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Monday, May 23, 2011

My last official Portland Bike Fun before the Big Trip

Photo Jonathan Maus/
Sunday was the start of Portland's Sunday Parkways season. Every month through September, the Portland Dept. of Transportation closes a circuit of neighborhood streets to cars for about five hours. Bicycles and pedestrians have the run of the streets, without having to (mostly) worry about automobiles. The whole concept is based on Bogota's Ciclovia and Portland has been doing its version since 2008.

I timed our departure so that April and I could catch at least one Sunday Parkways before our big tour. Even though I haven't been able to attend each one, Sunday Parkways is one of my favorite bicycle events. It's like one of those big organized group rides (a la Bridgepedal, Bike the Drive, and Five Boro Tour) except you don't have to pay for it! And you can come and go as you please. 

The first Sunday Parkways for this year was in "East" Portland, an area of Portland loosely defined as either "east of 82nd Avenue" or "east of I-205" depending on who you ask. Most of this was unincorporated Multnomah County until the last three decades. Former farmland and woods haphazardly developed in the typical post-war fashion. It's got the problems one would associate with its development: lack of sidewalks, disjointed and unpaved streets, not as many services as the urban core. It's not "cool" Portland. The area is seeing increased growth as many low-income residents, priced out of inner Portland due to gentrification, end up in this patchwork of neighborhoods because of the low cost of living.

East Portland happens to be our backyard, so we enjoyed a leisurely morning (probably our last leisurely morning before the trip) and hooked up with the seven mile loop around 1 pm. The crowds weren't as big as other Sunday Parkways I've seen, partially because of crap weather (steely grey and hovering below 60F for most of the event, turning to drizzle for the last hour or so), and partially because of location. East Portland is East Portland. We managed to bump into a lot of folks we knew, including Laura of the Path Less Pedaled. She twisted her ankle on her tour departure day last Sunday so she's convalescing until it's healed (we heard that Tuesday is the new departure date.) Much of the route was along streets I knew, but a good third or so went through areas that even I, Intrepid Portland Explorer, had not yet been through. It was cool to finally have an excuse to check these areas out. My favorite part was the stretch between the Springwater Corridor and SE Powell around SE 128 (on the west side of Powell Butte). This area has managed to retain the semi-rural flavor and look that people wanted when they started to settle this area in the middle part of the 20th Century.

But it wasn't all roses. I saw more cars "mixed" into the stream of bicycles and pedestrians than in previous Parkways. As I said, the route is "supposed" to be closed to auto traffic. The neighborhoods around the route are notified months in advance about what's going on, and if they live on the route are encouraged to not drive for the duration of the event. But while the major intersections on the route are controlled by Portland Police, all the other minor intersections are controlled by volunteers, some volunteers having to control multiple intersections due to the lack of help. There's only so much a volunteer can do when a car driver wants to get through a barricade. Many were ignorant of the event, but there were plenty who just didn't care and were angry with the inconvenience. One of our friends recounted a particularly nasty episode where a woman barged through the intersection in her PT Cruiser, yelling out the window, "I have to go to work! Get out of my fucking way and GET OUT OF MY FUCKING NEIGHBORHOOD!" After the verbal assault she nearly hit one of the volunteers with her car. Yes, the authorities were notified, but I don't know what happened after that.

I know there were people from the neighborhoods on the route who wanted Sunday Parkways to be there, and helped out through volunteering. But I'm willing to bet that there was a higher proportion of neighbors apathetic to hostile to Sunday Parkways than in the neighborhoods to the west of 82nd/I-205. East Portland in the post-war era was settled primarily by people who wanted to be close to the city, but didn't want to deal with "the city", especially the taxes part. Community wasn't as big of a deal as it would be in an inner neighborhood. This is starting to change as people are beginning to fix the problems created by haphazard development, and as the area gets settled my immigrant populations who are more community minded. But that old "Don't Tread on Me and Get Off My Lawn" ethos lingers. In situations like this I can't help but feel like an unwanted outsider. 

And because bicycles are a visible symbol, they are an easy target. This was never more true than during the SE Holgate Boulevard Buffered Bikelane Brouhaha. The stretch of Holgate between I-205 and SE 122nd Ave was four lanes. The city did traffic counts over the years and figured out the four lanes was under capacity most of the time, so they decided to make it two travel lanes in each direction plus a center turn lane. Oh, and they added some buffered bike lanes. When they redid the street in 2009, many of the neighbors, especially some of the business owners, went ballistic. They argued that no one used the bike lanes and the reduction of through travel lanes was killing their businesses. There were many packed neighborhood meetings with flared tempers and shouting. The anger has subsided somewhat, but it's still there, under the surface. Sunday Parkways is an unwelcome reminder to these folks.

Seeing all of this manifest during Sunday Parkways reminds me that love it or hate it, East Portland has been "my neck of the woods" over the last year, even though I live on the far west edge of it. Things need to improve and attitudes aren't going to change overnight. And there are people doing good things out this way, for example the East Portland Action Plan bicycle folks. Even though I'm not that much for advocacy and policy wonkery (I'll leave that stuff to the experts for the most part), I've wanted to attend one of their meetings for a while but never did. Maybe when I get back to town? Though I have no idea where we'll end up when we get back.

In any case, the day was an enjoyable one, problems or no. I look forward to more Sunday Parkways in 2012!

1 comment:

  1. The last ride before any big event in one's life is exciting even if it's a ride one has done a hundred times before.

    The battle you described over bike lanes and rides is echoed here in New York and in many other cities. The problem is that business owners in those less-hip neighborhoods are often more traditional and bourgeois and don't see cycling as a form of transportation. They see it as a form of recreation for the elites, and they resent having to pay for it. Being business people, one would expect them to try to attract cyclists.


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