Riding along with Justin Gast from Kenton to Hillsboro

Riding along with Justin Gast from Kenton to Hillsboro

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Justin Gast, illuminated by his bike light,
in front of his home in Kenton.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Welcome to the latest installment in our Ride Along series. I have an exciting announcement: MetroMile is now the presenting sponsor of this column. Thanks guys! Now onto your regularly scheduled programming…

Last week I joined 36-year-old Justin Gast for his 25 mile (one-way) commute into work. Justin lives in Kenton (near Posies Cafe on N. Denver) and he rides to the Washington County Public Services building in downtown Hillsboro where he works in the solid waste recycling division. This was my first Ride Along that went into Washington County and it was also multi-modal. Sit back and join Justin and I on his pre-dawn commute…

“I always say that summer time rewards the year-round commuters for everything they endure.”

Justin gets on his bike at about 5:30 am each morning to make it into work by about 7:30. When I rolled up to his house in north Portland, the only light in the front of his house was the bright red rear blinkie on his Felt road bike. It was hours before sunrise and cloudy skies (and the threat of rain) darkened things even further. Justin told me he rides year-round, and he’s got a mantra to help keep him going: “I always say that summer time rewards the year-round commuters for everything they endure.”

As we rolled south N Fenwick, I noticed the street had recently gotten some bike boulevard treatments like speed bumps and sharrows. Fenwick makes for a nice and calm north-south alternative to N. Interstate, which can be narrow and stressful. But what I quickly realized while riding along with Just is that almost every street in Portland is a neighborhood greenway during the pre-dawn hours. Before 6:00 am, the streets were mostly deserted.

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Once on N Interstate, we rode on a dedicated bike lane as we made our way south to the Broadway Bridge. As we rolled, Justin told me he rides to work for a lot of reasons. Exercise is a big one. His 45-50 mile per day commute gives him the chance to get a good workout without having to go to the gym.

He and his wife used to each have a car; but he sold his back in 2006. “I used to ride around Eugene when I was a UO student,” he shared, “But I got to the point a few years ago where I got sick of driving. I actually sold my graduation gift, a two year old BMW… I sold it for a Diamond Back [bike] and just started riding all the time.”

“When we got rid of our car, I was like, I don’t know why we didn’t do this sooner.”

Now he feels a twinge of delight as he ride over bridges and overpasses and sees the bumper-to-bumper gridlock below. “I look at all that traffic and think, I don’t have to sit in that.”

As we pedaled up onto the Broadway Bridge, Justin explained that he recently changed his route to avoid having to cross NW Broadway from Couch. Back in July he was riding west on NW Couch, when he went through the intersection with Broadway (after stopping) and was sideswiped by someone driving a car. It was a month of recovery and haggling with an insurance company before he was biking again. “It freaked my wife out. She worries about me,” he said.

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Now Justin comes south on Broadway and makes a right onto Couch, to head up into the Pearl near Powell’s. (We were headed to the Goose Hollow MAX stop where we’d catch the train for a lift up to Washington Park.) When I asked Justin why he rides up through northwest Portland instead of continuing on Broadway into downtown. “Streets in the Pearl are cleaner,” he said, “and I get to smell the Pearl Bakery every morning.”

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At Goose Hollow, we had no problem finding space for our bikes on the MAX. It was nearly empty.

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At the top, Justin warned me that there would be a lot of leaves and storm debris in the bike lanes as we headed west, down the hill into Beaverton. He was right.

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It was still dark, and fog had settled in as we approached the Sylvan overpass via the path along Highway 26. Once we crossed over the highway, we found the south side of the path just off of SW Pointer Road. The path is a vital connection for people biking between Portland and Beaverton; but I’m still baffled at why it doesn’t have better signage.

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Eventually we crossed over Highway 217 (oh, the gridlock!) and made our way onto SW Park. Justin tried to warn me it’d be dark; but I had no idea it would be pitch black! Between Cedar Hills Blvd and SW Butner Rd, SW Park has some sections without any streetlights at all. To make matters worse, the lanes are relatively narrow and there’s no dedicated bike space. I’m just glad we both had rear lights.

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About to enter the abyss that is SW Park.

Another issue Justin said he experiences on the west side is the lack of bicycle sensor loops at intersections to trigger traffic signals. He said, if there’s no other traffic around, he’s often forced to dismount and push walk buttons or use crosswalks to get across major intersections.

Once on Cedar Hills Blvd, Justin shared a common west side bike safety trick. Instead of risking our lives on two multi-lane arterials adjacent to big shopping centers, I followed Justin’s wheel into a parking lot to avoid the Cedar Hills/Walker Rd intersection.

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Once onto Walker, we had a bike lane to ride in nearly the entire length of the trip. However, a strip of paint and 4-5 feet of space isn’t very reassuring when you’re on road where people are driving 50 mph. It also makes the quality of the bike lane very important. In other words, if the lane is full of leaves (as shown below at 158th and Jenkins) or has other hazards, it can be scary to enter into the adjacent lane.

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But even with these pitfalls, neither of us ever felt in danger during the ride (of course we’re both experienced and confident riders). As we got closer to downtown Hillsboro, I asked Justin why, besides getting exercise, he doesn’t just hop on the MAX. After all, he could take the train nearly door-to-door (with a transfer). “You get to see the city,” he said, “You don’t get to see a lot of the city going by at 25-30 miles in a car.” (Not to mention the fact that he’d only save about 15-20 minutes by taking MAX.)

As we approached the empty bike rack at the Washington County building, Justin was in great spirits and was ready to tackle his day. “I hope this inspires people and reminds them that it’s possible to ride to work. It’s a great lifestyle. I love it.”

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Thank for letting me tag along Justin. I know I slowed you down a lot!

— The BikePortland Ride Alongs are sponsored by MetroMile which is offering the country’s first true pay per mile car insurance. So if you drive less, you pay less. Check out past Ride Alongs here.

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