For a minute, it seemed like Ted the dump truck driver might be an actor.
Dozens of cyclists laid down in an out-of-the-way stretch of NW Flanders this afternoon and played dead, a symbolic move to let the Oregon Department of Transportation staffers working nearby know the agency's stewardship of Powell Boulevard isn't good enough.
There was classical music playing from a bike speaker somewhere, and the occassional melodramatic outburst from an activist mourning the fake death of his friends. And muttering off to the side of it all—in a goddamn Route 66 baseball cap, and with a bushy grey mustache—was Ted. (He didn't want to give his last name, or have his picture taken, and I was fine with that.)
"How many laws are they breaking?" he asked an ODOT staffer, gesturing to the bike riders covered in fake blood and blocking the roadway. "You're ODOT, right? Don't you control these streets?"
ODOT does not control these streets. Not most of them. But it controls Powell, where a cyclist lost his leg in a brutal accident this weekend, and where hundreds of people—car drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians—have been injured in the last decade. The cyclists gathered today at the coaxing of activist group BikeLoudPDX.They wanted to send a message that the agency's doing a bad job, that—designated US highway or no—human safety should be prioritized above freight and auto movement on Powell.
Ted was incredulous. He'd taken off work just to come down and watch the protest, he said. He'd brought his GoPro camera, and was bearing witness with the TV stations and newspapers.
"I don't like 'em!" he said, of cyclists in general, and bike lanes, and his notions that the small children who'd come to the protest with their parents would one day grow to want to ride bikes on city streets. "Common sense says bicycles and vehicles do not mix. They never have mixed.
"City hall's going to hear about it." he said.
Ted wasn't the only one watching the protest. ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton was there, too, explaining that, in fact, the state has set aside almost $4 million for improvements on a 14-block stretch of Powell (from SE 20th to SE 34th). Those improvements include new stop lights with left-turn signals, better lighting, and removing foliage to improve visibility, and they probably won't begin until 2017.
"All of these changes we're contemplating out there are changes that have been proven to reduce crashes and improve safety," he said. But they're also not likely to make Powell the welcoming street all those dead activists would like (the Bicycle Transportation Alliance said as much today). "Highway 26 is a major road over the mountains," Hamilton said. "It's a very busy corridor."
Taking that corridor off ODOT's hands has been a favorite aspiration of Mayor Charlie Hales, who talks of the city's "orphan highways" and how it makes little sense that Powell's controlled by the state. But there aren't any talks for the city to take over the boulevard, right now. Hales says the city would need more state money to make that happen.
"We're open to talking to anybody," Hamilton said.
Also looking on today: Cops, who stopped by to keep order, but were fine with the protest since it barely blocked car traffic. Sgt. Tony Passadore of Central Precinct—a bike commuter, he stressed—was in the group, and stopped to commiserate with Ted.
"They seem to be saying 'why don't we make it inconvenient for 80 percent of people?," Passadore remarked of cyclists pushing for bike-centric road improvements. Like Ted, he noted: "You see a great deal of breaking the rules." I asked about cars speeding, and Passadore brushed it off, instead explaining that car drivers are easily distracted on busy streets, and that bikes running lights or stop signs is a recipe for disaster.
Passadore said today's action was "great." He took umbrage with cyclists "slow-down" of Powell on Monday, saying bike riders were illegally taking up lanes of the road. "That was dangerous."
Through all these comments, Ted nodded in agreement.
"They don't obey the laws like cars do," he said, before admitting to consistently driving 5 mph above the speed limit. He called the gathered activists: "Portland out of control."
Every single thing the man said was so pat and over the top that, like I say, it seemed for a second like Ted could be an actor making a point about the blind backlash against bicycles in this town (the Route 66 hat didn't help). I'm 99 percent sure that's not the case—that, he really is just a guy with a real passion for "the Mother Road." He's on the streets everyday seeing the too-many cyclists who think nothing of cruising through red lights and he takes a bizarre leap of logic to assume that ALL cyclists break laws, and that ALL cars follow laws Which isn't true. He also seemed certain that riding on the roadway was tantamount to a death wish, which certainly isn't true.
Ted will never be convinced the bicycle is a useful form of transport, or that dumping fake blood on yourself and lying down in the road is potentially a good use of one's time. He's wrong on at least one, and maybe both, of those counts. But he's not the only one of him, either. Building safer roads would be way easier if he were.