Why this bicycle rider loves Portland

July 29, 2011


At 6 A.M. on Friday mornings, my bicycle and I slip out of our condo and zip four blocks down Columbia Street to the bike trail that takes us over the Columbia River on the Interstate Bridge. Even at that hour of the day, I always see a few other cyclists during the eight-mile ride down to the Friendly Old Fellows breakfast that our church sponsors.

After breakfast this morning I continued another mile and a half down Broadway, over the Willamette River through downtown Portland, to manhandle tables for Sunday’s barbeque after church and do research at the Multnomah County Library for a book I’m writing. From the restaurant, I headed straight down Broadway, a four-lane arterial into the city with heavy commuting traffic. The challenges are compounded by the fact that the street includes lanes dedicated to left-only and right-only turns and furthermore by newly laid streetcar tracks near the bridge.

Long ago, the City of Portland laid out a bike lane on the right edge of Broadway, a little skimpy in width but adequate. More recently, it has made two “right turn only” lanes for traffic wanting onto Interstate-5. To protect cyclists, there now are traffic signals that are red for motorists and green for cyclists who are going straight ahead on the right side of these two turn lanes. Even with the signals, of course, street-wise cyclists pay close attention to what cars and trucks are doing! A defensively aggressive way of cycling is the only way to move and stay alive.

Close to the Broadway Bridge, with its wide sidewalk for pedestrians and cyclists, another right lane disappears in a “right-turn-only” reduction of street width. Here, however, the bike lane swings over one lane to the left, which positions cyclists for a straight-on approach to the bridge. The street markings tell all concerned, whether on two wheels or four, where everyone else is supposed to be. (A post on bikeportland describes the changed striping and signals.)

This scenario is intensified by the fact that the street runs down hill so that even easy-going cyclists are likely to be bombing down at 20 mph. The traffic signals are there because some of the cross streets are also heavy duty, push-hard-and-fast arterials.

This morning at the spot where the bike lane swings over to the left, a tractor-trailer rig with double trailers, had pulled up just ahead of the newly positioned bike lane, waiting for the light to change. It was slightly out of position, but a rig that big has to compromise a little on street-sized lanes.  I slipped into the lane just in front of him and was blown away by the fact that 25 (I counted them) cyclists all heading into town were lined up, mostly two abreast, waiting for the light to change.

When it turned green, off we went, some at moderate speed, and others ready to move forward much more rapidly when there was room. Most of the cyclists were dressed in streetwise, ordinary clothing rather than dedicated cycling gear (which I was wearing). As is the case with Portland commuters, they were riding a wide range of mounts: now and then a knobby-tired beast, but mostly old road frames that have been outfitted for all-year, all-conditions city cycling. I watched one young woman in bright blue short shorts, who rode faster than I could go, with absolute confidence signal a left turn and deftly work her way across the South Broadway traffic so that she could make a left turn into a cross-street two blocks past the end of the bridge.

The two dozen cyclists quickly thinned out as we made our turns to various destinations downtown (and because we rode at different speeds). By the time I reached my destination (a mile through town at the corner of Broadway and Portland’s Columbia Street), I was the only one left.

Have I mentioned the fact that today is the 29th of July and in Portland at 8:00 A.M. it was sunny and 60, going up to a high of 80? Low humidity and even lower pollution index.

Maybe there are other North American cities where people can ride like this in this kind of Garden of Eden weather. But Portland is the only one where I’ve experienced it. Mad cyclist that I am, I sure do love this wonderful place!

The images were taken at the west end of the Broadway Bridge earlier in the summer. On this occasion, we were queuing up because the drawbridge was open to allow ships to pass through.