Bikes vs Trains–The opening of Tilikum Crossing

Today ends the first week of commuting on the newly opened public transit/pedestrian/bike bridge,


TA-DA! *choir of angels in the background*
TA-DA! *choir of angels in the background*

This new bridge has been the promised land for commuters of all kinds coming to downtown from the east side and connecting Milwuakie to Portland proper.  For as long as I have lived in Portland I have talked about my commute and my transit in general (something you discuss with surprising regularity living in a car-dependent city without a car) in terms of “until Tilikum opens.”  This magical gateway was guaranteed to cut my transit time in half, provide smooth and easy access to downtown and generally saving me time, money and effort in all of my various pursuits.  I was not the only one who shared my messianic view of this new stretch of gracefully-arching, public-transit-friendly, anti-car stretch of while metal cables and concrete.  No number of hyphenated superlatives could equal the general excitement of Portland for this new feather for the city’s cap.  Or at least that’s how it felt to me as a person who planned on using it every day speaking to others on the topic.  Maybe I was just too excited for this new way to get away from the Hawthorne Bridge at rush hour.  But taking my hyperbole into account, the city was abuzz and the bridge was viewed by many as the prophesied return of common sense to the city planning of Portland.

On September 12th, Trimet (the public transit authority of the Portland Metro Area) opened the newly completed Orange Max commuter line whisking folks from Milwaukie (south of Portland, east of the Willamette) to the city center and back.  They re-routed 2 bus lines (9 and 17) across Tilikum to reduce stress on other crossings and the bridge features spacious bike lanes and pedestrian paths going in both directions.  It connects the East Bank Esplanade/Opera/OMSI area of the Southeast Waterfront to the artificially up-and-coming “South Waterfront Area,” home of tourists, OHSU folks hustling to the tram and a Flying Elephants Deli/Starbucks combo monstrosity that looks like a Apple Store equivalent for food purchases.  Please take into account that I am writing with the inherent bias that the South Waterfront is the most useless part of town and cannot compensate for its austere-artificialness with any amount of introduced infrastructure.  I always saw this bridge as a way to get through the South Waterfront, not to get to it.  But I digress, the bridge opened with a day of celebration, free Trimet passes, and stop by stop entertainment for those turning out to see the reality of this promised miracle!

Despite the fanfare, there has been much outcry among the cycling community on the final product.  Of course, when presented with a new plethora of bike only and multi use paths that easily connect previously isolate regions of the city, the people who use these most, who beg for these at community meetings, and who hand out fliers to stopped bikers at red lights about rallies for safer streets have “taken up arms” (I mean commiserating in forums and blogs just like what I’m doing right now).  The bike paths and signals and redesigned systems seem to bisect many formally popular cycling routes and people are having trouble holding still long enough see that there is now a better way that previously did not exist.  I have seen people bike down the Max tracks, the bus lane, the actual freight train tracks, and gone the wrong way down bike paths out of (I can only assume) blind panic which completely dissolves their common sense and easily-marked-route finding abilities.  In other words it has become every man for themselves when determining which way you are allowed to go, which signals you should follow and what counts as necessary for getting from Point A to B.  I have been looking out for not only cars, other bikes and pedestrians in their right minds, trains, and buses, but also for what Joey calls “the special breed of biker that only exists in Portland”: the aggressively cautious.  These folks bike more aggressively than they should, from rolling through stop signs and right turns on red to biking out on to the train track at a glacial pace to copy someone riding much faster than them, through a complicated intersection.  Its like coming to a stop as the light turns yellow, seeing someone next to you shoot through the yellow light and deciding to idle through the intersection because if they can go why can’t you? right? RIGHT? WRONG. Many of these folks have said to me at intersections “Well I guess Hawthorne is still the route.” GOOD FOR THEM. More space for me to make the admittedly tight maneuvers necessary to get to SW Harrison from the new bridge exit.

I don’t give up so easy, though.  I think that there has got to be a way to use these new facilities to my advantage and get me where I’m going safer and faster than my previous go-to routes.  I am going to be one of the 500 or so (for real, I know from the bike counter on the bridge lol) that will brave this bridge as their main commuting route from SE to SW from now until eternity!  I have been exploring all the new structures and paths including a pedestrian bridge over the train tracks near SE Lafayette street that allowed me to do something I had never thought proper before:

Ped Bridge on SE Lafeyesssssss please
Ped Bridge on SE Lafeyesssssss please

THAT’S RIGHT!  I rode my bike straight into this elevator.  AND across the bridge, AND back out the other elevator.  Modern marvels, we live in the future.  They also have convenient “bike gutters” for you to push your bike up the stairs like this one:

Get your mind into the (bike) gutter
Get your mind into the (bike) gutter

I was originally skeptical of the practicality of such unconventional obstacles.  But the novelty has worn off and I still think its a better route because it takes 3 stop lights out of my route, so see!  Give the gutter a chance, folks!

My chosen positivity on this subject has led me to develop a series of easy to reference responses to all the reasons I have heard that I should not take the bridge and complain about Portland’s government indifference to our tired (of getting stuck behind a bus), our poor (read as: don’t want to pay for a bus pass), our cycling masses yearning to ride free.

Here they are:

  • But there are no cars and I am new at riding with clips.
  • I don’t mind the hills, I like the exercise.
  • Oh I don’t go that way.

These easy, always applicable conversation changing phrases have helped me de-escalate any would be caustiously-aggressive-change-panicked biker in the city.  These counter maneuvers also have been strategically chosen to also cater to the Portland bike community tendency to take itself too seriously, be ashamed of ignorance, and to respect gear over know how in some situations.  They quickly diffuse your need to justify the choice, stop the complaint tail spin usually triggered by infrastructure changes, and allow your colleague to start talking about something that will make them look like a badass, like physical fitness, ability to use specialized cycling paraphernalia, or understanding your route through small, meaningless, and ubiquitous landmarks, thus proving that they are a thoughtful, present-minded, and worldly person.  For example:

  • Complainer: The bridge doesn’t raise so the crossing adds a hill to my route.
  • Respondant: I don’t mind the hills, I like the exercise.
  • Complainer: Oh yea I guess you’re right, I mean I could work it into my training regimen, I am thinking about doing this Iron Man that also rebuilds houses devastated by Earthquakes in Chile during the race so they replaced the swimming with house building and I’m great at that so I should focus on my cycling now.

See! Instant segue into allowing this person to tell you their physically and emotionally taxing hobbies!

  • Complainer: The signals at the beginning and end of the bridge are so confusing and inefficient.  I am stopping and starting all the time!  My momentum is gone!
  • Respondant: Oh well at least there are no cars, I’m new at riding with clips.
  • Complainer: That’s cool!  I used to have eggbeaters but I am looking into switching SPDs I hear they are easier for my style of riding and I like the flexibility with the bigger pedal in case i’m unexpectedly taking a ride and don’t want to grab my shoes.  Why are you learning clips now, are you liking them?  Oh man, I remember when I learned how to ride with clips BLAH, BLAH, BLAH FOR 20 MINUTES, BLAH

All people inherently want to talk about themselves.  If they have a fully formed opinion about the bridge and the waterfront infrastructure you bet your sweet ass they also have a satisfactorily long and anti-climactic anecdote about every type of clip on the market.

  • Complainer: The light at Clinton to cross the tracks NEVER TURNS.  WHO IS GOING DOWN TO 17th!?!?!?! NO ONE
  • Respondent: Oh I don’t go that way.
  • Complainer: Oh really, what way do you go?
  • Respondent: I go down to that second street with the blue house after the bridge entrance?  You know the one that goes by those water fountains and the elementary school with the soccer fields? **INSERT FAKE LANDMARKS HERE**
  • Complainer: OHHHH I didn’t know you could go that way, I will have to check that out next time, I have a friend who lives down there BLAH, BLAH, BLAH FOR A WHOLE GODDAMN HOUR, BLAH.

Please feel free to use these handy get out of complainer conversation jail free cards all you like.  Adapt them, lend them out, use them freely to turn conversations about how much people hate something into conversations about, their past, mutual experiences, technological advances in the activity of your choice, new and exciting ways to get places (real or imagined), or their future plans.  This will inevitably lead to happier conversations and less anxiety and fuck-it-all-ness about the traffic pattern in that area, which might in turn help folks not be so flippant with their personal safety.  Now, we are living in a time when wandering out in front of a train because you can’t figure out the signs is an alright, even acceptable outcome of new infrastructure  and we need to save our future. Think of the children.  Wu-tang is for the children.

But in reality we all need to calm down, stop complaining for enough time to fully explore the new available facilities.  After all, it has only been one week.


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