Author Archive | Brian Davis

“Going Dutch:” What Portland Can Learn from the World’s Cycling Capitol

It’s been something of a trend lately for Portland bike enthusiasts to travel to the Mecca of bicycling—the Netherlands—and come back full of energy and ideas for improving the bikeability and livability of our city. For the past three summers, Portland State University’s civil engineering program has offered a class exploring the Dutch civil infrastructure, and it’s hard not to be impressed by what they’ve built there. It turns out that when an entire country is three meters below sea level, its people develop quite the knack for civil engineering (as well as a particular sensitivity to rising sea levels!) that manifests in any number of cool ways.

Though there are a few examples of Dutch innovations that have found their way into Portland’s bicycle infrastructure, the process of importing this knowledge and adapting it to fit our city’s specific challenges is very much ongoing. To that end, the upstart Portland chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation will be hosting an event at Velocult at 6:00 PM this evening entitled “Going Dutch.” Jesse Boudart, the event’s organizer, describes the event as follows:

The goal is to examine existing places and envision their future in a gallery style. Furthermore, we vet the places’ opportunities, engineering considerations, and why we haven’t already created them. Portland has created unique spaces which have become widely recognized across America: Waterfront Park, Eastbank Esplanade, and an extensive bike network, to name a few. But, what’s next? How can we use the Dutch’s best practices and improve upon what the Dutch have already done?

Having been invited to contribute a poster to the event, I spent a decent chunk of time reliving memories and reviewing photos.  Though I was initially determined to find the perfect Portland location for some excruciatingly engineered red -asphalt bike roundabout or a gnarly 12-phase bike signal, with two years of hindsight I think my favorite place to bicycle in all of Holland was downtown Delft. The town square in the center of the old city (shown below) was a particularly magical urban place—a former parking lot, it’s now exclusively the domain of people on bikes and on foot, used for all sorts of events and gatherings and a source of civic pride.

This used to be a parking lot. (Photo by Kirk Paulsen)

This used to be a parking lot. (Photo by Kirk Paulsen)

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Portland did the same thing at about the same time, repurposing the block bounded by Yamhill, Morrison, Broadway, and Sixth, from a parking garage to a “living room.” But unlike its counterpart in Delft, the streets around Pioneer Square remain open and friendly to the automobile, and the bikability and livability of downtown suffers as a result. Whereas Delft’s downtown makes frequent use of retractable bollards to allow only transit, delivery, or emergency vehicles on many streets, and employs vegetation and public art to calm traffic on others, Portland remains giddily MUTCD-compliant with lane markings and smooth, wide roadways that just dare drivers to do their best Ricky Bobby impersonations.

Luckily, there seems to be a growing realization that we need to rethink our downtown road design, and I’d posit that Yamhill and Morrison Streets are a fantastic place to start. Close these roads to private vehicles, and you’ve got yourself a world class cycle track couplet at minimal cost with minimal difficulty.

Since Yamhill and Morrison are already transit-centric, they’re of limited utility to private vehicles and the two parking garages that take access to the stretch between Naito and I-405 can easily be accommodated with a bit of clever engineering. The small amount of vehicular traffic that currently uses these streets can be absorbed by the more auto-centric parallel streets. Deliveries can be accommodated using bollards that can be retracted for trucks overnight and setting aside space for delivery trucks on intersecting streets (or, ideally, converting as much delivery traffic as possible to bikes!). The cut-outs that are currently used for parking or loading are perfect spots for bike share docks. Further, connections to the newly bike-friendly Morrison Bridge—particularly westbound—could be made with little expense and add a ton of utility. A few sculptures and a few plants in strategic locations would make the car-free nature of the streets self-enforcing while making them two of downtown’s most beautiful roadways.

Though we remain America’s best city for bicycling, Portland has stagnated something fierce at a time when many other cities are recognizing the value of bike-friendliness, and making bold moves in support of biking and walking. With a promising new transportation director, a renewed vision by the BTA, and funding for downtown infrastructure potentially in the pipeline, there seems to be evidence that we’re awakening from our recent slumber. I hope that the “Going Dutch” event will add some energy and ideas to the conversation, and help raise the bar as our next wave of bike infrastructure is planned and built.


Why Bike Boxes Don’t Work (Except for Where They’re Working)

Here’s a fun little brain teaser: Where have you seen this lane configuration:


While you pontificate that, allow me to regale you with a metaphorical vacation slideshow. Two summers ago, I was in Delft, NL as part of a PSU engineering class studying Dutch transportation infrastructure. An assignment offered a list of various pieces of bike infrastructure and asked that we ride around until we find and document an example or two of each. Most facilities were easy enough to track down. As one would expect in the Netherlands, bike facilities from the basic to the exotic were all commonplace, but one item on our checklist was conspicuously hard to locate: a bike box. Eventually, we did manage to find one lonely installation on a tiny side street downtown:


It is worth observing and thinking about this bike box for a moment, given that it’s the only instance of that treatment in a sophisticated university city of 100,000 in the unassailable cycling capitol of the world. Why is this the only sight where the treatment was utilized, and why was it the treatment chosen for this location?

One feature that immediately jumps out is that it’s on a narrow, brick street. This means that traffic is naturally calmed–cars are limited by the physical characteristics of the street to about the same speed that bikes go (It also invites a chance to demonstrate your city’s commitment to bike infrastructure by setting the edges of the bike facility in brick!). Also, note the share of the street’s width allocated to bikes versus that allocated to cars. The wide bike lane is indicative of the fact that there are easily as many bikes that use this street as cars. And the street has fairly low traffic volumes in general; this makes it easy for both drivers and cyclists to stay aware of other traffic on the street with them. The cross street is much busier, so most of the time folks have to stop at the signal.

Look carefully at the lane configuration here. Bikes can turn in either direction, although most turn left toward the nearby train station. (Before the construction began, the bikeway to the train station was straight ahead; that configuration can be seen in Google Maps). Cars must turn right. Approaching an intersection on a bike, it’s reassuring to know that a car is turning right, whether or not it signals, and whether or not it brakes hard into the turn.


Compare this to a bike box in Portland that has come to typify many of the problems with the treatment. The photo above shows SW Madison Street approaching SW Third Avenue. It is a primary route to the Hawthorne Bridge for both cars and bikes. It carries more cars than bikes, but enough bikes to warrant much more than the tiny sliver of road they’ve been allotted (an in which they’re legally compelled to stay). Most cars go straight, but some turn and not all that turn use signals. While traffic signal timing keeps the speeds reasonable, there’s no natural, self-enforcing traffic calming on this road. Tangentially, there is no “No Turn on Red” sign displayed, though the design guidance is unambiguous in recommending (if not outright requiring) one.

Again, take note of the lane configuration. This one should look familiar–it’s the lane configuration at the top of the post, except I drew the bike lane as a vehicular lane to fool you (did it work?). But I also wanted to make a point: you will never see this lane configuration used with two vehicular lanes due to the obvious conflicts inherent with adjacent through-right lanes. However, if you swap out the rightward vehicular lane for a bike lane, this is precisely the lane configuration that you see at countless intersections throughout Portland (and beyond).

This is the origin of the right-hook conflict. Complicating matters, the through movement gets the right of way, and in this case, through vehicles are coming from behind, often hard to see, moving at speeds that can be hard to judge, and particularly susceptible to injury in the event of a crash. That’s why the bike box here isn’t working: unless you arrive at the red phase, it doesn’t really address any of these factors. And the signals are timed such that traffic arrives mostly on green.


Intersections like Madison and Third have given bike boxes a bad name, but they can be an effective treatment if we get choosier about where to install them. Above is a bike box on the SE Clinton Street bikeway approaching SE 39th Avenue. The similarities to the bike box in Delft are striking. It’s a low-volume, traffic-calmed street, where almost all bikes go straight and all cars must turn. Roadway space is shared until a wide-ish bike lane splits off just before the intersection. Most traffic arrives on red. The bike box does well in this scenario, organizing the queues of bikes and cars as they arrive on red, imparting a natural order to the queue clearance when green arrives. It’s a nice bit of infrastructure that’s safe and comfortable to ride on. The same conditions exist and the same treatment is used just up 39th Avenue at SE Lincoln Street, but most of Portland’s bike boxes have far more in common with the unsuccessful Madison Street installation than this successful one.

So a bike box can be a good solution if a specific set of circumstances are met. Used as a cookie-cutter solution to the right-hook conflict, however, bike boxes are the wrong thing used wrongly. So what might work better? A few experiments in the city are worth keeping an eye on. At Couch and Grand, the City is trying to tackle the visibility issue by using an unmissably obnoxious sign to tell drivers when a bike is approaching. More recently and perhaps more intriguingly, “mixing zones” are being utilized on the new bikeway on Multnomah, representing an entirely new (and in my view, more sound) approach to intersection treatments that addresses many of the issues that bike boxes don’t. (What about adding the bike box treatment to the end of a traffic-calmed mixing zone?)

In the long term, we should envision physically separate bikeways with separate green phases at our major signalized intersections. In the interim, it’s important to acknowledge that we have a uniquely Portlandian problem that will require a uniquely Portlandian solution. Our city’s grid system and small block size serves us wonderfully in many ways, but it complicates installation of safe bikeways. A bikeway is only as good as its worst intersection and we’ve got a lot of intersections in Portland. Like too many pieces of our bike infrastructure, the efficacy of our intersection treatments have not kept pace with our ballooning ridership. Portland can and should be a leader among North American cities in designing and implementing a better solution to this problem.

Checking In on the PMLR Bridge

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to tour the construction site around the west abutment of the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge through the Oregon section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

At present, most of the work is centered around the construction of the in-water piers and the two towers that rise from each. The western structure is nearly at full height presently, with the towers rising 160 feet from the pier as seen below (the eastern structure is much smaller at the moment). They’ll be 180 feet when complete.

On the top of the right tower, you can see a saddle structure that was recently installed. The saddles are the parts through which the cables are threaded, and for the bridge to be structurally sound, they must be precisely located with a tolerance of fractions of an inch. To accomplish this, the saddles are placed into steel and re-bar skeletons by “specialists” on the ground and then lifted into place on the tower where the concrete is poured.


In order to ensure sensitivity to the river’s ecosystem, in-water construction can only take place between July 1 and October 31 each year. So the first structures built last summer were the cofferdams at the base of each tower. I snapped a photo of the underside of the western cofferdam below. The eastern cofferdam is pretty easy to observe from the Eastbank Esplanade. Those views will become much more dramatic as the towers grow.


Once the towers are complete, the deck itself will be constructed using the “balanced cantilever” method. The deck will grow outward from each tower structure, always with an equal amount of deck existing on each side of the towers. The cables will be threaded through the deck and towers as the deck grows. The last pieces of the construction will be connecting the two sections of deck in the middle, and then connecting each section to its abutment. The photo below is of the western abutment.


I snapped this photo from what will eventually become the South Waterfront Greenway, a strip of park with dedicated paths for bicycles and pedestrians. The land around the bridge will see the development of many tall, mixed use buildings like those recently constructed along the south waterfront. The Greenway will, I think, be among the best walks or rides in Portland when our beautiful cable-stayed bridge is finished and the structures begin to rise from its base.

On the Impending Transformation of Transportation

Brian Davis is Portland Transport’s newest contributor. Brian is a Transportation Analyst at Lancaster Engineering, a MS Candidate at PSU where his research involves strategies for increasing sustainability in urban freight, and a carfree resident of downtown Portland. Welcome, Brian! – Chris

I’m excited to be joining the discussion at Portland Transport at the onset of a defining era for transportation in Portland.

Our city–and to varying extents, our region and our country–was largely designed to be experienced and accessed primarily via the automobile. By some metrics, this has served us magnificently–the economic growth realized during the American automotive century is unprecedented, and the car has connected distant cities and communities in a way no other mode can claim. By others, it has failed us miserably–our automotive dependence has dirtied the planet, car travel remains ridiculously unsafe, and ironically, the car has isolated the very communities it helped to connect to one another from the people speeding through them.

That we’re moving from car-centrism to a more multi-modal model of mobility is now manifest, and it is happening partly by choice and partly by necessity. The choice predates the necessity, and in Portland it was made in earnest in the 1970’s, when we decided the funds for one freeway would be better spent on a rail line, and the space devoted to another would be better used as a park. Over the years this sentiment has grown, and the first sustained declines in miles driven have recently come about as the smartphone continues to challenge the car’s prowess as a means of socialization and a symbol of status and freedom. The necessity of our paradigm shift owes to the fact that the population of our “magnet city” continues to grow, but we have little remaining roadway capacity, little money for new roads, and little space left in which to build them.

I live, work, eat, play, and otherwise spend most of my time in downtown Portland, and one of the exciting things about life here is that this neighborhood will be the epicenter of much of the transportation-related change that’s coming. While I certainly wasn’t thrilled at the decision to eliminate the free rail zone (or the fareless square that preceded it, for that matter), I think transit is still a good value and I continue to rely on it. I’m curious to see whether I’m in the majority here, or whether travel behavior changes drastically in the central city as a result of the new fare structure. And though many pooh-pooh the streetcar’s use as a transit alternative, I’ve long argued that it’s plenty useful to those of us that spend a lot of our time along its route. By extending it across the river, you’ve increased the number of people who fit that description, and therefore the streetcar’s utility. This is an experiment in urbanism that hasn’t really been tried yet, and whether it can duplicate the developmental magic it worked in the Pearl, with increased ridership as both a cause and an effect, will be fascinating to see.

Most exciting to me is the fact that Portland soon (and at long last!) will be joining the list of cities with a robust bike sharing program. Bicycling in Portland has become part of the city’s culture and identity. Its precocious infancy made weekend warriors into weekday riders, and slowly but steadily more and more people took to the blue lanes and yellow bikes. These days, there’s more denim than spandex cladding those on two wheels, and “bike infrastructure” has gone from meaning a white stripe and a stencil, to traffic-calmed greenways and bike-specific signals. It’s clear, however, that we have a long way to go to fully mature as a bike city; those “grown-ups” are cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where people of all ages, genders, and income levels ride on separated infrastructure comparable in quality to what’s provided for cars. Indeed, Portland is a city firmly mired in its “bike puberty.” We have our awkward moments, we have not yet become fully comfortable in our own skin, and–to take the analogy way too far–we have plenty of zits crying out for peroxide (or perhaps thermoplastic), but the elegance of Alice’s Future City is beginning to become apparent beneath the spotty complexion.

Having lived and biked in Washington DC before its CaBi bike share program was launched, and having visited frequently since, I can say unequivocally that bike share revolutionized cycling in that city. Bike sharing will give Portland a needed push forward as well. One of our metaphorical pimples is the lack of bike infrastructure downtown, and the fact that the heart of our city has some of the most limited bike access is certainly suppressing ridership among the “interested but concerned.” As or bike share program grows, so too will ridership of all sorts, and the financial case for good downtown infrastructure will in short order become too clear to ignore. When we cut the ribbon on the two-way cycletrack on Broadway, complete with its green asphalt, dedicated signal phases, and the ample bike parking demanded by the street’s business owners, that’s when you’ll know Portland has grown up.

So it’s a transformative time, to be sure. I look forward to joining all of you in overthinking it, overanalyzing it, and geeking out about it in ways that make mere mortals question our sanity. I hope I can add a useful and interesting perspective to the discussion, and look forward to continuing to learn from all of you as I have for the last several years as a reader.