First Look: New bike signals unlock two-way protected bikeway on Naito

There’s a new way to roll between Better Naito and the Steel Bridge.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Slowly but surely, the Portland Bureau of Transportation is claiming Naito Parkway as a major bike corridor.

First they took Better Naito under their wing, and now they’ve flipped the switch on new bike-only signals that create a lower-stress connection between NW Davis and the Steel Bridge.

We hinted at this new connection — and Naito’s larger role in PBOT’s downtown bikeway plans — back in May. I checked it all out yesterday just hours after the signal was activated.

Here’s what I observed.

The design

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Arrows show location of new bike-only signals.

PBOT’s intention was to organize bike traffic more safely and efficiently between the northern end of Better Naito at Davis and the Steel Bridge path. Because of the right-hook fears at Davis (where people drive onto the Steel Bridge) people usually leave Naito at Couch and ride through the Japanese Historical Plaza and Waterfront Path when headed northbound (more on that below).

To encourage a different northbound flow, PBOT has added plastic wands and striping at Couch that leads to a new paved pathway that runs parallel to Naito and dumps bike traffic back one block later at Davis. This is where the new bike signal is. Lower than other signals, and with yellow metal backing and a “BIKE Signal” sign near it, the light is easy to see. The lane striping continues across the intersection and connects with the two-way facility that goes under the Steel Bridge viaduct. The two-way striping ends at the Flanders ramp up into Waterfront Park (and Steel Bridge path) just south of the railroad tracks. If you’re headed north, you can continue over the track onto the buffered bike lanes near McCormick Condominiums.

The video below shows what it looks like going southbound from Waterfront Park near the Steel Bridge path (I left it running for 30 seconds during the signal cycle):

Overall the design is relatively straightforward. The awkward bits are the length of the signal cycles and the connection between the new paved path and Better Naito at Couch.

The riding experience

A bit too much chaos in this area due to a lack of one dominant bikeway.

There’s a lot going on here and this new signal only makes it a bit more chaotic.

Due to a lack of high-quality, direct, and no-brainer-easy-to-use-and-follow bike infrastructure in this area, people dart around in all directions. Some are headed to the upper deck of the Steel Bridge, some ride through the Historical Plaza, some are looking for Better Naito or crossing over Naito to get into downtown, and others others simply create their own desire lines where they please. Between Couch and Davis, Naito and the Willamette River, it’s every person for themselves.

When I’m riding here during peak hour I’ve got to be more vigilant of other bike users than of auto users or people on foot. This stress probably accounts for some of the rampant red-light running from bike riders I observed. Many people who clearly saw the bike signal just ignored it. One guy rolled down the ramp on a red signal as a stream of auto users crossed in front of him (they had a green). He just held out his hand, a car stopped, and he rolled right through it.

I think some people run this light because the cycle times are relatively long. I waited between 30 and 50 seconds for a green signal. There’s no sensor loop to detect bicycles, so it’s a standard cycle each time. This isn’t a knock on PBOT, it’s just a fact of life that a bike-only signal often means longer wait times. In my opinion, the added safety is well worth it. I just hope compliance goes up. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t see any auto users run red.)

UPDATE: PBOT Communications Director John Brady left a comment (below) saying the signals will be further calibrated in the coming weeks. “This signal uses a new type of detection for bikes — Wavetronic SmartSensor Matrix units,” he wrote. “They use high-definition radar, don’t require routine maintenance and are easier to install than traditional loop detectors. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be monitoring where bicyclists tend to stop, so that we can best aim and calibrate the new detectors.”

I posted that video above to our Facebook page yesterday. Reader Siobhan Glazier said, “I’m super grateful the city is helping make cycling in this area safer but that transition from sidewalk to better Naito at Couch makes me very nervous.”

People have taken right to the signal. It had steady usage during the half-hour or so I was there. Most people figured it out with no problem. Overall, I think this entire is important enough to our bike network that it deserves a high-level planning analysis. Portland Parks and PBOT should sit down and figure it all out once and for all.

Bigger picture

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The future of Naito is coming into focus. With this new connection, it’s that much more valuable to the entire bike network. It also increases the value of Better Naito — making it even harder for City Council to vote to remove it as planned next month (it’s only temporary, remember?).

With this bikeway connection in the north, and with a similar two-way bikeway on SW Naito between Salmon and Harrison in the works (I just heard about that this week and am trying to get more details) to the south, Better Naito will be bookended by permanent protected bike lanes. If it were removed, there’d be a glaring gap.

My hunch is that PBOT is purposefully making permanent updates on either side of Better Naito in order to build a stronger political case around making it permanent.

With the Portland Business Alliance ready to pounce, it’s important that PBOT gets this right.

Have you ridden this new section? How did it go for you?

UPDATE, 5:45 pm: PBOT has issued a statement about this project and a ribbon-cutting on Monday. Their graphic below gives a helpful perspective on the design:

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and

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