When you think about going for a drive, do you ever choose your route based on avoiding dangerous and high-stress intersections? I doubt it. The sad truth is that for many people who bike in this city, route selection is almost entirely based on that criterion. Northeast Portland resident Julie Kramer is one of those people.
Julie, 41, works as a sales and purchasing manager at one of Portland’s most successful bike shops, Sellwood Cycle Repair. She’s lived in Portland since 2008 and was carfree until last fall (she and her partner bought a car so they could get to mountain bike trails, take trips to the coast, go camping, and so on). Julie lives just a few blocks south of Irving Park in northeast and her work is about 6-7 miles due south. As you can tell by her bike and attire, she’s an experienced rider.
When it was time to head to work, we rolled south from her place near NE 10th and Brazee toward the Lloyd District. The Lloyd area is well-known as a frustrating barrier in the bike network. The mall and its parking structure break much of the area’s connectivity and until recently there were very few quality bikeways in any direction. Thankfully, recent improvements on NE Multnomah (east-west) and NE 7th (north-south) have made things a bit better.
About riding through the Lloyd each day, Julie seemed more annoyed than concerned for her safety. “There are lots of stops. I find it a little bit frustrating.”
As we rolled down 9th (which has no dedicated bikeway) near the Lloyd Center Tower building, Julie pointed out her least favorite thing about riding through the Lloyd: “Breathing all the smoke from people on their smoke breaks!” While that’s no fun, Julie also mentioned all the awesome sights and smells of her commute — coffee being roasted, beer being brewed, deer on the Springwater — that more than make up for it.
From 9th we made our way onto the NE 12th Ave overcrossing, which has received recent bike access improvements. Being an experienced rider, the new sharrows and other changes haven’t impacted Julie too much. “I’m a pretty confident rider, I’ve been doing this a long time,” she said, and then added, “But there are still places where I get nervous, where I get pinched or squeezed. And if I feel that way, I figure new riders must be terrified.”
Making our way south on 12th, she pointed out how busy Benson High can get during morning drop-off and evening pick-up. Then we were at the hectic Burnside/Sandy/12th intersection. Julie said she’s tried all sorts of routes in this area. “I used to go down 11th and it was pretty contentious. Too many people [in cars] were not too happy with me being there.”
These days she’s opting for 7th Ave, the main north-south thoroughfare in the central eastside. It’s got a dedicated bike lane, but it’s only 4-5 feet wide. With a crowded parking lane, some big intersections and lots of cross-streets, it’s far from low-stress.
“You have to stay pretty vigilant through here,” Julie said as we rode across Morrison, “Especially when people park right up the corner it’s hard to see cross-traffic. I had altercation with a guy who was blocking the bike lane while waiting for coffee at Hot Bikini Brew (a drive-up coffee joint seen (in pink) below). He didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.”
SE 7th ends at Division, where we had to start sharing the lane before crossing railroad tracks onto 8th. With a long line of cars backed up at Powell, Julie showed me her trick for getting over to the Powell bike/walk overcrossing. She skirted left mid-block on 9th and got on the sidewalk. We went left on SE Woodward and continued on the sidewalk all the way to the overcrossing. It was a sweet little route, but it underscores the lack of safe bikeway connections in this area.
Up onto the Powell overcrossing, we enjoyed the painted mural on the walls and made our way down to the calm residential section of 9th south of Powell. Milwaukie (one block east) is the main thoroughfare in this area, but it’s no fun for bikes. “For a while I was using Milwaukie,” Julie shared, “But it’s horrible. There’s no bike lane.”
SE 9th was nice and quiet; but we ultimately had to leave it and hop on Milwaukie for a few blocks to take advantage of the signalized crossing over SE Holgate. As we neared Oaks Bottom park, Julie pointed out the tricky Hwy 99E offramp that merges onto Milwaukie. “They kind of look, if they see you in their rear-view mirror.” Julie said, referring to people exiting the freeway.
Riding on the bluff above the Willamette with Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge below us, we were treated to gorgeous views. But our eyes quickly turned back to the road when cars parked along Milwaukie forced us into the lane which we shared with (relatively) fast-moving cars and buses.
Finally off Milwaukie, we pedaled into quiet residential Sellwood neighborhoods on SE 15th. Continuing south, Julie pointed out a long stretch of uncontrolled intersections (no stop signs in any direction). She said these can be a bit unnerving and she’s called the City to ask about them. Thankfully, there is usually very little cross-traffic; but I can relate to her concerns.
As we made our way onto SE 14th, we rode by a beautiful grove of trees behind the Portland Memorial Funeral Home) and enjoyed views of Oaks Bottom. I’d never ridden on 14th, so the trees and the view were a pleasant surprise.
Julie’s work is on Sellwood’s main drag – SE 13th. While in some ways it’s a quaint main street, it’s also busy and it has no dedicated bike space. “When we send people out on test rides,” Julie shared, “We tell them to never ride on 13th. We send them back into the neighborhoods.” I found it unfortunate that this shop-lined main street wasn’t more welcoming.
Overall, I enjoyed Julie’s company and was happy to discover new routes. But I have to say, most of Julie’s commute is pretty substandard in terms of bikeway quality and connectivity. One of Portland’s Achilles heels is a major lack of north-south bikeways from inner northeast to southeast. While she takes the Springwater/Esplanade path sometimes, it’s not very direct. Julie has figured out a route that works for her; but it’s hardly the type of experience that would encourage people to give cycling a try. When someone’s bike route to work is based almost completely on avoiding high-stress and dangerous intersections, that’s a problem.
Julie says she’s looking forward to having the option of riding on the new Portland-Milwaukie light rail line (opening in 2015), but for now she’ll continue her circuitous, somewhat disjointed daily ride.
Thanks for letting me tag along Julie!