Recent incidents of road rage pitting automobile drivers against bicyclists may tarnish Portland’s image as a “bike friendly” city. In truth, these are isolated events and though disturbing, not as common as the news media implies. In fact, when a cyclist attacked a motorist with his bike, it was big news precisely because it had never happened before.
Nevertheless, I think it’s time to shed the “bike friendly” slogan. Portland should aspire to become something more than a happy place of free-spirited pedalers. Our “bike friendly” image conjures up a society in which bicyclists have special privileges and don't have to obey basic traffic rules.
There are plenty of bike anarchists cruising the streets, running red lights, cutting off motorists, flipping birds and giving all other bicyclists a bad name. It seems that city officials are afraid to clamp down on the bike punks lest they appear anti-bike. They have a reputation to uphold best bicycling city in the nation, according to the annual Bicycling magazine ranking, plus plaudits from all over the world.
The problem with this lenient attitude is that it consigns bicycling to a novelty status. It's something young, “creative class” hipsters do, primarily on the easy streets of the inner east side of town. Thus, our bicycling culture becomes a sub-culture. For the most part, this culture is benign. Thousands of people in Portland get around nicely without owning a car. They also tend to shop more locally and connect with their neighborhoods. Of course, they also are doing the right thing environmentally.
The culture, however, tolerates bike outlaws, and these outlaws tend to incite road rage among drivers, which leads to dangerous confrontations. Conflict on the roads scares away potential bicyclists. In a survey last year, an amazing 60 percent of Portland citizens said they would like to bike at least some of the time, but are too afraid of accidents and injuries.
Save Your Head
Current bicycle laws need to be enforced and at least one new law needs to be enacted (and also enforced). As I have pedaled around the town the past several years, I've notice the bikers who flaunt traffic laws are also not likely to wear helmets or have proper lights on the front and back of their bikes. Riding without lights is illegal in Portland, but it's rare that anyone gets busted for it. Bicycles need to have lights so that other vehicles can see what's on the road. It's not only a hazard for cars, but other bicyclists. A couple of evenings in the past year, I narrowly avoided T-boning totally dark bikes that ran stop signs at the same time I entered an intersection. I suspect there have been some pretty serious injuries resulting from bike collisions on the side streets of southeast Portland. Do we have to wait until someone dies?
There is no law that requires adult bicyclists to wear helmets, but there should be. Seattle has such a law. In Oregon, we require motorcyclists to wear helmets and of course, all drivers have to put on their seat belts. Yes, should a bike helmet statute be enacted, a lot of bikers would wail about the jackboots of government trampling on their freedom and others would contend that helmets mess up their hair. The same arguments were made about motorcycle helmet and seatbelt laws. Eventually, people came to realize these laws were in their best interests.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with an emergency room nurse at Emanual Hospital, which is where most inner city accident victims are treated. He told me that of all the fatal bicycle crashes over the past decade, 80 percent of the victims had not worn a bike helmet. That means four out of every five people who died in bike accidents might have lived, had they worn a helmet.
If bicycling is going to become more than a “keep-Portland-weird” experience, the city needs to crack down on the bike-riding scofflaws. It's not that the police aren't ticketing cyclists. For a time, they had a bike speed trap set up at Southeast 23rd Ave. and Salmon St. Salmon is a “bike boulevard,” which allows bikers to travel several blocks without a stop sign. But at 23rd and Salmon, which is at the bottom of a steep hill, there is a four-way stop. Now, anyone who rides a bike knows that you want to keep the bike in motion whenever possible. Coming off that hill, you want to let your momentum carry you another block or two. So the serious biker slows down a the intersection,but doesn't come to a complete stop. And—bingo--gets a ticket.
I've been railing here against bike anarchy, but in this case, I think a chainsaw in the wee hours of the morning could solve the problem at this intersection.
As Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” That intersection, and several others, needs to be changed to clear the way for bikes. General traffic rules governing bicyclists, however, usually have sound reasoning behind them and should be enforced.
Of course, to get really serious about bicycling as a transportation option, City Hall needs to come up with a plan for cycling that involves the entire city, not just downtown, the Pearl, Northwest Portland and the close-in east side. If you live in Irvington or Laurelhurst, you have a plethora of choices: MAX, bike boulevards, bike paths, good bus lines and probably a streetcar in the next decade. If you live in Lents or Parkrose, the options aren't as plentiful.
Although City Hall frequently seems to think the eastern city limits are at the crest of Mt. Tabor, a huge number of people live between 82nd and Gresham. These people have to drive their car to get to work, since there are no other viable options. Oh sure, there are bike lanes on some of the streets, but the streets are wide and the cars move faster than, say, on Belmont, which makes riding a bike considerably more daunting.
Instead of shelling out $150 million over the next decade to extend streetcars throughout the east side (mostly in areas already well-served by Tri-Met and bike paths), the money could be better spent acquiring rights-of-way for segregated biking lanes and improvement of bike boulevards, particularly in outlying neighborhoods.