Portland bike infrastructure: What the hell?

by Jessie Kwak

I’ve had a pretty uneventful beginning to my new year, and I so needed it after a crazy and hectic holiday season that combined a) visits to three sets of families, b) a move to Portland, c) an attempt to spend time with everyone I’ve ever known before we left Seattle and d) an unusually busy spate with my main freelance client.

I’ve been an official Portlander for just under a week now, and I have to say that life is pretty good. Rob drove back up to Seattle for work training a day after we moved in, leaving me with piles of boxes and only trusty Konita to get around on.

After being reliant solely on my bicycle the past week, I have some observations to share on Portland bike infrastructure.

Oh–and please forgive the lack of photos. My camera’s in a box somewhere. I hope.

What’re all these bike lanes doing here?

Folks, I rode from our place in North Portland to the Goodwill on SE 6th Ave and SE Harrison St*, a round trip of about 10 miles.

You won’t believe what happened:

1) From my front door I pedaled directly onto a neighborhood greenway with traffic-calming speed bumps and sharrows.

2) I then turned onto an east-west two-lane arterial with wide, well-marked bike lanes. That arterial connected me with a similarly appointed road that took me south.

3) I was worried about this part. I’d studied a map (not a bike map), and it looked like I’d have to go through the section where the yellow MAX line transfers to the other 3. I’d transferred lines there before, and remembered it being a tangle of busses, train tracks, and car traffic. As it turns out, there’s also a super sweet little green bike path, with lots of signage to direct you through the mess. Piece of cake.

4) I was also worried about where I’d go from here. Surely MLK was not the correct road to bike on, but I didn’t see a good alternative on the (non-bike) map. After I passed through the transfer area, however, I noticed all the other cyclists ahead of me were taking a right onto the sidewalk. I followed, and discovered the Eastbank Esplanade, a magical pedestrian/bike path that follows the east bank of the Willamette.

5) The Eastbank Esplanade took me all the way down to the Hawthorne Bridge, where I popped off onto another traffic-calmed side road marked with sharrows.

6) Then I rode for 3 blocks on—HORRORS—a side road with no bike infrastructure whatsoever. I also didn’t see any actual cars on that road, though, so it was probably fine.

What I’m saying here is that I rode 10 miles in the city, only 6 blocks of which were not marked with excellent bicycle infrastructure.

Where the hell do I park my bike?

By which I mean, of course, which rack should I choose this time? Should I lock up to one of this cheery blue quartet of staples? Should I lock up to the artsy sculpture rack a half block away?

Or, goodness, which stall should I choose in the bike rack in front of the New Seasons that spans an entire city block?


So many choices.

I mentioned a few summers back that Portland has a bike parking surplus problem of epidemic proportions, and it only seems to have gotten more pronounced since I last visited.

It’s completely incredible.

You call that a bike lane?

In Europe they’d call it a car lane. In Portland they’ve taken vast swaths of pavement that a row of Minis could have parked in quite comfortably, and dedicated them to our lowly two-wheeled conveyances.

I remember once a year or so ago, I was reading a post on Let’s Go Ride a Bike where Dottie mentioned how much she hates it when other cyclists pass her on the right inside a bike lane.

I was totally baffled. She must be riding practically in the car lane if she’s getting passed on the right—it would be an absurdly dangerous thing to do! Bike lanes are nowhere near wide enough for two cyclists to ride side by side.

I can’t speak to Chicago’s bike lanes, but in Portland they’re totally wide enough. Portland bike lanes are happy stretches of paradise, and if that KC Metro bus that took me out two years back had been speeding past me in a bike lane this big? I never would have gotten sucked into its draft.

So where’s the proof?

I know, I KNOW! Photos or it didn’t happen! You Seattleites reading this would probably believe me more if I told you each Portlander got a unicorn to ride to work on than if I told you I saw a bike rack that spanned an entire city block.

Once I figure out what happened to my camera I’ll go on a fact-finding trip and provide you with proof.

I promise.

Any excuse to get me out riding in this most fun biking city!

*In Portland apparently the direction precedes the street name in all cases. In Seattle it precedes east-west street names and follows north-south street names, which is terribly helpful in orienting oneself. I suppose I’ll just have to live with Portland’s uniform directionals.


A sunny, sad sort of day

by Jessie Kwak

I had a beautiful ride into work this morning. It was clear, sunny, and surprisingly crisp (my fingers didn’t unfreeze until about mile 5).

My interactions with cars were generally positive or at least benign. I saw many more cyclists than normal—which reminded me that today is the first day of Bike Month. That lifted my spirits even more. An uneventful ride on a gorgeous day, accompanied by other actual bike commuters is just about tops.

Where the sidewalk ends

And then I got to work. I was a couple minutes late, which shouldn’t have been a big deal, but my boss was obviously relieved to see me. “I’m so glad you’re safe,” she told me. “They said on the radio that a cyclist was killed on East Marginal, and I thought ‘Oh, shit, that’s Jessie’s route.’”

(Note: In almost 2 years, I have never heard this woman swear.)

I spent the morning trying to work and piecing together details as they trickled in. The man was killed by a semi truck at S. Hanford while trying to cross E. Marginal. The West Seattle Blog has more details.

I know that intersection well. Although it’s north of my work route, I rode through it regularly while the Argo Bridge was closed and I needed to get downtown. It’s sketchy as hell—in addition to being riddled with potholes and train tracks, it’s always busy with trucks taking containers from the docks to the railroad.

It is absolutely not the sort of place a person on a bicycle should need to ride.

I hate every second that I ride on E. Marginal Way, both when I’m headed north and when I’m on my way south to work. As I assured my boss this morning—and I’m assuring you, too, Mom—I always ride on the sidewalk* when I’m on the southern stretch of E. Marginal Way, unless I’m with Rob. Two cyclists is more visible than one, I hope.

East Marginal Way at sunrise

Quite a few people today have proposed a separated cycle track along the West Seattle commute section of E. Marginal Way. I think that’s absolutely necessary—and I can’t imagine who would oppose it. Especially the Port and all the local companies. I mean, who would want to be that poor semi truck driver? By all the early accounts, he wasn’t at fault, it was just a shitty situation on both ends.

I know I’m being overly optimistic about a cycle track being supported by the industrial residents of SODO (see also: the Missing Link), but seriously. It’s not a matter of bikes vs. cars, commuters vs. industry, or whatever vs. whoever. It’s a matter of two very different usages of the same stretch of road. The problem’s not going to go away on its own, and neither side is going to “win.”

There are no safe routes for cyclists through SODO.

Yet we still ride through it. Every day.

Trucks are not going away. Cyclists are not going away.

What can we do to make this work?

* Before you point out that riding on the sidewalk can be dangerous, too, let me just say that it puts me in control. I’d rather be on the offensive, riding more slowly and watching for cars at driveways than trust that each semi speeding along at 20 mph over the limit is going to see me. On the sidewalk, I can 100% control whether I put myself in the path of a car. On the roadway, I am just 100% in the path of cars, and it’s up to them whether or not they run me over.

After a Seattle Metro bus put me on the ground last April**, I just don’t trust drivers anymore.

** I just noticed that the date on that post is also May 1, just in 2012 (although my “accident” was earlier). Creepy.


30 days of biking

by Jessie Kwak

Spring commute in Seattle

Today is the first day of 30 days of biking.

I was a slacker at riding this winter, so I’m looking forward to this challenge to get myself back into the habit. This year last time, I would have made the challenge easily. I was commuting to work almost daily, and tooling around on the weekends.

Here’s the thing, though.

I can’t depend on that regular commute anymore. I’m leaving my current job to work full time as a freelance writer—my commute will be from the bedroom to the dining room. Now more than ever it’s going to be crucial for me to get into a daily habit of riding, to get myself out of the house and keep myself active.

I’m excited about the opportunity to work cycling into my daily schedule, perhaps taking a 10-mile ride in the middle of the day when my creativity is flagging, so I can come back to a project refreshed.

I’m also looking forward to getting out to cycling events, and running errands on my bike. Working in by the South Center Mall (may I never lay eyes on it again) has made it difficult to get anywhere in the evenings. Social ride in Ballard at 6? Forget it. Need groceries or a pharmacy run? The only place between South Center and Georgetown is a Target. I’m not buying groceries at Target.

Any work-from-home types have tips on working cycling into your daily schedule?


I know I should be riding my bike, but….

by Jessie Kwak

I haven’t been commuting by bike much these days. I mentioned a while back that in addition to the Seattle drizzle, I’ve been feeling pretty blah about my commute in general.

Part of it is the destination. The actual bike trails are very pretty, but in the winter they’re also incredibly lonely. I’ll see maybe 2 other cyclists in my hour-long commute. And, really, if I want to spend 2 hours on a bike in the cold (and I do!), I’d rather be going somewhere more interesting than the Industrial Suburban Wastes of South Center.

East Marginal Way at sunrise

I’ve written before about the sketchiness of E. Marginal Way, but on top of the usual, Rob’s had some pretty hairy experiences over the last few weeks on his own commute. I’m not going into details here, but you can rest assured that several incidents involved the assholes of the King County Metro Route 124.

I tend to get less aggressive harassment from drivers as a woman—which is ironic, since as a woman I experience way more harassment when I’m on foot than he does. I mean, I’ve flipped off plenty of cars for buzzing too close to me when they’ve got a whole other lane they could be using, but I’ve never had that car then make a u-turn so they could come back and try to run me off the road.

Knock on wood.

All in all, any joy I’ve felt about bike commuting lately has been sapped by the weather and shitty drivers who try to kill my husband. Especially if I’ve got something going on after work—I’d way rather just drive to work and then be able to bike to somewhere more interesting. Like a bar in the city that has my friends in it.

How do you stay motivated for a long commute during the winter? How do you deal with the monotony—and the drivers? I’m definitely in need of some inspiration to get me back on the bike in the mornings.



Check it out! The Green River Trail’s back in action

by Jessie Kwak

I don’t have a lot of routing options on my way to work. My only real choice, actually, is of which semi-truck-infested gauntlet I choose to run in order to bridge the 3 miles from my house to the Green River Trail: E. Marginal Way or Airport Way.

As of last week, however, I’ve got a new choice once I get south of the Starfire Complex. Previously, I would jump onto the Interurban Trail, then get off at 180th and ride the sidewalk* the last mile or so to work. Now, however, I can continue along the newly reopened Green River Trail.

The GRT has been piled high with sandbags south of the Starfire Complex since 2009. Since I never had need (or desire) to bike that far south before my current job, I’ve never ridden that part of the trail.

So I never knew what I was missing.

Last week I tweeted some photos of sandbag removal along the trail (which were picked up by Cascade’s blog), and this morning I left early and took my camera to explore my new route.

It doesn’t necessarily cut any distance off my commute, especially since it’s so curvy whereas the Interurban Trail is a straight sprint, but it definitely makes for a more enjoyable ride.

For one, I can now avoid a couple sketchy intersections and blind crossings that I always hated on the Interurban. For another, it’s way more scenic.

I worry a bit about how dark the trail might be in the winter, especially underneath all the bridges, but if it’s too sketchy I can always take the Interurban Trail instead. Because I have options now, people!

There are a couple sections that are still in need of some TLC, but overall it’s smooth sailing.

I can’t speak personally to how clear the rest of the trail is, since I get off at 180th, but this article at the Kent Reporter leads me to believe that quite a bit has been cleared off. I spotted cranes last week clearing off the part of the trail that goes along the south side of 180th, however, when I got to 180th this morning I came across this:

It’s obvious they’re still clearing out some of the links, but according to this July 10 press release the county plans to have them all removed by the end of September.

Once that last little link underneath the bridge at 180th is fully operational, I should be able to take the trail all the way to about a quarter mile from work. That’ll save me almost a mile of sidewalk riding and sketchy intersections—and just in time for winter, when visibility plummets and suddenly 90% of cars fail to yield to me when I’m in the crosswalk.

Now if only they’d put a separated bike path along E. Marginal Way! (Or at least put bike lanes in the Tukwila section.) Then my commute would be a dream.

* Yes, I also hate cyclists on the sidewalk. But you’d be insane to attempt to share the road with idiot South Center drivers, and there is absolutely no cycling infrastructure in the area, except for the GRT and Interurban Trails.