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For some, riding on Sandy Blvd is a risk worth taking

Posted by on May 10th, 2011 at 11:05 am

Despite being dominated by cars and offering no dedicated bike access, many Portlanders choose to ride on NE Sandy Blvd. for the same reasons people like to drive on it — because it’s the most direct and efficient route into the Hollywood District and downtown.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Northeast Portland resident Esther Harlow lives near NE 76th and Siskiyou and — despite its unpleasant and unsafe conditions — rides down Sandy Blvd to her job downtown every morning.

Riding on NE Sandy Boulevard? Are you nuts!?

Regular Sandy Blvd commuter Esther Harlow says her coworkers think she’s “crazy” for riding into work in downtown Portland on the wide, high-speed arterial. But for Harlow, and many others, the street’s dangerous conditions are a risk worth taking.

NE Sandy Blvd is a straight shot from outer northeast Neighborhoods into downtown. But if you’re on a bicycle, Sandy offers no dedicated facility and you must compete with fast-moving cars for road space (the road is slightly downhill headed toward downtown).

Sandy (red line) is a rare Portland street that doesn’t follow the grid.

In most sections, Sandy is the typical, auto-dominated, bloated arterial street (six lanes, four for travel, two for parking) that increasingly seems anachronistic in a city that is supposed to be a leader in non-motorized transportation.

But even with its lack of bicycle access, Sandy still has an allure for many bicycle riders. Why? Because it’s the quickest, most direct route from A to B (which is the same reason it’s popular for car traffic).

Riding on NE Sandy Blvd-8

Curious about the love/hate relationship many have with the street, I’ve been wanting to take a closer look at Sandy for months now. When Harlow posted a photo of a mangled, right-hook stricken bike with the caption, “It will take a death on NE Sandy to improve biking facilities” last week, I decided it was time to experience it myself.

I joined Esther (and her partner Timo Forsberg, who happens to work for PBOT in the Transportation Options division) on their morning commute last week.

What’s Sandy like to bike on? I asked Esther. “Gritty… Cars are very confused about how much room there is, unless you take the full lane.”

Curb extensions (where the curb juts out into travel lanes to make crossing easier) make things even more confusing, says Harlow. “In a lot of places it’s really wide; then suddenly, it gets really narrow.”

During our ride Friday morning, our senses remained on high alert. “Car back!” “Single file through there!” “That’s where that guy got hit.” “Here is the little bike lane they put in after a woman was killed several years ago.”*

Riding on NE Sandy Blvd-4-3

Ruts from bus tires and a door zone
add to the high-stress experience.

If Sandy is such an uncomfortable place to ride, why would Harlow do it? “It shaves a third off your distance,” she explained, “If we had to go Tillamook to Broadway or the Steel Bridge, it would add another 10-15 minutes onto our trip.” (Her total commute time is 25 minutes.)

Forsberg chimed in on why he takes Sandy, “Because I can’t get out of bed on time.” Forsberg says he’s tried various side-street routes, “But as time went on, I kept shaving closer to a straight line and ended up on Sandy.”

Reader Craig Santiago can’t fathom why anyone would want to ride on Sandy. “It is not worth the stress, danger, and exhaust fumes to take that route,” he wrote via email, “no matter how convenient. As a bicycle commuter, I ride to stay out of traffic, not to join it. Zig-zagging through the grid network of Portland’s quieter avenues is preferable to me.”

While it may not be for everyone, both Harlow and Forsberg feel some sort of bikeway on Sandy is needed. When asked for specifics, Harlow said, “A separated cycle track…[she started laughing as if that was a pie-in-the-sky idea]… Barring that, some signage about bikes being in the road.” Forsberg added that, “Even a bike lane would be great.”

I wasn’t able to confirm any upcoming City plans for a bikeway on Sandy; but that won’t stop the many bike commuters who rely on it every day.

*For more on the fatal crash on NE Sandy mentioned in the article, read this comment.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Zaphod
Guest

When I’m running late, Sandy is a direct line between my roaster and Whole Foods Hollywood. I decidedly take the lane unless there’s a long stretch where cars can get by. Ambiguity for drivers is the biggest risk as the road does vary in width. The cargo bike seems to get more respect than my skinny commute machine. I think one must roll fast, aware and with confidence to make it reasonably safe. If I have extra time, I choose other more scenic and peaceful routes.

Dave
Guest

I would second this wholeheartedly – I live near 24th and Sandy, and think often about how convenient it would be as a bike route – the road is huge, under-utilized by car traffic, and in my opinion, a perfect candidate (along with NE Glisan) for separated bicycle facilities. If you really want to accommodate cyclists, accommodate them on the most convenient routes.

It’s really time for Portland to step up their game and start putting some action into all the talk they float about being bike-friendly.

rootbeerguy
Guest
rootbeerguy

for me, McLoughlin Blvd would be the most direct route from Milwaukie. But Springwater Corridor is really nice route especially in the morning. It is a bit longer but its nature setting makes difference.

BURR
Guest
BURR

If nothing else, there should be sharrows in the center of the right lane on Sandy and all other arterial streets like it.

Sharrows are a proactive way to make motorists understand that bikes will be present and to expect them in the lane.

Why are we still waiting for this to happen, PBOT?

Andrew Seger
Guest
Andrew Seger

Great story. Really great mix of the personal narrative tied to a larger issue. Also agree with the coming investment in East Portland there still needs to be quick bike routes into inner Portland, and Sandy would be an ideal quick project. Unlike the Sullivan’s Gulch bikeway all the RoW is already owned by the city and there wouldn’t need to be any fancy cantilevered construction or erosion mitigation.

Options Guy
Guest

Thanks for the article Jonathan!
Having commuted Sandy regularly for about the past 6 years I find it is like the City itself – there are jerks and there are folks who respect and care for their neighbors.
Case in point – this morning I slowed as two huge pickup trucks came to a stop, one in each lane, with no traffic signal nearby. I looked around them and saw an older woman, tiny compared to the vehicles’ bulk, crossing Sandy’s wide girth on foot. She was going from corner to corner – using the legal (unmarked) crosswalk. Hooray for pedestrian right-of-way, and for everyone who honors it!

Harald
Guest

There’s an awful lot of talk of “danger” in the article, but no actual statistics about the number of collisions that happens on that street. Now I’m not in the camp that denies the importance of creating subjectively safe spaces, but having some sense of the more objective safety would nonetheless be helpful for making informed decisions (both for rider and for planners).

Esther
Guest
Esther

I just want to clarify I’m not sure about whether or not a woman died at the Banfield onramp or not. That could be my rapidly deteriorating memory/conflation with other events. Would love for someone to pipe in about when/why bike lane was put in at NE 37th.

Ross Williams
Guest

Here is a link to the final results of a 2005 planning process:
http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?a=90076&c=36373

Bikes from Page 9:

“Sandy Boulevard is a designated City Bikeway, and many cyclists travel on it between downtown and NE Portland, as well as between the surrounding residential areas and shops along the street. It is, however, a challenging cycling environment.

Due to the right-of-way constraints and the corridor’s need for on-street parking and auto capacity, bike lanes are not planned for Sandy Boulevard. …”

This is the introduction to a longer section.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

I live in Hollywood and ride out to Boeing several times a week (on 190th and Sandy). For me, Sandy would be the quickest way, but I choose to take either the bike boulevard south of Glisan to Burnside, 122nd and the I-84 path, or 57th through the neighborhood to Prescott. Sandy is just too fast with too much cross traffic. I do have several co-workers that ride it in the morning (before 6am), but even they have learned to avoid it in the afternoon on the way home.

Also, for those hoping for any improvements, you might want to get in touch with these people:
http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=54307

It appears that this will just be a repaving project, and will not improve facilities at all.

Schrauf
Guest
Schrauf

Timing is everything. I sometimes take Sandy to downtown from 33rd and it is always light traffic at 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I usually don’t take Sandy home because traffic is heavier and I am moving slower (uphill). But in general it is not bad. I like many parts of East Burnside as well, despite Ankeny being nearby.

Bjorn
Guest
Bjorn

Most of the congestion on Sandy is caused by cars attempting to parallel park on the street. It is a throughfare and there is plenty of parking to be had on the side streets. For much of sandy conditions could be improved for all modes by removing the parking.

I am very concerned about how the future addition of a streetcar on Sandy which is likely to occur will make things much worse for bikes. Because of the parking you have to take the lane to stay out of the door zone and if they put tracks down the outside lanes it will create a very unsafe situation.

I also almost always use Sandy to get from my house out near 76th and Mason to downtown, it is much much faster than the other options.

Bob_M
Guest
Bob_M

“Sandy still has an allure for many bicycle riders.” ?!
Yep, just like paying taxes has allure. I think of this route as an infrequent and unpleasant necessity.

When you rides Sandy stay on your “A” game.

Bjorn
Guest
Bjorn

Also I would say that I have experienced a lot more road rage on sandy than I have actual danger. My favorite was the guy who yelled at me to get on the sidewalk. I talked to him about it at several traffic lights over the next mile to mile and a half until finally way down by the hollywood theater he told me I couldn’t be in the street unless I was keeping up with the flow of traffic. This was mind you after I had been keeping up with him just fine for well over a mile.

I was also once pulled over and told by a cop that I needed to ride elsewhere because it was prom night and he was worried that some drunk teen would run me over.

The reasons are the same, for some reason auto users feel that Sandy is not an “appropriate” place for cyclists, even though it is a city bikeway and is obviously the fastest most efficient way for cyclists to get to and from downtown. Maybe they need to throw down some of those sharrows along sandy…

bobcycle
Guest
bobcycle

Esther
I just want to clarify I’m not sure about whether or not a woman died at the Banfield onramp or not. That could be my rapidly deteriorating memory/conflation with other events. Would love for someone to pipe in about when/why bike lane was put in at NE 37th.

July 5,2001. A woman bicyclist died as she crossed the freeway entrance ramp at 37th. Witnesses said she was on the right side of a semi-truck that was entering the freeway as she tried to continue on Sandy. I happen to be in my car that day and was first on the scene. I will never forget. RIP. I went to a critical mass rally at that intersection the following week. I attended every open house for the Sandy re- striping and gave input. I like to think the short bike lane across the freeway ramp was a result of my and others input. I live in Roseway neighborhood at approx. 72nd and Sandy. I ride inner Sandy when in a hurry but that is not often. I often ride Sandy to Tillamook then connect w/ Broadway at 22nd. Tillamook has 4 or 5 stop signs in an 8 block section near the Library, which makes Sandy very tempting. Also noteworthy is that during rush hour 30-50% of traffic on Sandy have Washington plates. The more backed up the Banfield the higher the percentage.

John Lascurettes
Guest

I occasionally need to ride from Hollywood to downtown during morning commute and Sandy is the way I go. Can’t beat the directness of it, and it’s nearly all downhill from there.

For the most part, I take the lane – impatient motorized drivers have a whole other lane to take (and yet, they’re the ones I usually catch up to at the lights).

The sudden widening and narrowing of Sandy is the worst part of it. Some places a rider really should (must) take the lane for everyone’s safety, in others, the lane itself is nearly wide enough for two whole cars and the bicycle rider should ride as far right as practicable. The biggest surprise in all this is some of the rather abrupt narrowings of the right lane heading into downtown.

eli bishop
Guest
eli bishop

i’d like to see a bike lane on sandy: not terribly protective, but much better than nothing at all. it would become a street much like division, and i’ve had occasion to use & be grateful for division, even if it’s not an idyllic street.

Liz
Guest
Liz

Jonathan – have you heard anything about a pedestrian hit by a car last Friday late afternoon on Sandy right in front of Laurelwood? We happened upon it right after it happened. Looked like she was trying to cross from their across Sandy parking lot. Its a tough place to cross – like most of Sandy. I was just curious as to how she was doing.

I know we completely avoid Sandy when commuting to work by bike. Always looks a little scary to me.

Dave
Guest

Another note about accommodating bike traffic on streets like Sandy – if it were nice to ride and walk along Sandy, people from the neighborhoods around would be much more likely to visit businesses on Sandy – as it is, many of them avoid the street unless in a car, which likely means they’re going somewhere else.

Brock
Guest
Brock

Very timely. i was just telling friends that I do not see why anyone would take Sandy when there are dedicated and marked bikeways a couple blocks away. I guess time is an issue for some but as a avid cyclist who also drives for must trips (kids sports, etc), I must confess that I get irritated with cyclists riding on Sandy. As much as we cyclists get pissed at those rude and dangerous drivers, we should recognize that biking on some roadways can create delay and danger for motorists and creates bad feelings when there doesn’t have to be any.

I know that I have enjoyed many waves, smiles and ROW’s from motorists just by being courteous and thanking them with waves for their consideration. Not only makes me feel good, it creates good vibes between cyclists and motorists. Something that is always in need.

I would encourage those you feel they “own the road” and can bike anywhere they damn well please, to take a little more time and enjoy the great cycle infrastructure this town already has. Some roads should probably be left to the autos that dominate it for everyone’s sake.

JMO-

Dave
Guest

Sharrows on a street like Sandy are not a “solution” for anyone but young, athletic types.

Bjorn
Guest
Bjorn

Just painting a bike lane would make sandy much more dangerous if it wasn’t accompanied by the removal of the parallel parking on the street. The speed of both cyclists and cars on Sandy mean that a dooring could easily be deadly.

bobcycle
Guest
bobcycle

Esther, I found the link from 2001 WW article
http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-253-crossroads_of_shame.html

David K
Guest
David K

I ride Sandy often after 3 am, and it’s a great deserted thorough-fare at that hour.

fredlf
Guest

I see a lot of bike infrastructure that fails to take into account the fact that bike “drivers” are no different than car drivers insofar as they usually want to go the fastest, most efficient way from A to B.

Rol
Guest

I don’t bike Sandy much lately, but in my past experience, there are long stretches of Sandy that I would say are not too bad — wide enough and sufficiently empty of parked cars to make for a de facto bike lane. The hairy spots seem to be mostly near where major roads intersect it. Such as Burnside (formerly), 33rd, and the stretch through the main part of Hollywood (I-84, 39th, Broadway, Halsey, 42nd et al). And actually the crash map posted above seems to confirm my feelings, which always tended toward higher levels of caution at precisely the places where the bigger red circles are!

BURR
Guest
BURR

John Lascurettes

The biggest surprise in all this is some of the rather abrupt narrowings of the right lane heading into downtown.

I assume you’re talking about the curb extensions?

According to PBOT, those are an ‘improvement’ for cyclists.

nuovorecord
Guest
nuovorecord

Wowzers! Esther and Timo, you’ve got more courage than I. Ride safely out there!!!

eric
Guest
eric

sand is a convenient way to get out to NE when you really need to get there, and back to downtown. It’s a shame that because of all the bike infrastructure drivers don’t think bikes should be on that road. sharrows would honestly go a long way towards making bikes feel better, and make drivers feel better about bikes. (this goes for 11th and 12th, too)

Brad
Guest
Brad

Sharrows work.

I use NW 19th a great deal and consider it one of the safest stretches of road in the city. It is heavily trafficked with cars, especially during the evening commute. There is a solid line of parked cars along the far right curb. Why do I feel it is so safe? The sharrows make it abundantly clear that I and other bike riders will be present and taking the lane. It is one of the few spots in Portland that I see cars use turn signals and move entirely into the left lane to pass cyclists. Are all of Portland’s good drivers in NW? No. It’s because the sharrows are intuitive, very visible, and send a direct message. No signs, cute art projects, road furniture, or other subtle clues that a driver can miss. Just a big arrow with a bike rider that screams, “Share!”.

If you have the right to be in the lane (and you do!), if the sharrow makes it clear to all road users what to expect (and they do!), then you do not have to be young, athletic, or fearless to ride a bike on city streets.

Personally, I want a transportation system that I can navigate by bicycle now and not some expensive aspirational Euro-fetish pipedream that MIGHT exist in twenty years if the stars align, bike friendly pols keep getting elected, and the economy doesn’t hit another big bust cycle in that time. With enough sharrows, we could have a truly great bike transportation system in well less than a decade at costs that cannot be argued against. If we attempt to re-create Copenhagen, we’ll likely end up with a mile of cycletrack here, a couple kilometers of MUP there, and the same lack of connectivity and usefulness we suffer now.

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

Sandy is my preferred route to and from Hollywood. I don’t find it stressful or dangerous.

Brock
Guest
Brock

Milkshake, no doubt you will continue to ride where you want. I was only trying to suggest that attitudes like “If you don’t like me on Sandy, use the other lane to pass me. I will continue to ride where I see fit thank you very much.” keep the us v them / cars v bicyclist / i only care about me attitude alive and well in our town.

I will continue to do my part to show respect to drivers when I bike and to show respect to cyclists when I drive.

Nat
Guest
Nat

The same issue exists to a lesser extent with Foster Road.

Liz
Guest
Liz

I don’t ever bike on Sandy, except for the odd block here and there at staggered intersections. It’s scary as hell, unless it’s 2am and you have the entire six lane monstrosity to yourself!

However, I can see why people DO bike on it. Particularly people like Esther coming from more outer Portland areas. The grid system is so terrible and disconnected the further away from downtown you get. And the lack of any real bikeways east of 41st doesn’t help.

It would be wonderful to see a cycletrack on Sandy one day! Either way, I am thankful ODOT handed Sandy over to PBOT a few years back, enabling all of the new crosswalks and the like to be installed for the first time ever.

Brock
Guest
Brock

Ahh yes the typical responses. Our rights! It is the law! Yes, yes, all true.

It is not disrespecful to exercise your rights nor is it to keep from cowering. Just maybe it isn’t either to think of other people once in awhile.

Hard to see how suggesting shared respect offends. I guess it isn’t anti car enough.

Travis
Guest
Travis

I ride Sandy all the time from Tillamook & 45th (home) to 30th as a cut through to “SE” or Laurelthirst or Laurelhurst Theater… With the exception of the 84 on ramp/overpass it’s usually smooth sailing. The traffic lights through Hollywood keep speeds in check enough to take the lane.

From my Hood there is no “safe” route but the pedestrian crossing at the Hollywood Transit Center, 47th (long ways) or Tillamook to the Fred Myer 84 overpass (yuck).

maxadders
Guest
maxadders

Oh, man. I’m all for cyclists’ rights but these folks need a reality check. If Esther loves bicycling so much, why does she feel the need to shave “one third” off of commute that’s just a few miles long?

It’s not that Sandy is the only reasonable option– there’s plenty of alternatives. It’s not going to kill anyone to wake up 15 minutes earlier or ride a couple extra miles a week.

All that Sandy represents– reality check applied– is a way for Esther to make a big stink and feel important about herself. Part of being a member of a community is realizing that to succeed, it needs to cater to multiple groups at once. Can Portland have streets that cater to cars, as well as ones that cater to bikes? I don’t see why not.

Paul Tay
Guest
Paul Tay

Sandy….NO sweat. Got earplugs?

Kevin Wagoner
Guest

Good article. I would just like to say thank you to people like Esther and Timo to have the courage to ride something not designed for bikes. No doubt it seems risky, but cyclist being seen out there helps keep the issue of needing to make improvements real.

Vancouver Commuter
Guest
Vancouver Commuter

Roads like sandy are the normal biking experience in Vancouver. Actually Sandy is much nicer than SE 34th in Vancouver, a street with a 40 mph speed limit and curbs on the sides so you have no where to go if someone comes too close.

Tim Roth
Guest

After reading this article, I promptly hopped on my bike and sailed downhill on Sandy. I love riding Sandy downhill. I would certainly welcome the addition of a bike lane though.

SK
Guest

Wow, as a cyclist myself I would NEVER consider riding down Sandy Blvd. during morning traffic (I live off 48th & Sandy) and tend to consider people who do annoying, ignorant and unwise. Is another 10-15 minutes on a safer route the city has spent money on to provide for cyclists really out of the question? You are playing with fire Esther & Timo and I don’t think you’re courageous, but ridiculous.

marshmallow
Guest
marshmallow

Sandy is by far the easiest road to “hammer” from ne to downtown in the least time. Sight-lines are excellent due to angular cross streets. An experienced roadie could easily average 35 mph east to west, 25 mph west to east.

Mac_Rasc
Guest
Mac_Rasc

I am a casual cyclist who lives just off Sandy, and Sandy is the reason I will NOT commute downtown to my job. Way too intimidating for the newbie commuter, and I just can’t justify all the extra time trying to work around it. I really wish the city could understand that I’m not alone in feeling like this, and make commuting by bike easier for all. They could improve bike commuting rates dramatically. It almost as though they’d rather not disturb all of those WA drivers that race down Sandy in the mornings.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

Though I have never ridden on Sandy, and will not until its rightful cycle track is completed, I respect those who choose to ride it. I would think it is not all that dangerous if you are disciplined about taking the lane well in advance of where you’ll “need” it.

ash
Guest

I think this is a problem everywhere. Some cyclists just can’t imagine biking on certain streets, and so are resistant to making changes on those streets and are just as bad as non-cyclists in chiding others. Seriously, who doesn’t do something to give themselves an extra 10-15 minutes in bed in the morning? Why shouldn’t she take the most direct route, especially to something essential like her job?

sara
Guest
sara

I don’t know if the bike lane was put in as a direct response to her death, but the young woman who was right-hooked by the truck turning from Sandy onto the Banfield on-ramp (sometime in the 90’s) did die as a result of that crash. Her name was Nancy Wernert.

Barbara
Guest
Barbara

FYI: Sandy Blvd resurfacing planned for summer, fall from NE 47th – 82nd by PBOT. Repaving, storm drain management “features” & traffic islands added. Will be unpleasant for bicycling during with lance closures & sounds like more of a squeeze after. I’ve lived nearby for 30 yrs & used NE Sandy for bicycling less so in recent yrs. Partially because of the excess speeding that’s really gotten out of hand. Project contact is kbria@whpacific.com, 503-372-3643.

Brad
Guest
Brad

If it scares you then don’t use Sandy and budget extra time to take the “safer” indirect route. I don’t think that we should be wasting a lot of money on a fancy cycletrack to assuage the fears of a few. The ROI on those potential users is low to nil.

Planners need to start seeing bike infrastructure like a business would. Run the numbers, assess a realistic mode share, and then decide if painted sharrows or loads of new concrete, removal of parking, legal fights over parking removal, etc. are worth coaxing the timid out on two wheels. I suspect the numbers won’t add up as the vast majority of “interested but concerned” will dig deeper into their arsenal of excuses to avoid bike commuting in anything other than perfect conditions.

onegear29
Guest
onegear29

Esther
I just want to clarify I’m not sure about whether or not a woman died at the Banfield onramp or not. That could be my rapidly deteriorating memory/conflation with other events. Would love for someone to pipe in about when/why bike lane was put in at NE 37th.

Yes a woman was right hooked by a semi truck that swung wide to make the on ramp and unfortunately took her life. It was about 10 years ago (??) with the outcome being the bike lane that is in place now.