A year later, no change on West Burnside — the “open car sewer” of central Portland

The westside artery is an embarrassing showcase of poor street design.  Let’s do something about it.

Extremely narrow sidewalks, no bike lanes, fast-moving cars, dangerous crossings – what’s not to hate?

Last year we wrote about West Burnside, calling it the “open car sewer” of Portland, and a cause for national embarrassment given Portland’s claim to leadership in urban design and transportation planning.  Worse, that street has the distinction of including four of the city’s most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, according to PBOT.

Minimal sidewalk widths are even tighter around utility poles and hydrants – right next to fast-moving traffic. (Image by Google Maps.)

Of course there are other streets around the city that are even more dangerous, unpleasant, or just plain ugly.  They should certainly be improved too.  But West Burnside runs through the City’s core, and, especially west of I405, it turns into a painfully visible case of a street over-planned for cars, and under-planned for pedestrians or bicyclists.  Of its 60 foot right-of-way, 44 feet is devoted to vehicles, 16 feet to pedestrians, and none to bicycles.  That’s 74% for cars, and 13% per side for pedestrians.

In some places, West Burnside’s sidewalks are only 6 feet wide; after factoring in light poles and other obstructions, some areas provide only a little over four feet of passage for pedestrians.  Right next to them, cars blaze through in a 25 MPH zone — often driving at 35 miles per hour.

Dystopia at West Burnside and NW 23rd.

Not surprisingly, retail has struggled to succeed on Burnside. Currently both corners at West Burnside and Northwest 23rd — which, further away from West Burnside, is one of the city’s most prosperous shopping streets — feature empty commercial spaces.  One of them is a chronic site of vandalism, creating a remarkable spectacle of dilapidation and urban decline.

Isn’t there a remedy?  Yes, there is.  Currently West Burnside is a remarkably inefficient thoroughfare, even though it has a full four lanes at 11 feet wide each.  The trouble is, cars in the center two lanes frequently stop to turn across traffic at the unsignalized intersections and driveways.  In the outer two lanes, conversely, buses frequently stop traffic behind them.  That means the “level of service” for vehicles — the number that can get through within a given span of time — is remarkably low for the number of lanes.  It also means that drivers are constantly making unsafe lane changes, going around vehicles that may also obscure pedestrians.

With a three-lane configuration, a center lane can be used for turning, allowing smooth travel in the outer two lanes.  Meanwhile, buses can use turnouts so that they don’t block traffic.  When they’re ready to re-enter the street, they can be given the right of way with clever designs of lanes.  Speeding traffic can also be calmed with these and other bends in the roadway path.

An image we showed last year of a similar proposal for a street in La Jolla, California, showing the successful results.

According to former Portland planner Jerry Powell, a three-lane configuration was modeled some years ago, and it performed at least as well as the current four-lane configuration.  So why hasn’t the City made the change?  One reason may be the political clout of residents of the West Hills, who may perceive that a wider street means they’ll get to their downtown or Eastside offices more quickly.   But is that true?  Apparently not.

Isn’t it time to do something about this civic embarrassment?



One Reply to “A year later, no change on West Burnside — the “open car sewer” of central Portland”

  1. What about a bike lane? A driver yelled at me to get off this street with my bike “because it has no bike lane”!

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