Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Scenes from a cycling commute

(Updated with Steel Bridge Wikipedia link.)

1. (Rose Quarter, 5:20pm )

I've found a cycling route from work across the Quarter to the Esplanade and Steel Bridge that is safer than most. The Rose Quarter is not the most bike-friendly section of Portland. Lots of car and pedestrian traffic, not as many bike lanes as you might hope, a lot of strangely designed intersections, a steady stream of buses, and the convergence of three MAX lines within a block (train tracks are the cyclist's natural enemy). The return of rain after a couple of weeks of sun means that the pavement's usually wet, too. Add the time of day (dusk) and you've got a recipe for trouble--or at least reason to be especially alert and careful.

At an intersection near the Steel Bridge, I and several other cyclists watched a fellow on a fixed-gear bike shoot past me, as I stood on my bike at the corner, and dart into the crosswalk against the light. When a right-turning car entered the crosswalk at the far side, the fixie did pretty much the only thing he could: He planted his feet, Flintstone-style, and slowed down. The car braked hard, no other car or rider was near enough to be pulled into a chain reaction, and so the fixie was able to swerve around the front of the car, continuing across the intersection and onto the sidewalk.

He glared indignantly back at the driver (who had not-unreasonably assumed she had the right-of-way) and continued to give her the stink-eye as he rode away. This involved turning most of the way around in the saddle, rather than facing the direction he was riding. I suspect the driver was unaware of his continued ire--from the glimpse of her face as she drove away, I imagine she wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there and get home, like the rest of us.

When it was clear no one was hurt, the rest of the cyclists traded grins and wry head-shakes. Getting an attitude toward a driver when you're the one in the wrong takes a little extra balls.

(Fixed gear enthusiasts, don't get on my case about this. I know perfectly well that the problem was not the lack of a hand-brake on the bike, it was that the guy on the bike was a menace--and he'd still be a menace if he were riding a Segway and wrapped in bubble pack.)

2. (Chinatown, north of Burnside, about 5 minutes later)

There was no traffic behind me on Third when I got on it, but as I waited at the light, in the left lane--in the center of the left lane, festooned with safety lights like a used car dealership--cars pulled up behind me and to my right. This situation's always a little tricky, because you don't want the driver behind you to do anything unwise when the light changes.

I have a rear-view mirror clipped to my glasses, so I know the car's there, but I also know that the driver doesn't know I know. So I turn around and let the driver see me noticing him. The more cars and cyclists feel confident they know what the other guy's going to do, the safer everybody is. It leads to a strange little mime ritual. I got the clip-on mirror because I didn't want to have to turn my head around in traffic. But most cars don't see the stamp-sized mirror and wouldn't know to look for it, so I've found that the safest thing for me to do is pretend to look back--to turn my head part-way over my shoulder toward them, so they can see me in at least one-quarter profile, enough for them to understand that I know they're there.

Still with me?

The point is, I think that predictability goes a long way toward getting everyone home in one piece, and probably dampens down some of the simmering cowboy-and-rancher rivalry always present between cars and bikes even in Portland.

Which brings us to the fellow who passed me at the light. Unlike the scrufty-looking fixie and his equally scrufty-looking bike, this guy was on a thousand-dollar ride and tricked out in REI's finest. His head- and tail-light rig probably cost as much as that other guy's fixed-gear. He came zipping down between the two lanes of traffic, timing it so that just as the light turned green he shot between me and the car in the lane to my right and hit the intersection at speed.

There was no cross traffic, so he went on his way without incident. I wondered who the car drivers would remember, who they'd draw their conclusions about downtown riders from: Me, or the guy making up his own lanes as he went.

3. (Third Avenue, south of Burnside, 1 minute later)

Third and Fourth Avenues have been converted, sort of, to the bus mall while Fifth and Sixth are under construction for the next year or so. As I rode in the left lane, a TriMet bus was slightly ahead in the far right lane, with a bike mounted on its front rack.

Except the bike apparently had only one wheel on it. Oh, man, I thought, did some poor guy get his bike stripped while it was on a bus rack in plain sight? At the next light I caught up with the bus and got a better look. It hadn't been stripped. It was a unicycle.

4. (Downtown Beaverton, 35 minutes later)

By now it's dark, and it's started raining hard. Not that nice lyrical misty Oregon rain you get most time--this is the kind with big, cold drops that find every opening like the back of your collar.

Getting from the MAX station to my place involves dealing with a couple of the busiest intersections in Washington County. This is not the fun part. In daylight, on dry pavement, when traffic's less dense, it's not too bad. Beaverton has a lot of cyclists and most people (on both sides of the cultural divide) know how to behave. Make it a cold, rainy rush hour, though, and it's another story. I have a back-way route that gets me most of the way there without being in traffic, but no matter how clever you are, at some point you have to get from the north side of Canyon Road to the south side of Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Last night I went through the big Beaverton Town Center parking lot.

There wasn't much traffic, so I hit one of the through-lanes farthest from any of the store fronts, and I'd only gone about three car-lengths when a white SUV accelerated out from one of the parking lanes, past the end of the traffic island and right in front of me. I saw him a second or two before he saw me, and even on wet pavement we both got stopped in time to do nothing more than scare the living crap out of one another. He lowered his passenger-side window and said "I didn't see you! I'm sorry!" And I knew he didn't and he was--just one more guy out there trying to get home and out of the weather. But at that moment I was cold and wet and the adrenaline was starting to pump (a little too late). No hit, no foul, but no mood to be overly gracious. The guy was sorry (although as a waggish friend said later, we can always put that on your tombstone), so I just nodded and waved him on.

Wonder if he was thinking about it later too, feeling that same adrenaline hangover I was feeling?

Of course, if I'd written this piece in June instead of February, it would be all about coming down through the Zoo and Washington Park at 6:30am, the smell of the damp trees and ferns, trading secretly-knowing nods with the joggers and cyclists headed the other way toward the Sylvan ridge, and that moment where you come out of the park at the lower end and see the sun over Mt. Hood and downtown.

But in February, it's all about the slog, I'm afraid.

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