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Ride Along with the McLeod Family: Sellwood to Lair Hill

Posted by on May 21st, 2014 at 3:07 pm

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Ben, Liam and Campbell McLeod roll out of their driveway in Sellwood on their way to school this morning.
(Photos J. Maus/BikePortland)

This morning I joined Ben McLeod and his two sons, Liam (9) and Campbell (7) for their ride to school. They live in Sellwood, just a few blocks east of Sellwood Park, and the boys go to Cedarwood School in Lair Hill. The trip is just about four miles and it includes some of the best and worst biking conditions that Portland has to offer.

The McLeods are a one-car family — a conscious decision made when they moved to Portland in 2008. Ben, 42, works in southeast Portland and his wife Nikki takes the car each morning to her job in Vancouver. This morning, as Ben gathered up the kids’ gear and bags for the day (which included a violin stuffed into his pannier) and got the bikes out of the shed, he explained how their bicycling has changed over the years. “We have a bakfiets [cargo bike with large box in the front] that we used to use, but the kids are kind of too heavy now.”

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Ben expected he’d still have to take the bakfiets when the weather got ugly, but it turns out the boys are quite capable on their own and he’s only used it twice all year. (Later in the ride Campbell told me he got so cold on one ride this winter that it took him a few hours to thaw out after he got to school.) These days the boys ride their own bikes: Liam is on a 24-inch wheeled Fuji road bike and Campbell rides a 20-inch GT BMX bike. Dad is on a very nicely customized Proletariat from Stop Cycles with a belt-drive and front and rear racks.

After joining them this morning, I can see why the boys love riding to school. While it has its difficult spots, their route is interesting, spectacular in some parts, and anything but boring.

We started out on the quiet residential streets of Sellwood and headed toward the horrible crossing of the Sellwood Bridge. Ben said because the bridge sidewalk is so narrow, he prefers to ride sweep. The boys fell right into order: Campbell (the smallest) in front, then Liam, then dad. As we rode over the Willamette — narrowly avoiding a concrete railing and opposing bike traffic on one side and a high curb and rumbling auto traffic on the other — all I could think about (besides not crashing while taking photos) was how great it will be once the new Sellwood Bridge is open.

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While it’s a bit hair-raising, crossing the Sellwood Bridge these days offers the boys a great opportunity to see the construction process. It’s something I’m sure they’ll tell their grandkids about someday. As in, “When I was a boy, we used to bike across the old bridge and watch them build this one we’re riding on now…” Ben told me it’s been neat to watch the daily progress of the project.

Once we survived the bridge crossing, it was onto the Willamette Greenway Trail. However, given the construction, there’s a detour that takes riders onto the sidewalk of SW Macadam. The sidewalk is very narrow and full of utility poles and busy commercial driveways.

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As we approached one driveway, a woman had pulled her car out into the sidewalk. Thankfully, as we got closer, she backed up and let us pass.

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From Macadam, Ben took a right on SW Logan through a gravel parking lot to connect to SW Miles Court. That’s not the official detour route but Ben said, “I like to get off Macadam at the first opportunity. Riding that sidewalk is the worst part of our commute.”

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As bad as riding is on Macadam, the next part of their route offers some of the most pleasant riding in the entire city: the path and roadway through Willamette Park.

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This section of their ride is so quiet and nearly carfree that the boys like to practice their no-hands riding. And it gives Ben a chance to grab a sip of coffee.

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Further north we get onto the section of path that winds through condominiums and other private property. The views of the Willamette River and the downtown Portland skyline are fantastic, but we had to be mindful of the many people walking and jogging. There’s somewhat of an uneasy truce on this section of the path between adjacent property owners and people just riding through. “The path is nice,” Ben said, “It’s much better than being on Macadam but it’s primarily for walkers and sometimes we get dirty looks.” I could tell Ben made an effort to be extra courteous and cautious. He slowed and made verbal contact with everyone we passed.

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As we approached the South Waterfront District, we took a left off the greenway trail onto a sidewalk through the Spa at River’s Edge. It was a much better connection to Moody than the official route; but Ben said they’ve been yelled at by valets at River’s Edge who claim the sidewalk is private property.

Into South Waterfront we took a bike lane towards the elevator at the Gibbs Street Bridge. Ben has experienced all sorts of problems with the elevator. It’s been out of order several times, which forces he and the boys to carry their bikes up several steep flights of stairs. Thankfully, this morning it worked just fine. Campbell actually pulled right into the elevator without even getting off his bike.

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Up on the bridge, a few other families from the boys’ school met us and we formed a bike train for the final few blocks. It was great to see so much use of the Gibbs Bridge. It was also great to see how the kids took over at the front of the group, riding through the streets and managing stop signs and crossings with confidence.

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As we wove through the Lair Hill neighborhood, I followed the group up onto a sidewalk at SW Grover Street that led to a tunnel under Naito Parkway. I had never even heard of this tunnel before. It makes an excellent (and carfree!) connection to SW 1st and the Cedarwood School at SW Woods and 2nd.

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Ben said when he and Nikki first looked at going to Cedarwood, whether or not they could safely get their by bike was a key consideration. “If it wasn’t for that tunnel under Naito and the Gibbs Bridge,” he shared, “I’m not so sure we could pull off coming here.” And when the new Tilikum Crossing Bridge opens next year, the McLeod’s school commute will get even better.

Once on school grounds, many of the other parents noticed the big bike train rolling in. “Hey Joe,” I heard one dad say as we rang bells and rolled over to the covered bike parking, “We should do a bike train too.”

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Thanks Ben, Liam and Campbell for letting me tag along this morning.

If you enjoyed this post, read more installments in our Ride Along series archives.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. 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

  • Nick May 21, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Ride-a-longs are back! Love these.

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  • Timur Ender May 21, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Ride-a-longs are my favorite type of BP stories; thank you!

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  • David May 21, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    I love the ride along stories! Always so interesting to read about people routes and why they choose certain ones.

    I’ve always been curious how you find people for these though, do people approach you or are they just people you happen to know?

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  • Mark May 21, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    More ride-a-longs and more “people on bikes,” please.

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  • Bella Bici May 21, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Can’t get enough of these!!!

    Following along with the MacLeod family’s bicycling commute is inspirational. Even though I commute by bike everyday, it fills me with hope. Especially when our youth are right there in the mix.

    Keep it up MacLeod family! Others will slowly be shown by all your exemplary efforts that one can commute via bike. We are still pioneers.

    And, of course, Jonathan, such exceptional photojournalism! Please, please (if possible), make these ride-a-longs a monthly inclusion.

    Simply, thank you for BikePortland.

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  • Chris I May 22, 2014 at 7:07 am

    That Range Rover is a true urban assault vehicle. Look at how carelessly it rests on top of that curb; I’m sure you would have no problem blasting over greenway diverters with that thing. And the steel cattle guard on the front will make sure that no pesky pedestrians and cyclists scratch your clear coat.

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    • El Biciclero May 22, 2014 at 7:46 am

      I saw that too. You gotta have a cattle guard when you’re on an urban safari with so many wild pedestrians and cyclists lurking at every turn! And don’t let no curb stop you from going there! I wonder whether the driver even noticed they had mounted that curb, or the RR just ate it up.

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      • Chris I May 22, 2014 at 12:40 pm

        That’s the Freeman Motor Co lot. They sell used luxury cars to people from Lake Oswego. I think they’re hoping that everyone sitting in traffic on Macadam will see the impressive parking job and stop in to buy something that can drive over the traffic they sit in every day.

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  • El Biciclero May 22, 2014 at 7:49 am

    Another vote for ride-along stories! Especially family ride-alongs like this one. I’m trying to figure out what tricks techniques will work when I get up the courage to start taking my kids more places on (for now) the cargo bike, or (later) their own bikes.

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  • Aaron W. May 22, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I see the McLeod’s on my ride to work on a regular basis. Usually while crossing the Sellwood Bridge. The youngest leads the way and rides with incredible confidence and skill. They set a great example for all of us.

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  • Charles Ross May 22, 2014 at 9:30 am

    I often ride portions of this route, including the bridge. I’m 63 and have extensive experience with both close quarter urban riding and bike touring. These two kids, seven and nine respectively, should not be riding their bikes over the Sellwood bridge. The sidewalk is too narrow, the light standards are obstacles, the construction and cars passing very closely are a distraction. All it takes is one loud sound from the construction, one driver honking its horn as it passes to startle a rider. Also the bridge is high and open creating a crosswind factor.
    If you are on a bike and fall into traffic along this busy through fare you will not survive the accident. It takes three or four minutes to ride this portion and probably seven or eight to walk the bikes. I strongly urge this family to make this adjustment.

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    • GlowBoy May 23, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      Walking the Sellwood Bridge is the worst. First of all, it takes a lot more than twice as long to walk the same distance as it does to ride it. Second, when you walk a bike you’re a lot wider than when you’re riding it, making the narrowness of the path an even bigger problem.

      Best thing is this will all be moot in less than a year and a half.

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      • Charles Ross May 24, 2014 at 4:53 pm

        No, walking your bike over the Sellwood bridge is not the worst. The worst is losing your balance and falling into rush hour traffic.

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        • GlowBoy May 25, 2014 at 10:59 am

          You know what would make Portland a better place, even more than making it bike-friendlier?

          Fewer people telling other people how to live their lives.

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          • Charles Ross May 25, 2014 at 3:31 pm

            If you are riding a bike along this narrow sidewalk and fall into what is a constant flow of rush hour traffic (the time of the day in which this family is commuting) You will not survive the accident.
            Now, apparently none of you: glowboy, the seven year old Campbell and nine year old Liam are mature enough to really understand this but at least the kids have an excuse.

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    • Charlie May 25, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      Happy you chimed in with your vast experience and knowledge. I have a better idea. Since the vast majority of the traffic is from the Clackamas crowd who elected not to contribute to fixing the bridge, simply ride on the road. The fact it is inconvenient for them – too bad. I refuse to ride/or worse, walk on the sidewalk there as the road works perfectly fine.

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  • Kimberly Kinchen May 22, 2014 at 9:38 am

    This is what it’s all about. More, please!

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  • Rob May 22, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Been riding that ole Sellwood Bridge for over 15 years now… can’t wait until that sidewalk is no longer part of my life!

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  • Joe May 22, 2014 at 10:42 am


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  • Joe May 22, 2014 at 10:44 am

    but not the RR on the curb 🙁 lurking parking lot mayham

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  • davemess May 22, 2014 at 10:47 am

    So when the MAX bridge is done, would Springwater to that bridge be a much better option (sure it’s a little bit further, but a lot less hassles)?

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    • davemess May 22, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Sorry missed that hidden at the end of the article.

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  • reader May 22, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    I am always curious how Jonathan gets some of the great action shots on these ride-alongs. Do you have a mounted camera that takes pictures every so often? Surely you are not riding ahead (on the Sellwood Bridge especially) and snapping pics or taking the photos with hands while riding. Grabbing all the photos would surely mean the commute lasted 2x or 3x normal. Please explain (so I can consider copying because I often want to share photos of some of my rides but I don’t like to stop all the time to take them).

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  • Mike Owens May 23, 2014 at 8:50 am

    If only all parents could ride to school with their kids. Alas, so many jobs this just isn’t possible. Kudos for making it work!! (jealous)

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  • mikeybikey May 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

    glad to see the ride along series back! im actually writing this from a cafe in copenhagen. I have to say that after a full day of riding around cph, this ride along makes me kind of sad for the current state of cycling in portland. here i see kids riding their younger siblings around in cargo bikes and back home people have to contend with routes like this. we gotta roll up our sleeves and get down to work in pdx.

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  • MilosGold May 27, 2014 at 8:57 am

    I have seen the McLeod family several times as we commute at the same time. I would like to commend them for being extremely courteous, particularly on the very difficult Sellwood bridge sidewalk. Usually I pass them only to see them roll by my office a few minutes later. But they are not only biking with the kids, but taking care to teach the rules of the road too.

    Like others I cannot wait for the new Sellwood Bridge to open next year. This sidewalk is a major constriction and things are worse with the construction, particularly the west end of the bridge. But riding the beautiful riverfront path on the west side always makes up for it!

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  • jd May 27, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Hoping for more stories like this! I never thought I’d look back on my single bike commuting as “easy”, but helping parents and kids understand good options for them will be a great way to grow cycling even more in Portland.

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  • Scott H May 28, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    This route is the epitome of what would be a wonderful system of safe networks, but instead is a representation of the heap of disconnected routes we have that are separated by almost impassable adrenaline inducing stretches.

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  • Reza June 9, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Please make these a regular feature again.

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