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May 25th, 2011 NATHAN GILLES | Featured Stories
 

Streets Of Death!

Stick to the neighborhood greenway—or else.

lede_2jimparsonsON BROADWAY: Portland’s designated bike routes have received many safety upgrades in recent years, but the city doesn’t measure ridership on some busy unofficial routes. - IMAGE: James Rexroad
     
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The Portland Bureau of Transportation says the city is getting safer to bike in: Portland’s bicycle traffic increased 190 percent between 2000 and 2009, and accidents declined 39 percent, the bureau adds. But while the city as a whole is safer, many of its most dangerous streets are as scary as ever.

A large number of bicycle-car collisions have dotted Northeast Broadway from 15th Avenue to the Broadway Bridge. All told, the mile-long stretch of asphalt was the scene of 61 reported accidents involving bicycles from 2000 to 2009, according to PBOT data. One of the more hazardous intersections in the corridor is the interchange where Northeast Broadway meets Interstate 5. At this junction, cars eager to hit the highway will occasionally hit riders instead (10 since 2000).

Well-traveled routes, like the one leading to the Broadway Bridge (which is traveled by an average of 5,291 cyclists a day) or those leading to the Hawthorne Bridge (over 7,000 trips a day), tend to have more total accidents than less popular routes, but the rate of accidents per trip is actually pretty low—approximately one per 225,000 trips for this section of Broadway. Due to heavy use, these routes also tend to garner city funds for projects like green bike lanes, bike boxes and, on the Broadway Bridge, bicycle signals. The same cannot be said for Portland roads less frequented by bicyclists.

The stretch of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from Broadway to Killingsworth Street is not especially popular among bikers, and for good reason: It lacks a bike lane. Yet the street had 36 reported bike accidents, one of them fatal, from 2000 to 2009.

“It’s a no-man’s land for bikes,” says Jonathan Maus, publisher of BikePortland.org. Maus says almost no one rides on the street, a fact the Transportation Bureau couldn’t confirm—it doesn’t collect ridership numbers on streets that are not part of designated bike routes. This means the city could have several trouble spots where bicycle traffic is high but uncounted and where accidents continue to happen. According to the bureau, this section of MLK won’t get a bike lane. Why?

“I think for a lot of people,” says PBOT’s Mark Lear, “they just look at the intersections where you have the most crashes and then say, ‘Well, spend money there.’” Lear, a safety expert for the bureau, says streets with a lot of crashes tend to be high-volume streets with swift-moving traffic. Instead of spending money on these roads, Lear says, it’s better to get bicyclists off these fast streets and onto slower ones. 

PBOT hopes to do this by spending money on low-volume streets and greenways—such as the Going Greenway in Northeast Portland (see next page)—in an effort to encourage bicyclists to stay off busy city roads. Maus disagrees with this approach.

“I don’t think we should have streets that are that inaccessible to bicycles,” he says. “Yes, you can go on them. And yes, you can take up that lane. But how many people have the tolerance to do that?”

Crash data shows many Portlanders do have a tolerance for dangerous roads, suggesting the possibility that a number of streets are being used as unofficial bicycle routes. For instance, Oregon Department of Transportation collision reports for Northeast Ainsworth Street from Concordia University to Portland Community College’s Cascade Campus show riders are using this section of road as a de facto east-west corridor. Riders using this route have also reported, on BikePortland.org, eight “close calls” and four “problem spots” on the street. How many riders are using the street is unknown, but a quick look at the map shows why riders might want to use this route versus the more circuitous path PBOT has designed for them. It’s simply more convenient.

Maus says Portland will never meet all its bike-friendly goals unless cycling is made more convenient, and this, he says, means adding bike lanes on the city’s busy thoroughfares. This probably will not happen. 

“If you want to make MLK safe for bikes,” says Lear, “you need something like a cycle track [a bicycle-only path], and you can do miles and miles of neighborhood greenway routes for the cost of one mile of cycle track on MLK.” 

How safe are Portland’s streets for bicycles? If you stick to side streets, greenways and streets with developed infrastructure, like the routes over the central bridges, you’re probably going to be just fine. But don’t expect to ride the shortest distance between points A and B. And if you do ride on those busy streets without bike lanes, remember that as far as the city is concerned, your trip only counts if you crash. 




HOW YOU WILL BE INJURED

Credits: Corey Thompson

It will happen in winter—December or January—on a clear, dry day. You will be riding on a residential street with no bike infrastructure. The culprit will probably be not a car but poor road conditions—gravel or a steel plate or a storm drain. You will tear your skin, and probably hurt your arms or legs, but not so badly as to require a hospital stay. 

A 2008 study by Oregon Health and Science University of 962 bike commuters, published in the November 2010 issue of Trauma, found that injuries are distressingly common among regular riders in Portland: Nearly 20 percent of the participants in the yearlong study, regardless of age, sex or commuting experience, received some sort of injury. Put another way, riders can expect a traumatic accident every 6,670 miles.

The great majority of injuries were to skin or limbs, and less than one-third of the reported accidents involved a car (although half of the “serious traumatic events” did involve a motor vehicle). The rate of accidents more than doubled in December and January, and the great majority of accidents happened on residential streets or in bike lanes. The study does contain some good news, though, confirming once again that riders who wear helmets are less likely to be seriously injured. BEN WATERHOUSE.

 
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