Posted by Jonathan Maus ( Publisher/Editor ) on May 21st, 2014 at 3:07 pm
(Photos J. Maus/BikePortland)
This morning I joined Ben McLeod and his two sons, Liam (9) and Campbell (7) for their ride to school. They live in Sellwood, just a few blocks east of Sellwood Park, and the boys go to Cedarwood School in Lair Hill. The trip is just about four miles and it includes some of the best and worst biking conditions that Portland has to offer.
The McLeods are a one-car family — a conscious decision made when they moved to Portland in 2008. Ben, 42, works in southeast Portland and his wife Nikki takes the car each morning to her job in Vancouver. This morning, as Ben gathered up the kids’ gear and bags for the day (which included a violin stuffed into his pannier) and got the bikes out of the shed, he explained how their bicycling has changed over the years. “We have a bakfiets [cargo bike with large box in the front] that we used to use, but the kids are kind of too heavy now.”
Ben expected he’d still have to take the bakfiets when the weather got ugly, but it turns out the boys are quite capable on their own and he’s only used it twice all year. (Later in the ride Campbell told me he got so cold on one ride this winter that it took him a few hours to thaw out after he got to school.) These days the boys ride their own bikes: Liam is on a 24-inch wheeled Fuji road bike and Campbell rides a 20-inch GT BMX bike. Dad is on a very nicely customized Proletariat from Stop Cycles with a belt-drive and front and rear racks.
After joining them this morning, I can see why the boys love riding to school. While it has its difficult spots, their route is interesting, spectacular in some parts, and anything but boring.
We started out on the quiet residential streets of Sellwood and headed toward the horrible crossing of the Sellwood Bridge. Ben said because the bridge sidewalk is so narrow, he prefers to ride sweep. The boys fell right into order: Campbell (the smallest) in front, then Liam, then dad. As we rode over the Willamette — narrowly avoiding a concrete railing and opposing bike traffic on one side and a high curb and rumbling auto traffic on the other — all I could think about (besides not crashing while taking photos) was how great it will be once the new Sellwood Bridge is open.
While it’s a bit hair-raising, crossing the Sellwood Bridge these days offers the boys a great opportunity to see the construction process. It’s something I’m sure they’ll tell their grandkids about someday. As in, “When I was a boy, we used to bike across the old bridge and watch them build this one we’re riding on now…” Ben told me it’s been neat to watch the daily progress of the project.
Once we survived the bridge crossing, it was onto the Willamette Greenway Trail. However, given the construction, there’s a detour that takes riders onto the sidewalk of SW Macadam. The sidewalk is very narrow and full of utility poles and busy commercial driveways.
As we approached one driveway, a woman had pulled her car out into the sidewalk. Thankfully, as we got closer, she backed up and let us pass.
From Macadam, Ben took a right on SW Logan through a gravel parking lot to connect to SW Miles Court. That’s not the official detour route but Ben said, “I like to get off Macadam at the first opportunity. Riding that sidewalk is the worst part of our commute.”
As bad as riding is on Macadam, the next part of their route offers some of the most pleasant riding in the entire city: the path and roadway through Willamette Park.
This section of their ride is so quiet and nearly carfree that the boys like to practice their no-hands riding. And it gives Ben a chance to grab a sip of coffee.
Further north we get onto the section of path that winds through condominiums and other private property. The views of the Willamette River and the downtown Portland skyline are fantastic, but we had to be mindful of the many people walking and jogging. There’s somewhat of an uneasy truce on this section of the path between adjacent property owners and people just riding through. “The path is nice,” Ben said, “It’s much better than being on Macadam but it’s primarily for walkers and sometimes we get dirty looks.” I could tell Ben made an effort to be extra courteous and cautious. He slowed and made verbal contact with everyone we passed.
As we approached the South Waterfront District, we took a left off the greenway trail onto a sidewalk through the Spa at River’s Edge. It was a much better connection to Moody than the official route; but Ben said they’ve been yelled at by valets at River’s Edge who claim the sidewalk is private property.
Into South Waterfront we took a bike lane towards the elevator at the Gibbs Street Bridge. Ben has experienced all sorts of problems with the elevator. It’s been out of order several times, which forces he and the boys to carry their bikes up several steep flights of stairs. Thankfully, this morning it worked just fine. Campbell actually pulled right into the elevator without even getting off his bike.
Up on the bridge, a few other families from the boys’ school met us and we formed a bike train for the final few blocks. It was great to see so much use of the Gibbs Bridge. It was also great to see how the kids took over at the front of the group, riding through the streets and managing stop signs and crossings with confidence.
As we wove through the Lair Hill neighborhood, I followed the group up onto a sidewalk at SW Grover Street that led to a tunnel under Naito Parkway. I had never even heard of this tunnel before. It makes an excellent (and carfree!) connection to SW 1st and the Cedarwood School at SW Woods and 2nd.
Ben said when he and Nikki first looked at going to Cedarwood, whether or not they could safely get their by bike was a key consideration. “If it wasn’t for that tunnel under Naito and the Gibbs Bridge,” he shared, “I’m not so sure we could pull off coming here.” And when the new Tilikum Crossing Bridge opens next year, the McLeod’s school commute will get even better.
Once on school grounds, many of the other parents noticed the big bike train rolling in. “Hey Joe,” I heard one dad say as we rang bells and rolled over to the covered bike parking, “We should do a bike train too.”
Thanks Ben, Liam and Campbell for letting me tag along this morning.
If you enjoyed this post, read more installments in our Ride Along series archives.