Sunday, June 22, 2008

Groovin' ...down a crowded avenue

Doin' anything we want to do (except drive)

I usually take a bike ride through some Portland neighborhoods every Sunday. This Sunday, I was joined by several thousand other cyclists. No, not all my close friends—in fact, I recognized only a handful of people. This was the first Sunday Parkways (aka Ciclovia), sponsored by the City of Portland's transportation department.

They blocked auto traffic on six miles of streets in North Portland, stretching from Failing St. and Mississippi to about Greeley just south of Lombard. Four parks on the route had bands, food booths and information centers. It was a very leisurely and social ride, drawing the typical dawdling Sunday biker. There were so many slow bikes, not to mention pedestrians, that it was nearly impossible to hit double digit speed. I suppose that was the point, but me, I like the feeling of the wind blowing through the holes in my helmet.

While it was a pleasant ride, I don't know if it will do much to induce more people to ride bikes under normal traffic circumstances. After all, riding with the roads all closed off to all cars is a lot different than riding a bike in heavy daytime traffic. It may, however, prompt bike newbies to get out on their bikes on Sundays. If they rode a few miles to get to the closed-off route, they discovered that there is hardly any auto traffic on Sundays anywhere in Portland.

Another benefit of this event was letting people discover Peninsula Park, a real jewel in the city's park system with its rose garden, giant fountain and octagonal bandstand.

It was pretty much like Bridge Pedal without the bridges. And also without the free water bottles. When I started out in the morning, it was gray and overcast, but that quickly burned off and I found myself in need of water. At every park on the route, and several stops in between, there were plenty of coffee vendors, but no one was handing out water bottles. I was saved about halfway through the ride by the wonderful women from Blend coffee house, who had set up a table along the route a block away from their new location at Greeley and Killingsworth. One of the owners, Christie, pulled a big bottle of Crystal Geyser out of an ice bucket an just gave it to me.

The route approached bike gridlock at a few points, notably the three pedestrian bridges riders were forced to cross, where dismounting was required. Two of these crossed I-5 and the other the Going Street freeway to Swan Island. On that one, knowing my way around a bit, I just rode east a couple of blocks to Interstate to get around it. My notion of biking is once on the bike, stay on the bike.

Things observed along the ride:

7 yard sales
1 yard art sale
2 kids' lemonade stands (and one kid entrepreneur selling toys)
1 woman in frilly Victorian dress and hat promoting a historic house
8 t'ai chi practitioners in Peninsula Park
1 free hot dog stand (sponsored by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance)
1 free juggling class
2 unicyclists
Dozens of friendly cops stopping traffic
50 (approximately) dogs in Burley trailers, on bike baskets or trotting alongside
300 (approximately) adult bicyclists setting a bad example by not wearing helmets
0 incidents of road rage

I gather that this was the first of maybe several such Sunday street closure events, though the transportation office's web site doesn't say when the next one will be.

Some suggestions, however:

1.Start it later. The streets were closed off from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eight in the morning is a little early on a Sunday. I haven't even read the Sunday comics by then, let alone had breakfast.
2.Close off a commercial street. Almost the entire six mile course was on quiet residential streets, which are fine for biking on and Sunday—or for that matter, most any other day. They should have run this course right down Mississippi Ave. The throngs of bicyclists would easily make up for the lack of auto-borne customers for most of the businesses. The exception would be the Rebuilding Center, but it is accessible by an alley behind the store. Think of how cosmopolitan it would feel to have a street lined with cafes, pubs and stores, no cars and yet thousands of people streaming through them on foot or on bikes.
3.Follow the “Bike Boulevards” more closely. The North Portland route wandered in and out of the assigned bike boulevards for those neighborhoods, but didn't adhere to any. These safer streets are not well marked or publicized by the city, but they do make daily bike commuting much easier.
4.Rotate through Portland's neighborhoods. I think this first event was meant to introduce citizens to North Portland, which has an undeserved sketchy rep. It also was a really flat ride. But how about Foster/Powell to Woodstock in Southeast? From like 52nd to 72nd on Foster down to Woodstock. That's a bid shorter,so maybe wander over toward Reed College, as well. Another good ride would include Northeast Alberta, Killingsworth down to Fremont and Alameda. Ooh, now we're getting into a ritzy area whose residents might object. Screw 'em. On the other hand, the Lents district, often disparaged as “Felony Flats,” would offer a flat ride in a somewhat outlying neighborhood, and it has a farmer's market on Sundays, too.
5.Finally, if Portland really wants to get serious about increasing bicycling and decreasing cars on the road, the city should plan a car-free zone on a different day of the week. Really, it's so quiet and peaceful on Sundays that one doesn't need an inducement to ride a bike. But, say, Friday afternoon from 2 to 6 p.m., in downtown, now that's when I'd like to see some streets—and at least one bridge--closed to cars.

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