Checking in on the ‘Better Naito’ pilot project

Checking in on the ‘Better Naito’ pilot project

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Temporary two-way biking on Naito.
(Photos J. Maus/BikePortland)

Today is the last day — at least for now — to experience a ‘Better Naito’.

For the past two weeks a partnership between Better Block PDX, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Portland Rose Festival, Portland State University and others, transformed Naito Parkway into what they called “a public space for all.” Instead of one measly narrow bike lane and two roaring standard traffic lanes, engineers devised a plan that opened up half the roadway to people not driving cars.

It’s the Naito Portland deserves.

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Commissioner Novick’s Transportation Policy Advisor Timur Ender counting bike traffic this morning.
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Allowing vehicles to park in the ‘public space’ was an unfortunate compromise made in order to green light the project.
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Connecting form the lower deck of the Steel Bridge directly onto Naito Parkway was like a dream come true.
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There’s no question this is the future of Naito.
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Redesigning the Naito streetscape has been on the back of many people’s minds for years and Better Naito presented the city with a unique opportunity to try something new and see what happens. This style of try-before-you-buy is new for Portland, a city where we usually form visioning committees before even thinking about making any tangible changes to our infrastructure. Think of it as a living, breathing open house.

“These type of innovations don’t happen if led by government.”
— Art Pearce, PBOT policy, planning and projects group manager

During a tour of the facility last week attended by local politicians and other policymakers, Better Block’s Ryan Hashagen put it this way: “This project allows us to have a civic conversation that doesn’t feel so cataclysmic.”

Since May 22nd, the space was signed and marked for two-way walking traffic and one direction (northbound) for bicycling. Then yesterday a new phase of the experiment was turned on — the bikeway became bi-directional with the addition of new signs and markings and a bicycle-only signal installed by PBOT.

In the past two weeks, volunteers with Better Block — in close partnership with PBOT — have used high-tech equipment (like bluetooth traffic sensors) and good, old-fashioned pen-and-paper to collect as much data about Naito’s use as they can.

According to a volunteer who I saw counting bike riders this morning 75 people cycled by between 7:00 and 7:30 am this morning (45 northbound, 30 southbound).

So far, the project has worked. In fact, both activists and the powers-that-be can’t stop reminding us who well it’s going. It hasn’t engendered the same type of excitement and buzz as Better Block’s demonstration project on SW 3rd Avenue last fall, but this is a different kind of project. Where 3rd had hay bales and ping pong tables, this project lacks that plaza feeling. Even so, many people appreciate having the extra room to breathe on Naito — whether they’re riding or walking.

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On the flip side, I’ve heard quite a number of people complain about the trucks and cars that routinely park in the space. Just this morning, as I enjoyed the amazing connection going southbound from the Steel Bridge path right onto Naito, the three large vans parked right in front of me at Couch were a buzzkill. I went around and kept riding, but other people gave up and crossed Naito to use the existing southbound bike lane.

Personally, I was hoping for more robust design and materials to really bring home what it would feel like to have a world-class, protected public space and bikeway on Naito. What good is a demonstration if it doesn’t really mimic the desired future condition?

But the reality of the project bears noting. Better Block is doing this on a shoestring with volunteers and it’s only a two-week pilot. They’re working with a lot of constraints (federal maritime security rules, permitting and insurance requirements, just to name a few). Allowing freight loading and parking in the space was one of the compromises Better Block was willing to make in order to get a full embrace of the project by the City of Portland.

And there’s something to be said for what a strong working relationship Better Block has managed to forge with PBOT and its other partners.

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ODOT Region 1 Policy Manager Kelly Brooks, Commissioner Novick and Ryan Hashagen at the front of a host of elected officials and policymakers who toured the Better Naito project on Tuesday.

City Commissioner Steve Novick was literally jumping up-and-down with enthusiasm for Better Block during a speech at last week’s policymakers tour. At one point he even chanted their name: “Bet-ter Block! Bet-ter Block!” PBOT’s Active Transportation Division Manager Margi Bradway piled on the praise, saying, “This is PBOT’s dream to be able to test something like this.” And PBOT project manager Greg Raisman added, “I can’t imagine a better type of public involvement.”

Even the Rose Festival is fully behind this. In years past, lines of customers wanting to get into the City Fair event would spill out into the Naito bike lane. Rose Festival Waterfront Activities Manager Steve Bledsoe told me on Tuesday that having more space for people on Naito has, “improved accessibility and safety.” “It’s beautiful,” he added, “We’re enjoying it and it’s taken a lot of pressure of our security and staff. We will definitely encourage the city to do it again next year.”

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Steve Bledsoe with the Portland Rose Festival is one of the project’s most enthusiastic supporters.

When Rose Festival talks, City Hall listens (and then PBOT isn’t far behind).

PBOT has desperately needed this type of prodding to think outside the box and do big things. “These type of innovations don’t happen if led by government,” admitted PBOT Planning Manager Art Pearce on Tuesday.

So if you think this is just a flash-in-the-pan pilot, think again. Just like Better Block’s work on 3rd and Burnside has spurred real talk of a total transformation of that area (stay tuned), this pilot project on Naito (barring any major failure in the next few hours) will likely leave a lasting, positive impression on city hall and PBOT staff.

In the short-term, PBOT says it’s likely they’ll consider this treatment (with biking in one direction) during other Waterfront Park festivals this summer. As for the more ambitious, two-way biking treatment, the words I’m hearing from PBOT’s Pearce are very reassuring. He said they are watching the data very closely and a two-way protected bikeway on Naito Parkway could be considered in their upcoming Central City Multimodal Safety Project (a.k.a. the project that will create a network of protected bike lanes downtown).

Seeing Better Naito in action these past two weeks, making something like this permanent seems like good common sense.

Have you ridden Naito during this test period? What are your impressions?

Better Naito at PortlandOregon.gov.
BetterBlockPDX.org


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