More to the story than how many clothes you wear

On the evening of June 20th 13,000 people gathered on West Burnside in downtown Portland to bicycle in various stages of undress. I was not there. One reason: I was in Indianapolis where “We don’t do that kind of thing, thank you.”

Although Portland State University professor Carl Abbott has written that Portland and river cities in the Midwest (such as Indianapolis) are much alike in their urban cultures, there are significant differences, and one of them is evident in the infrastructure, public attitudes, and personal practices related to bicycling. At least, this is true about Portland in comparison with Indianapolis, two cities I know very well.

I could feel the difference while cycling south on North Pennsylvania toward Washington Street in downtown Indy, which would be a lot like cycling along any of the streets around Pioneer Square in downtown Portland. Since neither city has been able to put bike lanes on all of these streets, cyclists have to mix, with considerable wariness, with multi-laned motorized traffic. What I realized on my Indianapolis ride is that in this city, when compared with Portland, there are more lanes of traffic, the blocks are longer, the cars are going faster, drivers are quicker on the horn, and the pavement itself is rougher (multi-layers of filled up winter potholes).

Most important, I was all alone. Nary another cyclist on the entire three miles across Washington Street and down Virginia Avenue to Fountain Square. In Portland, on Broadway from Irvington across the bridge to downtown, on Fourth Avenue from Jefferson through China Town, even on Everett or Glisan in the Pearl, I never ride alone: bike messengers darting through traffic disdainful of convention or personal safety, young women in short skirts and heels riding to the office on fixies, all kinds of riders disguised in cutoffs and riding old bikes adapted for city use, and a few hard core, “bugs in the teeth” roadies like me. It is not that “there is safety in numbers,” but rather that the presence of so many on two wheels means that everyone–cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists–has had to include the presence of bicyclists in the mix of factors that determine how they occupy space–whether that space be streets, sidewalks, or crosswalks.

The difference is evident in certain street systems marked with bike lanes for what could be considered “through traffic for bicycles.” In Portland, one of my most frequent routes (which I probably ride on the average of twice a week) is south  on Vancouver Avenue and North on Williams. Even at 6:00 o’clock on a winter morning, I have bicycling company on the route. In Indianapolis, a similar pair of linked one-way streets with bike lanes is New York going east and Michigan for the return westward. In my current visit to Indianapolis, I have had no opportunity to bicycle this route, but I have driven it several times. So far, I have seen two cyclists, both on New York on a hot summer afternoon: a hard riding man on a hot pink fixie with high mud flap, riding the right direction, and a kid in jeans and no helmet puttering along on a junker, riding the wrong way.

My contacts in Indianapolis, including long-time cycling advocate Tom Healy, have been telling me that the city is seriously engaged in upgrading everything having to do with cycling in this, my midwestern river city. And I believe him. An especially important example is the way that no longer used tracks of the Monon Railroad are being converted into an urban multi-use trail, stretching from Massachusetts Avenue (a spot with some of the ambiance of Portland’s Pearl), to Broad Ripple Village (think Hawthorne), to Nora (John’s Landing), to Carmel (Gresham on steroids), and on to Westfield, a quieter place like Portland’s neighboring town of Sandy. Although Portland’s Springwater Trail is an equally fine trail, the one in Indianapolis (like Seattle’s Burke-Gilman) actually goes places that many people want to go to. And some of its more recent additions, including bridges and tunnels on its more northerly sections, sparkle because they are both useful and beautiful.

As one who revels in the bicycling culture, I rejoice in the way that cycling is moving forward in Indianapolis, the city that for more than thirty years was my home and the place where I became a cyclist. Even more, however, I look forward to getting back to Portland-Vancouver, the place where my bicycles and I really belong (and I’ll be wearing my clothes, thank you).

Note: Images were imported from stories that are linked in this column.

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4 Responses to More to the story than how many clothes you wear

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Another difference, that might effect cycling, is that Portland is not just a city of rivers, but a city of hills as well. Though I’ve been to Indy just a few times, the feel of the two cities is very different!

    • Bob, your comment about hills is correct. The central parts of both cities, however, are not all that different with respect to elevation gain from one part of town to another. I have become accustomed to seeing Portland cyclists riding single gear bikes. One of the surprises on this trip is to see how many of these purist bikes are sprouting up in Indianapolis. Yesterday, there were two at a coffee house a short distance from the house where we are staying. Today, there were two locked to a parking meter in Broad Ripple Village several miles to the north. This kind of bike is becoming so common in both cities I may have to get one of my own in order to feel at home.

  2. Jeff Gill says:

    We have some wonderful rails-to-trails networks in central Ohio, but they are disconnected spiders on the landscape for the most part, offering 20+ mile sections radiating out from a location or county seat, but rarely do these splashes of asphalt link. It’s on the table with our various regional planning commissions, but county/metro park systems are getting such brutal budget cuts that they have trouble keeping up current maintenance, so officials are doubly reluctant to add more miles of responsibility.

    At the same time, we have more people talking about the need to have non-motorized options with a likely upswing getting ever nearer for fuel costs. Add in more and more men losing their licensed to aggressive DUI enforcement, and there’s an interesting convergence of unlikely allies to enhance bicycle access and usage.

    • Jeff, I rode on one of those spiders during my recent swing through Ohio. It was well done. While I am glad to see trails come into the picture, trails also have troublesome aspects. I will likely discuss this other side in my column on Thursday next week. If I lived in Indianapolis, I would probably not use the Monon trail, except for short, easy errands now and then.

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