Author Archive | rgeller

Ride Like a Mensch

Yesterday, I was riding along a local street, cruising a downhill section and approaching an intersection with all-way stop signs. Already at the intersection was a car stopped at the cross street. There seemed to be a family inside-two kids, mom and dad, with grandma in the back seat. Arriving at the intersection I came to a complete and legal stop, even putting my foot down to indicate that this family clearly had the right of way and could proceed, which is what the Dad, sitting in the driver’s seat, did. As they passed slowly through the intersection, the grandmother gave me a warm, beaming smile, full of appreciation. I swear, it looked like the woman was actually proud of me, and clearly very pleased, that I came to a complete stop. Her look was pure grandmother; you know, the way your grandmother looks at you after you’ve done something particularly clever, or behaved like a mensch (in Yiddish, a person who is good to other people, a nice person). From her and her family’s reactions it was obvious that nobody in the car expected me to stop.

Contrast that to a more typical scenario that is all too talked about and common. Perhaps this will sound familiar:

Cyclist approaching a 4-way stop where a motorist is also stopped. Cyclist completely blows stop sign, somewhat shocking and slightly angering motorist who was just about to pull into the intersection. In pique, motorist taps horn as if to say “What’s up with that!”, which is essentially the equivalent of a cyclist yelling “Yo!” when faced with similarly obtuse behavior by motorist. Cyclist turns and stereotypically responds in expected fashion, angering motorist more. And so it goes.

I’d like to suggest that we individual cyclists consider trying more to elicit the grandmotherly smiles than the reproachful honks. And I even have one suggestion about how to do that:

Ride with utmost courtesy at all times.

Here’s a few simple ways to do that:

  • always yield to pedestrians
  • come to a complete and legal stop at all stop signs whenever anybody else is at, or approaching the intersection.
  • Do not run red lights, ever.
  • Be pleasant at all times.

I challenge all who are reading this to ride for one day as above. It would helpful to be able to talk to Portland citizens without first addressing our reputation as law-breaking, righteous, anti-social, and scary. It’s time to turn the conversation to something else. What do you think? Can you do it? Just try it for a day and see how it feels.

The Two C’s of Cycling

A constant issue and challenge in Portland is improving roadway conditions to make bicycling safer. I believe experienced — and even moderately skilled cyclists — could, through our own behaviors and over time, dramatically improve the traffic safety of city streets. We can do this, in part, by changing motorist’s and cyclist’s expectations of how cyclists behave on the streets, and how we should be treated. As individuals, we can help accomplish this by riding with Courtesy and Confidence, as outlined below. The goals of purposefully riding courteously and confidently is to win allies and educate road users.

My basic rules for riding courteously and confidently are:

1. Always yield to pedestrians.
2. Ring a bell when approaching to pass either another cyclist or a pedestrian.
3. Be pleasant to others (corollary: Don’t behave like a confrontational, righteous jerk).
4. Never run a red light.

1. Know and follow traffic laws, as they are your ally.
2. Take the lane when conditions merit.
3. Don’t rush.
4. Come to a complete and legal stop at stop signs whenever anybody else is present at the intersection.

The intent of riding with courtesy is to win allies, or at least not alienate more motorists and pedestrians. People walking are often startled — even frightened by cyclists behaving in a manner that appears reckless. A cyclist challenging a pedestrian for space on a shared path, riding aggressively on a sidewalk, or simply passing a pedestrian without an audible warning (“on your left” just doesn’t cut it — you need a bell) is frightening to many pedestrians. Anger develops from fright; every time this type of interaction plays out, one more person has one more reason to not want to promote increased bicycling in Portland. The same is true for rude our illegal interactions with motorists. Performing a risky maneuver on the street, and then responding to a honked horn with the universal salute is not a way to win support from people in cars. From my professional experience, I can assure you that such interactions create lasting negative impressions that make people less likely to support increased funding for expanding bicycling in Portland. Similarly, running red lights simply angers people who believe everybody should play by the rules — it’s like a slap in the face for many. Ironically, running reds rarely gains cyclists any significant time advantage over cyclists who stop for them.

The intent of riding with confidence is to educate road users by creating for them an expectation of appropriate and safe behavior. Knowing the law helps cyclists to ride confidently. State traffic law allows cyclists to not ride far to the right of a street when the travel lane is too narrow for safe side-by-side travel by a motor vehicle and a bicycle (ORS 814.430.c). One can argue that any travel lane narrower than 14′ is too narrow for such side-by-side travel, and very few lanes in Portland are that wide. Only when there is one lane in the direction of travel does a cyclist (“slow moving vehicle”) have to pull over for a faster motorist (“overtaking vehicle”). If there is more than one lane in the direction of travel, then a cyclist does not need to pull over at all (ORS 811.425). Riding in this manner sets an expectation that motorists cannot pass when conditions are not safe to do so, that indeed they will often have to drive slower in the presence of a cyclist. Importantly, when riding like this, or at any time, there is no requirement to ride fast. Many cannot ride fast. Motorists need to understand and expect this. [As do cyclists — fast and aggressive riders on some well-used Portland paths are creating unsafe and unpleasant conditions for other cyclists, not to mention pedestrians.] Such behaviors can be a powerful tool for riding safely and educating all road users; knowing the law and how it supports this is crucial.

Similarly, a cyclist coming to a complete and legal stop at a stop sign when any other road user is present in the intersection can have a powerful educational effect, especially when the cyclist is being followed by an automobile. Most people sorely need to be taught how to come to a legal stop. Since cars are so potentially injurious to others it is especially important that motorists stop. A cyclist coming to a complete stop both encourages and requires that motorists also come to a complete stop.

These are simple ideas and actions, but creating both positive impressions and consistent expectations can be transformative if they occur widely and frequently. Individual cyclists who behave well, legally, and confidently have the potential to educate a wide swath of Portland’s citizens as to what is expected and appropriate behavior when driving and bicycling.

I’d like to more fully flesh out these ideas and hear if there’s any agreement that they’re worth pursuing.

A Tale of Two [Bicycling] Cities

Over the past 15 years Portland has been very successful in building its bikeway network, installing bicycle parking, and running promotional programs in support of bicycling. The results have been dramatic as increasing bicycle use has correlated nicely with the growth of the network and has demonstrated the success of the “build it and they will come”
approach. However, a comparison of 1990 and 2000 US Census data shows that bicycling in Portland is really a tale of two cities. In the inner city, in an approximately 4 mile radius from the Burnside Bridge, bicycle commuting in 2000 increased dramatically compared to what it was in 1990. But beyond that 4-mile radius bicycle commute rates have remained essentially flat over those 10 years.

I believe the primary reason for this has to do with the shorter trip distances in this inner ring to the City’s main employment centers. But, I suspect there are other reasons that have to do with differences in the structure of the roadway network and the transportation system. In inner NE, SE, N, and NW the roads are in a grid network. Cyclists of different levels can choose whether to ride an arterial street with a bicycle lane, or a quieter local street (whether it’s been developed as a bicycle boulevard or not), or even on one of the newer off-street paths that have proved so popular. In outer Portland the grid is not so fine-grained. The only through streets tend to be arterials, and these outer arterials have more lanes, higher traffic volumes and higher speeds than those in the inner city. While they are also striped with bicycle lanes, the bicycle lanes tend to be narrower than what we’d like to see on roads with such volumes and speeds, because that was all that would fit. This creates a riding environment in outer Portland that, while fine for an experienced rider who doesn’t mind the traffic, is not very inviting to newer cyclists.

The question this poses then is where and how do we focus our limited resources in the City to increase bicycling rates? While bicycle use in the inner city has more than tripled over the past decade, there is still immense room for progress. Given the short trip distances and maturity of the network, the inner city is ripe for continuing dramatic increases in bicycle use with continuing refinement of the network and promotion. On the other hand, there is much we could do to promote bicycling in outer Portland. One effort could focus on decreasing bicycling trip distances by emphasizing the bike-light rail link (for example, by providing better bicycle access and parking at existing and planned light rail stations).

Answering this question of where and how to focus, and developing (and funding) the strategies in support of those answers will help define how and where bicycling continues to develop in Portland.