June 24, 2021

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PBOT staff face Bicycle Advisory Committee hours after saying ‘no’ to bike lanes on Hawthorne

Looking east on Hawthorne near 35th.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Portland’s Bicycle Advisory Committee was supposed to discuss which type of bike lanes would work best on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard at their monthly meeting Tuesday night. Instead of an optimistic strategy session that might have ended with a letter from the group with a bike lane recommendation, the discussion was punctuated by frustration and anger as news sunk in that there would be no bike lanes on Hawthorne at all.

“This whole process has been the object lesson in how not to engage with a modal committee.”
— Iain Mackenzie, BAC member

Last week, BAC Chair David Stein added an agenda item to the meeting to give members time to debate the merits of Alternative 3A and 3B, options for PBOT’s Hawthorne Pave & Paint project that would have added buffered or parking-protected bike lanes to the street. Then over the weekend, Stein was notified that the agenda item would have to change because PBOT had already made up their minds. The BAC didn’t see the report and was unaware of PBOT’s decision until it was made public Tuesday morning.

This lack of respect from PBOT, mixed with the lost opportunity to create space for cycling on Hawthorne Blvd, let to a pointed discussion.

To share the bad news and mollify the bike advocates, PBOT called on Senior Transportation Planner Karla Kingsley and Planning Division Manager Kristin Hull.

“The easy option would have been to just let the repaving happen as planned and let it fly under the radar and change nothing.”
— Karla Kingsley, PBOT

Kingsley said (from a prepared statement) that she used to live a few blocks off Hawthorne and often uses her bike for shopping and other errands. “So I understand the desire for bike lanes. But this decision isn’t about me,” Kingsley continued. “It’s about leveraging a maintenance paving project that has to be done this summer to make the street better and figuring out how we can do it best to best serve the multiple, and varied needs of our community.”

It’s true PBOT went above-and-beyond usual protocol when they opened up this repaving project to the possibility of a new lane configuration. “The easy option would have been to just let the repaving happen as planned and let it fly under the radar and change nothing,” Kingsley said. But PBOT didn’t do that, she added, because they wanted to make the street safer for walkers and bicycle riders. In large part due to earlier feedback from the BAC, Kingsley said PBOT analyzed bike lanes but that, in the end, the option, “Just doesn’t rise above the other trade-offs on the street when you consider the whole system.”

As we pointed out yesterday, Kingsley leaned heavily on the fact that Hawthorne is listed in the all-powerful Transportation System Plan as a “Major City Walkway”, “Major Transit Priority” street and “Major Emergency Response Route”. It’s also a “Truck Access Street” and a “Civic Main Street”. All those designations, Kingsley pointed out, were additional hurdles facing bicycle access. (Those classifications also led to PBOT’s decision to use the repaving as an opportunity to increase the width of general lanes from nine feet, to 11-12 feet wide.)

Then it was time for BAC members to respond.

“I have a hard time reconciling how any of this really makes an improvement.”
— Clint Culpepper, BAC member

“I live a block from Hawthorne and this is heartbreaking!”
— Caroline Crisp, BAC member

“I have a hard time reconciling how any of this really makes an improvement,” said BAC member Clint Culpepper. “I know that a nine-foot lane width is difficult for transit; But I don’t understand how increasing that lane width to 12 feet is going to make traffic slow down at all. You have four pedestrian islands through this whole stretch. I think that’s absolutely insufficient.”

Culpepper is worried people will drive faster on the new, wider lanes. Kingsley replied by pointing out that going from four general lanes to three is expected to improve safety; but she didn’t address the width issue, saying she’d ask an engineer and follow-up later.

“I firmly believe that bike lanes would be a benefit to pedestrian safety.”
— Ben Manker, Hawthorne business owner during public comment

BAC member Catie Gould wanted to know results of PBOT’s analysis of a bus/bike/car mixing zone design at Cesar Chavez. That intersection was the sole cause of the estimated 8-16 minute transit delay that led to PBOT’s dismissal of bike lanes after the initial evaluation and many bike advocates pinned their hopes on the mixing zone’s ability to reduce that delay and make bike lanes more feasible. PBOT’s Hull said the mixing zone design reduced that delay, but didn’t eliminate it entirely. She did not share any specific numbers from the analysis and PBOT’s 10-page “final decision” report also does not include that detail.

Iain Mackenzie was frustrated that the BAC was sidelined on the project and echoed remarks made earlier in the meeting by Clint Culpepper who said, “We are oftentimes informed, but we very rarely get to actually play an active role in making improvements.” “I think this whole process has been the object lesson in how not to engage with a modal committee,” Mackenzie said. He used the issue of transit delay as an example: “There’s not a single person on this committee who thinks that creating significant delays to [TriMet] Line 14 is an acceptable trade-off, none of us wants to see that. But what we would have liked is the chance to be able to work out what was causing these impacts and how they can be mitigated… But instead what’s happened is the second time in a row… we have people on staff coming here and telling us what decision has been made, rather than trying to get the advice of an advisory [committee].”

BAC Member Caroline Crisp said, “I live a block from Hawthorne and this is heartbreaking!” She called for more transparency and wanted to know who signed-off on the decision.

“The decision was made, apparently, by [PBOT] Director Warner and Commissioner Hardesty,” replied PBOT’s Hull. “In this context, in this corridor, we think this is the right choice… There were a couple of choices that were relatively close… and in this corridor, this was the right thing to do; but not an easy choice by any stretch of the imagination.”

Hawthorne Pave & Paint project feedback boards filled out by BAC members and the general public during the meeting Tuesday night.

When it was time for public comment, business owner Ben Manker of Focus Group Vintage on SE 34th and Hawthorne spoke up. “One thing that I am a super-proponent for is bike lanes… I firmly believe that bike lanes would be a benefit to pedestrian safety,” he said. “And I do not see a reason why that was swept under the rug.” Manker said he felt many businesses on Hawthorne want bike lanes, but their voices are, “Kind of being, quieted compared to the Hawthorne Business Association (who wrote a letter to PBOT in October opposing the bike lanes).”

The public and BAC members used a new feedback tool at the meeting Tuesday night. Google “Jamboards” that allow participants to create digital sticky notes (shown above). Nearly all the comments spoke to the frustration and disappointment PBOT staff faced throughout the meeting.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and [email protected]
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