If you’ve ever biked in North or Northeast Portland, you’ve probably ridden on the North Williams Avenue bike corridor.
The bike lane on this roadway gets its most action between N. Broadway (picking up just east of The Broadway Bridge) and N. Killingsworth, providing the most direct bike-friendly route for cyclists traveling between downtown and North Portland.
You also might be aware of the current (though promised to be temporary) presence of chaos on this street.
And if in fact you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, let’s get you up to speed. Because this is what your tax dollars have been doing, and you’ll probably have a feeling about it.
My personal experience as a biker, driver, pedestrian, and resident of NE Portland for the past few years has amounted in some ardent love-hate regarding this thing .
It’s super centrally located, the scenery is fun (it’s lined with typical Portland-fashioned residences and businesses), it contains minimal stoplights, and the whole duration is pretty flat– though if you’re a fair-weather biker like me, the gradual but consistent incline while heading North can sneak up on you as mild existential-reprimand.
The cons, however…
They’ve been enough to warrant a whole bunch of messy, recent changes.
Four or five months ago, before breaking ground on the North Williams Safety Project, riding on this corridor felt like bikeflirting with danger. At that time the bike lane ran along the right side of the road, between traffic and a lane of parked cars, resulting in about 50% nice bike lane, 30% fear of death by oblivious parked car door-opener, and 20% racing out from between Trimet drivers and their targets (bus stops).
What’s more- have you ever biked right next to a bunch of parked cars after a few beers? (asking for a friend)
And in addition to the awkward (#fatal) potentialities felt by bikers, there has also long been a safety concern for pedestrians attempting to cross the street at most crosswalks.
Nearly all aspects of the corridor have been adjusted since the first construction during September of last year, with the project’s original development spanning back to about four years ago. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) initiated a public involvement process beginning in 2011 to determine best measures that could be taken to improve safety for all of N. William’s commuters, spending a full 16 months on the assessment.
In just the past few months:
- A crosswalk near Legacy Emanuel Hospital on N. Cook street is seeing a big visibility upgrade, as are five additional crosswalks along the corridor.
- The bike lane which was once five feet wide has now expanded to twelve feet in most parts of the roadway.
- The previous two lanes of automobile traffic have been reduced to only one.
- And perhaps the most controversial of changes- the bike lane now runs unconventionally along the left side of the road.
So What Does This Mean for Commuters?
For the most part, the changes improve the commuting experience for pedestrians and bikers (cars have sort of received a gentle nudge toward other nearby roads like N. Interstate or NE MLK blvd.), but the new placement of the bike lane creates two new concerns for bikers and drivers.
The arguably less problematic of these two new issues is that bikers are now sometimes unsure on which side to pass fellow riders.
An article written by The Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s (BTA) Community Engagement Manager Carl Larson explains how traditionally, if you’re going to pass someone in a bike lane you take it upon yourself to be the one who gets put further in harm’s way by passing on the side nearest traffic. And because bike lanes are typically on the right side of the road, passing etiquette says we call out an “On your left!” and pass on the left side.
So considering N. William’s new layout is just the opposite, does it mean we invert protocol for passing etiquette? Yes! It might feel counterintuitive at first, but clearer lane-labeling is promised soon and I imagine this specific area of confusion will clear up after a short learning curve.
The other (arguably more serious) concern is the fact that drivers aren’t generally in the habit of looking over their left shoulder before making a left turn, but failing to do so on N. Williams currently results in a really dangerous environment for bikers. This webpage at BikePortland.org notes some interesting communication between PBOT and BTA, highlighting what’s working well so far, and what needs more attention.
There have already been reports of substantial injuries, namely due to the really, really, shitty (lack of) signage reminding drivers to look to their left as they turn.
What We Need to See in the near Future
I recently took a walk along the road with Noise & Color Photographer Carey Silverstein during rush hour to have a closer look at the situation. From crudely unfinished roadways to ambiguously transitioned bike-to-turn lanes, it doesn’t take long to spot areas of confusion for all commuters.
Although there are currently a few signs up reminding drivers of bikers and pedestrians, most intersections remain free of any warnings. What we personally found just stupid – there are actually tiny sandwich boards sitting on the right (the right!) side of the street, noting in font barely visible from the road, to look left when turning.
What? What’s the point in that? Multiply those puppies, make them reflective, and hang them up overhead. Make them visible.
Altogether, despite this delay in appropriate signage and signals, it does seem encouraging that access and safety for the more vulnerable modes of transportation has improved if even just slightly.
But It’s probably going to remain a bonafide shitshow for a little while longer.
And in the mean time, if you find yourself driving amidst the chaos that is currently N. Williams, why not just take a hint and GTFO?
Written by Danielle Purkey
Photography by Carey Silverstein