Friday, December 11, 2015

Time for Some Innovative Ideas

Portland's Transit Mall downtown is a mess these days. For decades it's been a major hub of our transit system. North-going buses, light rail and streetcars use 6th, and southbound use 5th. But the signage instructing motorists is horrible at best.

There are three lanes in most places on the mall. Painted onto the street are "BUS ONLY" or "LRT BUS" with double solid white lines as recommended barriers between transit and other vehicles. Signs at streetlight level inform motorists the right two lanes are for transit vehicles only, and that right turns are not allowed, but they are not nearly enough to keep confused (or illiterate) motorists from obeying the lane restrictions. The result, especially at rush hour, is pure madness. Vehicles regularly clog our service stops or transit lanes in hopes to beat the long line of obedient motorists to the next light. Bicycles weave in and out of the traffic and transit lanes, perilously run red lights, and often turn right directly in front of bus operators leaving service stops. Pedestrians routinely ignore the walk signals, or simply refuse to look up from their iPhones long enough to deduce it might be unsafe to cross. And then there are the skateboarders, daredevil mobility device users, and kamikaze delivery trucks.

When I was in training, a good deal of classroom time was spent learning all the rules of our transit mall. Next came the practical training behind the wheel. A bus driver's senses, which are always on high alert, perk up even more once we turn onto the mall. One missed scan at any given moment can spell disaster for anybody we share these streets with. The average person doesn't realize how many safety protocols are involved in a single block of operating a transit vehicle through the mall. 

All this begs the questions I'm about to ask.

Why have there been no publicized safety assessments of the transit mall, with suggestions as to how to fix the many problems? Most likely, it's easily summed up by our city leaders by the age-old excuse: we don't have the money. Bullshit. Where the public safety is concerned, I'm sure an enterprising grant writer could find the funds necessary to make vital changes.

Why does local law enforcement turn a blind eye to blatant traffic  violations on the transit mall? From what I hear, city government is afraid of offending tourists by issuing citations. What a flimsy excuse, when you consider how truly treacherous it is to navigate through our bustling downtown area. You'd think our city leaders would spend a generous amount of time coming up with better ways to keep tourists and our fellow Portlanders safer in the downtown area. Plus, many of the law breaking motorists are most likely repeat offenders, especially if they have OR or WA plates. I can understand if Randy Retiree from Mayberry, South Dakota doesn't understand the lay of the land in our big city transit mall. However, 'BUS ONLY' is spelled the same throughout all English-speaking municipalities worldwide.

Why isn't our transit agency leading the way in innovative solutions, which is what once made it the best in the country? We just spent $1.5 billion on a seven-mile new light-rail line without safety features designed to keep intending passengers from walking directly in front of approaching trains at its southern-most terminus. The transit agency was busted a few years ago for not funding its pension responsibilities, then saying it didn't have enough money to meet its obligations. Not only did our pensions suffer, but so did our retirees. Contract negotiations were brutal, and promise to be even worse next time. If leadership had truly innovative and creative minds, it would have long ago improved the "culture of safety" it spouts at every media opportunity. It would prove a commitment to safety rather than giving this wonderful-sounding concept mere lip service.

Here's a few of my ideas, take 'em or leave 'em.

An artist's rendering of a possible city street utilizing solar roadway
lighting, from
We see solar panels popping up all over, especially at transit stations. They power lights and other electricity-hungry devices. So why not try something truly innovative, such as solar roadways lighting and signage? Instead of those hard-to-see puny signs on the mall, wouldn't it be truly forward-thinking of us to pioneer on-street signage? Imagine a street lit-up with easy-to-see lane markers, instructions and crosswalks, powered by solar cells located directly in the roadway.  Anyone in Portland knows that when it rains (and that happens a LOT here, especially the past few weeks!), the painted lines in our streets all but disappear. Although it happens rarely, snow obliterates these painted lines until it melts or is plowed away. These new roadway panels have heaters that melt snow and ice, eliminating the need for plows, which likely can damage switches and rail connections. Hey, it's not proven yet to be totally problem-free, but maybe it's worth looking into.

These solar panels have other benefits as well, such as modularity making them easy to replace; being impervious to potholes; can treat, store and channel storm water; eliminate 'dead zones' for cell phones; to name a few. Our country once prided itself on innovation. These days we seem to wait for others to take the chances, waiting to see the results rather than taking the bull by the horns and holding on for the ride. We built the first transit and bike/pedestrian bridge in the country, why not test this innovative new technology? Perhaps the long-term savings could be used for additional benefits for all.

Start issuing citations to motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians who blatantly break the traffic laws downtown. If people knew Portland was serious about "safety", perhaps people would take notice and look up from their cell phones long enough to pay attention. If they paid a few fines, it might just save their lives further down the line. I say quit being passive about it. If 'BUS ONLY' is spelled the same way across the country, isn't 'DON'T WALK' as well?

Build the damn bridge across the Columbia already, and charge tolls on all the bridges between Oregon and Washington. If our neighbors won't pay their fair share willingly, then it's time to force them. I recently read the current bridges are built on timbers, some over 100 years old, and that they could collapse in a seismic event. It's time to take action, not whine about our neighbors' refusal to pay its share of replacing these disasters-in-waiting. Plus, the tolls might help pay for street repairs. I don't know if you've noticed our crumbling roadways, but we collectively feel each pothole thousands of times a day.

As things are today, it seems Portland does not care about the safety of those they choose not to offend. Tourists are at risk, as well as our own citizens, because the city keeps cutting law enforcement which in turn gives rise to blatant law breaking.

Sure, maybe I'm just a crackpot bus operator. What do I know, anyway? Well here's one thing I do know: we waste money dreaming of bridges to nowhere that we could be spending on those which already lead us somewhere. 


  1. Cheap, easy, and quick: red carpets on transit remarkably well in SF.