience:

        • Kids don’t usually bike on (busy) streets at night, and are usually not out at all. Portland’s drunks tend to concentrate in certain areas. I don’t like the seatbelt law (always had one for freeway driving, and why do I need one going 1/2 mile at 25 mph?) but comply anyway, usually. Bicyclists not wearing helmets would not get stopped on trails, which I think we could use a few more of. So that leaves the roadways and roadway adjacent bike lanes. If it would save lives why not?

          I think the amount of defensive driving principles employed by motorists (i.e allowing your rights to be violated in order to prevent collisions) should be appreciated, at least in Portland if not other cities. What is the big deal about wearing a helmet? It has no lasting harmful effect.

          What good does “requiring new bikes to be sold with lighting” do? It still has to be maintained. What I am saying is that we need a more stringent law that holds the users responsible. I have seen some very pathetic attempts at providing white and red lighting—that wouldn’t even meet the present law. I’ve seen more and more cyclists providing some much stronger lighting, to the point where they look like motorcycles approaching. So some are doing a good job and realize the importance.

          As a practical matter, if I see a line of cars following each other on SE Milwaukie Ave, it’s kind of silly to think that a drunken person or child on a bike is in there, also. The cars would be stopped and there probably would have been an accident. But, based on present circumstances, some adult on a bike may be in that line or ahead of it, or following it …..whom you can barely spot with their jacket flap covering their weak, one led light or whatever they are using, or some gear on the back or backpack covering a barely visible red light. Bicycle lights are NOT very expensive and it would also help to have side visibility. In fact a few years ago I saw one advertised special where powerful white and red lights were available for <$10. PT did not print that statement and reference. Besides my three lights (1 white 2 red) I'm also getting some tube cap lights, as I understand these also help visibility. they are <$2 ea. Plus some new, larger lights. It's a courtesy to the motorists, also., who normally are attentive.

          • In the Netherlands (as well as many other places with high rates of cycling, I’d suspect), it is nearly impossible to buy a bicycle that doesn’t come with lights. They also come standard with fenders, racks, a lock, etc. These are things that in most cases you have to buy and install separately in the US, and it can often be intimidating to the new rider. Kent’s Bike Blog has a brilliant take on this:

            Fortunately, the helmet issue is starting to finally show signs of dying off, at least in terms of any momentum for laws requiring them. All of the places that have implemented a helmet law have found that they’re less successful at preventing injury than they are at preventing cycling, as Chris says.

            Though it should be apparent, I wrote this piece to deal with a specific problem–a large amount of cut-through traffic compromising the comfort of a greenway–that is likely to manifest elsewhere as the city grows. I’m not sure how or why anything bicycle related eventually becomes a discussion of how bicyclists “behave” or what they wear. It’s not really germane. Well, it is insofar as behavior is often heavily independent on infrastructure, and helmet use (in an unregulated urban environment) can be a good indication of how safe feel people on that infrastructure, but we’re not really going there…

            • Heh.

              One problem is that it may not be obvious what crowd a given bike shop caters to. For cars, it’s obvious that you aren’t going to get a 4WD SUV at Ron Tonkin Gran Turismo, or a Porsche 911 down at Beaverton Toyota; dealerships are largely segregated by make, and different makes of car appeal to different markets. (Though auto dealers will happily encourage expensive upgrades, include letting on that factory equipment is “crap” that any conscientious motorist should be embarrassed to own…)

              With bike shops, it may not be obvious that a given shop appeals to racers or wannabe racers or BMX or commuters or whatever, until you get into the store. And in some markets, you may have a choice between a racing shop and the 30lb hunks of steel at WalMart.

              At any rate, the first solution to excessive auto traffic in a greenway ought to be frequent speed bumps, with gaps for bikes, along with police officers enforcing the speed limit. If that doesn’t work, diverters.

  6. You can proffer up all the studies you want, but many cyclists behavior on sidewalks makes for an uncomfortable walking experience. Also, if my observations were only over a month or two, then my experience would be limited. But I have been living in Portland 13 1/2 years; over that period of time, experience becomes very unlimited.
    If I see all kinds of stuff going on with cyclists all the time, then other peds would see the same things that I do.

    Cycling in Portland does not have a very good reputation when it comes to manners.

    • Just curious: would you rather be hit by a car or a bike?

      You seem to be oblivious to the number of people who have been killed by cars in this town over your 13 1/2 years. I am going to say that preventing those deaths is more important than protecting your hurt feelings as you walk the sidewalks, although, as I’ve said, the solution to both of those problems is to take space away from cars and give it back to people on bikes and on foot.

      Bike riders, ill-mannered or not, deserve space protected from cars just as much as people on foot deserve space protected from cars and bikes.

      You’ve opened your mouth several times here, complaining about bikes. What realistic policy or infrastructure proposal do you have to make things better? And I don’t count as realistic somehow magically changing the attitude of a group of people whose situation you have not shown a willingness to understand, while maintaining that no other group needs to change.

    • For my part, I go out of my way to stop for peds and fellow cyclists. Just today, I went to pass another cyclists coming into DT over the Hawthorne and missed the pedestrian around the curve and I cut both off.

      I felt REALLY bad about it, so got off and asked if they were okay. No intended harm but I felt like my behavior could have left a bad taste for “some of THOSE cyclists”.

      We aren’t messing up on purpose and I think a genuine apology can help.

    • Would you rather be uncomfortable, or dead? You should ask the 12+ people that die getting hit by cars on Portland streets every year. Oh, right, you can’t, because they’re dead.

      Until that number drops to zero, and cyclists start injuring and killing more pedestrians than cars do, your sentiments will continue to be a joke. Why don’t you direct your hatred towards the real hazard?

    • I’ve lived here as long as you. For the first half I drove a car everywhere. Now I mostly take transit, walk, and bike (in that order). I don’t own a car.

      I don’t have the same experience as you. I walk a couple miles a day, half of it in the urban core, half in middle-SE. Bicycles on the sidewalk simply aren’t a problem for me at all.

      Very few cyclist’s behavior on sidewalks makes me uncomfortable. Mostly to the extent that they momentarily take away my focus of not getting hit by a car.

      Yes, of course there are a few people riding their bicycles on the sidewalk quite fast in a dense area. Ask a kid or a senior if those people are going too fast and you’ll likely get a “yes” answer.

      Perhaps I just became accustomed to busy city life better than some and learned to ignore those non-issues. Joggers and cyclists buzzing by me is a normal occurrence. I look behind me before making an abrupt turn on a sidewalk or MUP.

      Your complaints apply to people, not cyclists. Nobody has a good reputation with manners.

      So sure, I see some of these things you speak of, rarely. And they pale in comparison to me fearing for my life that I’ll be run over by a car; something that is likely to kill me.

  7. seems to me one way to solve this issue is to deny motorists the reason that they’re using Clinton. if the City would create a point somewhere between 26th and 39th that only allowed bike/ped access it would eliminate the ability to use Clinton as an alternative to Division. I know that I’ve used Clinton in the past to get from New Seasons to 39th/Cesar Chavez just because it was easier and probably quicker than heading up division. Simply throw down a couple of jersey barriers and call it good. cheap & easy.

      • This is an interesting idea. I think the new Comp Plan will have updated bikeway designations that are more meaningful than the two current ones. I don’t know much about that (I hope to learn more at tomorrow’s Wonk Night at the Lancaster offices, which I’d encourage everyone interested to attend), but maybe there’s an opportunity to formalize the notion that Greenways at or above the 1,500 vehicle-per-day threshhold need traffic reduction measures.

        One of the (many) ways that modern transportation planning errs is by looking at daily volumes as a rigid properties of a street (like it’s width) rather than something that we can control through design. We’ve got to break out of that mindset, and then we can confidently codify a requirement that Greenways must be kept below the 1,500 vpd threshold.

  8. I was out there this morning and was truly shocked at how high the traffic volume was on Clinton in the low 30s. I had someone blow past me on the left at about 40 mph and I was IN A CAR.

  9. Are the increasing densities in the inner-eastside really to blame, here? The implication would be that people that moved into the car-free apartments on lower Division are now parking on the street and driving 40mph on the greenway. To me, that doesn’t seem plausible. Has the additional congestion on Division diverted drivers from points much further east off of Division and onto the neighborhood streets? To me, it seems that someone who has a 30min+ commute from east of 205 would be more likely to blast past cyclists on Clinton than someone who has a 2 mile commute from inner Division to downtown.

  10. This is a good opportunity for bicycle license revenue to benefit only cyclists: build diverters on the greenways with it. If it were certain it would be used for that, people would enthusiastically support licensing.

    • In all of the places it has been tried, bicycle licensing has benefited no one. The administrative fees exceed the revenue. And what do you do with minors? Does my 6 year-old have to take a class and pay for a license before she pedals around at Sunday Parkways?

    • My worry with licensing is it adds another “barrier” to a travel mode we’re trying to encourage, but already faces significant disadvantages in terms of infrastructure, cultural acceptance, etc. In doing so, it neutralizes a big advantage that bicycling has: anyone can do it, at any age, without any procedural hurdles, etc.

      I do wish there were a way to collect revenue -only- from people who sometimes bicycle, to be used -only- for bike infrastructure. The City Club proposed a sales tax on bikes which might solve some of the problems with administrative costs exceeding revenues since those are easy to implement. Ultimately, I think the street fee is probably the best proxy for this. Obviously, this captures all road users, but can be scaled such that revenue from people who bike (or want to) will go toward the according improvements.

      • A portion of property tax revenue is spent on transportation in Portland. If someone doesn’t own a car, they still pay property taxes, yet they do essentially zero damage to the roads. If anything, they are paying more than their fair share, especially compared to someone that lives in a cheap house and drives a big pickup truck.

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