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Riding Along with Branden Shelby: Vancouver to Portland

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on April 26th, 2013 at 10:37 am

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Vancouver resident Branden Shelby outside Torque Coffee.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)


Welcome to the latest installment of our Ride Along series, which is sponsored by MetroMile.

When it comes to riding a bike, It takes a lot to strike fear into the heart of 36-year-old Branden Shelby. Shelby grew up in Woodland, Washington, about 20 miles north of downtown Vancouver. His childhood home was up a gravel road and his first experiences on a bike came via the logging roads that criss-crossed his neighborhood. It wasn't until he moved to downtown Vancouver in 2000 and started biking over the I-5 bridge when he got a real scare on two wheels. "It's hairy," is how he explained riding across the bridge when I met up with him at Torque Coffee (in the shadows of the Interstate Bridge) earlier this month.

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Branden said he grew up in a car-centric community, with dirt roads and long distances between destinations. "I was always the kid people would see out riding on the Lewis River Highway into town or out to the lakes." But once he moved to Vancouver, he traded his mountain bike for a road bike. "With all these roads everywhere," he said, "it didn't make sense to have a fat tire bike." When he got a job just three miles away from his house, he thought riding to work was "kind of weird."

But he's taken to bicycles and now he commutes year-round. After hearing about it on BikePortland, Branden got involved with Portland's bike culture and has even led a Midnight Mystery Ride. "I don't want to get into the daytime, spandex, hi-vis crowd... like the guys you see on the weekends. I don't want to be involved in that," he explained. "So, riding at night and sometimes doing things pseudo-clandestinely, a little under the radar, appeals to me a lot."

For the past five years Branden worked at a warehouse and forklift operator job in St. Johns, so he's a veteran of countless commutes over the I-5 bridge. He's currently out of work, and when I joined him earlier this month he was riding into northwest Portland to follow-up on some resumes.

We began our ride from Torque Coffee at SW Columbia and 5th St. As we approached the I-5 bridge Branden shared stories of how he was scared riding over it at first. "I have mountain biking experience, but I wasn't used to having metal and freeway speeds on one side of me and concrete and a river on the other side." He wondered what it must be like to ride on one of the tall bikes he's seen on rides in Portland. "You feel the wind up on the bridge, it's definitely possible to topple over the rail."

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Branden prefers the southbound side of the bridge, since it's a bit wider than the other side (which isn't saying much). When it comes to path-sharing etiquette, he says he has no problem getting over for people who need to pass. Branden's theory about the narrow path that's notorious among bike riders is that the original designers of the bridge had not intention of people biking on it. "I think it was just built only for maintenance people."

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As for the looming Columbia River Crossing project, Branden says, "Yes, the project is a huge behemoth; but the interchanges are designed horribly and from a bicyclists standpoint, it would be nice to have a little breathing room on the bridge."

As we continued south, we stopped for a moment to take in the view of the major demolition project going on at the Red Lion at Jantzen Beach. As we made our way down the corkscrew path and under the I-5 tunnel, we came up on yet another annoying part of Branden's commute: The circuitous crosswalk and sidewalk bike route to get from North Hayden Island Drive to the continuation of the I-5 path. "It's a really bad set-up," Branden said as we waited for a light to change.

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When we came to the intersection of N. Tomahawk Island Drive, Branden said he's almost been hit numerous times at the crosswalk that's part of the designated bike route. "People coming off the freeway come flying around the corner." Not only that, but Branden pointed out that one of the two yellow caution signs warning people of the crossing is almost completely obscured by tree branches.

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Note the sign on the right covered by leaves.

Once we were finally back on the path and headed toward Delta Park (near Hooters), Branden pointed out another hazard: Uneven pavement. Thankfully, ODOT recently smoothed out a major crack in the path after a woman was seriously injured from falling on it a few months ago. Cindy Bernert-Coppola was riding with the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club on January 31st when she fell and sustained a bilateral fracture of her jaw, a shoulder fracture, and a damaged artery. Branden had seen other people fall in the past and said the cracks were very tricky to navigate: "If you're running skinny tires you could easily go down."

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Riding on a newly smoothed-out section of the path.
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On a clear day, you can see Mt. Hood from here.
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The path winding toward Delta Park.
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When Branden worked in St. Johns, he'd follow the path to Marine Drive and then head south on Portland Road. Before he ever looked at a bike-specific map, he shared that he used to stay on Portland Rd all the way to Fessenden, a route that took him over a dangerous bridge over the Columbia Slough. "I would ride that bad pinch point for several years. You have to go with truck traffic screaming along, or get up on this narrow and high sidewalk thing." That experience is what convinced Branden to purchase lights for his bike. "My former philosophy," he explained, "Was if they can't see you they can't hit you. But I don't do that now."

As we approached Delta Park, we decided to ride through the park toward Whitaker Rd. There are several options you can take at this juncture: N. Union Ct. to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd; through the park then to Whitaker and west to Denver and then Interstate; or the option we chose which was through the park to Whitaker Rd, south to Schmeer and then across the Columbia Slough via the Vancouver Bridge. As we rode through the park, we both appreciated the smooth pavement. It used to be full of bike-sized potholes.

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Whitaker Rd provides great access to the Hayden Meadows shopping center; but there's not much of a shoulder. The same thing goes for Schmeer Rd as it winds past Hayden Meadows horse racing track. Branden said he prefers the Denver (near Portland International Raceway) to Interstate route and pointed out that the Metro Bike There map suggests the MLK JR. Blvd route.

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Riding on Schmeer isn't that great; but it's got low traffic volume and it's a direct connection to Vancouver Ave.
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Eventually we made it to N. Vancouver Ave. The new Vancouver Bridge, with its raised biking and walking path, is a warm welcome into the Portland bike network. Vancouver also offers a straight shot on a wide bike lane all the way to the Rose Quarter. As we got closer into Portland proper, Branden shared how strange it was — as a kid from the country roads of Woodland — to adjust to all the bike traffic.

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Newly remodeled Vancouver Bridge.
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Thanks for letting me tag along Branden!

If you'd like to see our route, I mapped it on Ride With GPS.

— BikePortland Ride Alongs are sponsored by MetroMile which is offering the country's first true pay per mile car insurance. So if you drive less, you pay less. Read more Ride Alongs here. If you'd like your commute to be considered, please get in touch.

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Comments
  • Jason April 26, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Thank you guys for the write up! I always enjoy reading these ride alongs and seeing the routes and challenges from other perspectives. Wish my commute wasn't so plain, it'd be fun to share a ride along with the crowd.

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  • spare_wheel April 26, 2013 at 11:21 am

    "Cindy Bernert-Coppola was riding with the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club on January 31st when she fell and sustained a bilateral fracture of her jaw, a shoulder fracture, and a damaged artery."

    I hope advocates of separated paths take note. Poorly maintained (or designed) paths are dangerous -- and even in better economic times funding for maintenance of bike paths is a joke. IMO, until we have the political will and funding to create safe separated infrastructure, we should focus on buffered bike lanes and traffic calming. At least "in road" infrastructure is more likely to be maintained...

    I also want to note that the 205 path between fremont and sandy is another very sad example of a path with dangerous cracks and pavement deformations (many of which have been there for years).

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    • Joseph E April 26, 2013 at 12:09 pm

      The picture shows that the path in question is on the east side of the I-5 bridge between Hayden Island and the mainland of North Portland.

      Are you suggesting that we would be better off on the shoulder of I-5 without a concrete barrier for separation, or that we should be taking the lane on the freeway instead? ;-)

      Map of the location: http://goo.gl/maps/HbJ0O

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      • spare_wheel April 26, 2013 at 12:31 pm

        of course not. the maintenance issues, however, do provide an argument that favors "in road" facilities (where possible).

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      • BURR April 26, 2013 at 5:25 pm

        Actually, it can be done safely, as there's plenty of room on that shoulder. Done last year on the MMR to Hayden Island, in fact.

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      • John Russell (jr98664) April 28, 2013 at 12:27 am

        Actually, I'm with BURR on this one. It may not be for everyone, or even legal, but I much prefer the shoulder to the bike path.

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  • Anne Hawley April 26, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Another great ride-along. This one makes me a) really admire Branden's nerve and b) grateful for my own within-the-city commute, which is a piece of cake in comparison (well, it's a piece of cake, period). Considering the BILLIONS we're getting ready to spend in acknowledgement of the traffic between Portland and Vancouver, it seems extra-pitiful that bike routes in the N/NE and Vancouver connection should be so circuitous and risky.

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  • Champs April 26, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Photoshop? Those underpasses have never been so clean.

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    • Jessica Roberts April 26, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      Ha! I called it in to 503-823-SAFE about 3 weeks ago as it was full of actual garbage. I'm pleased to see they responded. But I would like to emphasize that this level of cleanliness is the exception, not the rule.

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  • Anne April 26, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Dumb question but, has anyone contacted ODOT about the tree branches obscuring the yellow X walk sign? They respond very well to tweets.

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  • buny April 26, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    wow, how does he make it without any bike specific gear? no bikey hat or yellow jacket or $200. pants or an inner tube belt or even clippy shoes. i didn't know that was possible!

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    • Schrauf April 26, 2013 at 9:31 pm

      Yes, nice outfit. Nothing like neon and spandex to keep the "interested but uncertain" commuters on the fence. Well, neon is back in style, for some reason. Okay then, nothing like spandex to keep the interested but uncertain on the fence.

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      • Jeff April 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm

        I commute 5 times a week and wear spandex that isn't yellow. People that like to be "comfortable", yes in spandex, on a long commute are not keeping people from taking up cycling. If I start to wear skinny jeans with a U lock in the back pocket and ride a fixie will people feel more comfortable riding then?

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        • pengo April 28, 2013 at 9:32 pm

          I do both, so anybody who's scared off of the bike by my spandex can get back on when I ride by later on the fixed gear. It's the least I can do. Maybe if I take off my helmet next time I can even create a few new riders!

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      • Hugh Johnson April 27, 2013 at 4:52 pm

        Believe it or not, some of us actually ride quite a few miles back and forth to work and you know what? those spandex bike shorts are quite functional and make riding distances a lot more comfortable. Some like tweed panties, some like neon, some like spandex. To each their own.

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  • John Liu April 26, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I can relate to the worry about falling over the edge of a bridge path railing. If a big wind gust or a collision with a pedestrian or bike sent you into the railing, it seems that it would be feasible to go over the rail. I got pretty freaked out once, crossing the St Johns' bridge on a windy day. Ended up dismounting and walking the rest of the way. Maybe some acrophobia going on too. I admire your commute, Branden!

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  • dan April 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Yeah, kudos to Branden for keeping it so real with his bike outfit. I bike to work in jeans too, but it's only about 3.5 miles; I think I'd fold if my commute was that long.

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  • Tim Davis April 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful play by play--I love these features! It really demonstrates us tangibly what the biggest gaps in our bicycle network are in each neighborhood that you cover.

    Hopefully our transportation departments will finally learn to start designing *complete* streets for *all* users!

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  • amk April 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    I really like the Ride-Along installments. Keep 'em coming! Also, as a commuter who has to use Sandy to access my workplace, I'd be interested in reading about how others navigate the challenges of Sandy Blvd.

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  • longgone April 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    I, as others have stated LOVE this feature on BP.org.

    Many things in this post to applaud.

    1. Brandon enjoying perhaps one of P-towns less romantic commutes, yet powering on and finding joy in the act.
    2. Brandon signaling to the world that the bicycle is for everyone to use and enjoy, and that not all of us are pseudo racing squids, or militants.
    3. Brandon can rock is bitchin' haircut in the breeze, and no one has busted his nuts for not wearin' a skidlid! (yet.)

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    • John Lascurettes April 28, 2013 at 10:23 am

      Actually, I like that no one brought up the helmet thing yet until you did. I thought Vancouver required one. So my only curiosity is whether Branden has been nicked by the fuzz on that side of the bridge over that or not.

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      • longgone April 28, 2013 at 11:34 am

        I am "pro choice" on the helmet issue. I certainly didnt wish to jinx Brandon, or illicit a heavy debate. :)

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        • John Lascurettes April 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm

          Hey, me too. I wear it. But I support people's choice to not wear it. I just didn't know if he got hassled by the popo on that side of the river or not.

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      • Branden April 28, 2013 at 7:33 pm

        I have had a warning John, but at 3 in the morning. I see police in Vancouver and they see me as well almost every day in Vancouver during the daytime, my guess is there are usually bigger fish to fry

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        • Branden April 28, 2013 at 7:34 pm

          Really bad syntax, sorry:)

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  • Branden April 26, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Just as an update for my employment- on Tue 5/23 I started a new warehouse gig in rivergate, so my commute is still 10 miles or so, but the ride out to Kelly point park is quite a nice start to the day. (And there is still hope for the guys out there still lookin for work)

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    • rreodc April 26, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      Glad to hear about the new gig!

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  • Dan Packard April 28, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Yes, congrats on the new job. And that's kind of a nice ride out west.

    Now for the I-5 path, watch out for the vehicle sign planted smack-dab-square in the middle of the southbound lane near Safeway (Google Streetview, http://goo.gl/maps/KhblC ). And, the unfinished repair with wooden framing sticking a foot or two into the path at NE side of Hayden bridge (Jonathan's picture at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bikeportland/8657390200/). It's unmarked and dangerous (as of last evening). I just reported both to ODOT.

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    • John Lascurettes April 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      WTF on that sign's mount? How is that okay? It never ceases to amaze me the passive-aggressiveness of road design to "off-road" users such as pedestrians and MUP users in the name of serving the almighty car.

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  • longgone April 29, 2013 at 7:32 am

    As I revisit the pictures of Brandons commute, I see that my comment on it being "un-romantic" is not as true as I thought at first. I have always loved stringing unsuspecting riding partners into following me into uncomfortable and far flung industrial/urban landscapes. I acually enjoy that diversity alot. It would be cool to hear the contrasts in sound that Brandon has on this ride. Everything from the cacophony of Semi's and wind on the bridge to the birds chirping in Kelly Point park.

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  • jon May 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    The 'bike route' on janzten beach where you are hopping from sidewalk to sidewalk are quite troublesome. I've ridden there a few times on my cargo bike to go shopping with my daughter (sometimes she's on the back of my bike, sometimes on her own bike) and having to push the crosswalk buttons to get a signal to cross on a bike is far from long bike friendly. I end up parking my by bike on the road and run up to the crosswalk buttons hoping nobody hits my bike as I do this. The alternative being a 3 point turn around with the bike again hoping not to get hit. The trees blocking the crosswalk signs are low enough I need to duck to ride under. I also find it interesting that the Jantzen beach remodel has bike paths in one direction (north - south I think) but the bike router enters the other direction. At least cars seem pretty friendly at intersections as I navigate through. But at least there is something of a bike route to get there. :)

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