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Riding along with the Stedman family

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on October 17th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Ride Along with the Stedman Family-17
The Stedman family — Helena (5), Barbara, and Ken — getting started on their day.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Helena Stedman doesn't fit the stereotype of a Portland bike commuter. At just five years old, she'd rather talk about kindergarten than bike lanes and her most prized bike accessory is her favorite stuffed elephant.

I joined Helena and her parents, Kenneth and Barbara Stedman, for their morning commute yesterday. And in case you're wondering, Helena rides her own bike — a stock, singlespeed Specialized with a pink basket, fenders, a bell, and neon tape around the spokes.

The Stedmans' live off a dirt and gravel road just off SW Capitol Highway in western Hillsdale. As they buzzed around the door getting ready for the day, Ken explained the evolution of his young daughter from trailer to fearless captain of her own steed. Ken and Barbara (she grew up in a small town in Germany where biking was a normal part of everyday life) have had Helena in a trailer since she was a baby. She'd gone from trailer to tag-along bike in the past year and "She's been begging to ride her own bike," ever since, Ken says.

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Now, with just a few months under her belt, Helena is riding strong and confident on some of Portland's busiest streets.

As we rolled out of their garage and headed for Portland State University (where Ken works as a biology professor), I asked Barbara if she has any trepidation about letting her daughter ride by herself, or if she knows Helena's abilities well enough to not worry. "I know her abilities, so that doesn't bother me; but I also know the car drivers' inabilities," she said. Barbara said she has a "free-range parenting" style. "I'm not afraid of stranger-danger," she said, "I'm afraid of distracted moms on cell phones."

Underway on our commute (Barbara to OHSU and Ken to Portland State, where Helena attends kindergarten), the first tricky intersection was crossing SW Capitol Highway at SW Nebraska. Fortunately (for people on bikes), the road is bumper-to-bumper eastbound during the AM rush, so speeds are slow and predictable. But Ken is still miffed when people driving west don't stop. "They'll come flying by, even with Helena standing there," he says as they stood next to their bikes waiting for an opening.

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Once on Capitol Hwy, Helena immediately popped up onto the sidewalk. I would quickly learn that for this family, sidewalks play a huge role in their bicycling routine.

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As we approached the Hillsdale shopping center, I asked Ken about driveways and cars swerving in and out of them. He said people are usually very good about stopping when they see her; but it can be stressful.

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Helena just rolls along, seemingly without a care in the world, her little legs spinning a high cadence as she easily maxes out her one gear. She knows the drill and seems right at home up on the sidewalk.

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As Capitol Hwy heads downhill, east of Sunset Blvd to Terwilliger, we come upon one of the only sections of the entire commute where Helena rides on the main roadway next to cars. My own pulse quickened a bit as she sped down the hill — which was slick with wet leaves following a rain storm the night before — just a few feet from a TriMet bus.

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At the intersection of Capitol Hwy and Terwilliger, the family does a two-stage left turn. They cross over Terwilliger in the crosswalk and then re-orient themselves to head north.

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While waiting for the light to change, Barbara points out a serious safety concern. On the far side of the intersection there's a median which creates a pinchpoint between people in cars and bikes. To thwart the inevitable, Barbara said she springs from the green ASAP to take the middle of the lane in hopes it will deter someone from trying to squeeze past (and squeeze her in the process). Tuesday morning it didn't work. A large truck sped up and exacerbated the situation. "That's one of the worst ones I've had," Barbara said as we made our way onto Terwilliger. (Meanwhile, Ken and Helena take a nifty little sidewalk cut-through in order to avoid it altogether).

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Barbara also shared that she's called in the problem to 823-SAFE and was impressed that PBOT staff actually took the request and sent out an engineer. She was hoping they'd consider a pre-green, where bike would get an early green light to reach the problem spot ahead of people in cars. But PBOT said they're already planning other changes that should help the problem.

Safely onto Terwilliger, the adults rode in the bike lane while Helena enjoyed a nice smooth sidewalk separated from traffic and without the dangerous driveways in the shopping center. Both Ken and Barbara noted that people drive much faster than they should on the narrow and curvy road and that the speed limit is rarely obeyed. Except for that, and a few cross streets — like SW Condor, which Barbara said makes her a bit paranoid since she read about the serious injury collision back in 2011 — Terwilliger is smooth sailing.

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The intersection of SW Condor, where PBOT has installed new pavement markings and speed reader boards to improve safety.

It was funny to see Helena ride fast to perform for the guy with a camera. I would try and get ahead of her to snap a photo and she'd speed up. When she was ahead, she'd be looking back to make sure I wasn't catching up. She's done a Kiddie Cross race at the Cross Crusade and I don't envy the kids she goes up against.

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After Terwilliger, we were thrust onto the crazy mix of traffic at SW Broadway and 6th. Ken stayed up on a median island with Helena as he told me how at least once a month someone will turn right from 6th onto Broadway — which is illegal. "I was even right-hooked once," he shared, "while I had both kids in the trailer behind me."

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After rolling over the I-405 overpass on 6th (and riding what I think is the narrowest bike lane in Portland), Ken and Helena dismount and grab a sidewalk path that heads west, adjacent to the freeway, and then leads right into the PSU campus.

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Narrow!
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Secret path north of SW 6th Ave.

Before reaching Helena's kindergarten at SW 12th and Market, there's just one more tricky spot that Ken has to be careful at. He says people drive really fast off of the I-405 freeway on-ramp onto 12th, despite the 25 mph speed limit and dense campus environment.

While there were some safety issues, overall it's a pretty pleasant morning ride (especially up on Terwilliger). I mean, seriously, while I am well aware of the gaps in bike access throughout Portland, if a five-year-old can ride her own bike 4 and 1/2 miles during the morning rush hour — smiling and talking and having a blast along the way — we must be doing something right.

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— Thanks Barbara, Ken, and Helena for letting me tag along. If you like the Ride Along series, stay tuned. You can read previous ones here.

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Comments
  • David Amiton October 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    This is the best bikeportland lead I can remember!

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  • Andrew K October 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    That kid is totally rockasouras. <--yes that is a word I only reserve for people who are seriously cool.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Dweendaddy October 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    That proves that Portland is one of the best places in America to bike, but is still so far behind a real cycling country like the Netherlands. Check out this commute:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2n_znwWroGM\

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  • Chris I October 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Looks like you have photo evidence of that truck committing an illegal pass; and you got the license plate.

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    • Nat October 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm

      Have to be able to identify the driver to initiate a citation.

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      • JAT in Seattle October 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm

        Really? That's a pretty concrete argument against requiring cyclists to have license plates, isn't it?

        I love the ride along series (as intermittent as it is); every one shows the little individualized we all make to infrastructure (and I don't necessarily mean cycling specific infrastructure) inadequacies.

        The shot with the car leaving the Starbucks strip-mall parking lot makes me cringe, though.

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        • JAT in Seattle October 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm

          individualized adjustments, that is...

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        • Ken Stedman October 19, 2012 at 10:59 am

          The car coming out of the parking lot looks a lot scarier than it was. I think they may have even backed up for us.

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    • jim October 22, 2012 at 9:41 am

      It's a still photo. How do you know the truck was the one passing?

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  • V October 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I live in Hillsdale and never want to ride this route! I say it under the guise of safety but really, it's the hills. Man, kindergartner competition just might make me get out and do it. What an awesome kiddo!

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  • abra October 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Awesome article. Barbara and their older daughter were also recently on the BikeTrainPDX site for starting up their school's first official bike train!: http://www.biketrainpdx.org/hayhurst-bike-train-hits-the-road/
    Way to go!

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  • pixie October 17, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Great article! Great pics! Great inspiration!

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • SilkySlim October 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    At 1/6 my age, the girl has a bike commute 2 times the length of mine!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Marshall Guthrie October 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    That child will be happier, healthier, and live longer than all of us (assuming auto drivers do their part). I wish we would all give that gift to our children.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Sunny October 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    She weighs nothing, and her center of gravity is better. Her wheels are smaller too.

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  • 9watts October 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Great photos and story, Jonathan!

    "free-range parenting" style

    "I'm afraid of distracted moms on cell phones."

    Barbara produces lots of quotable phrases.

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    • Barbara Stedman October 17, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      Thanks. I should have added "distracted moms on cell phones in minivans".
      For free-range parenting, see http://www.freerangekids.com

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      • 9watts October 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm

        gibts vergleichbare Begriffe auf Deutsch?

        My favorite equivalent for helicopter parents is the Swedish phrase: curling parent (they sweep all obstacles out of the way of their child)

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        • Barbara October 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm

          Not that I know of. The Germans seem to be less helicoptery, although it's on the rise there, too.

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  • Rebecca October 17, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Terwilliger in autumn would make anyone feel like a little kid - prettiest October street in the city.

    Enjoy, Helena!

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  • Rol October 17, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    That kid is doping, I just know it. I want an inquiry!

    Har-dee-har. Cute as heck. Although contrary to the upbeat tone of the last paragraph, I kept getting sad about the mediocre infrastructure. I mean, "it'll do." I've ridden that same route many times, and always thought it was fine. But there's nothing like the fragility of a kid to make you notice the flaws in the system and take away your gratitude for the crumbs from the table. It doesn't help that I'm forever ruined from having been to Copenhagen etc. and knowing what's possible.

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    • Barbara Stedman October 17, 2012 at 8:05 pm

      The dope is German-style bread and swiss chocolate...
      I know, so many gaps in the infrastructure. But I think the attitude of car drivers is equally important. When we spent a few months in Germany last year, I had the epiphany that I didn't have to constantly second-guess drivers, but they would actually pay attention.

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      • Rol October 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm

        Yes, it's easy to forget that the two-ton behemoth is piloted by a human being with eyes, a soul and a will. And that they really don't want to hit anyone. We rely on those people every day.

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  • Paul Manson October 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Yeah Helena! We miss you from Ladybug Classroom days!

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    • Helena Stedman October 17, 2012 at 8:36 pm

      I loved that you came, when you wouldn't came. I would cry. -Helena

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  • Davis October 17, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    From one five -year old to another - Way to go! I like riding my bike too!

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  • Joseph E October 17, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Wow! Way to go!

    My 4 year old son rode just a short stretch of that route during SW Sunday parkways, when the roads were closed (or at least 1/2 closed) to cars, and I was still a little nervous. And the hills on that area are tough even with gears; he sometimes had to walk up the steeper sections. And on the way home, when we switched to the off-road path on the downhill part of Terwilliger, he ended up crashing due to one of the many bumps on that path. It's great that this family is able to do this route every day.

    I hope that PBOT will work to improve the many problem areas (including improving the pavement for the path along Terwilliger), so that many more families will feel comfortable taking this route with kids.

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  • Ellen October 17, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Great article!

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  • Sunny October 17, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Orange flags on long poles act as crossing guards too.

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  • Don Baack SWTrails October 17, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    The little cut through at Terwilliger and Capitol Highway was one of many done by SWTrails for the SW Community. We are seeking to get funding for a sidewalk on the south side of Capitol Highway from Hillsdale to Terwillige, about 800 feet. Don Baack

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  • ME Fitz October 17, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    Wonderful article. Way to go parents too!

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  • Carrie October 18, 2012 at 9:10 am

    What a fantastic article! Thank you Jonathan. I needed this to feel confident that I can ride with my daughter from SW to downtown when she's older. Now (she is 18 months old), we drive to Macadam and take the waterfront in. Would love to ride Terwilliger with her.

    Oh, and Stedman is an awesome biology professor! His classes were the best at PSU.

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  • A.K. October 18, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for this article Jonathan. This one, along with the one you did the other day on the older gentleman that has ridden all the local roads in this area are really a nice change of pace from the usual political stories.

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  • Dan V October 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Great article Jonathan! Thanks for getting the message out that commuting by bike can be (and SHOULD be) a family affair. I think if we can get more kids out there, it will start the ball rolling (as long as we can avoid the inevitable "that's so dangerous, lets ban the kids from biking instead of banning the dangerous driving" backlash). I'm very jealous of the fact that Helena can bike almost the entire way on sidewalks; we're in Outer SE, where when we do have sidewalks, many don't have ADA cuts and most have power poles on the sidewalk.

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  • Erik E October 18, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I was just inspired by a 5-year-old.
    Thanks to all!

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  • Zaphod October 18, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    awesome! that is all

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  • JaCarto October 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I couldn't agree more with Rol's comment:

    'But there's nothing like the fragility of a kid to make you notice the flaws in the system.'

    I ride this route daily and am in awe of Helena, you rock!

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Rex Marx October 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    I missed the Barby and Ken comments, but great article.

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  • Mitch Gold October 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Great article,
    I was riding behind you guys that morning on Terwilliger. I see them every morning now on my commute in. Fantastic to see Helena riding now, I remember the days of her in the trailer in the mornings. Now she's in the big leagues!

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  • CaptainKarma October 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Great photos for Helena to have and maybe someday show her own kids. Of course we'll ALL be on bikes by then, right? right?

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  • Yunji October 18, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Good job, Helena! We are proud of you!

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  • Don Baack SWTrails October 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    In fairness to the driver leaving the Hillsdale Shopping Center, it is difficult to get back onto the street during the morning rush hour as the traffic backs up on both Beaverton Hillsdale Highway and on SW Capitol Hwy. It is not uncommon to sit for 2-3 minutes for an opening in the traffic, sometimes one thinks there is an opening which immediately closes. The motorists generally are courteous to walkers and children on bicycles.

    Don Baack

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    • 9watts October 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      "In fairness to the driver ..."

      Maybe the lesson is Go by Bike!?
      I'm not seeing how the difficulty someone in a car experiences getting back on the road is something to be mindful of. Someone in a car is not stymied by traffic; they are traffic.

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    • Barbara Stedman October 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      In my experience it is not the problem that the cars sit there for a while, the problem is that they are often shooting out of the parking lot onto the sidewalk, but that someone the size of Helena is hidden behind the walls and plants. Maybe it would help to have a white line or a sign saying "yield to pedestrians" in front of the sidewalk. Car drivers can then slowly enter the sidewalk to get out of the parking lot. Now, the first white line the drivers encounter is the bikelane line.

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      • 9watts October 19, 2012 at 1:40 pm

        "Maybe it would help to have a white line or a sign saying "yield to pedestrians" in front of the sidewalk."

        We sometimes exhibit a strange understanding of who has priority on sidewalks in this country. When a parking garage empties onto the street the cars invariably cross the sidewalk. What signage do we put up clarifying this 'intersection'? Signs warning pedestrians of cars, and loud buzzers.
        What is the message?
        Never mind that this is one of the few spaces left where human locomotion is allowed, watch out for cars!

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        • El Biciclero October 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm

          "811.505 Failure to stop when emerging from alley, driveway or building; penalty.
          (1) A person commits the offense of failure to stop when emerging from an alley, driveway or building if the person is operating a vehicle that is emerging from an alley, building, private road or driveway in a business or residence district and the person does not stop the vehicle as follows:
          (a) If there is a sidewalk or sidewalk area, the person must stop the vehicle before driving onto the sidewalk or sidewalk area."

          Competent drivers who know the law shouldn't require extra stripes to tell them what the law already says. In my mind, buzzers and such to warn pedestrians about cars are an acknowledgement that it is too difficult to operate motor vehicles in some places, but we're going to allow it anyway, because we gotta! We just gotta!

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          • Ken Stedman October 19, 2012 at 5:26 pm

            So let's see if anyone fails their driving test or loses their license for missing this. . .

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        • helena October 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm

          in response the parking garage issues there is a problem in the the car can't see anyone on the street because the building are built to the edge of the sidewalk - everything should be set back!

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  • Rob P October 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Rock stars! Helena is bigger than Bieber.

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  • helena October 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Just had our first closed street sunday in Berkeley and it was fabulous. I sort of had a tear though because I was SO moved by te number of kids that pedaled over to ride around safely. You don't see kids on bikes unless they are in trailors or with a parent here - and even this is rare but it should not be. I remembered that I road my bike as a kids in the streets without problems....but car traffic and impatience has doubled and a culture of fear tripled pushing all the youth of the streets.

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  • ryan October 25, 2012 at 6:50 am

    Great series, thought you'd given up on it...we need an occasional change from the all too frequent (if necessary) biker run over/bad infrastructure/bikes stolen type posts...

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