From left to right: Volunteer Al Martinez, Hal Ballard, and founding staff-member Mark Norbert.
With the tragic death of Bret Lewis last month, many people in the Portland metro area have become more aware of the challenging road conditions faced by people who choose to bike in Washington County. Last week, I stopped in to learn what advocates at the Washington County Bicycle Transportation Coalition (WashCo BTC) are doing to improve those conditions.
WashCo BTC’s headquarters are located just off of Tualatin-Valley Highway in Aloha, in the thriving Frans Pauwels Memorial Bicycle Center. Similar to Portland’s Community Cycling Center, the Bicycle Center has a full-service bike shop and service center that focuses on low-cost parts and service for underserved communities.
WashCo BTC director Hal Ballard believes that his customers, many of them Latino, are too often intimidated by more traditional bike shops in the area. Through their “Earn a Bike” program, people can volunteer with the organization in return for service and/or a bike of their own.
Beyond their bike shop, the WashCo BTC is sort of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to bike advocacy on the West Side. According to Ballard, that’s by necessity: “We’re the only place like this place around this place.”
Unlike Multnomah or Clackamas counties, Washington County currently lacks an officially sanctioned bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee. Speaking with Ballard, I get the impression that the County has not placed much value in constituent input for developing connectivity and safe access for people who walk and bike. Or, as Ballard blunty puts it, “Connectivity here sucks” and people who bike are often treated like “rolling pedestrians.”
Here’s more from Ballard on the lack of bike network connectivity in the area:
“We don’t have a grid-system of streets, even in the cities. Hillsboro is a good example… In Portland, you’ve got the grid-system throughout the city, but when you have T-V Highway and Farmington Road going through your city as well as the railway, it makes [safe and viable] connections really tough.”
This lack of a grid and the dominating presence of high-speed, multi-lane arterials like TV Highway and Farmington are major problems in Washington County. They lead to dangerous crossings like the one at TV Highway and SW Tualaway where Bret Lewis was hit and killed and many people risk there lives at every day.
Even in light of daunting challenges, Ballard is hopeful they will be able to make a difference in the coming years. For instance, Hillsboro is moving forward with its 2020 Vision Plan, and as far as transportation issues are concerned, WashCo BTC is an important partner. In fact, they are assisting the city with all but one of the eight projects listed in the Vision Plan’s “Enhancing Neighborhoods and Districts” section. Two of these projects, the “Integrated Bike Network” and developing Safe Routes to School, are set to begin this year.
Teaching kids about bicycling is a hallmark of the WashCo BTC. They currently partner with Hillboro Parks and Recreation on the BLAST Youth Program during the school year and WashCo BTC has developed its own curriculum with the Youth Skills 123 program, which they teach at local elementary schools and the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market during the summer.
WashCo BTC wouldn’t be the organization that it is without the hard work of its eight staff members and a cadre of dedicated volunteers. Last year, 200 volunteers contributed over 10,000 hours to the organization. Unfortunately though, as Ballard puts it, they are “too few doing too much as an organization.”
Though they face numerous challenges, WashCo BTC is working hard to make a mark on Washington County’s transportation system. Progress in Hillsboro, the growth of their education programs, and the partnerships they are developing with area businesses are all signs of positive momentum.
You can join the WashCo BTC on May 18th for a Ride of Silence to remember Bret Lewis and on July 23rd they’ll host the annual Tour de Parks ride in Hillsboro. Learn more about the WashCo BTC at WashingtonCountyBikes.org.