By Colin Staub
These days, SE Portland has a lot less street parking than it used to. Bioswales, bicycle parking corrals, a program that extends restaurant seating into the street, and, of course, apartment complexes without parking lots, have all reduced the supply of available parking and, in many cases, have been met with irritation and complaints.
Mark Zahner has lived on SE 34th Ave. for 20 years, and has watched traffic navigate the block between SE Division and SE Clinton. “The street basically doesn’t work,” he says.
The problem stems from the width of the street. As 34th crosses Division toward Clinton, it narrows from 30 feet to 24 feet. Factor in the cars parked on both sides of the road, and that makes it at least four feet narrower than adjacent blocks.
To add to the problem, 34th and Division has a traffic light, the only one on Division’s newly-popular, redeveloped business district. It provides an easy route and while Division has experienced perennial construction and street paving, motorists have utilized 34th as an escape route out of long delays.
The street is narrow enough that it is often too dangerous for a car and a bike to pass each other between parked cars on both sides of the street, and traffic backs up in a “courtesy queue”.
In an attempt to address the problem, Zahner, an architect, has drawn up plans for a reorganized 34th Ave. His proposal would turn 34th between Clinton and Division into a one-way northbound street for cars.
Bicycles would share the northbound lane with motorists, but would see the addition of a dedicated southbound bike lane. This would make it a safer street to commute, but it would require the removal of parking spaces on the west side of the street. Because of this, Zahner’s plan has been a difficult sell.
“Nobody wants to stick their neck out to remove parking,” he says.
Zahner has received 150 signatures on an online petition supporting his plan, adding to the 150+ already received on a hard-copy petition outside his home.
While the Richmond Neighborhood Association (RNA) was divided on whether to support the proposal, it voted last November to send a letter to Commissioner Steve Novick, asking the city to study the block.
Other proponents include Bike Loud PDX, a bicycle advocacy group formed over the summer by Alex Reed. The group has been working to improve bicycling conditions on Clinton St., and sees Zahner’s proposal as another positive change.
“The way that street is laid out is suboptimal,” says Reed. “Changing it would make things better for pretty much everyone.”
The impact on surrounding businesses is often cited as a reason to preserve parking, but in this case at least one local business owner is in favor of the proposal.
“I think if you slow traffic, it’s good,” says Barry Lee, owner of Clinton Street Market at 34th and Clinton St.. “This is a bike lane, and there are also a lot of kids in the neighborhood.”
Lee does not anticipate that the loss of the parking spaces, which are close to his store, will hurt his business. A large portion of his customers are pedestrians and cyclists. He sees the plan as a way to rectify safety issues.
“I see near misses daily,” he says. “Not many accidents, but near misses.”
The lack of actual collisions may be a roadblock in convincing the city to change the street. While Zahner and the RNA have contacted Steve Novick and the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the city has not rushed to redesign the layout of the road.
“We’ve seen Mr. Zahner’s petition and learned about his idea for 34th Avenue,” says Dylan Rivera, PBOT spokesman. “We’ve sent a traffic engineer to study and gather data. As of yet we don’t see evidence of a speeding or safety concern.”
The city takes a number of factors into account when assessing the hazards of a particular street, Rivera says. Crash history is an important variable, but not the only one.
Speed is considered, as is the geometry of a street, which can include, for example, visibility around parked cars at an intersection. Street width is considered as well, though usually in a different context.
PBOT acknowledges that the area around Division St. is changing, and the neighborhood should be monitored for new issues that the influx of traffic may present. Numerous new developments are wrapping up construction, but other city projects, including the Clinton Green Street and Sewer Project and the Division Streetscape Project, are still in the works.
Some observers are skeptical that traffic in the neighborhood will resolve itself after the building projects are over.
The situation surrounding the 34th St. proposal, is part of a larger trend of citizen involvement in transportation issues.
For years, Portland was nationally-recognized as a leader in traffic safety projects, based largely on its Traffic Calming Program. While other cities still point to the program as an example for their own projects, now there is an addendum, like in this San Francisco County document: “Portland has currently suspended its traffic calming program due to funding cuts.”
As a result, traffic calming projects have become mostly complaint-driven. There is a hotline and an email address to report traffic concerns and requests go into a queue. PBOT tries to respond to them.
In the meantime, Alex Reed has tips on safe commuting in the neighborhood.
“Everybody be nice to each other. People biking, bike in the middle of the lane so you don’t get squeezed against parked cars. People in cars, be patient. Only pass when it’s safe.”
It’s basic advice, he acknowledges, but between increased traffic and construction delays, it sometimes gets forgotten.
To report a traffic concern call 503.823.SAFE, or email firstname.lastname@example.org