Portland transportation director readies plan to remove key downtown protected bike lane

    (Map graphic: BikePortland)

    Last Thursday, Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Millicent Williams emailed a select group of PBOT staff with instructions to remove the parking-protected bike lane on a 16-block stretch of Broadway downtown between NW Hoyt and SW Salmon and replace it with a previous configuration that some insiders think would be less safe.

    According to sources we’ve spoken with, Williams’ email was met with shock and disbelief.

    Over the last 14 years, PBOT has built a parking-protected bike lane (where car parking spaces are moved away from the curb to make room for a wider bike lane) between the Broadway Bridge and I-405. The first segment, between SW Clay and I-405 adjacent to Portland State University, was completed in 2009. The next segment, between Hoyt and SW Harvey Milk, was completed in 2020. And the middle segment, from Harvey Milk south to Clay, was finished just last year.

    Broadway is on PBOT’s High Crash Network, a list of streets with above average serious injury and fatal crashes. Its current bike lane design addresses a significant crash history and changing it could raise liability concerns if the new design is less safe. The Broadway bike lanes are part of a plan for a network of protected bike lanes downtown that was passed unanimously by City Council as part of the Central City in Motion Plan in 2018. This parking-protected design is the most popular bike lane design PBOT deploys and it’s currently in use all over the city because it provides ample separation from drivers and lowers stress for bike riders, while being relatively affordable compared to other designs.

    Now, PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps and his hand-picked PBOT Director Williams want to revert all but the southern section back to the way it used to be —with cars parked next to the curb and bike riders pedaling in a lane with car doors on one side and car drivers on the other.

    PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps (left) and PBOT Director Millicent Williams at Sunday Parkways, September 10th. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

    We learned about these plans last Thursday, when Director Williams first emailed staff that she had reached a decision about changing the design. According to sources who’ve asked to remain anonymous due to concerns of retaliation for speaking directly to the media, Williams asked for a briefing document several weeks ago. After reviewing a list of design alternatives prepared by PBOT staff, she and Commissioner Mapps chose the option staff didn’t recommend because they felt it would be less safe and would not align with Portland adopted goals and plans.

    PBOT Communications Director Hannah Schafer confirmed the plans in an email to BikePortland Friday. “Yes, we are making modifications to the Broadway bike lane. We are working on a revised plan and will be able to share more in the coming weeks,” Schafer said. Asked for more information, Schafer added, “I don’t have any other details at this time.”

    So far it’s unclear why Director Williams and Commissioner Mapps want to make these changes. (A call into Mapps’ office has not yet been returned.) The bike lane seems to be working fine from a bike riders’ perspective. I’ve heard no serious complaints that would warrant a major redesign. And given that PBOT analyzes traffic data from projects like this, if there were problems, they would proactively tweak the design to address them.

    Businesses along Broadway, however, have a history of unhappiness when it comes to bike lanes. When the final segment of it opened last winter, management of the Heathman Hotel (on corner of Broadway and Salmon) complained to the media. The resulting story on KGW was lopsided and did nothing more than platform their grievances.

    The other major hotel on Broadway with a well-known history of skepticism around bike lanes is the Historic Benson Hotel. Reached for comment via phone this morning, Benson Hotel General Manager George Schweitzer confirmed that he’s not a fan of the new design. “Those things have been crazy since they went in,” he said, referring to alleged conflicts between bike riders and his customers, who load and unload across the bike lane. “So, [the bike lanes] are problematic from my viewpoint.” Schweitzer also said he’s supportive of reverting them back to the old design.

    Schweitzer also told me he has contacted City Hall with his concerns about the Broadway bike lane.

    The other business interest that has City Hall’s ear is the Portland Metro Chamber (formerly Portland Business Alliance). Prior to council’s adoption of the Central City in Motion Plan in 2018, the Chamber opposed a protected bike lane on Broadway, saying the project, “Would have significant, unnecessary economic impacts on our downtown retail core,” and would “severely limit the capacity of our few remaining arterial routes through the city.” Portland Metro Chamber endorsed Commissioner Mapps and donated to his 2020 city council campaign.

    Another important bit of context to this story is how downtown Portland — especially its hotel business — remains “in crisis” according to the city’s tourism bureau. A story in The Oregonian this morning says that downtown hotels are struggling to rebound and points to “street conditions” along with public drug use and crime as culprits.

    “It is extremely disappointing both for Broadway and the potential chilling effect for future projects.”

    – PBOT staffer

    Is Commissioner Mapps responding to business owners who look out their windows and see the bike lane as a convenient scapegoat for other, much more complicated, problems? Or does he and Director Williams have other justifications for making such an unexpected change to a key downtown bikeway?

    Whatever reason(s) they have for making this move, it’s an odd time to do it given PBOT’s severe budget shortfall. It would cost the bureau tens of thousands of dollars to make the changes.

    Hopefully, if Mapps and Williams do intend to oversee a major redesign of the bike lanes on Broadway, they will do it in a way that addresses concerns and improves the cycling experience. Unfortunately, from the rumors swirling around PBOT right now, that is not the expected outcome. And the ramifications of this decision are likely to ripple well beyond this one location.

    “It is extremely disappointing both for Broadway and the potential chilling effect for future projects,” shared one anonymous source who works at PBOT and has knowledge of the plans. “Not to mention the precedent set by allowing a few property/business owners to back channel and circumvent the extensive public involvement process that happened to develop the project in the first place.”

    Stay tuned.

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