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  • 19 Oct 2014

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City aims to calm traffic on busy bike corridor

North Williams changes call for one car lane, bikes on left


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Buses moving over to the right create conflicts with the thousands of daily riders in North Williams Avenues bike lane. A new street plan will move the bike lane to the left of traffic.Portland transportation officials unveiled last week their plans for traffic and bike changes on North Williams Avenue. Two lanes of vehicle traffic will become one in what has become the city’s primary north/south biking corridor, and the bike lane will expand to more than twice its current width.

The incredibly complicated plan involves dozens of other modifications, including moving the bike lane from the right side of Williams to the left and adding traffic signals and turning lanes for cars.

Abraham Sutfin is taking a wait-and-see approach. Sutfin opened his Abraham Fixes Bikes shop at ground zero of the North Williams biking scene, at the corner of Williams and Fremont Street, four years ago. His business has grown steadily each year and he hasn’t even needed to advertise. About 4,000 bike riders pass by his shop every day on Williams — up from 3,000 when he started.

Sutfin recognizes the resources the city is putting into making biking safer on North Williams and he appreciates the effort. But on his daily commute to his shop and back home to North Portland, Sutfin avoids the very street that has brought so much business to his door.

“Williams is a very uncomfortable road,” Sutfin says. Drivers who park cars poorly leave the front or back ends of their cars jutting out into the bike lane, he says. The occasional car door opening into the bike lane is another danger. The five-foot-wide bike lane gets so crowded during rush hour that fast bike riders are frequently in conflict with slower riders.

The planned changes on North Williams might reduce the problems that have led Sutfin to use a mix of neighborhood streets on his daily ride. He’ll give the 12-foot, left-side bike lane a try. But he’s dubious North Williams will ever become his route of choice. Like so many regular bicyclists, riding for him has become the transportation equivalent — or maybe the reverse — of the old Yogi Berra line about a popular restaurant. “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” Berra reportedly said.

Sutfin’s version? “I like quiet rides, so most likely I’ll stick to the quiet roads,” he says.

Some of the bike-safety improvements making their way to North Williams could eventually see wider use elsewhere. For instance, North Williams will be among the first streets in the city to have its bike lane on the left side of traffic. Southwest 12th Avenue downtown has a left-side bike lane. Northwest Everett Street is getting its bike lane moved to the left of traffic because engineers have seen too many conflicts between bike riders and drivers turning right off Everett to get on Interstate 405. North Williams is having its bike lane moved because of conflicts between cyclists and buses moving to the right to pick up and drop off passengers.

The North Williams changes will include installing traffic signals on Cook Street, where it intersects with Williams and North Vancouver Avenue. The North Williams signal will incorporate a blue “bike only” indicator light to tell cyclists waiting for a green light that the inductive coil beneath pavement has detected their bike and will change the light. The blue light has been used elsewhere in the city.

Trying to find a balance between encouraging bike ridership and ensuring bike safety can be tricky. In 2012, a Bureau of Transportation report revealed that at 11 intersections with a history of auto-bike collisions, accidents doubled after the painting of bike boxes. The boxes encourage cyclists at red lights to pull in front of cars so they won’t get hit when the light turns green and drivers turn right.

Some traffic engineers theorized the increasing number of crashes was due to cyclists feeling a false sense of security due to the painted bike lanes, green boxes, and special signals and signs aimed at keeping them safer.

Quiet back streets beckon

A.J. Zelada lives on one of the neighborhood streets that cyclists increasingly are taking instead of parallel North Williams, and he’s pleased with the hundreds of cyclists now riding past his home on North Rodney

Avenue.

A daily bicyclist himself, the 65-year-old Zelada says his paramount concern is car drivers who use Rodney as an alternative route and blow through the stop sign at the end of his street. More bikes on Rodney slows down those cars, Zelada says, adding that most of his neighbors would agree.

Like Sutfin, Zelada says that unless he’s in a hurry, he avoids the bike lane on North Williams for a more leisurely ride on back streets. He says the only change that will likely lure him into the bike lanes around the city are protected bike lanes with a physical buffer between cars and bikes. In fact, he and others lobbied transportation officials to make the new bike lane on North Williams a protected lane, since the city is eliminating a lane of traffic there anyway. Instead they are getting the extra-wide bike lane.

Zelada thinks the changes on North Williams are too cautious. He’s certain they won’t provide the safety that will get large numbers of new cyclists — women and children especially — to become regular riders. Unprotected bike lanes right next to moving cars, in his view, don’t feel safe enough for the less dedicated riders, especially with the fastest cyclists speeding around them.

“They want to do the most common, least threatening, inch-by-inch change,” says Zelada, one-time chairman of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “For Portland to push ahead we need to showcase change. We’ve come to this threshold and we’re a little stuck. We’re hesitant about moving ahead. Williams is a perfect example. ... It doesn’t have a grand design to it.”

But putting a protected bike lane on North Williams won’t be as easy as it was in a pilot project on Southwest Broadway in front of Portland State University, says Rich Newlands, Portland Bureau of Transportation project manager. Newlands say he anticipates a clamor for a protected bike lane on North Williams, but the number of driveways from homes on the avenue would make a protected lane difficult. “It would be very chopped up,” he says.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Abraham Sutfin, owner of Abraham Fixes Bikes at North Williams and Fremont Street, prefers quieter neighborhood streets to the crowds of cyclists on Williams.

Safety for all travelers

Newlands says Zelada is probably right in his assessment that there are a lot of North Portlanders who don’t bike regularly because the North Williams bike lane feels unsafe to them. The bureau’s North Williams plan includes encouraging riders to use North Rodney as an alternate, slower route by installing speed bumps and pavement markings to slow down traffic.

And the North Williams remake isn’t intended just for the safety of bike riders. “Williams is an all-around safety project,” says bureau spokeswoman Diane Dulken. “Pedestrians first — that’s what neighbors have been asking for for a long time.” The new Williams Avenue will have improved crosswalks for pedestrians and a reduced speed limit for vehicles.

The changeover to one lane of traffic is a key component of the pedestrian safety plan. With the current two lanes of traffic, pedestrians crossing Williams are susceptible to what Newlands calls “the double threat,” which occurs when one driver stops to let pedestrians cross but a second driver coming up beside the first doesn’t stop.

About 8,000 cars and trucks use Williams each day, and drivers of those vehicles might not be thrilled with the changes. But Newlands insists those drivers won’t find the loss of a vehicle lane and the lower speed limit make their trip much longer. He says the capacity of North Williams is not dictated by the number of lanes as much as by how quickly cars can make it through intersections. The new plans include added turning lanes at intersections, though drivers turning left will have to deal with cyclists. If the left-hand cycling lane works, Newlands says, it might be used elsewhere in the city.

“People will be concerned about this change, but the impact in terms of capacity is not as great as people think, and the safety benefit is huge,” Newlands says.

A $1.5 million grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation will pay for most of the improvements, which will extend from Northeast Broadway to North Killingsworth Street. Construction should start in a few weeks and be completed within three months.