Saturday, October 13, 2007

Downtown bike lanes: a problem becomes tragic

By now, most everyone in Portland is aware of the tragic death of a young woman on her bicycle downtown on Thursday. Kent Peterson, Alex Wetmore, and Beth Hamon all have good thoughts on the poor bike lane design that contributed. Basically, striping a bike lane all the way to an intersection where cars are turning right is a really bad idea. It's the equivalent of putting a left turn lane in the center and a straight lane on the left. When I worked for the city of Missoula encouraging safe cycling, one of the toughest things to teach folks was how to position themsleves at intersections. Sometimes to be safe you need to move over where it feels less safe. We would occasionally even get yelled at that "It isn't safe over there in traffic!" None of this, of course, is to imply that the cycler did anything wrong on Thursday.

As usual, I don't have any answers. A thriving downtown is a logistical nightmare for transportation. How can we accomodate cars, trucks, bus, rail, streetcar, pedestrians, and bikes in such a constricted, bustling space? I agree with those who say bike lanes are dubious downtown. The short blocks and constant parking action makes conflict all but inevitable (The Broadway "Hotel Zone" bike lanes that double as valet parking dropoffs border on comical). At the same time, I've been surprised at angry comments from people about bikes ridden in traffic lanes downtown--some from friends that are generally positive about bikes.

Right now, I think it's fair to say bicycle riders are fourth class users downtown--after autos, transit, and peds. There are few facilities for bicycles, and those that exist are of questionable utility. Increasing the safety and mobility of bikes downtown would involve tradeoffs, but I think it's time to start mulling the options. Who do we give priority to, and why? Is that the best thing for downtown Portland? The opening of the new transit mall and the possibility of a fleet of public rental bikes downtown only makes the issue more pressing.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

That other half of the cycling year

As temperatures drop toward the hypothermic here in Portland (if one's trapped outdoors in an ice-filled cooler), and the sky verily gushes with water (for about half an hour once a week), the wise Stumptown cycler calls it a season (or starts racing cyclocross). Yesterday, as I roll toward Forest Park on a blustery fall day, I catch up with another fellow out for a spin.

"Turned into a nice day for a ride, huh?" I offer.

"Yep, we may sneak in a couple more rides yet," he (fenderless) says.

"This is just my second fall--does seem like it's coming quicker."

Noticing my (fendered, lit, be-bagged) bike he adds, "Well, it looks like you've adapted pretty well. That's a nice bike!"

I thanked him, told him where I was headed, explained that the road bike handles Leif Erikson (the unpaved main road through Forest Park) fine, and we parted ways. I can understand a drop off in riding during the bleakest months, but it sure seems like Portlanders duck and cover a little early in the shoulder seasons.

Portland's Office of Transportation does neat bike counts every year. This year, they counted twice for two of the bridges, in March and August. I haven't seen any mention outside the report itself that March rates of Hawthorne and Broadway bridge bike crossings were HALF of August rates.

Some portion of those "missing" bike trips were probably recreational. Still, the seasonal dip detracts a little from the argument that bike facilities can replace a sizable chunk of auto capacity. It would be neat to track what happens to those missing trips. What portion are simply not taken, and what portions switch to transit and auto?

It also seems like a great target for some informational campaigns around clothing, lights, and fenders. Something along the lines of Kent Peterson's talks. Or, maybe an off-season gear show to let local shops/craftsfolk show off what they've got for those other seasons?

Then again, maybe other people just have more diverse hobbies. My highest mileage month this year? January.
There are times when a stiff pair of boots might be better.