Wednesday, August 31, 2005

BICYCLING IN PORTLAND OREGON

There have been numerous news articles and opinion letters in the print media lately about bicycling in Portland. Unfortunately, several bicyclists have been killed this year by motor vehicles, and there is a lot of introspection about the reasons. Are bicyclists reckless? Are motorists too aggressive and uncaring in relation to bicyclists? Is the street system too dangerous for bicyclists to share with motor vehicles?

I've been commuting by bicycle for the past three years - almost daily since May of this year. My commute takes me from a SE Portland neighborhood into the downtown area and back. I ride rain or shine, light or dark. I have developed certain opinions about bicycle commuting in Portland, Oregon.

1. The most dangerous element for bicyclists is other bicyclists. I can't count the number of times I've had close calls or potentially dangerous situations because of other cyclists. The most dangerous type are the speed freaks who don't care about other cyclists. These are the guys (and they are mostly guys) on bikes built for speed, wearing all "the gear" who have to be faster than everyone else. Being fast is not what makes them dangerous - it's not letting other cyclists know that they are passing. There is no ring-ring of a little bell, no "on your left" before they pass - they sneak up behind you and whiz past - on the left or the right - without warning. Woe be unto you if you wobble into their way, or decide to slide over because you know there might be others who want to go faster. I've almost collided with these rudeniks, and I would have probably been thrown out into the traffic whizzing along next to the bike lane.

2. Then there is the death-wish crowd. These are young people who think that the rules of the road don't apply to them. I'd like to tell the guy who sped through the stoplight at NW Couch and NW First the other day that the MAX train runs through that intersection while the light is red, even if he chooses to ignore automobiles. A red octagonal sign on a post with the letters S-T-O-P means stop, and yes, that means bicycles, too. (We all tend to cheat on this one by doing a rolling stop while we look both ways - but I'm talking about the folks who speed right through as if the sign weren't there.) And hand signals - there are, in fact, standard hand signals that let other drivers, including cyclists, know what you intend to do. Pointing to the ground next to your bike with your right hand doesn't tell me anything - although, maybe it's better than no signal at all.

3. A subset of the death-wish crowd is the people in black. They are the ones bicycling down Hawthorne Boulevard at night wearing all black clothing with no lights, no reflectors. They typically don't wear a helmet. They sometimes ride against the traffic. Need I say more?

4. Headphones! I was in front of our house one nice summer day when a young woman went riding by on her bike singing along with the music in her headphones. She waved at me and flashed a big smile as she went past. Then she ran the stop sign at the corner and crashed into the side of a car going through the intersection. Luckily she was OK. Her bike was still usable. The door of the car was bashed in, but the driver was so worried about the young woman, she didn't seem to notice the dent in her car. I ran over to see if everyone was OK. Once I was assured that no one was injured, I strernly admonished the young woman for listening to music while riding her bike, and asked why she wasn't wearing a bike helmet. I basically told her - nicely - that she was an idiot, and a very lucky idiot at that!

5. Motorists. I find that the vast majority of motorists are aware of bicyclists, and very careful and courteous. I thank them for that (I am also a motorist on occassion). One major exception is drivers talkng on their cell phone. Hang it up - please! Lately, however, I've had two drivers yell at me. Both times I was on Hawthorne Boulevard heading east where there is no bike lane. One of them yelled at me to get off the road; the other yelled at me to use the bike route. Well, there are signs along middle-Hawthorne telling motorists that the street has narrow lanes that they need to share with bicyclists. I'm sorry that I'm not as fast as they are, but I have just as much right to use the road as they do. I usually prefer the side-streets that are designated bike paths, but sometimes Hawthorne is a better choice. By the way, each of these two motorists was driving a pickup truck - I wonder if that has any significance?

6. City of Portland infrastructure. Portland has done a good job of identifying bike routes, and providing bike lanes in some heavily used areas, such as lower Hawthorne. I have, however, my list of problem spots. These include pot holes, bad intersections, places that need bike crossings, and one-way grids that leave bicyclists out of luck. I'll communicate this list to the City soon. I recently had a digital conversation with Roger, the City Bicycle Coordinator, about a problem spot on my commuting route; which is a problem for other commuters, also. I had talked to the City about this a couple of years ago, and Roger assured me that it is on the list. Unfortunately, the fix will be about $40,000, and there is no money for it. Shortly after this conversation, the City raised the rate and extended the schedule for parkig meters downtown to raise money for more light rail. Great - but what about other alternative methods of transportation, like the lowly bicycle? Why not designate a small percentage of this lucrative fee increase to improving conditions for bicycle commuters?

7. Last, but not least, my tips for good biking summed up in a word: communication. Communicate with the bicyclists, motorists, and pedestrians with whom you share the road or bike path. Make eye contact so you know that they know that you are there - don't assume that a driver sees you. Make noise when about to pass someone - a bike bell or a simple "on your left" will do - then thank them as you pass. When a motorist motions you to go through the intersection before them, wave a thank you at them. Use hand signals to let your intentions be known, and learn the standard signals. A little courteous communication goes a long way.

Keep your wheels rolling, and safe biking!

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