(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
Helena Stedman doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Portland bike commuter. At just five years old, she’d rather talk about kindergarten than bike lanes and her most prized bike accessory is her favorite stuffed elephant.
I joined Helena and her parents, Kenneth and Barbara Stedman, for their morning commute yesterday. And in case you’re wondering, Helena rides her own bike — a stock, singlespeed Specialized with a pink basket, fenders, a bell, and neon tape around the spokes.
The Stedmans’ live off a dirt and gravel road just off SW Capitol Highway in western Hillsdale. As they buzzed around the door getting ready for the day, Ken explained the evolution of his young daughter from trailer to fearless captain of her own steed. Ken and Barbara (she grew up in a small town in Germany where biking was a normal part of everyday life) have had Helena in a trailer since she was a baby. She’d gone from trailer to tag-along bike in the past year and “She’s been begging to ride her own bike,” ever since, Ken says.
Now, with just a few months under her belt, Helena is riding strong and confident on some of Portland’s busiest streets.
As we rolled out of their garage and headed for Portland State University (where Ken works as a biology professor), I asked Barbara if she has any trepidation about letting her daughter ride by herself, or if she knows Helena’s abilities well enough to not worry. “I know her abilities, so that doesn’t bother me; but I also know the car drivers’ inabilities,” she said. Barbara said she has a “free-range parenting” style. “I’m not afraid of stranger-danger,” she said, “I’m afraid of distracted moms on cell phones.”
Underway on our commute (Barbara to OHSU and Ken to Portland State, where Helena attends kindergarten), the first tricky intersection was crossing SW Capitol Highway at SW Nebraska. Fortunately (for people on bikes), the road is bumper-to-bumper eastbound during the AM rush, so speeds are slow and predictable. But Ken is still miffed when people driving west don’t stop. “They’ll come flying by, even with Helena standing there,” he says as they stood next to their bikes waiting for an opening.
Once on Capitol Hwy, Helena immediately popped up onto the sidewalk. I would quickly learn that for this family, sidewalks play a huge role in their bicycling routine.
As we approached the Hillsdale shopping center, I asked Ken about driveways and cars swerving in and out of them. He said people are usually very good about stopping when they see her; but it can be stressful.
Helena just rolls along, seemingly without a care in the world, her little legs spinning a high cadence as she easily maxes out her one gear. She knows the drill and seems right at home up on the sidewalk.
As Capitol Hwy heads downhill, east of Sunset Blvd to Terwilliger, we come upon one of the only sections of the entire commute where Helena rides on the main roadway next to cars. My own pulse quickened a bit as she sped down the hill — which was slick with wet leaves following a rain storm the night before — just a few feet from a TriMet bus.
At the intersection of Capitol Hwy and Terwilliger, the family does a two-stage left turn. They cross over Terwilliger in the crosswalk and then re-orient themselves to head north.
While waiting for the light to change, Barbara points out a serious safety concern. On the far side of the intersection there’s a median which creates a pinchpoint between people in cars and bikes. To thwart the inevitable, Barbara said she springs from the green ASAP to take the middle of the lane in hopes it will deter someone from trying to squeeze past (and squeeze her in the process). Tuesday morning it didn’t work. A large truck sped up and exacerbated the situation. “That’s one of the worst ones I’ve had,” Barbara said as we made our way onto Terwilliger. (Meanwhile, Ken and Helena take a nifty little sidewalk cut-through in order to avoid it altogether).
Barbara also shared that she’s called in the problem to 823-SAFE and was impressed that PBOT staff actually took the request and sent out an engineer. She was hoping they’d consider a pre-green, where bike would get an early green light to reach the problem spot ahead of people in cars. But PBOT said they’re already planning other changes that should help the problem.
Safely onto Terwilliger, the adults rode in the bike lane while Helena enjoyed a nice smooth sidewalk separated from traffic and without the dangerous driveways in the shopping center. Both Ken and Barbara noted that people drive much faster than they should on the narrow and curvy road and that the speed limit is rarely obeyed. Except for that, and a few cross streets — like SW Condor, which Barbara said makes her a bit paranoid since she read about the serious injury collision back in 2011 — Terwilliger is smooth sailing.
It was funny to see Helena ride fast to perform for the guy with a camera. I would try and get ahead of her to snap a photo and she’d speed up. When she was ahead, she’d be looking back to make sure I wasn’t catching up. She’s done a Kiddie Cross race at the Cross Crusade and I don’t envy the kids she goes up against.
After Terwilliger, we were thrust onto the crazy mix of traffic at SW Broadway and 6th. Ken stayed up on a median island with Helena as he told me how at least once a month someone will turn right from 6th onto Broadway — which is illegal. “I was even right-hooked once,” he shared, “while I had both kids in the trailer behind me.”
After rolling over the I-405 overpass on 6th (and riding what I think is the narrowest bike lane in Portland), Ken and Helena dismount and grab a sidewalk path that heads west, adjacent to the freeway, and then leads right into the PSU campus.
Before reaching Helena’s kindergarten at SW 12th and Market, there’s just one more tricky spot that Ken has to be careful at. He says people drive really fast off of the I-405 freeway on-ramp onto 12th, despite the 25 mph speed limit and dense campus environment.
While there were some safety issues, overall it’s a pretty pleasant morning ride (especially up on Terwilliger). I mean, seriously, while I am well aware of the gaps in bike access throughout Portland, if a five-year-old can ride her own bike 4 and 1/2 miles during the morning rush hour — smiling and talking and having a blast along the way — we must be doing something right.
— Thanks Barbara, Ken, and Helena for letting me tag along. If you like the Ride Along series, stay tuned. You can read previous ones here.