Is it past time for West Burnside to go on a “road diet”?

Paradoxically, sometimes reducing lanes means better traffic flow — AND better livability and more transportation choices

A successful “road diet” on La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

Portland planners like to show off the city’s many progressive achievements.  But one place they don’t show off is West Burnside, especially the segment west of I405.  We’ve heard some folks refer to this stretch of dirty, dangerous, ugly road as an “open car sewer.”  That seems about right.

Ironically, this stretch is not even particularly efficient at handling traffic through movement.  That’s because periodic left turns at unsignalized intersections obstruct through movement in the left-hand lanes, and frequent bus stops obstruct through movement in the right-hand lanes, causing significant congestion.   Pedestrians also have the right of way at the many unsignalized intersections, stopping traffic in all lanes — and putting the pedestrians in considerable danger from careless motorists.

West Burnside today. It’s dirty, dangerous and ugly — but at least the traffic doesn’t flow well anyway.

West Burnside handles a fair amount of traffic, but not as much as one might think.   The City’s own traffic counts show about 7,000 cars during the morning and afternoon peak periods.  (The City doesn’t have an average daily total volume for West Burnside on its website, for some reason. See

The issue has been considered before.  Over a decade ago, the City studied alternatives and developed a plan for a “couplet” system.  West Burnside would become a one-way eastbound street, and West Couch would take the remaining westbound traffic (similar to what happens now just east of the river).  Because of the tendency of traffic to move fast on these one-ways, the plan also included a new streetcar line on both streets.

But that plan is now on indefinite hold.  And in any case, the couplet was never intended to extend west of 16th Avenue, so the stretch in the photos above would remain more or less the same.  (You can read the 2006 report here.)

So what else can be done, then?  We can certainly take a lesson from other cities that have adopted progressive reforms.  One street that seems to have around the same traffic as Burnside (22,000 cars per day) is La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.  A project there known as a “road diet” kept the same capacity of vehicles, but cut down crashes by 90 percent, and did other very good things.

Before and after at La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

It sounded a lot like the problems we have on West Burnside today:

The project was designed to transform a wide, automobile-oriented thoroughfare to a pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood center…. [There was a] lack of comfortable public spaces, and financial stagnation of area businesses, notes “The wide, heavily trafficked road functioned as a barrier that divided the neighborhood physically and psychologically’…

So the plan was actually to remove lanes, and make the remaining lanes work just as well or better — as well as providing more attractive sidewalks and public spaces, and better ability to handle walking, biking, buses, and other ways of getting around:

The traffic count remained approximately the same (23,000 vehicles per day before, 22,000 after), but walking, bicycling, transit use, on-street parking and retail sales all climbed to much higher levels, the city reports. Retail sales rose 30 percent and noise levels dropped 77 percent…

That all sounds good — but how is it possible that removing lanes won’t result is massive traffic delays?  Our friend Dan Burden, consultant on the project, explains:

“Motorists,” Burden reported in The San Diego Union- Tribune in February 2017, “understandably dreaded this change before it was made. But they found that instead of waiting 24 seconds for a pedestrian to cross 70 feet of road, they now only wait 3–4 seconds, or don’t have to wait at all. Businesses that feared the loss of customers arriving in cars actually improved their trade. … Today motorists are getting to their destinations in less time, because they aren’t stopping.”

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