Sometimes we don’t know why we make a particular choice, what it means to us — how it fits in with who we are or will shape who we become — until later, often years later. I became a born-again bicyclist (as my friend Kimberly puts it) in New York City, at this time of year, in 2001. I’ve written about what that was like, about why I had to leave when I did, and about my search for a place where I could simply ride my bike in peace. Just be able to go about my business with a reasonable expectation of both being and feeling safe doing so.
But it’s only recently that I’ve been able to see the last few years — and maybe even the last fifteen — in context, as a trajectory that means something to me, and that has a pattern.
I’ve said before that I dislike the notion (popular in transportation research and planning, and even among bicycle advocacy groups) of categorizing people who ride bicycles (or don’t) according to their attitudes about it, e.g. “strong & fearless” <eyeroll>, “enthusiastic & confident,” “interested but concerned.” I know people are fond of using labels as a shorthand so they can talk about how to meet various people’s needs, but my experience in this and every other form of human experience is that labels are harmful. They’re reductive, and they’re a slippery slope to stereotyping.
And one thing they miss entirely in this particular case is that people’s feelings about bicycling, their preferences, their “style,” change over time. As with all other aspects of our lives, how we experience life on the bike evolves. Because we get older, because we try new things, because what used to be fun or comfortable for us no longer feels the same, but we might enjoy some other way of being on the bike.
This is natural. This is normal. Were we a cycling culture, we would understand this in our bones. But we are not. We are a driving culture, and as such we can barely recognize that people on bikes are human, much less that their cycling needs and preferences will develop and transmute over time.
I don’t enjoy riding my bicycles any less than I did when I lived in NYC, but I definitely ride differently now than I did then. And that’s neither good nor bad; it just is. It’s part of being a human on a bike. I have evolved. I will continue to.
The trouble is, the U.S. has no room for me to evolve. Say what you will about your own experiences, for me there is only one type of riding I can do here: high-alert riding.
And I was ready to be done with that style when I left NY almost five years ago. It was why I moved to Portland.
I’ve written in detail about how Portland changed in the time I lived there, and about why it fails to fulfill its substantial promise as a haven for people who choose to bicycle for transportation. You can read that here, and here. Things haven’t improved since I left; more people walking and bicycling have been killed or seriously injured by drivers this year than last year, in Portland and in the U.S. as a whole.
When I moved to the D.C. metro area, I experienced significant culture shock. It was the first time I’d lived in such a deeply car-centric region since I became a dedicated bicyclist. This summer, I visited Minneapolis to see whether it might work as an alternative. The people I met there were wonderful, and the Greenways ranged from minimally serviceable to downright delightful, but the moment you exited them you were shoulder to shoulder with aggressive drivers zooming past your elbow at 50+mph, on the largest stroads I’ve seen outside of Los Angeles. Not to mention that everyone warned me about riding the Greenways at night (in a word, “Don’t”).
My experiences in all these cities have made it increasingly clear that the answer to my simple plea, “I just want to ride my bike where I’m going in peace” is, in this country, “No.”
I’m not the first person to face this hard truth, and I won’t be the last. The surge of interest in “gravel bikes” and bikepacking is due in no small part to people getting discouraged by the constant stream of aggression and near-misses they experience riding on roads.
But as fun as gravel and snow and singletrack are, I still have grocery shopping to do. Like everyone, I have places to go and people to see, and I’m not willing to give up my commitment to doing these things by bicycle. At the same time, I’ve had about as much of this as I can stand. Looking at the rest of my life stretched out before me as an endless stream of abuse, trauma, and threat avoidance, I’ve concluded that I deserve better than an endless pitched battle to stay alive. We don’t require war vets to live their entire lives on the front lines, and I shouldn’t have to, either.
So I’m leaving. I have a roundtrip plane ticket to the Netherlands for the winter, and if it seems like the place for me, I’ll transfer my freelance business there, come back, grab my bikes, and relocate permanently.
Looking back, I’m glad now that I started my bike life in NYC, because it’s the one place in the U.S., perhaps, where the car does not rule, and where one can feel most clearly the way the bicycle unlocks a city. As I always said to the bike-curious when they asked why I rode, the bicycle puts back the freedom the city takes away. It gives you autonomy. It gives you freedom of movement. Those two wheels are a pair of wings.
I suppose it is a measure of how much bicycling is still a fringe activity in the U.S. that the most commonly asked question of someone who rides is “What kind of bicyclist are you?” as if you’re meant to choose a team. The multiple choice options are generally something along the lines of: recreational, commuter, racer, fitness, “avid,” etc.
I hate that question. No one in the Netherlands gets asked that question, because there riding a bicycle is embraced as an ordinary part of life. Here, if you’re an adult on a bicycle, well, you’d better explain yourself. Preferably by choosing one of these little icons so we understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and can place you in your proper box.
The thing is, none of those boxes fit.
My real answer to this question is: observant. I am an observant bicyclist. No, I’m not talking about noticing natural beauty in my surroundings or being alert to potential dangers (although both of these are true). I mean observant in the religious sense. I am a practicing bicyclist. I am devout.
Before you scoff or assume that I’m exaggerating for emphasis, think for a moment about what religion is, the purpose it serves for people of faith. At its most basic, a religion is a basis for understanding life — both one’s own experience and the possible reason (if there is one) for existing. It’s a way to make sense of the world, and of one’s experience moving through it. Most of all, it’s a way to interact with our core selves, to make contact with the quintessential spark that makes it so obvious when a living creature is inhabiting her body, and when she’s left it.
Fundamentally (no pun intended), religions exist to connect us to and help us understand life — both within us and around us.
All of those things come to me and move through me when I’m on a bicycle. I make sense of my world by riding through it. When I am mired, confused, struggling through the difficulties of my daily existence like so much sticky pudding, I get on the bike and pedal my way clear.
On the bike I am both free of the world and part of it. I am distinctly, purely me, and yet I am also body, blood, and flesh of the land, water, and sky.
It is as natural for me as breathing, the most simple and mundane of activities, and yet I guard that time on the bike with a ferocity I cannot explain. It is sacred. It is for me and me alone that I ride, and you are not invited into that space.*
Nor will you ever take it from me. The very idea of being forced off-bike turns me savage. I resent intrusions, demands that I sacrifice this one thing I do for me. This one thing that makes sense, in all the world, and that — in the moment, at least — comes closest to making sense of the world.
If (more likely when) I flee this country, it will be as a refugee. No, that’s not a metaphor.
*That’s not to say I don’t like riding with other people. But it is different, just as going to a church fete is different than solitary prayer.
There are times when I need a break from the bike. Often it’s about having a break from being threatened by drivers. Sometimes it’s about not having to carefully layer myself against the elements. Sometimes I just feel like resting in the cocoon of the apartment.
As simple and logical as that sounds when I write it out like that, it’s usually a struggle to allow myself a day off, especially if, as was the case today, I’ve already had a day off this week.
It’s hard to explain my relationship to the bike. It’s a little like a lover, it’s a little like a limb, it’s a little like the bike is a part of my soul made steel.
All of those might well sound like hyperbole. Faith might be the closest word, and my faith in the bike might be the closest thing I have to a religion. That sounds even more hyperbolic.
I can’t explain it, but I know I’m not the only one who feels this kind of connection. I’ve seen it in people’s faces, I’ve heard it in the way they talk about riding or about bikes they’ve loved. I also see it in the way they ride, something about the way they move, the bike becoming the bones of a bird under their hands.
Every time I choose not to get on my bike, I have a secret fear. My fear is that I’ll be off permanently. That I’ll be exiled from my faith. That I won’t have the courage to get back on. Excommunication.
Why, then, do I do what I did today? Because I also need the break, the moment away, to feel what my legs feel like walking, that plain, smaller act. More arduous and more basic. To remember I can still breathe, even winnowed down to my bare feet.
Tomorrow I’ll get back on, I’ll be winged again. I’ll spin up on rainy streets or in the sun. I’ll look for birds, the raptors and the tiny swifts in their fractal swirls. I’ll gasp when a blackbird swoops suddenly across my path as they do. I’ll dream that I, too, can spread a feathered tail and glide across and over the fields.
It’s winter, which may have something to do with the big, twiney thoughts that are absorbing my attention most of the time, to the point where Jeezuschrist could you all just stop calling me, don’t call us we’ll call you, I AM ON THE BIKE AND I AM BUSY.
I’m not much of a phone person under ordinary circumstances, but lately, every time that little robot noise goes off, I want to fling it into the Potomac.
I read this a while back, and the ground-level truths of it took up residence in the corners of my consciousness, and they’ve been growing seedlings there. Like the kindergarten time-lapse movie of bean sprouts, I can almost see them growing, unfolding bright green leaves that shake me with little moments of realization. Oh. Oh.OH.
If it was a snake, it’d’ve bit me. All that frustration, all that deep perplexity over why our culture makes insane choices to value parking and traffic “flow” over minor things like, oh, human lives. Why didn’t I see it before? It’s capitalism. It’s not that we don’t know the consequences of these choices; it’s that we’ve trapped ourselves in a huge edifice that’s built on priorities other than keeping people alive and well — namely, money — usually expressed, in “stakeholder” meetings about bike & ped infrastructure, as “the needs of local businesses” (which, in a capitalist society, amounts to a sacrament).
Choose money over people, power over people, and what you get is death. Nearly 40,000 in 2015, the largest single-year increase in 50 years. We’ve institutionalized prioritizing profits over people, and this is the price. Well, this and the fact that one century very soon our planet will cease to be habitable.
You can see why I don’t want to answer the phone.
What can be done? Saving ourselves and our planet would require radical changes, and we all know what they are, and I’ll bet you every penny I will ever see that we’re not willing to make them.
So what I personally do, mostly, is ride my bike and try not to despair. I try to encourage other people to use their cars less. To consider that there are alternate ways of managing many of life’s day-to-day demands beyond the private metal box.
I wave at small kids on bikes and hope for the best. And I rage. I DM furiously with like-minded friends. I suspect the climate scientists are in a similar lather of despair and conscious deep-breathed getting on with daily living.
I didn’t intend to write this post. I meant to write the other post that’s been in my mind the last few months — the one about how much I love winter riding. Either I’d forgotten how I feel about winter riding while I was living in a place with mild winters, or it’s something that’s changed in me. Winter is the time with the best solitude, and on (or off) the bike that’s (almost) always what I crave. It’s an analog for how we move through life — alone with our thoughts. If we’re doing it well, we move gracefully, fluidly, birdlike. If not, we might stumble a bit, occasionally fall, but it’s not such a big deal to get back on and pedal away from those occasions.
I’m thinking of changing careers, just slightly, and I keep getting caught a little on the thought that all I really know how to do is ride. That’s not strictly true, of course, but I have increasing trouble sitting still for anything else. Maybe I’m just conscious of time passing, of fleeting moments being all I or anyone, or even the earth has anymore. I want to keep flying, breathing, shifting smoothly through the air because that is where I am me. If I could write while riding, I would. If I could take photographs to show you what I see without having to stop and maneuver a camera, even a damned-easy phone camera, I would do this constantly. But I can’t, so it’s rare that I hook myself into paragraphs, or stop to try and grab that little scene.
Mostly I just keep thinking and pedaling. Did I think I would be turning into a revolutionary as I aged? No, I did not. But the bicycle has many surprises.
PS. Do try not to troll me with your urgent political viewpoints and BUT BUT BUTs. I meant what I said, I have no desire to be capitalismsplained or any other splained, and I will throw you into the Potomac.
“Well, here I am,” said Jubal Early, floating out into space in the last few minutes of Firefly.
I’ve had that floating-in-space feeling for almost two months now, with occasional moments of landing on my feet, just for a minute or two, before I begin to feel unmoored again. It’s disconcerting, but I guess it’s just part of the process.
All that fretting and soul-searching and fretting some more, and drinking beer with friends in a mad rush to try and see everyone while I was even more madly packing up a house, draining it of its extraneous contents (many Portlanders are by now wearing my clothes or using my cast-off furnishings, with help from Goodwill).
A dear friend said to me, on my last night there, “Even when it’s a change you’ve planned and worked toward for a long time, there’s always a moment when the change takes effect. And that feels sudden.” Damn right he was. It still feels sudden, as if I’d left in a madcap whirl: “Oh hey, I’ll think I’ll move to DC now. Zap!”
Well, here I am.
It’s not perfect in #bikedc, by any means, but if it seemed perfect I’d know not to trust it (see also: 3 years in PDX). I moved to Portland seeking a safe bike haven, and did not find one. I found other things — mostly people, who are always the best “things” to find. I found a little house, which I soon found I couldn’t afford to keep.
I found inspiration, and the ability to climb hills, and friends I hope to keep, and the very nicest bike shop, and a very loud voice (okay, I knew I had that, but it was interesting to hear it echo in a smaller place).
I found that I knew exactly who I was, away from everything and everyone I knew, and that was valuable. I also found that I missed my family, and my east coast people, and that it was okay to admit that, and to go when it seemed the time for going. And I’m glad I did. I think it’s going to be good. Imperfectly solidly good. As soon as my feet find the ground.
I’ve been thinking that most people probably aren’t very aware of their dark side. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an operating force in their actions, and it doesn’t mean they don’t fear it, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Many people express their darker selves when they’re behind the wheel of a car. And when they’re on the Internet. Both situations offer power and anonymity. The opportunity to hurt without consequence.
In a car you can bully someone you’d never feel comfortable threatening in person. Someone bigger than you. Someone stronger. Someone older, or more accomplished. Someone who would command — and possibly demand — your respect, if you had to look them in the eye.
On the Internet you can threaten, humiliate, libel, and ridicule someone you’ve never met and will never have to face.
Many people take advantage of these two situations to scare, hurt, and threaten other people, to knock them down emotionally or physically. I wonder if more people act out while driving and/or on the Internet than don’t.
It takes a certain strength of mind to remember the humanity of others when they can neither see you or touch you. When they’re saying something you don’t like, or doing something that “gets in the way” of where you want to be, or what you want to do.
It takes patience. It takes humility.
If you’re not the one in the empowered position, behind the wheel, way up high in that SUV, you may be a little more familiar with the edges of your dark side. With the landscape of what you are capable of, given the right set of circumstances.
Let me tell you about my dark side.
I know what it feels like, rising. I know the size and shape of it. I know its roar. I know exactly what it — and by extension, I — am capable of.
I also know that it responds to the cold logic that runs through my mind when I’m processing a bad situation. I know that as incendiary as it is, it still filters through my awareness, and I still make choices about what I am going to do. Choosing through an enormous storm of rage is a very weird feeling, but it’s one I’ve felt a lot.
I will tell you that most people have never seen my dark side, not even a glimpse, though many have seen (or heard) me angry. I will also tell you, and I am deadly serious now, that you do not want to meet my dark side.
I have had to spend a lot of time getting to know my dark side because it is there to protect me from danger, and I’ve been in danger — real, you-might-die-now danger — more times than I can count. I’ve had to find out just what the limits are — how much control I have, what the decision-making process is like from within a white-hot rage. It’s not a pleasant experience. But it’s worth knowing, for real, who you really are, when you’re pressed up against the sharp edge of your mortality. Because of these terrible experiences, I have come to know my most dangerous self, and it is well-integrated into the rest of me.
What I’ve discovered is that: a) it’s a source of strength, b) it would enable me to kill someone if that were the only viable choice, and c) it is still me. C) means that for the most part, like Mal,
If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.
I used to joke that I had to leave New York before I ended up dead or in prison. It wasn’t altogether a joke. If I ever kill you, it will probably be because you have hit me with your car, and I will either be unable or unwilling to tell my big dark rage to stand down. And I probably won’t regret it.
Tonight I am making final preparations for the Save the Humans protest Pedalpalooza ride tomorrow (June 23), which starts at Oregon Park at 5:30 (we ride at 6). As part of the ride, I’ll be handing out flyers with the contact information for key decision-makers about the safety (or lack thereof) of bicycling in Portland.
If you’re on the ride (and even if you’re not), you can help fight for safer, more comfortable conditions for everyone by urging Mayor Hales, Commissioner Novick, and PBOT Director Treat to put their money and their actions where their promises are.
Here are their email and mailing addresses, and below that is a “boilerplate” letter you can copy and paste or download in MS Word and customize to reflect what’s most important to you. Or, of course, just write your own. Either way, thanks so much for riding and (or) writing!
Dear Mayor Hales, Commissioner Novick, Director Treat:
I am writing to ask that you step up and take action on needed improvements to bicycle infrastructure in Portland.
The people of Portland who bicycle for transportation have been proposed, studied, and promised, quite literally, to death. We are tired of the daily threats, bullying, and near-misses that we experience on our errands and commutes. We are tired of being stressed out and afraid for our safety when we’re taking our children to school, buying groceries, traveling to and from work, or even just walking across the street.
We need action, and we need it now. Please get to work immediately building:
Protected bike lanes — every existing Class 2 bike lane should be protected with barriers, even temporary ones to start. In addition, major direct routes such as Sandy and Burnside should have protected bike lanes added, to create a safe and useful network for bicycle transportation.
Diverters for greenways — PBOT’s own study has confirmed what we have been telling you for years. The current greenways are not safe, and they are not comfortable to bicycle on and cross by foot. Traffic volumes are too high, aggressive driving and use for cut-through traffic is rampant. For these greenways to be safe and comfortable for bicycling and walking, they must be made local traffic only. That means designing out the ability for drivers to use them as through-routes.
Bicycle signal phases and HAWK signals to ensure safe passage for bicyclists and pedestrians through dangerous intersections and crossings of wide arterials. We realize signals are an investment, but it’s unconscionable to refuse to invest in our safety when there is ample evidence that these improvements are needed.
We need more than paint. We need more than pledges. We need more than words. Please help.
PS. I live in _______________________________neighborhood.
It’s become a familiar refrain at #bikingtobeers gatherings. “What is it going to take to get PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation) and the city’s political leadership to take action to make our streets safe?” And the answer is always: “It’s going to take deaths.”
I remember Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland (I think that’s who it was) tweeting something to the effect of “I’m worried we’re heading to a dark place,” referring specifically to the hazardous situation of aggressive drivers “sharing” Clinton St. with families riding to school. I’ve been feeling the same way about bicycling in Portland overall, and it seems to be gaining momentum like a giant snowball.
And now we’ve arrived at the dark place. It’s ugly, and it’s frightening. Six people riding bicycles have been hit and seriously injured or killed by drivers in the Portland metro area in the past month. Two in the same spot, at SE 26th and Powell. Two in the past week, including 22-year-old Mark Angeles, who was killed the day before yesterday by a driver who failed to yield while turning left at SE Gladstone and 39th.
Alistair Corkett, also 22, lost his leg when another left-turning driver failed to yield at SE 26th and Powell on May 10.
Peter Anderson, 37, was hit and injured today while riding with the right of way on a green light in that same intersection.
Tonight I stood over my bike at the intersection where Mark was killed, in a crowd of about 150 people. We stood quietly, observing a moment of silence — for approximately 20 minutes. There’s a ghost bike there for Mark, and the protest ride was called “No More Ghost Bikes.”
There were also flowers piled around the ghost bike. And members of Mark’s family crying.
We stood, and watched. We were spread across the full width of Gladstone. People drove through the intersection along 39th, some of them hustling in that way people do in cars, where it seems like nothing in the world matters so much as that extra second they might grab by pushing ahead of another car — or around a person riding a bicycle.
I watched the two women at Mark’s ghost bike crying. They hugged each other for a long time. It was a very human scene. A hundred people on bicycles, standing still, watching them cry.
I thought about how exposed we all are, on the bike. Just our bodies, out in the air, moving through space on these small simple machines. We are basically naked out there, a little cloth over our bones and skin, but nothing much. We move like birds do, and that is beautiful, but it is also a vulnerable state.
I thought how, oddly, I felt safer in that phalanx of riders than I ever have while riding in Portland.
I thought about the people driving through the intersection, rushing, annoyed, thinking about the precious seconds they were losing. I thought, here a whole person was, on Wednesday, who isn’t alive anymore. A young person, just graduated from college. People are crying for him right there, those two women who loved him, and now he’s gone. I don’t think seconds are precious at all, except maybe in the sense that if those seconds had gone differently, if the person driving the truck had waited a few seconds, Mark would be alive, and his family wouldn’t be crying. They might be going home to dinner right now, or maybe he’d be getting a beer, like we did after the ride.
We locked up our bikes, four of us, and went into Hawthorne Hophouse, and sat down at a booth, and then PJ quietly pointed out that sitting in the next booth was Alistair Corkett. I was worried about bothering him — he was there with his brother and his mom — but in the end I was glad we got up and introduced ourselves, and told them where we’d just come from.
I was struck by how young he looked. I was struck by the look in his eyes — a little scared, I thought, a bit in shock still, perhaps, and also brave and determined and very much alive. He got up, hopped nimbly to the other side of the room. When they left I saw the empty space in one leg of his shorts. So young.
The moment we’d peeled off from the larger group at the ride’s end, I’d felt sort of naked without the giant crowd of riders. Immediately less safe, through we were still riding in a group, two by two. As we left the bar, I rode a block or two with Kyle, whom I’d ridden next to for most of the ride, and then we split off in different directions, and I was one rider again.
I spend the vast majority of my time riding alone. It’s more by default than by choice, though of course there are things I like about riding “feral,” as Velouria of Lovely Bicycle puts it.
But there was a power to simply being in that large a group. We were nothing more than the same individual fragile humans we always are, and yet we could take the entire road, all of it, without fear. People in metal boxes suddenly couldn’t terrorize us.
There was more. I looked in at the faces of people driving in the oncoming lane, and the ones who weren’t cheering or waving looked…nervous. There was something intimidating, apparently, about a crowd of people that large, simply riding bikes. We weren’t shouting or doing much of anything except riding — and waving back to those lovely, supportive drivers.
And I thought, There’s something in this. The difference between the way we get harassed and bullied and threatened as individual people riding on our little steel birds (hush, carbon), and the way the same drivers had to treat us with respect (whether they wanted to or not), when we rode in mass numbers.
How to take that difference and transform it into a solution for the dangers we face every day, I don’t know yet. But there’s something there — a hundred exposed, vulnerable humans together are no longer quite so vulnerable.
When I first moved to Portland, I was surprised to find that, for all the city’s bikeyness, there wasn’t much in the way of real infrastructure. There are plentiful bike shops, bike parking at most local businesses, bike wayfinding signs, bike-themed bars, bike maps, and many other elements of bike culture.
The city encourages bicycling, but the most important element — infrastructure to support it — is the weakest link in the chain.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I’ve also been wary. People who live in Portland and those who dream about it as the Bikey Promised Land are pretty attached to the idea that this is a bike-friendly place. And some of them get angry when I suggest that it’s not.
Others have admitted to me (often with a bit of wariness themselves) that they were surprised, as I was, to find the road environment an uneasy mixture of bike friendliness and bike hate. In the last 18 months or so, the balance has shifted firmly into the unpleasant column, and more of us who live here and ride these roads every day have begun to talk openly about the problems we’re experiencing, not just intermittently, but incessantly.
There’s something on every ride. Usually a whole bunch of somethings. Is it the constant barrage of New York? Not yet. But there are disturbing indicators that that’s where we’re heading, and not at a 20 mph greenway pace, either. (Not that anybody drives that slowly, whatever the speed limit signs say.)
The combination of an exponentially increasing population migrating in from car-centric cities and suburbs (nearly 10,000 in 2014 alone), and a local transportation bureau that, while well-intentioned, is hamstrung by a difficult political climate and its own tendency to proceed at a glacial pace, is hurtling us into a very unpleasant and, if I’m any judge, damned dangerous future.
Portland’s existing infrastructure was predicated on low-traffic streets which are not low-traffic anymore, and on a cultural norm of politeness and willingness to conform to traffic laws, which is no longer the norm.
Before we move on to specifics, let me preface this by saying that I know what it’s like to ride with no infrastructure whatsoever. I’m not a spoiled, ungrateful Portlander whining over imperfections in an awesome system. I began my daily riding career in the New York City of 2001. That city had no bike lanes, and almost no one was riding. I used to see the same half-dozen messengers going to and from work on the Queensboro Bridge. Those were the cowboy days, the Wild West.
I rode through that city’s changes, through Janette Sadik-Khan’s heroic and often contentious battle to humanize the streets, through the bikelash, complete with lawsuits trying to remove a protected bike lane on Prospect Park West, the removal of another bike lane because of pressure from a religious special interest group, ticket blitzes for bogus offenses (e.g. NYPD squad car parks in bike lane, tickets cyclists for legally riding around it). I know what it’s like to be in a hostile environment. So when I tell you these streets are getting hostile, please believe that I know what that means, and where it leads.
What’s wrong with Portland’s bike infrastructure, anyway?
In many ways, what’s wrong with Portland’s bike infrastructure is a primer on what’s wrong with U.S. bike infrastructure (where any exists) in general. Perhaps the best way to get at this is by looking at a few key principles that govern infrastructure in a place where it does work — the Netherlands — and at which Portland is failing.
Virtually all bike routes in Portland are on roads shared with cars. The vast majority of bike infrastructure here consists of standard, unprotected, on-road bike lanes and sharrows. In other words, paint.
The only paths that are (theoretically) closed to motor vehicles (I’ve encountered motorcyclists driving on them) are “multiuse” paths, which are shared with pedestrians (and dogs, and horses) — and are too narrow to be shared safely.
Portland’s “bicycle boulevards” were developed as a stab in the direction of separating bicycle and motor vehicle routes. Unfortunately, not only are these streets still open to motor vehicles, but most have become favored routes of drivers wishing to shortcut around the traffic on arterials, or simply to avoid stop signs (bike boulevards have fewer stop signs than neighboring streets). In many cases, the frequency of aggressive driving on bike boulevards has made them less comfortable to ride on than streets without a bike route designation.
Design intersections to eliminate conflicts between bicycle and motor vehicle traffic, and to protect bicyclists.
Portland is notorious for leaving bicyclists to their own devices at tricky intersections. There are many variations: the bike route that crosses an arterial with two lanes of traffic in each direction, with no traffic light and a center island that’s too narrow to comfortably accommodate a bicyclist for a two-stage crossing (16th and E. Burnside, 39th and SE Couch or SE Ankeny); the bike lane that disappears at the intersection, with an unhelpful “bikes merge into traffic” sign; the four-way (or even more) intersection with blind corners and no stop signs in any direction (most intersections in Alameda and Laurelhurst).
One of the major issues in the recent redesign of the heavily traveled N. Williams bike lane has been the lack of safe treatments at intersections. Standing outside the New Seasons Market at N. Williams and Fremont one Friday afternoon at rush hour, I was transfixed by a steady stream of near-misses as drivers crossed the left-side bike lane to turn left onto Fremont. That intersection desperately needs a separately signaled treatment like the one used for intersections on Ninth Ave. [pdf] in New York City. Of course, NYC has its own issues with infra disappearing where it’s most needed.
A classic example of “intersection oversight” is the short new multiuse path that was built to (theoretically) provide bike access from Vancouver Ave. to Portland International Raceway (site of many OBRA bike races) and the (shabby, torn-up) path adjacent to it that continues around the Columbia Slough to Smith and Bybee Lakes. It’s a great idea, and a sorely needed connection, but the city built a scant mile of nicely paved path that ends abruptly at an absolutely terrifying untreated crossing of Denver Ave. To complete the linkage to PIR and the Slough path, the bicyclist must cross a complicated, staggered intersection consisting of four lanes of highway traffic, on a blind curve, with no traffic signal or other safety provisions, and several on- and off-ramps and service roads coming together.
Create a connected network of high-quality bicycle routes, so that bicycling is both safe and convenient for transportation.
When I first moved here and began learning my way around town, I kept thinking that I was missing something. There must be a network of useful, safe bike routes that I just didn’t know about. You’d think they’d put that information on the bike map, but then, I’d never found NYC bike maps to be helpful (by the time the NYC DOT created an official bike map, I’d been riding there for years).
Turns out, neither I nor the map were missing anything. There’s no network. The bicycle boulevards meander in roundabout wiggles, and when following any recommended bike route, there are difficult crossings of what I think of as barrier roads (wide, high-speed “stroads” with no traffic signals to help the bicyclist or pedestrian cross).
The city is sliced north-south by one freeway and east-west by another, and bicyclists can only cross at a few places — none of which prioritize our safety by offering protected or separated lanes or a bike phase in the traffic signal.
Essentially, if you have to get somewhere by bike, you’re going to be “sharing” the road with drivers, many of whom interpret that phrase as meaning they’re entitled to shove their vehicle right up next to you to “share” a single lane. Welcome to “bike-friendly” Portland.
Not infra per se but also a safety hazard
For reasons that defy logic and good sense, the city of Portland allows on-street parking on both sides of the street, free of charge, usually right up to the very edge of the intersection. This creates several safety hazards:
Visibility is frequently hampered, meaning that a driver or bicyclist has to pull far out into the intersection — into the path of traffic — before he or she can see said traffic.
Double-sided parking artificially narrows the streets, creating unsafe conditions for bicyclists when impatient drivers insist on “sharing” that narrow lane, or buzzing past within inches, often into oncoming traffic (or another bicyclist).
Lack of enforcement
Anyone who’s ridden on a bicycle boulevard/neighborhood greenway knows that the posted speed limit of 20mph is followed by exactly nobody — except perhaps the bicyclists. One of the most dangerous elements of our driving culture (and by “our,” I mean the entire US) is the universally accepted view that a posted speed limit is to be treated as a minimum, not a maximum.
Not only is it considered acceptable to exceed the speed limit, there’s a stigma attached to driving at or under it. “You’re driving like an old lady! Speed up! Pass that bicyclist now!” And this attitude persists regardless of road conditions, which in a frequently rainy part of the world, translates to dangerous driving before you even add in distraction/inattention, drunkenness, and aggressive behavior.
Just yesterday, I was forced up against a line of parked cars by a pickup truck driver going 45-50mph on the Clinton St. neighborhood greenway (speed limit: 20mph), aiming right at me and revving his engine.
There’s precious little enforcement of speed limits in residential areas, and when sting operations are conducted, they mostly pull over bicyclists — because they’re easier to catch. The only truly effective method of speed limit enforcement is traffic cameras, which of course we don’t have.
There’s also no good way for a bicyclist to report harassment and dangerous driving — you can call in a license plate number, but unless (and probably even if) you got video showing the driver’s face, the police won’t take action.
Not to mention the fact there seem to be zero consequences for drivers who completely disregard what bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure there is.
“America’s Best Bicycle City” is collapsing under entropy
The night I rode 30 miles in a 60mph windstorm to attend a meeting with about 20 other bicyclists from all walks of life to ask PBOT to make changes address the safety issues on the Clinton St. bicycle boulevard, I was encouraged by the apparently receptive attitudes of the PBOT staffers. Since that time, I’ve been discouraged to see that while individual staffers’ concern or sympathy may be genuine, the decision-makers at the organization are utterly unwilling to act, even when citizens give them exactly the support they say they need to make changes.
And then there are the — to my mind bizarre — decisions like this, and this. Got a problem with right-hooking in the bike lane? Just take out the bike lane! That’ll solve everything….Huh?
(Re)building a city so it works for people takes courage; it takes real leadership, and that means a willingness to make changes that won’t be popular with absolutely everyone beforehand. That means responding to businesses worried about losing customers because of fewer on-street parking spaces with data on the proven benefits [pdf] of protected bike lanes for businesses (e.g., retailers on 9th Ave. in NYC saw a 49% increase in sales after the protected bike lane was installed, compared with 3% increase in sales among Manhattan retailers overall). It means putting people’s health and safety first, which should be a no-brainer for any city, especially the “City That Works.”
It means understanding that making a trafficky, limited-visibility crossing (such as SE Salmon and 30th Ave.) safe for bicyclists and pedestrians requires more than simply putting a sign up warning drivers that there may be bicyclists and pedestrians trying to cross there. It means building physically separated and/or protected bicycle paths, even though they’re a bigger investment of financial and political capital than painted lines.
We have to build infrastructure for the species we are, not the species we hope to be. That means planning our streets, cities, and towns in a way that ensures that the inevitable human error (or aggression) does not have fatal consequences.
At last night’s #bikingtobeers, I wondered aloud something that’s been bugging me — how can members of our local transportation bureau who are also bike commuters drag their heels about building real infrastructure when they’re experiencing the problems firsthand? I got an interesting answer (in reference to one bike commuter at PBOT) — “He’s a vehicular cyclist.”
The debate between those who want protected infra and those who argue that no infra is needed and that people on bikes need to simply assert their status as vehicles “just like cars,” and “everything will work out fine” has been going on for years, and it’s not going to get solved today. But wherever you stand on the subject, it’s hard to argue convincingly that vehicular cycling will work for children, or to debate the fact that places with high-quality infrastructure have high rates of bicycling — and those with poor or no infrastructure have low rates.
The truth is that people will do what they feel comfortable doing, not what is theoretically possible, or what someone tells them they should be doing. The country with the highest bicycle mode share in the world — the Netherlands — is, not coincidentally, also the place with the most complete network of high-quality infrastructure designed to make cycling both safe and convenient. For everyone.
As someone who’s ridden in extreme traffic situations, I’m often asked why I care so much about infrastructure. Why should it bother me? Aren’t I “strong and fearless”?
Setting aside (for a moment) the fact that it’s important to me that where I live be a place where anyone, and everyone, can ride safely, comfortably, and conveniently, there is a vast difference between what I can do and what I want to have to do on a daily basis. Our culture has an unfortunate tendency to conflate bravery with fearlessness. Yes, I’ve ridden up Lexington Ave. at rush hour, mixing it up with the taxis in the left lane (because that’s actually the better position than the right, with buses stopping to discharge and pick up passengers). Yes, for years I braved a 30-mile commute in the most intense, nonstop bullet-dodging traffic imaginable.
I was terrified the whole time. I still am. Every time I get on my bike, I have to shoulder the anxiety that sits heavier than any backpack. Most days, the love of the bike itself — the pure beauty of pedaling, of moving myself through the air — is strong enough to convince me to keep riding. But not every day. And it’s getting harder as I get older, both because the accumulated weight of years of stress, hostility, and near-misses is wearing on me, and because I’m physically less resilient than I used to be. My muscles may be stronger than ever, but I don’t heal as quickly from injuries, and there’s no getting around the fact that the bones of a 50-year-old are brittler than those of a 30-year-old.
So I care more about having real (read: protected, separated) infrastructure as I get older. I want the place I live and ride to be safe for me and for the five-year-old who’s waving madly at me, spilling over with that special, luminous pride that comes of getting the knack of balancing on two wheels for the first time. Believe it or not, our needs are exactly the same. And we both deserve it.