Saturday, August 14, 2010

City Council, August 16th - Union St. Transit Mall

Chickens will be the headliner for Council on Monday, but the temporary Union Street Transit Mall will also be discussed.

The fiasco is unfortunate and unwanted all the way around.* It imposes a range of bad and badder alternatives. Maybe something new and creative will result from the crisis, but for the moment, it's a bunch of unwelcome expense, improvisation, and compromise. This is something no one wanted.

Preferred Design

Here's the preferred design for the transit mall.

It would close Union Street to people on bikes and require them
to dismount and walk their bikes on the sidewalks to traverse the block or take a one-block detour to the north or south.
Here's a map of required "one block" detour. Marion and Division are both one way west-bound, and Division doesn't connect to anything. This detour is more theoretical than practical, and for most people on bikes it will not be functional or effective!

Why Updating the TSP Matters

Somewhat helpfully, the staff report notes that
while there has been interest expressed through the Vision 2020 process in making Union Street NE a bicycle route, it is not currently an adopted bicycle route in the Salem TSP. As the proposed transit mall is considered an interim use at this time, it would not stop Union Street NE from being considered as a bicycle route in the long term.
While it is good to see some recognition of Union Street's importance, the note also underscores the importance of getting routes into the TSP. The city is free to ignore what is not in the TSP. Notice, too, that the Union St. RR Bridge is entirely absent from the analysis!

In the absence of specific, named projects, more general policies do not seem helpful. Although Union Street itself is not in the TSP as a bike route, Policy 1.4 is. And it says
new developments or major transportation projects will neither create new, nor maintain existing, barriers to bicycle travel.

The City does not believe Policy 1.4 is significant here. Transportation Planning Manager Julie Warncke said that she does
not think that this policy would apply in this situation because we are talking about an interim use and because Union Street is not identified in the Salem TSP as a bike route.
Barriers to bike travel on ordinary streets apparently are not relevant. It is disappointing to see the policy construed in this way.

(For more on why Union Street connectivity matters, see the previous discussion.)

A Second Design

Here is a second alternative. It permits bikes in the travel lanes and also uses normal traffic directional flow (on the right).

It would require some tree removal, storm drainage work, new hard surface, and appears on the surface to be significantly more expensive than the first concept. Since crossing Commercial at Union is problematic, until that problem is solved it is not clear that the costs of this design outweigh the benefits to bicycle travel.

Prospects for the Future

Union Street is a system, and several improvements need to be staged in order for it to function effectively as a whole thoroughfare for people on bikes. It may be that we will need to accept short-term barriers for a system solution in the medium-term.

The intergovernmental agreement would be for five years.
As that time [its expiration in five years] approaches, the City and the District would need to determine if additional time is required for the street to continue serving as a transit mall or if its use can be discontinued. The agreement calls for the City and District to work together to determine the appropriate design to restore Union Street NE back to its previous condition or if another design and use of the street is desired.
It seems that it is a realistic possibility the mall could be in use for longer than a couple of years.

During the blockages, wouldn't it be nice to redesign Union Street to full bicycle boulevard standards? Warncke remarks that the temporary mall design does not prevent
us from planning for a future where Union Street is designated as part of the bike network. We still have the barrier presented by the crossing of Commercial Street at Union to address. Assuming we can identify a workable solution, it could easily take 2 to 4+ years to fund and construct (depending on what the solution is).

*Interestingly, as part of the staff report is a letter from Senate President Courtney. Senator Courtney characterized the temporary transit malls as posing many "dangerous obstacles," both the first one on Court and the second on Cottage.

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