Archive | Streetscapes

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.

Changing the DNA of City Streets

PSU Transportation Seminar:

Speaker: Peter Koonce, Portland Bureau of Transportation
Topics: Introduction to the NACTO Urban Street Design – Changing the DNA of City Streets
When: Friday, April 4, 2014, 12-1 p.m.
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204
Summary: In this seminar Peter will summarize his contributions to the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide, a guidebook focused on a paradigm shift in transportation, pulling away from the traditional bias toward highway designs that do not always meet the complex needs of streets in cities.

Peter Koonce, P.E., manages the traffic signals, street lighting for the City of Portland. He has served as an adjunct professor at Portland State University teaching graduate level courses in transportation engineering. He is a member of the Bicycle Technical Committee of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and was appointed Chair of the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Traffic Signal Systems. He has served on numerous University Advisory Boards related to transportation engineering and locally he is active as a volunteer for the Community Cycling Center.

The power of urban demolition

Three areas where tearing down obsolete highways or viaducts could improve the urban environment.
One of the things which Portland is famous for in urbanist circles, was the decision in the 1970s to remove Harbor Drive and replace it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park (or Waterfront Park as it was known back then). And more recently, another urban demolition project–of smaller scope–helped in making NW Portland what is is today: the 1999 removal of the Lovejoy Viaduct.

The viaduct, an elevated structure running between the Broadway Bridge and NW 14th street, with a spur connecting to NW 12th, crossed over a railyard which used to exist in NW Portland. As part of a series of projects to transform the industrial NW into what is now the Pearl, the bulk of the viaduct was removed (at a cost of $14.5 million, most of which came from Uncle Sam) and replaced with a surface street, with a shorter 2-block ramp connecting Lovejoy Street to the Broadway Bridge. The former railyard is now the heart of the Pearl District, with parks and mixed-use buildings replacing rail spurs. The trains that run there now are streetcars, not freights, and the removal of the viaduct was key to the transformation.

Other cities have seen similar benefits from removing elevated structures and replacing them with surface streets. The collapse of the Embarcadero Freeway in the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and its subsequent demolition and removal, has transformed the waterfront of downtown San Francisco. With that in mind, here are three other locations in the city where removal of viaducts or obsolete highway alignments may have a transforming effect.

After the jump.
Before the list beings, a few conditions:

  • The structure or alignment in question ought to be of limited transportation value. The Lovejoy Viaduct served a useful purpose when it crossed a railyard; not so much when it crossed a vacant lot. Absent from this list are proposals to remove freeways–while some of us may like doing that, such things are, obviously, a harder sell. In general, if removal of the structure would create a bottleneck where none exists before, it’s not on the list.
  • Some potential for urban transformation is also required.

With that, here’s the list.

The Kerby Avenue viaduct

The Rose City Freeway/Prescott Freeway was planned to be a freeway extending from the east end of the Fremont Bridge to an alignment along Prescott Street, then east out to I-205 somewhere near Rocky Butte. It was killed when the Mt. Hood Freeway was killed, and is today a dim memory–except for one glaring reminder–the Kerby Avenue ramps connecting the Fremont Bridge (I-405) with Emanuel Hospital. Quite a few blocks of NE Portland were demolished in anticipation of this freeway; the short stub of it which was actually built serves no useful purpose, and separates the neighborhood to the north with Emanuel Hospital. And for several blocks, the Kerby ramp runs parallel to Kerby Street itself–or the mutilated alignment of Kerby.

View Larger Map

An obvious improvement would be to end the ramp at the place where the existing Kerby Street curves (just north of the hospital) with a signalized intersection, and continue the route eastward on the existing Kerby/Cook alignment–possibly reconnecting Kerby Street with its northern self, providing easier access to the hospital (and to the bridge) from the north, without having to use the Vancouver/Williams couplet. The land occupied by the existing alignment then could be put to some better use.

Naito Parkway south

This isn’t so much of a viaduct removal as it is an obsolete-highway removal. Long before the construction of the Baldock Freeway (I-5), traffic through town from the southwest came in on Barbur Boulevard, which connected to Harbor Drive via Front Avenue (now Naito Parkway). While Harbor Drive itself is mostly gone, the section of Naito Parkway which joined the two (roughly between SW Harrison and Barbur) still resembles its former freeway-esque glory, with no left turns, cross traffic, or signals in the entire stretch. A few streets have grade-separated crossings of Naito in this stretch (I-405, SW Arthur, and SW Grover), along with an elevated pedestrian bridge and the Portland Aerial Tram, but the street is a major barrier to bike and pedestrian traffic–as well as to cars trying to get through South Portland. Oh, and the ramp system connecting Naito to Arthur and the Ross Island bridge is a dangerous, confusing mess. And frontage roads provide local access in many places, lest a parked car interfere with high speed traffic.

There’s no reason for this stretch of road to resemble a 1950s-era freeway. Barbur to the south has plenty of signallized intersections through Burlingame, and Harbor Drive is long gone. (One bit of evidence which remains–the oversized overpass crossing I-405, which used to feature ramps to Harbor).

View Larger Map
There’s quite a bit of good news, however:

  • MLR will introduce a new signallized grade crossing at SW Lincoln, shortening the de-facto freeway stretch by about two blocks.
  • In 2010, the city and ODOT agreed to transfer jurisdiction of the parts of Naito Parkway north of I-405 to the city of Portland. (Many have called for all of Barbur Boulevard north of the Tigard interchange to be transferred to local jurisdiction).
  • The Southwest Corridor project will no doubt look at future opportunities along this corridor–Naito could be a routing of a future MAX or BRT line. (Such an alignment would have issues with OHSU access, but it’s possible).


The stretch between Arthur and the Ross Island Bridge is probably difficult to modify because of its role in handling US26 traffic, but the stretch north of there (north of the freeway and south of the bridge) likely would be easier to improve–and the improvements are obvious:

  • Put in signals so people, bikes, busses, and even cars can cross the thing. A signal at Curry would make sense, as it’s parallel with the pedestrian bridge over I-5.
  • Likewise, remove the frontage roads, and provide direct on-street parking. The width of the corridor, if this it is done, makes it attractive for a busway or other rapid transit in the median.

  • Longer term, the US26 ramp system could use some serious redesign.

East approaches to Hawthorne and Morrison bridges

I group these two together because they are only a few blocks apart, and many of the comments for one will suffice for the other. At the east end of both bridges are twin viaducts (one for eastbound traffic, one for westbound) that connect the bridges to OR99E–for some reason, crossing over southbound OR99E (MLK Jr. Boulevard) but intersecting at grade with northbound 99E (Grand Avenue). Both viaducts also cross over the UPRR mainline and I-5 (or under it, in the case of the Hawthorne). Long term, it would be nice to bury the UPRR mainline so it no longer bisects the neighborhood, but three blocks separate the train tracks from MLK.

Thus, the obvious suggestion: Shorten the viaducts by these three blocks, so both come to the surface at SE 2nd.

The Belmont Street viaduct may be a bit difficult to truncate at that place, because of the ramp from southbound I-5; but it’s also the one that provides a big safety hazard: the dangerous merge-weave between that ramp and the offramp to MLK. With the viaducts removed, the latter ramp would no longer exist.

View Larger Map

Effects of this:

  • The wasted blocks between MLK/Grand/Belmont/Morrison and MLK/Grand/Hawthorne/Madison, currently taken up by ramps, could be put to more productive use.
  • The pedestrian environment would be much improved.
  • It would have transit calming effects on MLK Jr; motorists tend to speed on this stretch due to the grade separation and absence of signals.
  • It would improve transit connections between the 14 and 15 and the southbound Streetcar when it opens–right now, getting from the Streetcar route to either of these frequent bus lines is a big pain in the butt.

Needless to say, the current bus lane on Madison would be extended in such a proposal, and a corresponding bus lane on Hawthorne installed. (Or Streetcar, if a Hawthorne line is ever built).

More Than a Pothole, Less Than a Street

Via the SW Trails list serve:

Five PSU graduate students organized as Larke Planning created a report detailing potential options for taking unimproved streets in the City of Portland and upgrading them in ways that are potentially very creative and useful, but less expensive than building a complete street up to City standards. Well worth a read.