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City hopes 'road diet' improves livability

Critics say plan means slim pickings for many commuters


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A bicyclist carries a speaker on his back while pedaling eastbound along Southeast Foster Road. Some of Portland’s busiest east-west streets are about to go on “road diets.”

Starting this week, the city is reducing the number of traffic lanes on stretches of Division and Glisan streets, and is debating similar treatment for Foster Road. Such road diets can lengthen car commute times, but the tradeoff may be fewer accidents, more walkable streets and commercial districts, plus room to add on-street bike lanes.

Neighbors and merchants along the affected parts of Division, Glisan and Foster appear keen on the idea of shifting from two travel lanes in each direction to one in each direction, plus a “third lane” as a refuge for turns and room for left-turn pockets.

“Streets that just bring people through your neighborhood don’t add much value to your neighborhood,” says Chris Smith, a member of the city Planning and Sustainability Commission. “If trips are a little slower, that’s a nice tradeoff.”

But the idea isn’t as popular among neighbors to the east, who often

rely on those arterial streets to drive to and from work, school and other activities.

Rush hour commuters on Foster Road are going to spend five minutes more per day on the road, says Nick Christensen, chairman of the Lents Neighborhood Association. That’s the equivalent of 21 hours a year stuck in traffic, he calculated.

Road diets have long been practiced in Europe and are more popular in peer cities like San Francisco and Seattle. The idea seems to be gaining favor among Portland transportation planners, though they’re sometimes wary of using the “road diet” term.

“What we’re really doing is reorganizing the flow of traffic,” says Mark Lear, projects and funding manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Often, Lear says, scrapping two of the four travel lanes and adding left-turn pockets actually can improve traffic flow and reduce rear-enders. “You have as much capacity as the four-lane road without a left-turn lane.”

Fulfilling Goldschmidt’s promise

On Monday, road crews restriped Division Street between Southeast 60th and 80th avenues, and left-turn pockets will be added at the 71st and 76th avenue intersections.

That will reduce traffic backups caused by Division motorists trying to turn left, says Wendy Cawley, PBOT traffic safety engineer. As a result, rush-hour traffic on that stretch of Division is expected to be “faster after the road diet,” Cawley says.

The project also will add an on-street bike lane, extending the existing one from the east about one mile, all the way to 60th.

Some might question the idea of encouraging bicycling on a fast road like Division when there is a quiet neighborhood greenway a few blocks south on Woodward and Clinton streets. Lear says both facilities are important parts of the city’s planned bicycle-path network. And that stretch also will directly serve students at Warner Pacific College and the Portland Community College campus on Division and 82nd, Cawley notes. Both are undergoing major enrollment growth.

Computer analyses suggest there will be 44 to 107 fewer car crashes on that stretch of Division during the next decade, Lear says. That’s not a bad payback for a project estimated to cost a modest $100,000.

And some neighbors have been waiting for this for a long time. One longtime resident unearthed an old letter from the city, Lear says, promising a similar project — dating back to when Neil Goldschmidt was mayor in the 1970s.

Glisan renaissance?

Also on tap in the next couple of weeks is a restriping of Glisan Street between Northeast 62nd and 80th avenues. That won’t include on-street bike lanes, but it will include a rapid flash signal for pedestrians to cross at 78th Avenue, where a teacher was killed trying to cross.

“People are hoping that will slow down traffic and make things a little safer,” says Fritz Hirsch, Montavilla Neighborhood Association chairman. He predicts the slower traffic will cause people to give a second look at the growing cluster of African and other restaurants on Glisan, which he sees eventually can resemble Montavilla’s flourishing commercial strip along Stark Street.

The Glisan project also is a low-budget affair, costing an estimated $125,000.

City traffic studies suggest Glisan’s traffic won’t be slowed by reducing the number of lanes, says PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera.

Scuffling on Foster

The Foster Road improvements, while not finalized, figure to be the most costly, complicated, catalytic and controversial of the three eastside road diet projects on the table. PBOT and the Portland Development Commission have dedicated $3.3 million to reshape a 2.3-mile stretch of Foster from where it starts at Powell Boulevard to 90th Avenue.

Many residents liken Foster to a freeway, and it’s daunting for pedestrians to cross. But it boasts wide sidewalks west of 72nd Avenue and many prospects for new development. A coalition including the Foster Area Business Association and the Foster-Powell, Mt. Scott-Arleta and Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood associations formed to push for a traditional road diet, shifting from two lanes in each direction to one lane each way, plus a middle lane for turns.

That’s also the most popular idea so far from residents, Lear says.

There have been 1,200 vehicle crashes in that stretch of Foster in the last decade, he says. The traditional road diet treatment would cut crashes by 20 percent, Lear says, plus additional reductions if the city, as expected, widens the sidewalks at pedestrian crossings and adds refuge islands in the middle of the roadway.

The option favored by neighbors also would add on-street bike paths to Foster, which now only gets about 200 bicyclists a day. Under the three-lane option, that is projected to jump to 3,000 a day by 2035.

Residents in the Foster area seem unified behind the road diet idea, says Christian Smith, chairman of the Foster-Powell Neighborhood Association.

But, in contrast to the Division and Glisan projects, that would slow traffic on Foster and impact nearby streets.

The average rush-hour travel speed for the 2.3-mile stretch of Foster is projected to drop from 19 miles an hour (including time stopped for red lights and other obstructions) to 14 miles an hour if lanes are removed. That means an extra three minutes of travel time each rush-hour trip, at least initially, Rivera says. However, by 2035, PBOT projects the difference to be only one minute, he says.

In the short term, people frustrated by Foster congestion will shift to Holgate Boulevard and other streets. Traffic on Holgate between Southeast 62nd and 71st avenues is projected to double.

That and the longer commute times for Lents residents bothers Christensen. He is pressuring the city to expand the Foster project by widening sidewalks east of 72nd and planting street trees, which he says may be a nice tradeoff.

Dissension out east

The further east you go, it seems, the more distrust of the city’s road diets, though those residents also use Division, Glisan and Foster.

David Hampsten, who represents East Portland neighborhood associations on transportation matters, says the projects may have merit, but the city never informed his neighbors about the pending lane reductions to their west.

“I think they should have notified outer East Portland and solicited our opinions as much as they did for inner Portland,” Hampsten says.

Mark White, president of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association in East Portland, questions the wisdom of reducing lanes on a key arterial like Foster. “It’s a major thoroughfare; to reduce the lanes is kind of ridiculous,” White says.

He also questions why the city is spending money to redo roads to the west when it hasn’t even provided paved roads and sidewalks in much of East Portland. White is miffed that taxes on some properties in his neighborhood are helping fund the Lents urban renewal district, the source of PDC’s funding for the Foster project, while his neighborhood gets little in return.

Division, Glisan and Foster also get heavily used by folks from Gresham. Nearly 45 percent of Gresham residents who work commute to Portland, and 26 percent of the people who work in Gresham commute from Portland, notes Bess Wills, president of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center.

“So you’re going to make it more difficult for them to get to work,” Wills says. “You can’t take your kids to day care, drop them off, and then get to work on a bicycle.”

Shrinking the number of traffic lanes on Division is “craziness,” Wills adds. “It is an arterial route.”