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

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).

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.”*

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.

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