The following is a B4HPDX volunteer’s reflections on bicycle infrastructure in Portland and does not represent the views of Bikes for Humanity PDX. Rather B4HPDX welcomes conversations about cycling conditions as a means of engaging and empowering commuters, and fostering community around bicycling.
These past few weeks, riding the stretch of Clinton between 12th and 21st, I have been so excited about the new diverters placed at 17th, that I didn’t notice until yesterday that there’s no longer a stop sign for bike traffic. the four-way has become a two-way stop, and cars heading north or south have to wait until the bikes are clear to carry on. But while that’s the beginning of a new era of the Clinton Street Bike Boulevard, that’s the end of the story to be told here. So let’s go back a little.
For anyone regularly commuting on Clinton in the last few years, it surely has felt like a rollercoaster of conditions. Ten years ago, 2 blocks to the north, Division Street was a quiet thoroughfare easily navigable by car. The old Division Line Road—representing the southern boundary of the original square mile plats established south of Section Line Road (now Stark) by the Willamette Stone marker in the West Hills—has an over century-long history of getting folks east and west by privatized non-human power. Clinton Street has an adjacent history which featured the Richmond Streetcar, quiet neighborhood usage, and what would ultimately become the iconic bikeway of SE Portland.
In lieu of the Mt. Hood Freeway or any other late-20th-century form of car-only freeway through Southeast Portland, drivers make their way downtown from the eastern suburbs by way of Powell, Division, Burnside, or heading further north to the east-west freeway that was built through Sullivan’s Gulch. Division and Burnside both have free car storage at the edge of their roads that suddenly become tow-away zones during rush hour. As a long-time volunteer for the IPRC at 10th and Division, I can testify to how frustrating it is for a person to come out of whatever they started doing at 4pm when the street was full of parked, and to find no car at all, least of all theirs. And for those driving east on Burnside in the right lane after rush hour, it can be quite a shock to suddenly find a parked car where you expected to roll on at 35 miles an hour.
Letting folks drive their cars successfully during peak hours on these east-west arterials is obviously a delicate dance. It is built on a combination of state, local, and federal transportation policy, daily habits, and unexpected changes. One such change is the dramatic development along Division. Nothing throws a wrench in the commute of a stream of cars like someone trying to parallel park, a family crossing the street to do some window shopping, or the wait at an internationally recognized restaurant spilling into the street. Sleepy Division has become a destination, for tourists and new arrivals alike, and a model for Hales-era mixed-use density. Blocks that previously housed a dozen or so folks in single-family homes, now hold stories of apartments, letting dozens more live where only a few did before. The old model—gas-powered thruway on Division, people-powered greenway on Clinton—began to flip a little as Division became an affluent pedestrian’s paradise, bike corrals began to replace parking spots, and as cars began to choose Clinton over Division because of ubiquitous construction, parallel-parking tourists, and general living, breathing city hubbub.
However dramatically Clinton has changed as adjacent Division has developed, the changes that have occurred only in the last month, the first of 2016, cannot be understated. I moved out to the end of the Clinton Street Bikeway in the summer of 2013 and rode it nearly every day. However, my 3-9pm job on the west side took me down the hill at a quiet time in the afternoon, and back up it at an even quieter hour. The bike-centric infrastructure at Cesar Chavez made the whole experience even more pleasant as I would trip the signal approaching the light, and wouldn’t even have to decelerate before it would change for me, forcing any cars to turn off Clinton. As my schedule began to change and I would ride at variable times, I could see that not all was well on Clinton after all. One Friday night climbing east it felt like I was in the parking lot of a festival, with doors swinging open, cars 3-point turning and trying to park, and pedestrians crossing the street en masse on their way to experience Portland’s newest destination.
An organization of Southeasterners formed to stand up for bicyclists, residents, and families who had become used to a Clinton without heavy car traffic. The expectation of a greenway is what I often see on Clinton: folks of all ages on the sidewalks, runners comfortable enough to opt to run in the street and give pedestrians wider berth on the sidewalk, bikes fully taking the lane, and the occasional car driving a block or two before opting for a more explicitly car-centric space. However, with construction on Division, new residents, and more visitors, this was decreasingly the reality. There was nothing to prevent a car from driving along Clinton from 38th to 12th, and going 15 miles an hour behind a cyclist may easily be considered more pleasant than stopping and starting that whole way and averaging about the same speed. And so Bike Loud PDX was formed, and their guerrilla diverters installed. Jonathan Maus, founder and editor of BikePortland, received a phone call at 4:33 in the morning saying he should come down to 34th and Clinton and check out an example of direct citizen involvement in neighborhood planning.
By the time he got there, Maus writes, “City of Portland crews were busy removing six large steel drums that had been placed in an arc on SE Clinton. The drums were placed on their sides and they stayed in place thanks to square steel rods welded onto them. A hole was cut into the middle where soil and plants had been placed. Each drum was hand-painted with an array of colorful scenes. One of them had ‘Don’t drive, fly a kite,’ scrawled on the side.”
Around this same time, members of the community looking at that same intersection, wanted to take out a lane on the stretch of 34th connecting Division and Clinton. Nothing seemed to come of those efforts either, and time passed. In the summer of 2015 the mayor started to ride his bike to work, and the first commute started at 26th and Clinton. With his entourage of half a dozen cyclists, Hales was spared any dangerous passes for the 5 block stretch to 21st and the Ladd’s Addition jog to the Hawthorne Bridge, and there the story of a safer Clinton stagnated.
Suddenly stagnation became action as the new year began. Paint lines marking extended curbs began to be cut out of the street, and those marking future diverters at 17th forbade something positive for bike commuters. What was most exciting, especially for Bikes for Humanity volunteers and clients who rely on Clinton to ride from the west, and 34th coming from the north, was what I saw riding down Clinton on January 6th:
Automotive traffic was no longer allowed from Division south to Clinton, and bikes received a prominent sharrow for the ride south. The only complication is at the Division end cars are still allowed to enter the street to access the parking lot at the other end for a drive-in style restaurant turned noodle house, whose entrance you can see here in the foreground:
Look to this BikePortland article for a detailed analysis of this 50-foot stretch before the bikeway takes over. Things got even more exciting as the diverters at 17th were put in, but those at 32nd seemed instead to incite confusion, from bicyclists and drivers alike. When I first saw them on January 11th a group was asking cyclists to sign a giant thank you card to PBOT, which I was happy to do. There was a celebratory feeling in the air in front of the Clinton Street Market on 34th, free cookies, and the David Bowie memorial ride ended there. In the next week, every ride I took past the new “semi diverters” at 32nd, I saw either curious onlookers, confused cyclists, or a car deciding to cut through past the temporary blocks anyhow.
In this last case it seems the infrastructure had turned cars into the scofflaws that bicyclists are notoriously labeled. Had the tables turned? Were these cars politically conscious rule breakers seeking to make a point? Was this a peculiarly American form of civil disobedience fighting for the rights of free mobility in the way that critical mass once flipped the script of automotive dominance?
One could easily argue, no, of course not, but an incident the following weekend would be more instructive. A cyclist was headed down Clinton, headed west from 34th, about to enter the intersection when 34th when it became apparent the car was going to illegally continue east by skirting into the oncoming lane around the barrels of concrete. PJ happens to be a bike activist, “a reluctant loudmouth activist” in his twitter profile, “loudmouth” because what he speaks up for seems ludicrously obvious. “I wish I didn’t have to complain about stuff,” he says, “and I wouldn’t if it weren’t broken. That’s why ‘reluctant.'” With this in mind, and being of a community which has spent years of trying to get functioning diverters in this spot, PJ refused to yield to this car, offering a second chance for it to make the legal choice to turn north or south on 32nd. Its driver refused, creating yet another January stand off in our fine state of Oregon. But unlike two armed groups on two sides of a wildlife refuge, there is a huge imbalance between a bike and a car: one is violent and the other is not. As PJ writes, “until we understand the asymmetry of power in travel modes, we will get nowhere.”
The only statement made by someone driving a car where they are not supposed to is that the safety of others exists beneath convenience, while a bicyclist who rides where they are not “supposed to” makes a point of the danger inherent in urban spaces handed over completely to the car. PJ’s front wheel-to-bumper stand off with this car symbolizes this disconnect between the perceptions of drivers with those who ride exposed next to them, or in this case in front of them. When the driver attempted to communicate by accelerating into PJ, it may have felt like a stern request that he be let through. But to PJ this felt like assault, and very likely would have been legally considered as such had the bystanders been on PJ’s side instead of imploring him to let the driver through. Ultimately, instead of choosing to run over PJ and his bicycle, the driver turned around, another minor victory for Clinton Street Bike Blvd.’s legacy as a viable greenway.
What PJ would liked to have seen instead, he says, was something along the lines of 16th and Tillamook in Northeast, in which a strip of concrete and planters force cars to turn right, with a little strip of raised cycle track that only bikes could fit through. The first example I had seen of this was when I first visited Eugene in the fall of 2004. I was walking with a friend through a park back to their house and encountered this peculiar piece of infrastructure. It was explained to me and my mind was blown. I didn’t even realize we were allowed to cut off car access to certain roads to make more livable spaces, much less actually make it happen. But we can. And I know in a few minutes when I head down Clinton, I won’t have to accelerate into the stop sign at 17th to prevent a car from passing me and stopping suddenly at the intersection. I can ease right through it knowing that some simple infrastructure will prevent the driver from continuing to let a ton of metal and explosions pursue me down the street.