A few days ago I was biking along SE 41st and Hawthorne and came to a confusing situation: a stop sign, in front of a crosswalk signal showing a red hand. Since there were no cars around, could I bike across? Or did I have to wait for the pedestrian signal to change? Or did I have to stop at the stop sign and then cross?
I wound up doing what most people probably do: Looking guiltily around for cops and then darting through the intersection.
There are 48 of these half-signals around Portland (like at 41st and Glisan, 39th and Taylor, and 16th and Hawthorne) but according to the federal government, the city should tear them all out. They're too confusing, say the feds. But half-signals like these are integral to the city's plans to remake Portland's streets so they're safer and easier for pedestrians and cyclists to use.
Last week, Portland Bureau of Transportation staffer Peter Koonce discussed over a brown-bag lunch session how to redesign signals to encourage biking. Koonce noted that even his own posters for the talk, taped around the Portland Building, had been heckled. Next to the title, "Remaking signals to encourage cycling" some cynical city employee had scrawled, "Why bother? They won't obey them."
So is it possible to actually design an intersection that will keep fewer cyclists from running the light? The city's had some success, but sometimes by going against how the feds say streets are supposed to work.
Check out the city's statistics on the "scramble" light just south of the Rose Quarter. This one, which gives bikes their own signal to cross an intersection on a diagonal and was built thanks to a $10,000 state grant in 2004:
Before the scramble light was put in, 66 percent of people on bikes run the light. Nowdays, only 13-19 percent run the light. Why? Because an intersection whose rules were straight up inconvenient and unhelpful for bikes—even when there's no traffic, you'd have to wait through two pedestrian light cycles to cross the intersection in two crosswalks—was remade in a way that made sense for bikes. Success!
Another change the city can make is setting light cycles to change to green at a speed that's good for bikes—so if you're biking down a street, all the lights will be green for you. This "green wave" occurs on SW 4th Avenue downtown and on the new Eastside Couch couplet, but, annoyingly, not on the major bike routes of North Williams or Vancouver, where the aggro dudes speeding past people and racing through yellow lights have the best shot of an uninterrupted commute.
The most visible intersection remake recently has been at North Williams and Broadway, where a lot of car commuters turn right onto I-5 and bike commuters either head straight to downtown or turn right on Williams. It was a pretty harrowing intersection that often brought me close to my fear of being crushed to an agonizing death under the tires of an 18-wheeler. So the city created two car right-turn lanes, added a "no right turn on red" sign, added a bike-specific signal, and added a detection device at previous intersections so the bike signal is likely to flip on when cyclists approach (video and pictures here).
The result? Chaos! The statistics aren't out yet, but while it's potentially a safer intersection, all the signage and special signals have been super confusing. And since the fed's only measure of effectiveness of an intersection is vehicle delay, it's a step backward in their eyes.
As the city aims to triple the number of bike trips in Portland over the next 30 years, we're going to see a lot more intersection remakes in the future.