ANYONE CLINGING to the notion that Portland's bike activism is in a rut should look back at the past three months.
In March, hundreds of mountain bikers amassed at parks in the West Hills. In front of TV cameras and print reporters, they vilified a city hall that they said has repeatedly vilified their sport. The outcry led to rushed action from Mayor Charlie Hales.
Less than two months later, dozens of cyclists converged on a dangerous section of SE Powell, slowing traffic to a crawl during a Monday rush hour to draw attention to the many injury crashes that occur along the state-managed corridor. "I think just the threat that the bike community can shut down the city at any time is well known now," one activist wrote after the protest.
And for the past two weeks, a series of makeshift planters and flower-strewn cones has cleaved off one of Naito Parkway's northbound auto lanes, transforming one of downtown's fastest roads into a convenient bike and pedestrian route around the crushed floral hell of the Rose Festival's CityFair on the waterfront.
This is all new! Just a year ago, the Mercury dedicated its annual Bike Issue to the premise that Portland's nationally vaunted bike culture had let some of the air out ["Slow Leak," Feature, June 4, 2014]. "If Portland wants to reach its potential," we wrote at the time, "Portlanders may have to get mad."
They have gotten mad—and also thoughtful, and sticky with fake blood. In the last year, three significant new movements have sprung up, dedicated—in whole or in part—to improving the city's bike life.
Before we get to them, though, a quick note about this year's Bike Issue.
While it's true that Portland's bike scene has reached a moment of worried self-reflection, it would be a grave mistake to think this isn't still—as the downtown mural once said—"America's Bicycle Capital."
Relative to other American cities, Portland's a friendly and effortless place to ride, as recent transplant Megan Burbank found in the last year. We're here to help you make the most of that, with a definitive, controversy-courting rundown of the best helmets available, and a helpful guide to tailoring your bike to your needs. You'll meet the city's latest cycle industry superstar, and add relevant reading to your summer book list.
And as always we've got your best bets for Pedalpalooza, the nearly month-long epicenter of Portland bike fun.
We'll get to all that. But for now, let's get mad.
Activist Clan #1: The Hill People
FOR A MOVEMENT without a formal name, the howling anger of Portland's mountain biking enthusiasts comes with a lot of swag.
When more than 200 cyclists converged on SW Portland's River View Natural Area on March 16, they brought stacks of T-shirts and stickers that read "Portland Hates Me" and "Portland Hates Mountain Bikes."
It's a sentiment that mountain bikers have expressed for years, after trying and failing repeatedly to convince the city to open up more of Forest Park to their sport. But on March 16, they had a fresher gripe: Portland Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish had just formally disallowed biking in River View, a 146-acre plot that's had clandestine bike trails for years—well before the city purchased the land in 2011.
"It's a fear of mountain bike access as a general Portland principle," says Charlie Sponsel, a professional mountain rider who organized the protest. "Every other city on the West Coast has figured this formula out. Portland is by far the last city to the party."
Mountain bikers had planned a protest ride in River View that day—a bit of civil disobedience to spite Fritz and Fish—but pulled back because recent rains had left the trails muddy. So they rode their bikes around River View as news cameras looked on.
"We would have been potentially damaging the trails to bring that much traffic on them when there's standing water," Sponsel says.
That statement cuts to the heart of Portland's seemingly intractable debate over mountain bikes. People who live near River View, just like people who live near Forest Park, have long painted mountain bikers as rowdy, whoop-it-up types who compromise both the sanctity and ecology of their favorite natural sanctuaries.
Mountain bikers say nothing could be further from the truth. Organized groups like the Northwest Trail Alliance take pains to maintain trails and limit damage to surrounding environments, they say. For years now, they've pledged help planning, building, and responsibly maintaining new trails in Forest Park, if the city will only grant them access.
So far, the NIMBYs have won out. A task force that debated increased Forest Park access wrapped up with a whimper in 2010, with the parks bureau promising to study the matter further. But new studies have come and gone with no new trails.
Parks Commissioner Fritz, a longtime target of activists' ire, said in February 2014 that planned improvements for bikers at Forest Park would have to be shelved for both monetary and ecological reasons. More than a year later, she announced the city was closing off River View (a reaction, strangely enough, to an ongoing lawsuit over water and sewer rates).
And so, after years of frustration, mountain bikers printed out their T-shirts and stickers and took their protests to the hills.
The River View decision "was such an obvious bumbling of communication and process that it really gutted whatever was left in terms of faith," says Daniel Greenstadt, a longtime mountain biking advocate. "It carried with it a bunch of other baggage."
News coverage of the protests—both the March 16 event and another like it at Forest Park a couple of weeks later—has had an impact. It convinced Mayor Hales to fast-track a $350,000 "Off-Road Cycling Master Plan" that will take stock of the entire city, and the opportunities for mountain biking it holds.
Considered one way, it's another study with no guarantee of progress. But mountain bikers are excited—both because the project's in the mayor's hands, rather than Fritz's, and because the city's planning bureau will be taking the lead instead of parks.
"Will it be successful? I don't know," says Andy Jansky, advocacy director for the Northwest Trail Alliance. "We're going to have to put in a lot of work."
Activist Clan #2: The Zombies
A WOMAN driving a gray BMW is beside herself.
It's rush hour on Monday, May 11, and as she waits to turn right onto SE Powell from 26th, she finds her path blocked by an unending stream of cyclists plodding through the intersection with the urgency of the undead.
"Unbelievable," the woman says, rolling down her passenger-side window so the bike riders can hear. "Can I turn? Ever? Today can I turn?"
Cyclists grin. This is the reaction they've been angling for.
While advocates have pushed for safer streets for decades, the last year has given rise to a more boisterous face of bike activism in Portland.
It's a far cry from the tactics of the state's most organized advocacy group, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, which focuses much of its efforts on official channels and process. This new push is more focused on direct action.
"There was no loud advocacy group that was advocating specifically for better bicycling facilities in the City of Portland," says Roberta Robles, a member of the group BikeLoudPDX, which formed last August. "We are dying and losing limbs out there, getting buzzed and beeped at on a daily basis."
The May 11 protest that so perturbed the BMW driver wasn't technically a BikeLoudPDX event, but it featured many of the group's members. The "super-legal slowdown" was a reaction to a grisly crash at the intersection the day before, in which police say a pickup driver attempting to turn left onto SE Powell didn't yield to cyclist Alistair Corkett, 22. Corkett lost a leg in the collision.
The shocking nature of the injury mobilized cyclists. Longtime activist Dan Kaufman organized the slowdown as both a show of strength and a statement of what cyclists want: a slower, safer Powell. Days later, dozens of activists showed up outside the Oregon Department of Transportation's downtown headquarters. They poured fake blood on themselves, and laid dramatically in the middle of NW Flanders, a "die-in" to protest the state's stewardship of Powell.
The protests drew on ideas from the Netherlands' decades-old "stop de kindermoord" ("stop murdering children") movement—the horrified backlash to pedestrian and cyclist deaths that led to the country's famously safe streets. They were the most dramatic acts to date from BikeLoudPDX and its allies, which has focused much of its previous attentions on traffic-calming devices for SE Clinton. But there's more coming.
"Social movements always gain over time," says BikeLoud member Terry Dublinski-Milton. "We're starting to come into focus."
A little more than two weeks after Corkett lost his leg came a worse crash. Once again, a truck driver turning left failed to yield to an oncoming cyclist on May 27. And this time, 22-year-old Mark Angeles lost his life.
Immediately the call went up for a slowdown ride along SE César E. Chávez near where the crash occurred. Two days later, on May 29, another cyclist was hit—at the same intersection where Corkett was so gravely injured.
It was the third serious accident in as many weeks, and officials jumped to action. ODOT announced it was fast-tracking left turn signals at the intersection. Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick called a closed meeting on bike safety.
Meanwhile, activists were puzzled by what seemed like an omission: Neither of the drivers in the accidents that killed Angeles and injured Crockett had been cited.
"It is becoming more and more dangerous for anyone on the roads, cyclists, pedestrians, circus clowns," one activist wrote to BikeLoudPDX members. "Anybody want to turn some attention to the elephant in the room—the cops—just let me know."
Activist Clan #3: The Builders
IN THE SHADOW of a porn theater, a set of sporty sunglasses fending off the October sunshine, Mayor Hales leaned into his ping-pong serve.
Typically table tennis in front of Old Town's Paris Theatre would have the mayor calling the police. But the three-day experiment that brought Hales and other city leaders out to lounge in the middle of SW 3rd in early October has instead been celebrated as one of the most innovative efforts in years.
If you paid a visit, you're already familiar with Better Block PDX. If you didn't, don't worry. The group's not going anywhere.
Better Block PDX, the local chapter of a national movement to reimagine public space, popped up seemingly out of nowhere last fall with big notions of how to spiff up dingy Old Town. With buy-in from business owners and city officials, the group molded an ultra-wide, three-lane segment of SW 3rd into a pedestrian plaza. One lane of car traffic was permitted to trickle through. The rest was given over to bikes, and walking, and leisure.
Better Block's not strictly a bike activism organization—its official aim is to improve the city for all modes of travel—but it offers a lot for cyclists all the same. During the October experiment, an entire lane was blocked off by makeshift planters and dedicated to cyclists. The group's second project—running from May 22 to June 5—segregated an entire northbound lane of Naito Parkway so cyclists and pedestrians could safely get around the Rose Festival.
"What Better Block does is take ideas and show what can happen," said Althea Mickiewicz, a volunteer coordinator with the group who showed up at 4 am on May 22 to get the Naito project underway. "The whole point is to get the conversation started."
The group doesn't easily fit into the "mad" category. It's more "aggressively wonky," bringing along traffic engineers and recruiting city staffers to carefully measure traffic patterns its experiments create. But all that's borne from a frustration that Portland's been planned around cars for far too long. And having tangible data to back up your points certainly doesn't hurt when haggling city leaders.
There are no ping-pong tables on SW 3rd today, of course, but Better Block's been successful in spurring change nonetheless. Following the October showcase, the Portland Bureau of Transportation installed new crosswalks at intersections throughout Old Town—partly at the urging of business owners who saw potential in a neighborhood that's more welcoming to pedestrians.
"We're not saying this is how it should be," group member Ryan Hasagan says. "This is an option. The goal here is to create a sustainable model.".
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