Stop Treating Cyclists Like Black Inmates In A Carolina Prison

Background Reading


It used to be a bike lane. (Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

It used to be a bike lane.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

The City of Portland Bureau of Transportation is trying out a new bike lane treatment on North Rosa Parks Way that they hope will lessen the risks of right-hook collisions.

A few weeks ago I noticed the bike lane on Rosa Parks (which was just installed in 2011) as it approaches Albina had been ground off about 50-feet from the intersection. In what used to be a parking lane and bicycle-only lane, PBOT has placed sharrow markings and a right-turn arrow.

The approach to this intersection used to offer dedicated, legally-binding right-of-way for bicycle users. Now it’s a shared environment where right-turning auto users and bicycle users (either going straight or turning right) mix together.

This isn’t the only place in town where PBOT has installed a “mixing zone” (NW Everett and NE Multnomah have them), but this is the first instance I’m aware of where an existing bike lane was removed and replaced with this treatment.

This is a major change to how PBOT treats bike lanes at intersections, so I called around to find out what spurred the new design and whether or not this is something we might be seeing more of.

Turns out this change started via a citizen complaint made to the 823-SAFE hotline. The complaint was fielded by PBOT Traffic Engineer Carl Snyder. In a phone interview, Snyder shared that he ran the complaint by one of PBOT’s bike experts, long-time employee Jeff Smith, and the two of them came up with this design solution.

“Part of me really feels that this is just codifying illegal right turns and puts people on bikes in greater danger.”
— Noah Brimhall, nearby resident

According to Snyder the problem at this intersection was with auto users who would illegally drive over the bike lane prior to the intersection and use the bike lane and/or parking lane to make their right turn. (Oregon law requires that when a bicycle lane is present, drivers must stay out of the bike lane until the intersection.)

This is a scenario that Snyder acknowledges PBOT has “struggled with” for many years (and that’s definitely true). Some people prefer the California example of encouraging auto users to pull into the bike lane prior to the intersection to make a turn, thus reducing the risk of right hooks.

“It’s not a perfect design,” Snyder told us, “but we’ve tried this in some other places and the results are mixed.”

It comes down to where to you want drivers to cross your path; somewhere prior to the intersection or at a known spot in the intersection. Another consideration is that if someone is in a standard lane waiting for a bicycle lane to clear, they are holding up other drivers who want to go straight.

Snyder described scenarios at this intersection of people simultaneously turning right from both lanes (the thru lane and the parking/bike lane). “It’s a problem not just for bikes but for cars too,” he said.

I’m surprised to see PBOT doing this type of design because in the past they have defended the Oregon style bike lane. The thinking is that drivers need to respect the bike lane at all times and by creating some locations where people can drive in them sends a mixed message.

A benefit of this new shared design, Snyder says, is that it’s more clear where the conflict point exists.

There’s no relevant history of collisions at this intersection and it has relatively low vehicle volumes.

Noah Brimhall lives nearby and is the former transportation chair of the Piedmont Neighborhood Association. He says he has, “really mixed feelings about these changes.”

Here’s more from Brimhall:

“I know that before the change folks driving cars regularly turned right from Rosa Parks on to Albina from the bike lane and I found this really annoying and dangerous. One could make the argument that this is a way to make folks driving cars aware of the presence of people on bikes and make sure they know to share this space, but part of me really feels that this is just codifying illegal right turns and puts people on bikes in greater danger. It also feels like a further dilution of the sharrow and it seems like transport agencies are just using the sharrow in every possible situation where a bike could be on a road, but they don’t feel like (or can’t) actually put in a dedicated facility for people on bikes.”

Snyder acknowledged that prior to the change, people in cars were “not doing what they were supposed to do” and it’s his hope that the new design better clarifies those movements.

He added that this is not going to become a new standard treatment but that they’ll monitor how it works. How does Snyder think the design will work? “I think the jury’s out.”

Have you ridden this new mixing zone on Rosa Parks (or elsewhere)? What do you think?


After reading the blog entry above I got this email:

Congress is preparing to take action on a new federal transportation bill.  Given the shortfall of federal transportation dollars, some members of Congress are already questioning why the federal government provides any funding for bicycling and walking.

We need your help to make sure that Congress doesn’t cut funding to help local communities build sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, trails and more. Please Ask your Senator to Co-Sponsor S. 705, The Transportation Alternatives Program Improvement Act.

The Transportation Alternatives Program provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year to local communities to invest in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. It’s the only federal program specifically focused on local transportation priorities. S. 705, the Transportation Alternatives Program Improvement Act, written by Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), makes changes to the program to  make it more effective and easier for local governments to use.

For decades, our federal transportation system has focused the bulk of its resources on building roads, leaving many of our communities with few transportation options and rising safety risks for people bicycling and walking. More and more Americans want options for bicycling, walking and transit to live healthier and safer lives. More and more cities and towns are clamoring for more facilities for biking and walking to make their communities more attractive to residents and to improve their economies. S. 705 would help make sure that Congress continues to invest a small share of federal transportation dollars in these types of projects.

Ask your Senators to cosponsor S. 705, the Transportation Alternatives Program Improvement Act, to ensure that our federal transportation system continues to provide funding for bicycling and walking.

Click the link below to take action on this issue:

Wait Just A Cotton Picking Minute!

I have seen this movie before. You know the one where black inmates in prison are allowed to die of some STD in an effort to have white doctors better understand the disease.

I can almost imagine that when their money starts running out they send out a letter like the one above on in it they decry the reduction in federal funding to cure a disease that their donors want to see eradicated, but they are in the middle of their work.

While they don’t say as much it is clear that they need more guinea pigs and time. They are waiting to see how much suffering their black inmate patients will undergo and in the meantime they need new inmates to test out their other theories and treatments. So send them more money to lobby Congress so that their important work can go on un-hindered!

We Are Being Sold A Bill of Goods

That is about the size of this headlong rush to put in ‘bicycle lanes‘. Evidently the process of building bike lanes is a bit more primitive than even I would have imagined. So why the haste to add more of the things that no one really knows will work?

One justification might be that in the meantime we would ‘lose momentum in getting new inmates cyclists to test out our lanes‘. And that would indeed be true. But ask yourself this question,

why are we not treating bike lanes the same way we do clinical trials for drugs?

Actually perhaps we really are doing that. After all if we get a few too many increases in ‘right hooks‘ we try something different. OK, fine. But then let’s be honest in telling the public that what we are doing is not necessarily saving them from certain death, but is rather an stab at making that a reality.

Right now we are being treated like those black inmates in Carolina who were not told of their fates. And even if they had been, what could they have changed?

I am not an inmate.

I do not appreciate having letter after letter arrival in my inbox asking for money and my contributions to a survey for something that we have not really tested.

Where are the mathematical modeling programs that allow us to run scenarios before a single coat of pretty green paint or a bollard has been screwed into the pavement?

Why instead is the bicycle advocacy world on fire to put in more traffic furniture that they are frankly unsure about.

If it were ever discovered that the general populationwas being treated like those black inmates in Carolina heads would roll. When citizens participate in clinical trials they are told ahead of time that they might receive a placebo.

The bicycle advocacy world is trying to do two things:

  • It is trying to push a remedy that may or may not work for a given area and they are willing to do this without adequate scientific testing
  • Collecting money for themselves

I believe that the next piece of email that crosses my desk should state plainly that we cannot guarantee the safety of the individuals who use the bicycle infrastructure we are demanding money to install, because we have failed to find out if we know the specific design suitable for the areas targeted for insertion. But it won’t!

Instead when the next report comes out from the Governors Association once again telling us that instead of fatalities dropping that they are actually rising, the same indignant blather will be issues and more form letters will go out to us ‘black inmates‘ to ask for yet more money to combat the ‘haters‘.

This Isn’t Like Climate Change

We should be able to run computer-based models of the intersections we hope to build and have it indicate the responses of the vehicles in those scenarios to hundreds of situations.

If that computer software has not yet been built, would it not be better to ask for money for that purpose, than to merely install more of the same lame crap that we already have?

Remember, Portland is not a novice at installing bicycle infrastructure. They are way ahead of the curve when compared to virtually every other city in America. And yet they sound as if they are feeling their way around in the dark. And that is probably more true than you or I want to really know.

We need some honest-to-goodness mathematicians who can answer real world questions. Will for instance the insertion of red light cameras create a safer street or cause some new problems? Or will it be a wash? Those kinds of answers are needed to mount a reasonable defense by cities trying to make their streets safer while at the same time drawing down revenue from its citizens to cover the gaps mentioned in the ‘money begging letter‘ above.

Before American Cyclists spend another dime, we deserve something more than having smoke blown up our biking shorts.