A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Bigger bumpouts aren't always better

The first phase of construction to narrow down the failed Spring Street urban-renewal scheme is just about complete, and for the most part, it's an improvement: the ugly median barrier is gone, there are fewer lanes of traffic, sidewalks are wider, and bike lanes are coming soon.

But even with the improvements, Spring Street still feels like a forlorn, too-wide speedway through empty parking lots. The hope is that some of those parking lots will soon transform into buildings, and then Spring Street might feel more lively. But for the time being, it's still a sad place.

The weirdest part of the new street is probably at the western end of the project, where the 1970s urban renewal project ended. There, the old street quickly bottlenecked down from 4 lanes east of State to two lanes a block to the west. The traffic engineers' plan for eliminating that bottleneck in the new plan has been causing some controversy. Here's a cyclists'-eye view of what it looks like:

Photo by Steven Scharf

 That's Portland's newest, biggest sidewalk bump-out, sitting right in the middle of what clearly used to be the historic path of the old Spring Street.

Now, as much as I like bump-outs, this design is stupid.

On the north (right, in the photo above) side of this corner, there's a clearly-defined street wall defined by the Little Tap House building, mature street trees, and other historic buildings a little further on up the street. And on the south side, there's a city parking lot – a remnant scar of Spring Street's urban renewal demolitions and a prime opportunity for a new building that could activate the corner.

But for some reason, the engineers designed the new Spring Street to avoid the historic corridor. Virtually of the site's contexts – the buildings, the trees, the streetlamps – tell motorists and cyclists to "stay right", but the paint on the pavement says, "swerve left, then right."

This, unsurprisingly, is confusing people. The Press Herald even got photographs of a driver rolling their car right over the new bump-out. To the driver's credit, this is exactly what the street's visual cues suggest you should do. But if you're a traffic engineer looking at a blueprint of the intersection, you don't see those visual cues, or the intersection's historic context.

Portland Press Herald graphic

Here's another problem with the bump-out: the reason it's so huge - two lanes wide! - is because on the eastern side of the intersection, in front of the Portland Museum of Art, the new Spring Street incomprehensibly bloats to 3 lanes, including an idiotic double-right-turn lane. While the rest of Spring Street got a road diet, this particular section senselessly got a widening.

The sudden bloat in turn lanes is obviously confusing to drivers – the driver who got caught cruising over the bump-out is trying to drive straight on Spring from one of the new right-turn-only lanes. The intersection worked just fine when there were only two westbound lanes there, though. Getting rid one of the three westbound lanes there and restoring the former layout would be an easy short-term fix.

And here's my final beef with the bump-out. The city owns a parking lot on the south western side of Spring Street. Greater Portland Landmarks owns the building on the southeastern side of Spring Street. Both of those corners are prime opportunities to activate a new Spring Street with attractive new buildings that match the context of the historic neighborhood and honors the historic street wall.

If we were willing to shrink the bump-out AND sacrifice one of the new right-turn-only lanes, we could actually get more pedestrian space overall, and get a more sensible intersection, and put more city-owned real estate to work to create new housing. How about it, City Hall?