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'Road diet' gets mixed review

Division appears safer, but rush-hour traffic now backs up several blocks


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Traffic lines up during rush hour on Southeast Division Street near 60th Avenue. Not everyone agrees that the citys road diet plan has improved travel on the busy street for bikes and cars.When Mary Louise Ott was growing up in the South Tabor neighborhood, her parents wouldn’t let her walk to Mount Tabor Park because crossing Southeast Division Street was so hazardous.

Now back living in her childhood home, Ott says it’s easier to take her morning walk to the park and cross Division since the city removed two traffic lanes in August.

Having just one lane of traffic in each direction makes Division easier to navigate on foot, Ott says. It also may be easier because rush-hour traffic backs up for several blocks now and often slows to a crawl — contrary to assurances by the city when it replaced the two vehicle lanes with a center refuge lane, left-turn pockets and bike lanes.

“People have said it’s slower,” Ott says. “When you look at rush hour, there’s a pretty long line of cars going in both directions.”

Division Street between Southeast 60th and 80th avenues was the first in a wave of planned “road diets,” where four lanes of vehicle traffic are pared to two, allowing room for a new middle lane and, sometimes, bike and pedestrian improvements. Glisan Street between Northeast 62nd and 80th avenues got the same treatment after Division, and the city hopes to do road diets on Foster Road and other high-traffic streets.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation sticks by its prediction that rush-hour commuters on that stretch of Division will make the journey more quickly — though at lower travel speeds. That’s largely because traffic won’t be bogged down so much by people stopping in the left travel lane while waiting to turn.

“We still expect or anticipate that travel times should be shorter,” says PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera.

Humming along

Some residents are skeptical that fewer travel lanes can actually make traffic move more quickly during rush hour, and the early experience on Division doesn’t quell such views.

South Tabor resident Yvonna Daul says she preferred Division the way it was before, and figured flashing lights at the crosswalks would have sufficed to improve pedestrian safety. She’d also like the city to leave Foster Road alone.

But several residents say the road diet on Division appears to have made that stretch of road safer for motorists and bicyclists.

Looking out the big picture window of Vision Auto Repair onto Southeast Division just east of 60th, auto technician Ben Do says it appears traffic is moving slower now, but with fewer accidents than before. He sometimes saw two accidents in a week on the street.

“Traffic feels smoother with a dedicated left-turn lane, as you’re not switching lanes all the time to avoid people who want to turn,” says South Tabor resident Steve Nassar.

Before the lanes were removed, he noticed more and more bicyclists were pedaling on Division “for some ungodly reason,” instead of mellower routes on nearby neighborhood streets. “People would cut too close to bicycles when passing,” Nassar says.

But now bicyclists have their own striped lanes, and cars aren’t speeding past at 45 miles an hour just a couple feet away.

“That piece of the street has been considered a four-lane freeway since the early ‘60s,” Ott says. Eastbound motorists would “gun it” when Division went from two lanes to four lanes at 60th, she says. “It’s a huge change from that.”

But the sight of cars backed up for three blocks is a relatively new and now frequent sight during rush hour. One day last week, lines of 20 or more cars were observed several times. Some had to wait two light signals to proceed through intersections. When a TriMet bus pulled over to let off passengers, similar backups formed, since the bus occupies part of the lone traffic lane.

Jamison Cavallaro, the land-use chairman for the South Tabor Neighborhood Association, says rush-hour traffic appears to be “humming along” and moving more efficiently, even if cars are stacked tightly. But crossing Division to get to Mount Tabor Park or Warner Pacific College is no easy feat for Cavallaro and his wife when they’re out walking with their 1-month-old baby.

“Anecdotally, it’s harder than ever to cross the road as a pedestrian,” he says. “With the baby, we cannot run to avoid an oncoming vehicle like college kids can.”

Crossing also may be harder for seniors, he says.

South Tabor resident Francine Morgan says she loves the new Division Street. “It looks better and moves faster (surprise) and is much safer!” she says.

‘I would urge patience’

Ott says the city was very responsive when she and representatives of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association and Warner Pacific approached PBOT with complaints about that stretch of Division. Neighbors found a reference in the neighborhood association meeting minutes from 1972, when then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt urged residents to contact the city transportation bureau to deal with safety problems on the street.

PBOT came up with the road diet plan, and didn’t ram it down neighbors’ throats, Ott says. “The three-lane roadway seemed to be the only way that was viable to do everything that people wanted.”

Rivera says it’s too soon for PBOT to do traffic studies to see how well the road diet is working, and the project isn’t even finished. The bureau plans to install “loop detectors” in the lights on Division so they won’t keep changing to red during rush hour if there’s nobody at intersections trying to get onto the street.

Those should address problems from traffic backing up during rush hour, he says.

The bureau also is waiting for the Bureau of Environmental Services to do some work on a manhole before adding a new crosswalk at 68th Avenue, near Warner Pacific, Rivera says. The road diet will allow space to put a concrete island in the middle of Division for pedestrians to use as a refuge when trying to cross there.

“I would urge patience,” Rivera says.

But as restaurateurs and apartment developers continue to build a flurry of new projects on Division Street a couple miles west, it seems that rush-hour motorists will have to get used to the idea of moving more slowly while navigating Division, including commuters who use the street from East Portland and Gresham. That points out to what Ott sees as a bigger issue for commuters. Increasingly, she says, “there are no good ways to drive into downtown Portland.”