Welcome to the latest installment of our Ride Along series, which is sponsored by MetroMile.
Prepare to be envious of Paul Cole’s commute. This 29-year-old northwest Portland resident has a commute that’s only about 1.5 miles, most of it on relatively low-stress streets, and he also gets to ride over the Willamette River every day.
Cole, who works in marketing for a software firm, lives in an apartment in Old Town at NW 5th and Everett. He moved to Portland from St. Augustine Florida in 2007 and hadn’t ridden a bike since childhood when he moved here. One day he stumbled into Bike Gallery during one of their big sales and bought a bike. “I was kind of nervous at first,” he recalled, as he packed his panniers and got ready for work (he stores his bike in his apartment).
To build confidence in riding again, Cole used the paths in Waterfront Park as a training ground. One of his favorite rides was to head south on the paths to Willamette Park. Back then, Cole weighed about 270 pounds. Now he’s a svelte-looking 200 or so. “I remember being totally exhausted at first. I was really out of shape.” Eventually things got easier and he began to venture out of Waterfront Park and onto city streets. Then, like many Portlanders, he had his first crash on streetcar tracks. But it didn’t keep him off the bike. By the end of 2008 he was biking to work every day from downtown to his old job at SE 70th and Division. Since then he’s ridden to work all but one day.
Eventually he upgraded to a Novara commuter/road bike with drop bars, racks and fenders. When some friends from St. Augustine visited a few years ago, he ventured out on his first bike tour, riding to Astoria and camping a few nights on the coast. He’s also done overnighters at Stub Stewart State Park near Vernonia (getting most of the way there on the MAX).
As we rolled out on SW 5th, he said he doesn’t mind riding on the transit mall, but he doesn’t like the turning restrictions. The first few blocks of his commute, from Old Town and onto West Burnside, are the busiest part of his route. Despite what seem like intimidating conditions, Cole has learned to love how traffic signals help keep things under control.
As we rolled onto the Burnside Bridge, Cole surprised me by saying it’s his favorite bridge to ride on. The Burnside, with its standard bike lanes next to high-speed traffic, doesn’t usually come up as a favorite. The Broadway, Hawthorne, and Steel all have dedicated paths away from auto traffic and they tend to be the ones features in commercials and marketing brochures. But Cole says he prefers the Burnside: “It’s got a big, wide bike lane and it’s on the same level [as the roadway].” As for the other bridges? “Riding on Hawthorne makes me nervous because if you fall you’re heading right onto that steel grating; on the Steel you can’t ride over the top, and Morrison, well, I never ride on it.”
After soaking in the river view, we came to the new green bike lane on East Burnside. Cole appreciates the new lanes; but says he forces himself to stay vigilant and always expect right-hooks. “I feel like you can get too complacent and think cars will realize they shouldn’t turn ahead of you. You can’t rely on that. People [driving cars] will dart in [to the bike lane] at the last second to make the right turn.”
Cole chooses to stay on Burnside just long enough to cross the busy MLK and Grand couplet. Continuing east, he prefers to be on SE Ankeny. Ankeny is one of the oldest bike-specific streets in Portland. It’s got sharrows and it’s relatively low-stress. It also connects to a lot of other bikeways and destinations. “Ankeny is great,” Cole says, “It’s one of my favorite streets to ride on. You can get to a lot of places on it… Laurelhurst Theater, Laurelhurst Park.”
Yesterday morning, Cole planned to stop in at a bakery to grab breakfast. He turned off SE Ankeny at 13th and headed south toward the “vegan mini-mall” at 12th and Stark. En route to getting his morning quiche, Cole pulled right into an on-street bike corral.
The morning auto traffic on SE Stark can be pretty tricky. Stark in the central eastside is narrow and without any dedicated bike space. Cars headed west (downhill a bit) go fast and it was challenging for Cole to re-enter traffic in order to make a left turn (south) to our final destination.
When he doesn’t stop for breakfast, Cole takes SE 6th to get south through the central eastside. Why not SE 7th, I asked, because it’s the larger street with a bike lane that most people take. Cole said he prefers 6th because it’s quieter and less stressful. But isn’t it slower? I asked. “It’s a 10 minute ride,” replied Cole, “If it becomes a 12 ride it’s really not a big deal.”
As we turned east onto SE Salmon, headed to SE 7th, Cole said the crossings can be dangerous. “People park their cars all the way to the corners,” he said, “So it’s hard to see oncoming traffic.” Overgrown trees blocking stop signs also makes things tricky.
After waiting for a break in the traffic on SE 7th, Cole rolled into his office. There’s a bike rack right inside. His boss lives just a few blocks away and walks to work, so Cole said he’s very supportive of his employees who bike to work.
I appreciated Cole’s calm and collected riding style. I seem to always be in a hurry to get where I’m going, but Cole rides slowly and methodically, and he’ll go out of his way to ride on quieter, low-stress streets. Despite his riding experience, Cole seems to fit somewhere in between the “interested but concerned” and “strong and fearless” categories. He doesn’t like roads with high-speed auto traffic and no bike facilities and he’ll go out of his way to find safer, more pleasant routes.
I hope you learned something by riding along with Paul Cole.
And Paul, thanks for letting me tag along!
— The BikePortland Ride Alongs are sponsored by MetroMile which is offering the country’s first true pay per mile car insurance. So if you drive less, you pay less. Read more Ride Alongs here. If you’d like your commute to be considered, please get in touch.