Upper West Burnside Compromise Proposal

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About the Burnside-Couch Project:

Much has been discussed in recent days about the Burnside-Couch couplet proposal.

If you aren't yet familiar with these proposals, here’s links to the original documents:

Also, Commissioner Sam Adams has been having discussions on his blog:
http://www.commissionersam.com (Main Page)
http://www.commissionersam.com/sam_adams/2005/10/blog_smoldering.html (Burnside Discussion started Oct 20th, 2005)

And, the topic is discussed in several posts over at the Portland Transport blog:


Overall, I support the project. It has a few things here and there that I'd prefer were done differently, but I believe the positive outcomes will far outweigh the negatives.

However, there is one segment of the project that I feel creates too many potential problems – the Upper West Burnside Segment. (From about NW 15th to NW 23rd).

Let’s start with the problems that exist on Burnside today in that section, to understand how the plans came about:

Burnside exists as four 11ft lanes, two in each direction, with 8ft sidewalks. This brings the overall width to 60ft – from building to building.

The narrow 8ft sidewalks have several disadvantages:

  • They are too narrow for things like street trees or furnishings. There are very few trees along this section of Burnside.
  • They leave little room for those standing at bus stops to be out of the way of pedestrians trying to move through.
  • They leave little room for pedestrians to gather at intersections while waiting to cross.

The City's Plan:

It is for the reasons above that it was decided to narrow the travel lanes on Burnside from 11ft to 10ft wide:

This lane narrowing allows for the widening of the sidewalks on both sides of the street to 10ft. The extra two feet allows for a 3ft “furnishing zone” with room for trees, plus a 6ft “through zone”, 6in of curb and 6in of building frontage.

The Problem with the Solution:

This is great for pedestrians, to be sure, but the plans have run into opposition from freight interests and others. For comparison, the lanes on SE Hawthorne Blvd are 9 1/2ft wide, and they are 10ft wide on the St. Johns Bridge.

Ten foot travel lanes have the following problems:

  • The federal government will not provide funds for projects such as this below an 11ft minimum lane width.
  • A Tri-Met bus and other large vehicles, measured mirror-to-mirror, is 10 1/2ft wide, causing a mirror to hang over either the sidewalk or the adjacent lane.
  • When a bus stops too far away from the curb, it blocks traffic in the adjacent lane. This is a frequent occurrence on SE Hawthorne, for example.
  • If a truck or bus has to swerve away from the curb to avoid a pedestrian that has stepped off the sidewalk or an object lying in the gutter, they must cross partially into the adjacent lane.

A Compromise

It is for the above reasons that I am uncomfortable with the current plans for Upper West Burnside. After giving it some thought, I have come up with the compromise pictured here: (click for full-size version)

The attributes of this compromise are:

  • A very slightly meandering Burnside, shifting a section of wide sidewalk from one side of the street to another.
  • Allowing for 10’ sidewalks where most advantageous.
  • Street trees alternating every half block.
  • 42ft overall automobile right-of-way.
  • 8ft to 10ft variable pedestrian right-of-way.

The 42ft automobile right-of-way allows for the right lanes to have an 11ft width, while the center lanes have a 10ft width. This allows automobiles and smaller delivery vehicles to travel safely in any lane, while buses and large trucks have enough leeway for their mirrors to completely fit in the right lanes. It may also open up the possibility of federal funding to support this project segment.

This idea, while making the roadway slightly wider, still gives several advantages over Burnside as it is configured today:

  • Street trees in a portion of every block face.
  • Wide 10ft sidewalks at bus stops and T-intersections. (Bus stop furnishings would replace 1 tree.)
  • 8ft sidewalk sections limited to approx. 1/3 of each block face.

The “meandering” quality added to Burnside is very slight and easily navigable... a variance of no more than 2ft every 200ft. Other “parkway” style streets actually vary more than this. To the eye at street level, it will appear almost straight.

Admittedly, the proposal as illustrated here is a bit oversimplified... there are numerous unique intersections in this stretch of Burnside, including some triangular intersections. This proposal is meant to be a statement of a general design principle which could be adapted and altered as needed to fit specific intersections.

If you have questions or comments about this proposal, I would love to hear them. Please write to bob@peak.org

Bob Richardson
October, 2005