First Look: ODOT’s big changes to North Denver Avenue

First Look: ODOT’s big changes to North Denver Avenue

ODOT N Denver Ave project-47.jpg

New sidewalk and buffered bike lane on Denver Avenue north of Kenton.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has had quite an eventful week.

Last Monday they released a long-awaited safety audit of Southwest Barbur Boulevard. Then mid-week we learned they had made huge progress on two projects: restriping North Lombard to include bike-only lanes and the completion of their North Denver Avenue project. Then on Friday Metro President David Bragdon took the gloves off and leveled harsh criticisms at the agency both in the media and during a big speech at City Club.

We’ll have more coverage on all those fronts. But for now, let’s focus on the changes ODOT has just made to North Denver Avenue.

Denver is a key north-south coridor in North Portland. It serves not only as the Kenton neighborhood’s main street, it also provides a bridge over Columbia Blvd and connects directly to Portland International Raceway (home of year-round bicycle racing) and the wonderful paths along the Columbia Slough.

ODOT’s $4 million project focused on a 0.75 mile stretch of Denver between N Argyle St and N Victory Blvd. Here’s what the project included from a bicycling perspective:

  • New eight foot wide buffered bike lanes (six foot lanes with a two foot buffer) on Denver between Argyle and Schmeer (including a bonus section north of Schmeer in the northbound direction)
  • A new, six-foot wide physically protected sidewalk on the northbound side of Denver over the bridges over Columbia and the slough.
  • A new multi-use path from Schmeer road to Victory Blvd (about 0.3 miles) on the western side of Denver.
  • People are no longer allowed to drive on the section of Schmeer Rd that used to loop under Denver. This is now only open for bicycling and walking and it connects the new path to PIR and the existing paths along the Columbia Slough.
  • New traffic signals, sidewalks, paths and marked crosswalks at Schmeer and Denver.
  • New bicycle wayfinding signage.

This is a lot of bike stuff for an ODOT project! And they help make this area much safer for everyone! But how’d ODOT do on the fine-grain details? On Saturday I rode the entire project to take a closer look.

In a nod to how crucial Denver is in connecting people with the many important destinations north of Kenton, I rode it on Saturday with my 12-year old daughter to a soccer game at Delta Park. Here’s how that went…

The new bike lane starts out just like the old one, without a buffer. But I like how ODOT installed raised bumps inside the paint stripe (scroll down for a closer shot of them):

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While those bumps and the buffer (where it exists) are nice, I’m bummed that ODOT chose to only protect the sidewalk and not the bike lane. With a clean slate to work from, it seems like a missed opportunity to not provide a protected bike lane the entire length of this project:

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The new protected sidewalk is only six feet wide, but because it’s safe from fast-moving traffic it’s going to attract people on bikes:

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People on bikes are just as vulnerable to auto traffic as people on foot:

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The new signal at Schmeer is helpful. It will tame speeds and it comes with marked crosswalks. The new buffered bike lane continues north of Schmeer as you head toward Victory Blvd:

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Now watch what happens as you approach Victory Blvd (Denver ends into an I-5 on-ramp here). First, the buffer ends:

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Then the quality of the bike lane deteriorates as it becomes narrower and grates pop up:

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That’s Victory Blvd in the distance and you can see that ODOT has all but given up on the bike lane:

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And here’s where the new buffered bike lane ends up. That right-turn arrow on the left directs people up onto the I-5 freeway:

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The end of the new bike lane on Denver at Victory Blvd (as shown above) is just 0.11 mile to the entrance of Delta Park, a major destination with 12 soccer fields, many baseball diamonds, and the main path people take to get to Vancouver. It would have been amazing to connect the new bikeways on Denver to Delta Park instead of making people take the lane in this very intimidating section of road:

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This is the view from the entrace to Delta Park looking back toward Denver. This 0.11 mile stretch is a bummer of a gap:

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Now, let’s ride south back to Kenton from Victory Blvd.

The gap between Delta Park and the new multi-use path adjacent to PIR is 0.2 mile. Here’s the view approaching N. Expo Road and the new path:

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Looking back east at Expo Road and Victory Blvd at the end of ODOT’s new path:

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A bit closer up. Wouldn’t it have been great to create a bikeway on Victory to make this crucial connection?! (I’m also a bit disappointed that ODOT didn’t take the new path all the way to the actual entrace of PIR. Now folks have to either ride in the grass, or enter the roadway, cross the street, then cross again a few hundred feet north):

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Looking north where the path ends at Victory Blvd:

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OK, back to the good news. The new path from Victory Blvd north toward Schmeer is fantastic!

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ODOT built a new road for auto traffic (on the left), so that means the new path is super-wide in this section because it’s actually using the old roadway:

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Here’s where the path begins to dip down to connect to the Columbia Slough path west of Denver:

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New signage:

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Looking back (north) with the Columbia Slough path on the left, an unused entrance to PIR in the middle, and the new path on the right:

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And then one of the best parts of this project — Schmeer Road is now carfree:

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Going under Denver toward Columbia Slough path eastbound:

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Right takes you to Columbia Slough path:

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Looking back (west) at Denver from Columbia Slough path:

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And the carfree Schmeer section looking west:

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As you can see above, the new striping of the carfree section of Schmeer looks like a typical road. That’s problematic because I think many people won’t understand that the lanes separated by dotted yellow are for cycling and the white shoulder lane is for walking. I think ODOT should strongly consider adding large pavement markings to make it clear where to ride and walk. (UPDATE: ODOT says they had to maintain standard striping like this because of the lease that Portland Parks & Rec has on the road. PP&R runs PIR (the racetrack) and this road is still going to be used by the racetrack operators during some permitted events).

In the video below I show you how fantastic this new connection is (and you can see how lane-use needs to be a bit more clearly defined):

Back up on Denver Ave, the new buffered bike lane starts right at Schmeer:

ODOT N Denver Ave project-37.jpg

Here’s a close-up of the buffer and those raised bumps I mentioned earlier:

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Unlike the east side, there’s no sidewalk on the west (southbound) side of Denver. Here’s how the cross-section looks from above:

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The buffer ends as you approach Argyle and make your way into Kenton’s commercial district:

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Now that I’ve shown you all the new bikeways, I want to share a few more thoughts about the protected sidewalk. Because it makes such a great — and physically protected — connection to the Columbia Slough path and the newly carfree Schmeer Road, I have no doubt a lot of people will ride bikes on this sidewalk. That’s not entirely a bad thing. However, the sidewalk is only a smidge over six-feet wide which means there’s not a lot of room to pass people on foot much less other people biking.

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Another issue is that when people use this sidewalk to get back into Kenton, they’ll come to this awkward intersection with Argyle that will put them back onto the roadway in an unexpected place:

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The other issue with the sidewalk design are the bolts ODOT has left sticking out of the guardrail. They’re several inches long and unfinished. I actually saw two men pass by each other on the sidewalk. One was biking, the other was walking. The man walking moved over and his jacket snagged on one of these bolts:

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If your arm grazes one of these while biking by it will result in a nasty cut. With all the traffic this relatively narrow sidewalk will get, ODOT might want to consider filing these screws down.

And one final thought. Now that this section of Denver has been designed to encourage bicycling and walking, its 45 MPH speed limit is way too high (especially next to 12-foot wide lanes):

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Despite my quibbles, there’s a lot to celebrate with this project. I just hope in the near future we can get more protected bike lanes and have those lanes connect to important nearby destinations like Delta Park and the shopping center at Portland Meadows (N Whitaker Ave. is in dire need of better bike access).

For more information, check out ODOT’s official project page.

UPDATE, 3:05pm: ODOT says the bolts extending into the sidewalk are already on their radar and issue will be resolved.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org


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