Reader email (and my reaction): Cornell Rd encounter spurs concerns

Reader email (and my reaction): Cornell Rd encounter spurs concerns

NW Cornell Road as it enters
northwest Portland from the hills.

A reader email we received yesterday struck a nerve because it brought up issues I’ve personally experienced and thought a lot about. The issue is bicycle access and interactions with other vehicle operators on busy roads during rush-hour where there’s no dedicated space for cycling.

The busy road in this case is NW Cornell.

Southwest and northwest Portland are jammed right up against some pretty serious hills on their western sides. These hills are criss-crossed by a number of roads, many of which are popular for both riding bikes and driving cars between downtown Portland and the major cities on the west side. Despite the presence of Highway 26 and Burnside — both of which are major thoroughfares for auto users — many people still drive on roads like NW Cornell, Germantown, and others in order to avoid backups.

Reader Rob A. recently experienced something while driving on Cornell that left a strong, negative impression on him. Here’s what happened, in Rob’s own words (emphases mine):

I drive Cornell every morning about 7 AM from the West side to NW Portland and back again about 4 PM. This can be a stressful drive in early morning rush hour because there are no street lights, the road is narrow with no shoulder, there are numerous blind curves, there is traffic in both directions, and yes, people can be in a bit of a hurry. [Note: Cornell is a relatively steep downhill in this direction.] This drive becomes even more stressful when there is a road bike on the road during rush hour traffic. The problem with Cornell; there is literally no room for slow moving bikes on the road (narrow, no shoulder) and they tend to initiate traffic jams because it is very dangerous trying to pass them with all the blind curves and oncoming traffic.

The other day I was at the end of a line of about 20 cars slowly working their way around this fellow on a very expensive road bike. He was not an urban PDX commuter. He looked very serious with his riding attire, goggle and headgear, expensive road bike, and athletic physique; clearly an alpha physical specimen. As I approached him, there was no one behind me, I slowed and very respectfully (and naively) asked him why he was riding this road at such a dangerous hour; I was curious. Big mistake! He pulled out his earbuds (yes, earbuds!!!) and looked at me. I repeated my question. Then he went non linear and started cursing me in a testosterone fueled, angry rage. I have never had anyone vent that kind of rage at me and it was very unsettling and uncivilized. If words could kill I would be dead. And if he could have climbed in my car it seems he would have attempted to beat me to death. This was obviously one very disturbed cyclist. Perhaps he had a history of these experiences on this road and just blew a fuse; who knows. But it was not my intention to trigger his rage. I decided this was not such a good idea and moved on.

Further down the road as I waited in line while approaching the first stop sign on Lovejoy, I saw this fellow approaching from behind at a very high rate of speed. I figured he wanted to catch up to me and have words; so I lowered my window hoping for a rational exchange. I tend to have faith that most people eventually come to good sense. I felt calm and unafraid as this angry man on a bike approached. Instead he blew by in the narrow corridor between the parked cars and the cars lined up for the stop sign, losing control as he entered the last sharp curve before Lovejoy straightens out. I was sure he was going to crash and be seriously injured; this guy was moving fast. But he managed an ungraceful recovery and complete the turn between parked cars and traffic. I am sure this enraged him even more as he blew through the stop sign and headed east on Lovejoy at a high rate of speed. That was the last I saw of this angry man. Clearly, road rage is not limited to drivers!

I have a message for road bike enthusiast, we don’t hate you; we don’t wish you harm, and we respect your right to ride. I am a rider myself, as is my wife. But your personal choice to put yourself and others (yes, others) in harm’s way on roads like Cornell during rush hour is simply irresponsible and self serving behavior. Please, exercise some common sense and wait until after rush hour to share these dangerous roads with us. In the meantime I am considering using my retirement years to pursue the construction of a safe passage bike corridor over the West Hills. Now that is common sense. Then I would seriously consider riding my bike to work in NW Portland.

Rob’s reaction to this experience is not uncommon. Just this morning, someone I follow on Twitter complained about a “dangerous moron” who was riding on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in morning rush-hour traffic.

Both of these situations exemplify what happens when a lack of adequate bicycle access combines with our basic human instinct to attach a negative reaction to someone we perceive as doing something out-of-the-ordinary or dangerous.

“Dangerous moron on Hwy 99 today. Bikes shouldn’t be on here, right?”
— Tweet from @nigelduara

Cornell is technically classified as a “neighborhood collector” street. It’s not meant as the regional arterial is has become due to people using it to avoid driving on congestion on Highway 26 and Burnside (and there’s actually a serious effort afoot to make it safer for all users). And in the case of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd (OR 99W), some people ride bikes on it because it’s the most direct and convenient way to get north-south in that general area (which is the same reason it’s so popular for driving on).

Is it “irresponsible and self-serving” for someone to ride a bicycle on these roads during certain hours of the day? I don’t think so. And I think you could make an argument that riding a bicycle — given its relatively tiny impact on the streets and other road users — is actually the more responsible and selfless thing to do.

This is also a matter of perspective: Perhaps the reason these roads are busy and “dangerous” is actually because there are so many cars on them. Driving cars in crowded urban areas takes up a lot of room and creates numerous safety and livability issues. If we flipped these scenarios and put bikes where the cars are, and vice-versa, I bet people would see cars as the “problem.”

In both cases, bicycling is completely legal, and for many people, reasonable. Except for freeways, our roads are not meant for only the fastest and largest vehicles.

I also noticed that in both cases, the people driving focused on the bicycle riders’ clothing choices. This is a common thing to do, but what a person is wearing (or what they’re doing, even if it’s someone with an “athletic physique” on a training ride) shouldn’t distract from the discussion.

At the same time, these feelings about the presence and behavior of bicycle riders on certain roads shouldn’t be dismissed or marginalized. They are real and I understand where they come from. As someone familiar with the emotions on both sides, I just want everyone to be aware that there’s always another perspective and that the “other” person is simply trying to get from point A to point B — just like you’re trying to do.

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