The 20's: A Bikeway that Isn’t, through Two Vulnerable Pairs of Eyes
by Terry Dublinski-Milton
BikeLoudPDX is proud to reveal a first-person preview of the 20's Bikeway as the soon-to-be-built route is currently proposed. This short story represents one more attempt by cycling advocates to highlight how PBOT has diluted and altered this crucial north-south connector to the point where the target demographic, "interested but concerned" riders, may not even utilize the multi-million dollar project. Grab your imaginary helmets as we pretend to be two 12-year-old girls cycling the newly-constructed 20's Bikeway for the first time.
Author Terry Dublinski-Milton would like to thank Michael Anderson, Jessica Engelman, and Soren Impey for assistance with editing.
This month the 20's Bikeway will go out to bid by PBOT with a design that is not “significantly different than the 60% design.” After over a year of activism to improve this design by myself and others, few changes have been made. Although PBOT will tout the 20's Bikeway as a modern north-south bike route that “lives up to NACTO design standards,” it is actually a pedestrian and secondarily an auto capacity project that has been labeled as a bikeway in order to meet Federal grant requirements. It is not a bikeway, but rather a series of pedestrian improvements connected by sharrows. Sharrows alone do not make a bikeway.
From the onset, the 20's Bikeway as originally envisioned has been repeatedly crippled by a series of PBOT decisions that prioritized every other transit mode along the route at the expense of cycling. Although each aspect of this bikeway may meet city guidelines quantitatively, human psychology dictates that the qualitative aspects of the route will undoubtedly undermine its success as the kind of safe and comfortable cycling route PBOT itself has contended we need in order to reach our climate and mode share goals.
To illustrate this point let us pretend to be a pair of middle school friends that live near Columbia Boulevard in Concordia, two girls named Mary and Jane. They are twelve years old and are considering cycling to high school together next fall, so in preparation they decide to spend a day exploring inner Portland together via bicycle. Having never cycled outside of their neighborhood (except on Sunday Parkways), their parents request that they stick to city-designated bike routes. After consulting a map, Mary and Jane decide to take a ride down the new 20's Bikeway and spend the afternoon at Oaks Bottom.
Why did I pick these names? PBOT's own bicycle coordinator, Roger Geller, has stated that our bikeways should be designed so “two 12-year-old girls can ride side by side,” so let’s imagine what kind of experience two such girls might have on the 20's Bikeway as currently proposed.
Mary and Jane start their ride in the morning, with lunches packed and the winding 20's route memorized (they hope). They begin by cycling along the quiet streets of their neighborhood until they reach the 20's Bikeway. They feel a little intimidated at sharing a roadway with a bus line, so they are careful to wait until after the bus passes by. Initially, they are comfortable as the bike route along NE Holman and then 32nd south allow them ride at a relaxed pace. The new green cross-bike striping across NE Ainsworth makes the intersection feel safer on bike, even if the wide median island allows for bike and car crossings simultaneously. After Ainsworth the girls begin the long steady ride up the hill, gasping in the crisp morning air, but their slow trek uphill becomes increasingly uneasy as pickup trucks bypass the long waits at the traffic lights on 33rd to zoom down the hill. Although the speed bumps limit some auto speeds, the girls quickly learn that when they see a truck coming down the hill it will bully them to the side of the roadway.
After a few such experiences, Mary screams, “God, those stupid truck drivers! Pull over to the curb whenever you see one coming.” Jane replies, “seriously. At least it’s not raining today; there’s no way we could see them then.”
As they cross NE Killingsworth, Alberta, and then Prescott, the girls quickly realize that while the new curb extensions make street crossings easier for pedestrians, the girls need to pay extra attention at these intersections to watch for cars turning onto the greenway.
After Prescott Jane says, “according to the bike map, the route should be switching roads soon, although not soon enough. I'm so sick of having to pull over for cars to pass!”
As they turn onto NE Regents Dr, the houses increase in size and the friends notice pedaling has become easier as they reach the crest of Alameda Ridge. Jane smiles, “we must be at the top! Hold on, I think it’ll get really steep soon.”
Sure enough a steep slope opens up before them, and they speed around the curve when a bus suddenly appears, this time at a stop sign. The girls see that the driver sees them so they continue to follow the sharrows. Since they do not have separated space Mary and Jane take the lane, like they have been taught through the Safe Routes to School program, but they can hear the loud mechanical roar of the bus behind them, like some monster. Concentrating on the roadway Mary and Jane are unable to focus on their surroundings, so they are surprised when they are dumped off at a huge swath of blacktop at the bottom of the ridge and think… where are we?
After pulling over and taking a few seconds to assess their situation Mary points… there’s the route! They look around for oncoming traffic (the bus has since passed) then jump into the sea of blacktop and continue south on NE 26th, thinking all the time, “I am glad someone maintained the brakes on that bus!”
Heading south on 26th Jane comments on how pleasant the ride is now that the buses and morning traffic are gone. The girls get caught up in chatting and are now riding confidently down the middle of the lane. They are startled when, upon approaching NE Knott St, a car takes a left turn onto 26th too sharply and suddenly appears directly in front of them! Crossing Broadway was uneventful, once Mary figured out how the new traffic signal was activated. After crossing Jane stops, rummages through her pack and realizes she forgot her cap.
“Shoot, it’s supposed to be really sunny this afternoon, and I don’t want to spend the rest of the day squinting. Do you mind if we stop off at the mall real quick?”
Mary does not mind, so the girls head south to NE Multnomah St. A quick search on Google Maps indicates that a bike lane would take them straight to Lloyd Center Mall. Though never having ridden this route before, both girls had seen the new protected bike lane while riding the bus on a previous trip to the mall. Heading west, Mary grumbles that the bike lane butts up close to parked cars for the first few blocks. Mary does not like riding next to the car doors (her mother had given her an earful about not getting “doored” while riding around town today), but once they got west of NE 16th they could ride next to each other again. After a successful shopping trip, Mary and Jane ponder over the fold-up bike map they had brought along, then see that the waterfront path runs right near the amusement park! Off they go, idly chatting as they ride side by side in the protected lane.
After crossing NE MLK Blvd Mary yells out, “going downhill here is awesome! We’re traveling so fast and nobody is gonna run us over!”
They both had been to the Rose Quarter MAX Station before, so navigating through feels like a line dance… just follow the green path through the sea of people and cars. Once they see the Steel Bridge and the day’s first glance of the Willamette, they feel a definite sense of accomplishment. Compared with contending with city streets, the Eastbank Esplanade feels downright leisurely, and Mary tells Jane she can finally sit back and properly take in the sights for the first time today. They admire the view of downtown, Tilikum Crossing, and the wildlife refuge, prompting Jane to giggle, “I can’t believe we’re so close to downtown; look at all this open space! I love living in Portland.” The girls enjoy a classic grand old time at Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, filled with rides and carnival food. After a few hours, Jane remembers her father’s requirement that they be home before dark, and suggests they head back to the 20's Bikeway and go home. Mary replies, “that’s fine, but I’m still a bit queasy from all that carnival food and the many snacks we brought along. The 20's Bikeway swings by this awesome food cart pod called Tidbit, let’s go have some real food there!”
Mary’s cousin lives in Milwaukie and together they had ridden the Springwater many times as a family, so Mary led Jane through Sellwood until they met up with the multi-use path again. The ride south and then east was pretty uneventful as they passed and up and over Johnson Creek, SE McLoughlin Blvd, and the train tracks. Once it was time to ride back into the neighborhoods, the girls looked up and pondered, "we’re supposed to ride up that?” The 37th access trail-head, as many of us know, is a little steep, so Mary and Jane opt to dismount their bikes and walk them uphill, just to find themselves on a gravel road. Jane pulls out the map, and points out that they will be turning onto SE Crystal Springs Blvd soon. After a couple of blocks of bumping and skidding around potholes (“it’s like slalom skiing!” Jane giggles) they see the pavement and both are relieved to return to smooth streets.
Turning west, Jane shouts to Mary, “look out, we’re back in car country! We need to be careful until we turn right on 32nd.”
Crystal Springs Blvd hosts more than 2000 cars per day, and now the evening commuters are speeding through the neighborhood. Our poor protagonists have found their supposedly comfortable bike ride thwarted yet again by cut-through traffic!
After heading north on SE 32nd, Jane and Mary start feeling comfortable again on the quiet street. Jane comments that this has been by far their longest ride together as friends, and Mary is about to reply when she starts, "what, another bus!?” The girls pull over to let this afternoon bus pass and they look at each other blankly. While this isn’t the first bus they’ve encountered on the 20's Bikeway, they wonder who would think it appropriate to put a bus line and a bike route on together on such a narrow street without so much as speed bumps. They begin to feel stressed again as each quietly wonders what SE Woodstock will look like.
After carefully crossing Woodstock, Jane comments, “this isn’t so bad, at least there is a wide bike lane here.”
Mary responds, "plus, we don’t have to ride next to parked cars! Why aren’t all bike lanes like this?”
“I don’t know, but we should stick to single file if it narrows again,” Jane advises. Sure enough, as they approach the stop sign and round the bend, single file is the best that they can muster. Hugging the curb as much as possible, they follow the bike lane as it shifts to accommodate on-street parking. As they approach Holgate Mary grumbles about losing the bike lane buffer. Jane glances toward the sidewalk and sees a bus stop. “Oh look, another bus route,” she sighs. Well, at least our adventurers do not run into one this time.
As they continue riding north on SE 28th, Mary quips, "hey Jane, we should remember not to take this route south in the afternoon. Look at all those cars coming from downtown!”
Upon approaching SE Powell Blvd they are relieved to see a full traffic light at the intersection with the state highway. Jane looks around, then points, “look, Mary, there’s Cleveland High School! My friends Bill and Ted go there; they live just south of here near Kenilworth Park.”
Mary is starting to get tired, today’s bike ride has been more stressful than she anticipated, and snaps back, “well maybe they can come and visit us up in Concordia some time, but I’m certainly not coming all the way down here again anytime soon. Are we near the food carts yet?” Jane double-checks the map, and assures her they were nearly there. Mary continues to grumble all the way up and over the hill at SE Woodward, “why does it seem like bike routes always follow the steepest streets?” until they reach the food cart pod, conveniently stationed just off the greenway.
Mary and Jane have a great dinner and both are feeling more enthused and ready to start off again, but they worry about how long it will take them to get home. As it’s evening, they also worry about more encounters with impatient drivers rushing home after a long day at work.
Concerned about how stressful the trip has been so far, Jane suggests trying to take a bus the rest of the way home, but Mary stubbornly tells her friend she wants to try and finish their trip solely by bike, so the girls hop back on their bikes and continue north on 28th Pl. The climb from SE Division is bumpy due to worn pavement as they approach the grocery store on SE Hawthorne Blvd. The friends time and again are passed by drivers speeding through the neighborhood. Maybe these drivers have figured out that if they follow the sharrows they can get through the neighborhood without stop signs? As the girls take SE 29th up past Hawthorne, then down to Belmont, then back up to Stark, Jane wonders aloud, between heavy breaths, if there isn’t a faster, flatter route nearby they could have taken instead.
As they approach SE Stark the sharrows dictate that they should turn right then left, “but that means the only thing protecting us against on-coming traffic coming up to this traffic light is some paint and plastic? We should have just taken the bus after all!” Mary yells.
Jane looks around then replies, exasperated, "at least from here we can go uphill on 30th without being followed. Look, this is a ‘right turn only’ intersection for cars!” Thus they thanked the city for small favors.
The girls continue their uphill ride north to E Burnside, where they again come to an oddly configured off-set intersection. Luckily there is another traffic light, but both worry about cars following them up 30th as this time there is nothing physically blocking them from turning onto the road, plus what if some drunk driver comes whipping down the hill?
After NE Glisan they stop at Oregon Park to rest and quickly text their parents an ETA. They realize that they’ve entered back into the “NE” street grid, and that once they get across the freeway they will be back in familiar territory. Turning west they approach NE 28th and are relieved to see a wide, north-bound bike lane for crossing Sandy, but then… what is with all those green markings up ahead? They see a green bike box and a cross-bike, but does that mean they’re supposed to turn here, or there?
Mary and Jane glance at each other confused as neither is really sure why there are two northbound bike lanes on this overpass. They decide to wait in the bike box until the intersection clears, then follow the cross-bike to the contraflow bike lane on the west side of the overpass. They feel uneasy riding in the contraflow lane; it seems like a stream of cars is rushing toward them with only paint and flimsy plastic wands separating the girls from the cars. Jane, who’s taking the lead, realizes with delight that they have chosen the correct northbound bike lane for crossing into the neighborhood and following the bike route to NE 26th. With a sigh of relief they realize they have been here before. They’re on the home stretch, now to get back over Alameda Ridge.
Remembering the route from their morning ride, the crossing at NE Broadway did not take them by surprise this time. Nervous about the coming climb up the ridge, the girls unintentionally slow as they approach the bottom of the hill on NE Regents Dr, with its six-foot bike lane squeezed between a sparsely populated row of parked cars, and they wonder how often buses and cars lazily drift into the bike lane as they speed around the blind curve. Plus what if someone inside one of those parked cars were to suddenly open the driver-side door in front of them while they struggled up the hill, would they notice in time or be too focused on just making it to the top? Jane wonders aloud if they shouldn’t try and take a different route this time, but Mary is starting to get tried and irritable again and doesn’t want to wander through the neighborhood searching for a detour, so they opt to walk their bikes on the sidewalk up to the top.
After conquering Alameda Ridge they wearily get back on their bikes. Once they cross NE Prescott Mary and Jane can sense how close home is and they pick up speed. After several blocks of speed bumps, Jane comments, “no wonder my mother complains that cycling up 32nd with groceries or my little brother riding in the back is delicate work; these big bumps aren’t too bad when we drive on this road, but they really jostle you on a bike!”
A few blocks later, Jane waves goodbye as she turns toward her house and Mary continues straight up NE 27th and pulls into her driveway. She puts the bike in the garage and trudges into the living room. Mary's mother greets her and asks, “how was your day? Did you have fun?”
“Oh we definitely had fun, but maybe we shouldn’t have tried to bike there. We followed the bike map, but still ran into so many hills, and way too many cars. Most parts were okay, but some parts were downright scary.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Pumpkin. Are you still thinking of cycling to Grant High School this fall?”
Having followed Mary and Jane’s trip along the 20's Bikeway, how do you think Mary answered?
The 20's Bikeway is up for bid, but it hasn’t been built yet. Do you want to make this route safer and more comfortable for the real Marys and Janes in Portland? Stay tuned for a follow-up editorial outlining the changes that could make the 20's Bikeway a route that’s 12-year-old-approved!