Creating a Culture of Courtesy: Ladd Circle, cont.

“HELLO.”   That’s what the sign said, in big letters. Just one word is all it took.   

 For two hours, I stood alongside über-volunteer Scott Lieuallen on SE Ladd Ave just south of SE Clay St holding that sign. A block up, another volunteer’s sign read, “EVERY CORNER.” From there, you got, “IS A CROSSWALK,” “STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS,” and “THANKS!” (See KGW news report.) The reaction: smiles and waves, non-stop, hundreds of people on bikes, dozens of people in cars. One woman turned her bike around, then asked, “would you come up to my neighborhood?”   

 My daughter goes to school at Abernethy Elementary, a terrific little public school in this neighborhood. I’ve ridden my bike on Ladd Ave to get to my house regularly for 20 years. Many close friends live here, and over the years, it’s become a primary bicycle transportation spine, with three major bikeways converging at lovely Ladd Circle, with its gorgeous center park. Some 4000 people on bikes traverse the Circle daily, along with a high frequency bus route (#10) and some 1500 motorists.   

The phenomenal rise in bicycle use in the Ladd Circle area is wonderful, but has led to concerns about pedestrian safety, especially in regards to the kids walking every day to and from Abernethy Elementary School and area homes and businesses.

  As I’ve written about before, the geometric design of the circle – very close to what we call a modern roundabout – lends itself to motorists and people on bikes slowing and yielding to those already in the circle or walking around the circle, rather than coming to a complete stop. In fact, almost no one comes to a complete stop, as evidenced by this video.     

Is this really a problem? Safety-wise, no. There’s almost no crash history. Perception-wise and emotionally, the answer is a resounding YES.   

Every so often, a frustrated resident calls the Police, who then hand out tickets and/or send folks to traffic safety class. Community uproar then ensues, as the pricey tickets – $242 – seem out of proportion to the problem caused by what many believe (myself included) to be reasonable behavior, defined (by me) as slowing, actively searching for pedestrians, preparing to stop if needed, stopping until the pedestrian has crossed, proceeding into or out of the circle once safe to do so, but without coming to a complete stop.  

No no no, friends tell me, what I describe as reasonable behavior is NOT the problem. The problem is the many that don’t slow down one iota. In fact (go watch anytime), many speed up and/or do not slow, look out for, yield to, stop for, or even acknowledge that there are people on foot – many of whom are children – circumnavigating the crosswalks. Many have told me that their children were nearly mowed down and that they observe behavior ranging from oblivious to rude to downright obnoxious on a daily basis. Some of the rude jerks are in cars, but the main complaint is about people on bikes.  

When I first started hearing this, I wanted to deny it. The last thing I want is for the very mode (bicycling) that has been the cornerstone of my career to be causing a problem to the other mode I promote, use, love, and respect (walking). But when you hear the same thing over and over, you have to pay attention. You also have to look at who is saying this: educated people, most of whom ride bikes regularly, drive, walk, take transit, pay taxes, send their kids to public school, and are generally thoughtful, civic-minded, involved, and positive. All but two of the dozens of emails I’ve received have been kind and thankful for the efforts to create a more livable community, supportive of continuing to evolve our thinking and approach, but firm in the assertion that people driving cars and people riding bikes all need to improve our behavior toward pedestrians. (One person expressed that the solution is more enforcement, period, end of story, while the other expressed tremendous anger about the fact that her street, Ladd Ave, has been transformed from a quiet residential into a bicycle highway of horrors.)     

These various emails and conversations provoked serious soul-searching. The dramatic increase in bicycle transportation that I have championed for so many years is great, BUT with it has come impacts that we can’t ignore. I want to make things better for everyone, and reduce the persistent, deep, and widespread rancor and anger that the cycling community has unintentionally induced.   

Roundabout in Copenhagen. Note the “sharks’ teeth” – aka yield symbols – in advance of the crosswalk and dashed bike lane around the perimeter.

I believe strongly that the signage and markings should be improved. To me, yield signs and markings make a ton of sense, per these images.

Supplemental ‘yield to pedestrians’ at crosswalk of roundabout.

Other promising ideas include raised crosswalks, speed bumps, and changes to the pedestrian splitter islands.  

Examples of raised crosswalks with yield symbols/signs

But the City isn’t likely to change them anytime soon. Any proposed changes will provoke debate, even controversy, and take time to develop, fund, and implement. And design changes alone won’t do the trick. We – all of us – can behave better, the sooner, the better. 

So I reached out to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Willamette Pedestrian Coalition to see if they’d like to help. Fortunately, these two terrific groups were already working together to call attention to the need for people in cars and on bicycles to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. In these “pedestrian safety actions,” community volunteers line the streets with Burma Shave-style signs, giving bicyclists and motorists a reminder of our state’s crosswalk laws. (Per Oregon law, not all crosswalks are painted. Every street corner is considered a crosswalk. When a person is trying to cross the street, all road users (including those on bikes) must stop and stay stopped while the person crosses.) 

 If you read the various comments on the Ladd Circle stories reported on, you’ll see a wide variety of opinions, including a few along the lines of, “there’s no real actual safety problem, so why keep focusing on this issue?” True, on one level, but on the level of perception, goodwill, and courtesy, the current situation isn’t working. 

It’s been my longstanding belief that when something’s not working, it’s time to try something else. Former Police Officer Robert Pickett (who has left Portland for the Foreign Service, their gain, our loss) asked me point blank to help, because, he said, “today’s situation is a lose-lose for the Police.” No matter what they do (or don’t do) in Ladd Circle, they piss people off.  

The sign-holding action was a small step toward what I hope will lead to positive change. I’m glad we put smiles on so many faces. This I know: working together – the community and the City – we can increase sensitivity to those on foot while continuing to embrace those on wheels.

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