Saturday, October 13, 2007

Downtown bike lanes: a problem becomes tragic

By now, most everyone in Portland is aware of the tragic death of a young woman on her bicycle downtown on Thursday. Kent Peterson, Alex Wetmore, and Beth Hamon all have good thoughts on the poor bike lane design that contributed. Basically, striping a bike lane all the way to an intersection where cars are turning right is a really bad idea. It's the equivalent of putting a left turn lane in the center and a straight lane on the left. When I worked for the city of Missoula encouraging safe cycling, one of the toughest things to teach folks was how to position themsleves at intersections. Sometimes to be safe you need to move over where it feels less safe. We would occasionally even get yelled at that "It isn't safe over there in traffic!" None of this, of course, is to imply that the cycler did anything wrong on Thursday.

As usual, I don't have any answers. A thriving downtown is a logistical nightmare for transportation. How can we accomodate cars, trucks, bus, rail, streetcar, pedestrians, and bikes in such a constricted, bustling space? I agree with those who say bike lanes are dubious downtown. The short blocks and constant parking action makes conflict all but inevitable (The Broadway "Hotel Zone" bike lanes that double as valet parking dropoffs border on comical). At the same time, I've been surprised at angry comments from people about bikes ridden in traffic lanes downtown--some from friends that are generally positive about bikes.

Right now, I think it's fair to say bicycle riders are fourth class users downtown--after autos, transit, and peds. There are few facilities for bicycles, and those that exist are of questionable utility. Increasing the safety and mobility of bikes downtown would involve tradeoffs, but I think it's time to start mulling the options. Who do we give priority to, and why? Is that the best thing for downtown Portland? The opening of the new transit mall and the possibility of a fleet of public rental bikes downtown only makes the issue more pressing.


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