Cutting Down a Protected Bike Lane on Portola: An Improvement for Whom?

Portola at Glenview Drive, where a section of protected bike lane was replaced with an extended narrow dashed lane treatment. Photo: Streetsblog reader Mike

A section of the post-separated bike lanes on Portola Drive was removed last week and replaced with a design which the SF Municipal Transportation Agency says should be safer and easier for people on bikes to navigate. But at least one commuter who uses the lanes said the change is anything but safe.

The section of bike lane in question, which runs eastbound Portola from Glenview Drive approaching Burnett Avenue and Clipper Street, transitions from a wide bike lane separated by soft-hit posts to a narrow, dashed bike lane squeezed between a traffic lane on the left and a right-turn lane on the right. The argument typically made for such a configuration is that it eliminates the possibility of a “right-hook” at intersections, in which a driver makes a right turn in front of a bicyclist without seeing her. At this intersection on Portola, the right-turn lane leads to a “slip” lane, which allows motor traffic to make the right turn onto Clipper without stopping. That apparently prevents the bike lane from continuing along the curb, forcing it to shift to the left side of the slip lane. It’s also worth noting that there is a bus stop for the 48 and 52 Muni lines along the slip lane.

Last Friday, the SFMTA removed some soft-hit posts and more than doubled the length of the dashed section to “allow bicycles to merge into the bicycle lane to the left of the right turn pocket at the point of highest speed” and “simplify and improve the merging movements approaching Diamond Heights Blvd.,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose. “We routinely do observations after implementing, and sometimes find that field adjustments are necessary,” he said.

But very few people feel safe riding in a narrow dashed lane, uphill, sandwiched between moving motor vehicles. And planners in other cities have engineered protected bike lanes that minimize right-turn collisions by slowing turning drivers down and making bicyclists visible to them, or by using bicycle traffic signals to create separate phases for cyclists and turning drivers.

The design of the Portola bike lane, before (top) and after (bottom). Images from SFMTA
The right-turn lane leads to a "slip lane" onto Clipper Street. Image: SFMTA
Portola looking west just past Glenview, where the section of separated bike lane turns into a dashed lane. Photo: Mike

On Portola Drive and Laguna Honda Boulevard, which connects to neighborhoods north, the physical separation provided along much of the bike lanes was intended to make the streets more comfortable for less-intrepid bicyclists to use. That follows the intent of the city’s official goal to reach 20 percent bicycle mode share by 2020. But those streets are also pocked with areas where riders must suddenly merge into dashed lanes, or share lanes with high-speed car traffic, which detracts from the feeling of protection afforded by the separated lanes. Those areas are huge missed opportunities to provide high-quality, broadly accessible bicycling connections for the neighborhoods south and west of Twin Peaks.

Last week’s design change on Portola approaching Burnett only appeared to make the situation worse. Previously, the 4-foot dashed bike lane was 300 feet long, according to the SFMTA’s design illustrations [PDF]. Now, it’s 612 feet long [PDF]. It could only be called an improvement if the goal is to design streets for the small segment of bicyclists with an appetite for risk who don’t mind merging with car traffic while zooming down Portola. It doesn’t make sense for the far larger population of more risk-averse cyclists and families, who might use the street were a continuous protected bike lane provided.

“I think the new design is the complete opposite of what an ‘8 to 80’ bike facility should look like,” said Mike, 32, a bike commuter who uses Portola. “Cyclists must traverse a narrow 4-foot dashed bike lane with speeding traffic on their left and merging drivers on their right.” At least in the previous design, he said, bicyclists “could time their merge with the red stop light at the intersection ahead. Automobile traffic would either be stopped or moving slowly.”

“So cyclists are given less space and faster moving traffic. The new design benefits automobile traffic, not bikes,” Mike added. “Just how is that a good idea?”

There are examples of similar streets with protected bike lanes that don’t force bicycle riders to merge with auto traffic. When I studied for a semester in Aarhus, Denmark, a city where 20 percent of trips are made by bike, I bike commuted on a major road called Randersvej. Randersvej carries fairly heavy motor traffic and has a speed limit nearly the same as Portola’s, which is 35 MPH. The raised bike lanes on that road continue straight up to the crosswalk, with painted markings that warn turning drivers to watch for bicyclists and help guide bicyclists through the intersection. Some intersections have bicycle signal phases, and some don’t, but right turn collisions are not known to be a regular problem on the road (I wasn’t able to come by any crash data).

The intersection on Randersvej next to my dorm in Aarhus. This right turn configuration, which doesn't have a separate bicycle traffic signal, is apparently not problematic. Photo: Google Maps

The right-turn “slip” lane at Portola and Clipper presents a somewhat different challenge than what is found on Randersvej, but safer engineering solutions are clearly out there. It could be that the slip-lane on Portola needs to be removed.

Kit Hodge, deputy director of the SF Bike Coalition, said the organization is open to ideas on fixing the Portola design. “We’d love to hear more feedback from people about this design. We hear from a lot of people time and time again that on high speed streets like Portola that they want more separation from motor vehicles,” said Hodge. “We’d love to work with the MTA and people who live near and ride on Portola on how to make this street a truly safe and comfortable bikeway for everyone.”

  • jimmy

    Huh?  Why are we hearing about these changes *after* they happened?

  • Yeah, where’s the EIR?

  • Gneiss

    This has everything to do with the Muni bus stops at the end of that stretch, and nothing to do with ‘bicycle safety’.  It was problematic for buses that needed to merge over to the curb through the soft hit post line to get at the bus stop at the corner of Clipper and Portola.  I had in fact seen some buses taking the bike lane along that whole stretch because drivers didn’t want to cut over just at the end.  No we’ll have buses on one side and SUV’s on the other.  Well done SFMTA, way to make it totally unsafe for the 8 to 80 crowd. 

  • mikesonn

    EIR is for projects that slow down cars. If it speeds up cars, then we’ll need an EIR to undo it because the new faster speed is the status quo.

  • J

    Problem: there is a conflict between speeding drivers and bicyclists crossing paths.

    Solution: Make it scarier for bicyclists, ignore high car speeds.

    Seriously, does anyone at SFMTA actually ride a bike? It’s not hard to understand that this is not a more pleasant facility. If the problem is high vehicle speeds, then address the problem.

  • Boo hoo. I knew that glorious lane (which I did take from time to time) was too good to be true. Portola looks, feels, and is used as a freeway. Being sandwiched between two lanes of traffic going over 40mph is not my idea of decent bicycle infrastructure.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    I encountered buses in the whacky bike lane several times.

    I’m happy to see the ridiculous couple blocks of “protection” go, improving my frequent (and exclusively by bicycle) transit of upper Market/Portola.

    More, please!

  • Sprague

    I’ve never bicycled this section of bike lane, but your article clearly points out this is a step backward for bicycle safety and for growing the bicycle mode share in SF.  Thank you for covering this issue and for noting that there are safer solutions than what’s now in place.

  • Gneiss

    Richard, it works well if you fall into the ‘strong and confident’ cyclist category, but lousey if you are ‘cautious and concerned’. 

    A better option, would have been to create a true cycle track, with priority given to cyclist over right turning traffic and the end, and a bus lane with stops outside of the bike lane.  But, since that’s considerably more expensive (and would likely require some kind of crazy review process) than some stripes of paint, this is what we get.  The consequences of this are to slow the pace of adoption of cycling as a legitimate mode of transport for all ages.  I’d trust an 8 year old on a cycle track, but not on the revised configuration.

  • Jason

    Wow, the new design is terrifying. I ride this route a few times a week, and I was very relieved when this protected bike lane went in. It finally bridged a scary a gap heading to/from the west. I’m generally confident riding downtown in traffic, or Folsom, or even down Twin Peaks on Market at 35+ mph.. but being squeezed in a tight lane between 40+mph vehicles while climbing my way uphill is something that is just too stressful to partake in.

    Guess it’s back to the sidewalk. One bike lane, gone.

  • Jason

    And I’d happily settle for the bus continuing to drive on the right side of the protected posts (in the bike lane) over the new configuration. Buses are infrequent, and with the protective posts, I had some protection on my left should they need to pass me.

  • Anonymous

    The MTA doesn’t try very hard to accommodate anything but cars. I mean, there are so many better ways to handle this than what they did (nobody wants to ride with fast moving cars whizzing by on one side let alone both sides) that the only conclusion I can make is that they just don’t care enough about bicyclists. Can’t we be more creative than this? In fact, we don’t even need to be: they’ve already figured this stuff out 10 times over in Denmark, the Netherlands, etc. I would love to take out some MTA staff on a ride down this section they “improved” and then immediately afterwards ask them how they felt about it and if they really think this is going to get more people on bikes.

    They also pulled this same crap on westbound Cesar Chavez just before the 101 hair ball: the bike lane peels off from the curb and car traffic getting onto 101 north goes on the cyclist’s right side and that continuing ahead on Cesar Chavez is on the left. The first time I looked at that, I was like “no effing way”. I would love to corner some MTA folk and just try and get them to tell me how this kind of design is safe. I feel like a bunch of interns who haven’t ridden a bike (except on a university campus) are sitting there looking at diagrams of roads and, in their theoretical little world, these bike lanes which split lanes of traffic look really, really good. People who don’t ride bikes designing bicycle infrastructure (like those who don’t ride public transit overseeing its development) is going to go down as one of the great anachronisms of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • Looks identical to this stretch of road in Boston, but theirs is green.

    http://goo.gl/maps/VKtkc

    Now, why does the dashed section have to be 612 feet long?

    Do the following:

    Paint it green.

    First 150 feet are dashed….the rest is solid. After 50 feet of solid, the rest should have soft hit posts so people cant merge into the turn late.

  • thielges

    Even after the soft hit posts have been removed this is hardly the gnarliest situation where cyclists find themselves riding between two lanes of speeding traffic.  There are dozens of cloverleaf style freeway interchanges around the bay area that not only have faster, higher volume traffic but also don’t even have a bike lane. 

    Take the Montague / I-880 interchange in Milpitas for example: http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Milpitas,+CA&hl=en&ll=37.400916,-121.909423&spn=0.001787,0.001682&sll=34.0116,-118.493407&sspn=0.010548,0.021629&oq=milpitas&hnear=Milpitas,+Santa+Clara,+California&t=k&z=19 .  Here you’re riding between lanes of traffic moving at 50-60MPH for about a quarter mile with no designated bike lane.  And since it is a freeway interchange the traffic is also changing lanes.  Even confident experienced cyclists will avoid that piece of road.

    (Minor point: The photo credit on that last image of Aarhus may be wrong.  It looks like a google streetview image.)

  • Jake Wegmann

     Yeah, but this situation is uniquely discouraging because i) the SFMTA has been doing some really good treatments in other parts of the City and ii) this represents an actual reversal of what had been a marked improvement. No one has even attempted to improve all of those horrible cloverleaf crossings for cyclists; clearly that’s going to take years. But when we do make improvements, we need to not reverse them. Great piece SFSB, and keep the heat on.

  • Pwen_biker

    Leave it to the SFMTA brain trust. All those engineers and planners make 100K+ but the can’t provide decent designs. 

  • Anonymous

    Just because there are worse places elsewhere doesn’t make this OK.  What’s discouraging here is the step backwards.

  • thielges

     I’m not doubting that the former configuration was better for cyclists, just saying that there are far bigger problems out there to be concerned about.  It is as if we had upgraded the school lunches in SF to solid healthy square meals including fresh squeezed orange juice  Then the fresh OJ was replaced with frozen concentrate and we’re complaining.  Meanwhile the kids in Milpitas are eating gruel fortified with sawdust.

  • @89bf7190b20efeefcfff76b2c502b161:disqus Here’s my explanation of the intent of writing this story and not one about, say, an interchange in Milpitas. Given our limited resources (I’m the only full-time SF staffer) and our goals, San Francisco issues are the priority in our scope, even though we sometimes touch on other stories in the Bay Area. Also, this story is not the result of me seeking out a problem area to write about (as one would do for something like a Milpitas interchange that needs fixing). It’s the result of a reader pointing out to me a change on the street that he spotted.

    P.S. Yes, thanks for catching my photo attribution error… I only wish I could drive a Google Street View car around!

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