Monday, September 11, 2006

Bike Friendly: a play in 3 acts

Act I

[Scene: Sellwood Bridge--a gently arcing concrete span that joins two major arterial streets. Spotlight sweeps lone sidewalk on north side of bridge, narrow enough that passing pedestrians brush shoulders. Lone cycler approaches bridge from east, while a steady stream of cars trails behind.]

The two-lane Sellwood Bridge would be our obvious connection to the west side of the (Willamette) river. That is, if it hadn't been designed by some artist/engineer in the midst of his concrete minimalist phase. As I approach the bridge from Tacoma St., I imagine the designer in his workshop late one stormy night.

"No! Excess, excess! Too much concrete!"

[Hacks off both shoulders from bridge model]

"Better, but still too much!"

[Smashes south sidewalk, the pieces of which crash to the floor]

"Too much! Too much!"

[Pushes in from sides until the lamp posts actually protrude into the tiny sidewalk]

"Why must there be so much waste! Too mu..."

[Fortunately, the mad designer collapses from fatigue and is dragged away by his assistant, sparing us all from a bridge consisting of a single strand of fishing line supported by a stick.]

Oh, but back to our story. I pedal up the bridge approach taking the center of the lane. I may be going 20 mph. I glance back, and the angry swarm of cars are...slowing down. The lead car stays a couple of car lengths back for our crossing. By the time we're descending the west half, I'm comfortable enough to steal a glance at the view.

Act II

[Scene: Clearly from out of town, dorky cycler attempts to merge onto high-speed highway, not realizing the traffic light only stops traffic on one side of 99E.]

I become aware of the unfolding scene as I notice the two lanes of northbound traffic, including a Tri-Met Bus, aren't really slowing down, at all, nope. Meanwhile, my entrance route spits me out into a lane that quickly merges with the left lane of 55 mph traffic. With traffic in the narrow merge lane behind me, I accelerate to a glacial 25 mph or so and merge across two lanes.

No horns, no close angry passes after the fact. I won't do it again, but at least I'm alive to!


[Scene: Weird triple intersection at the northern edge of Laurelhurst. Possibly constructed by brother of Sellwood Bridge architect, and who maybe didn't like right angles. A tandem makes an awkward landing after diagonaling to the front of the intersection.]

Rachel and I are exploring northeast Portland by tandem and having a grand time of it until I miff this weird intersection approach. I realized too late that we needed to go straight(ish) through the light and so wound up too far right in the lane. Now there's a car behind that wants to turn right. I'm expecting one of two things to happen. Either the driver will be tentative and creep up looking agitated through the whole light cycle. Or, the driver will be aggressive and squeeze through the iffy gap, buzzing stoker Rachel. Or, I guess, there's the Portland option.

"Do you guys mind if I ease through here and turn right?"

The driver carefully pulls through the gap (hand on the outside mirror!). He stops at the light and shouts back to us.

"Thanks for riding your bike!"

Post-performance discussion

From what I've seen so far, these weren't just happy flukes but the result of lots of Portland cyclers riding smartly lots of the time. When drivers here see a cycler (usually me) doing something weird, they seem to think "whoops, he must have made a mistake" instead of "here's another one trying to make my life miserable." And, its not like we're coming from Albany (never been, hoping it's not super bike friendly, no offense and all that). Missoula ranks in the LAB top-10 for bike friendly cities.

What has surprised me the most is that Portland seems to have earned its bike friendly reputation not so much with a barrage of facilities but instead with a barrage of smart cyclers. The facilities I've discovered so far are good, sometimes very impressive, and clearly took an incredible amount of work. But, truth be told, Missoula may actually be bicycle friendlier in terms of facilities. For instance, four of five bridges in Missoula had bike lanes, and an additional three bridges were bike/ped only. The riverside bike trails were more contiguous, as well.

That said, after two weeks and a couple hundred miles getting lost around Portland, I have to say that the riding is easier here. Even if half of the bike facilities were destroyed in some freak planning disaster, I still think it would be a great place to ride. Portland is a poster child for the idea that paint and signs are no substitute for lots of cyclers riding well with traffic.


Anonymous Brad S. said...

My mother-in-law lives near this bridge. It is horrible for pedestrians and bikes as the following link attests:

1:49 PM  
Blogger The Squeaky Cyclist said...

Heck, people in Portland are just nice. It's really disgusting, when I was up there a few years ago with my mother visiting, the people would see the California plates and wave at us, and act all friendly, and not yell at me when I did something stupid. I was thinking about moving there, but I decided they would never let in, I'm not nice enough.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I feel priviledged to live in place where I can get annoyed at drivers who stop at intersections when I have a stop sign and they don't.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous alberto said...

Good to read some positive feedback about car-bike friendly relations. Almost as much of a rarity in the blogworld as in the real world. Very nice post.

5:07 AM  
Anonymous Phil Varner said...

Hey Joe, I hadn't realized you'd actually moved to Sellwood. Shoot me an email my name at if you want to get together or something.

8:22 PM  
Blogger the old bag said...

Wow...neat to read.

4:20 PM  
Blogger scott said...

Hi, Joe--glad to hear the settling-in is going well, and the riding is so good. Looking forward to hearing more.

charlottesville, va

12:50 PM  

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