When and why I ride 3rd street downtown

I’ve recently requested that our Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission look into the possibility of lowering the progression speed of our downtown streets (notably 3rd, 4th, Monroe, Van Buren and Harrison). A question that came up was why would anyone want to ride on 3rd or 4th?

The progression speed of a street is different from the speed limit.  For example, all these streets have speed limits of 20 or 25 mph.  However, the timing of the lights means that you can only effectively go 18-19 mph on 3rd and 4th and get green lights all the way through.

I have had the pleasure of riding in downtown Portland where progression speeds are 12 mph.  The difference is amazing.  If you are able to go the speed of traffic, motorists are much less likely to get angry at a cyclist who is “in their way”.  You are much less likely to suffer a right hook.  Invoking ones right to cross a street at unmarked crosswalks becomes significantly less scary.  If you are able to keep up with the progression speed, a commute with fewer stops becomes less tiring.

In Corvallis, I can just barely keep up with the progression speed, which is confirmed at 18-19 mph on 3rd and 4th and, from experience, around the same on Harrison.  However, to do so, I really need to book it.  It isn’t fun and it isn’t to be expected from an average cyclist.  And, since motorists don’t expect you to keep up with them on these streets, they don’t expect you and so don’t see you.  Some of my scariest close calls have been incoming on Harrison at the intersection with 2nd.  This is a location where I highly recommend a cyclist take the lane.

I would love to see progression speeds set at 12 mph for all these traffic-light controlled downtown streets.  Not just as a cyclist, but also as a pedestrian at unmarked crosswalks.  It is unlikely to be possible on 3rd and 4th as these roads are controlled by ODOT (as part of HWY 99).  But if we can do this for Monroe, Harrison and Van Buren, well, that would be wonderful.

But I want to consider one question that was raised: why would you want cyclists on 3rd and 4th?  There aren’t bike lanes, after all, and there are much more pleasant east/west routes a block away on either side.  So I started to think about why I ride these streets.

I do end up returning home (which is near Corvallis High) from downtown via 3rd.  I do so whenever I am coming from businesses on 3rd Street that is south of an eastbound one-way and north of a westbound one-way street.  This is a very specific situation and occurs on only three blocks of 3rd: between Van Buren and Jackson, Monroe and Madison, Jefferson and Adams.  I do so because, since I am law-abiding (mostly) and so do not ride wrong way and do not ride on the downtown sidewalks, I would have to walk up to a full block in the opposite direction before getting on my bike.  And then I would face crossing 4th, either waiting for traffic to clear or waiting for a traffic light.  And then I would have to use an east-west street that crosses Van Buren and Harrison at non-ideal locations.  Why would I take that significantly slower route when I could (and do) take the lane on 3rd and book it to make it to Harrison and then book it west?

So, that is the logic that goes through my decision.  (It is subconscious at the time.)  But the underlying problems are a lack of bicycle friendly north/south routes through downtown and poor connections across 3rd and 4th at the north end of downtown.  The only, what I would call decently, good north south routes are 1st and 5th.  And these are 4 blocks apart.  That is a problem.  To get between 1st and 5th, one needs to navigate one-way, bike-lane free streets with diagonal parking.  Also known as a gauntlet.  How could we improve this?  I don’t have an answer, but I do have ideas:

  • Could we have counter-flow bike lanes on our downtown streets, allowing bicycles to travel safely against the one-way motor-vehicle traffic?
  • Could any of the alley-ways be turned into bicycle boulevards?
  • Could we have a safe crossing of 3rd and 4th at, say Tyler?

Or maybe we should ask an expert …