Traffic civility in Portland’s new era of congestion

Traffic civility in Portland’s new era of congestion

Portland bike traffic-1.jpg

It’s not just Portland’s freeways that are crowded these days.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Please welcome back Sarah Gilbert. She’s written for us in the past about a cargo biking adventure and the psychology of anger.

Crystal was egged one day coming back from a bike tour, her guests trailing behind her on their bicycles. We don’t know why; just, bam, splat. The assailants only got her.

We’re both tour guides for the same company and I heard the story when I got back to the shop that afternoon. It’s busy work, with the tourist industry on the same upswing as everywhere-to-Portland immigration.

gilbertheadshotI didn’t remember about the egging when, a few days later a woman walking on the Hawthorne Bridge path intentionally shoved me off my bike. I was riding next to a tour guest from New York, chatting. I almost knocked my guest off her bike too, into the car traffic. My crime, as far as I can tell: being where she thought I shouldn’t, in that murky middle of the busy biking/walking pathway.

How did we come to this?

Hours later I remembered how these things had happened in succession. It seems at first as if we’ve lost some kind of civility, but maybe that’s not it, maybe it’s somehow the opposite. Certainly there is an unhinging… it’s as if we’ve all got the pieces, the doors and walls and windows, but we’ve lost half our hardware and we’re swinging wild.

I’ve been that way too. And my instinct after I recovered from shock was to run after this woman, hold her accountable. We love that phrase, don’t we? It’s so simple and full of judiciousness. “Accountability.”

Only I have a practice of not holding anger after years of it being directed toward me. I’d had enough of letting that simmer; it’s a force, yes, a powerful one, but I’m not sure how useful it is. Anger is for fighting and my analysis says we need empathy, that winning battles loses everything. War on drugs/war on poverty/war on homelessness and all I see is collateral damage.

I couldn’t chase her anyway, it wasn’t practical, I’d have had to ride my bike the wrong way down the Hawthorne bridge and I had a group of tourists who didn’t know their way back without me. I led them back and thought.

The thing is that I broke her rule. I don’t know exactly what her rule was: something about where bicycles should be. Here, not there; I was probably the nth-plus-one person to do it and I was riding slow and not paying attention to her. Violation, opportunity. She’d been brought to the brink.

This is what happens when people move to a place that has such a reputation for passion and anarchy as Portland. We all come here with our unique contexts and childhood education. I’ve taken drivers tests in Virginia and North Carolina and Oregon but Oregon law is home to me. There might be two dozen home laws on that bridge sidewalk on a Friday afternoon and we’re all pretty sure ours are the most civil.

Is it still civility when we take the law into our own hands? Probably not, but can you blame anyone for doing it? Any mode of transportation can seem dangerous if you’re smaller or slower.

Is it still civility when we take the law into our own hands? Probably not, but can you blame anyone for doing it? Any mode of transportation can seem dangerous if you’re smaller or slower. I’ve seen some runners who put fear in my heart.

I’ve been at the receiving end of a few collisions with bicycle riders while I was walking. I got a lot of apologies and didn’t “hold them accountable” — but fuck it hurt. I get it.

“Have you ever imagined killing anyone?” a close male friend asked another in my presence. “Every day, every day,” came the response.

“Me too…” said the questioner.

“The only thing that holds me back is my rational brain,” said the other, almost ruefully.

I know traffic is causing lots of those fantasies. Traffic is bad and getting worse in every mode. An Oregonian columnist said it has a “chokehold” on our city.

There are intersections that terrify me as a driver, into which I pull with certainty that one day the right distraction will mean I’ll plow into something. I came within inches of running into a family of tourists one day because I saw a coworker on the sidewalk and was wondering what he was doing with that bike trailer. “Hello!!!!” said the mom in the crosswalk with the doughnuts, as I said “sorry sorry sorry sorry” because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It was totally 100% my fault.

Maybe that woman who pushed me off my bike was doing that to me. We jump to blame people of “mental illness” but if she’s afflicted maybe we all are. Is mental illness endlessly pervasive? Or could it be a state to which we slip in and out? Maybe most of the time this woman acts in a rational manner, serving as we all do: judge and jury but not executioner.

We don’t believe (at least not most of the time) in a black and white human state, that there are good and evil people. Yet we mete punishments out this way, both on a judicial level (look at the way convicted felons all but lose citizenship) and a social one (look at local hoteliers accused of funding a Trump event).

As I was working on this piece, I took several groups of tourists to ride the Gorge historic highway. The ride we do isn’t long and is popular with bike riders, but car operators have been getting more and more impatient. It used to be a rare complaint: people laying on their horn behind us (or shouting at us to get off the road). Many of our riders have reported people blasting their car horns to show frustration. And often, passing our riders only to sit in a 45-minute backup for parking at Multnomah Falls less than a half-mile away, (a problem for which I never, ever hear horn blasts).

Video of Historic Columbia River Highway by Ted Timmons shows how congested the Gorge has become.

“Why is this?” a tourist asked me. She was from Manhattan, and had been having a lovely time up until the last mile.

“It’s mid-August,” I replied. “They’re realizing summer is almost over and they’ve barely done half of what they want to do.”

They had now all heard my story about the woman pushing me off my bike; I told them as a way of explaining this sense of angry urgency. “What did you do?” asked the tourist from Manhattan and the older couple from Calgary and the young couple from the Bay Area.

“What could I do?” I replied. “I am just glad to have not been hurt. And now that I know more about what mood we’re in here, I can be more prepared.”

That’s all I have. That’s my only solution. Beyond telling the story I can only just know, how people are feeling, and if I’m lucky, why.

Next time I’m on the bridge I’ll give everyone more space. I’ll save conversation for later. I’ll keep both hands on my handlebars and take a deep breath and watch for the inevitable anger and just hope it doesn’t take anyone else, anyone more vulnerable and less ready, dangerously off guard.

– Sarah Gilbert, @sarahgilbert

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