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One rider’s Twitter crusade shows the ‘City that works’ what doesn’t

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Vanlue on the job.
(Photo: Asta Chastain)

Maybe the All-Powerful Bicycle Lobby had something to do with it, but the day Will Vanlue decided to start delivering for SoupCycle was an especially good day for the rest of Portland.

As a courier for the Portland-based soup delivery service, Vanlue — a former BikePortland contributor and Bicycle Transportation Alliance communications manager, a talented photographer and one of the most courteous and mindfully upbeat biking advocates in town — spends many of his daytime hours traveling the city’s streets in an upright city bike with a trailer full of fresh soup.

Also with him: a smartphone camera he’s been using for months to share street design shortcomings on Twitter.

Interspersed with Vanlue’s Instagram posts about family, beer and funny road signs and various good questions about infrastructure in general, he’s singled out the new design of North Williams Avenue for particular dismay.

Here’s one of his first tweets on the subject, from last fall:

Another construction shot from a few days later:

Later in November, he started using a new hashtag for the series, #4thBestBikeCity:

In November the BTA, which has been on a multi-year campaign to get Portland to create a formal, multi-bureau policy about detours and other road work issues, sent a formal letter to the city about problems with the Williams construction work. Vanlue kept finding problems:

The day after Vanlue shared the series above, a man driving north just south of Fremont during rush hour, just outside New Seasons, collided with a woman biking north. She had been merging right out of the bike lane and into the busy shared travel lane to make a right turn.

At the time, Abraham Sutphin, owner of a bike shop across the street from this collision, wrote in an email to us: “Williams has been nuts since the lane switch… I think it would be prudent to report on the chaos. I’ve never seen or heard of a crash for the 4 and a half years of sitting on this corner.”


Around that time, Vanlue started including the Twitter handle for the Bureau of Transportation, @PBOTinfo, so they would see his comments as he made them.

To the bureau’s credit, it responded in less than half an hour:

The pattern continued through the construction process, with Vanlue now including PBOT as well as BikePortland and the BTA in many tweets, and PBOT (among others) responding and often taking action:

Vanlue got to the heart of the matter with this one, 15 minutes after his close call:

His public reports continued into January:

And most recently, from two weeks ago:

And Vanlue’s crusade goes way beyond Williams. Most recently he’s focused his cameraphone at SE Division:

Is Vanlue’s point here that Portland is a terrible place to bike, or that it doesn’t care about its streets? Of course not. In the U.S. context, the prompt attention he’s received from the city’s official channel is remarkable.

The problems Vanlue identifies here aren’t vast or existential, either. On the long-term scale, there are lots of reasons to believe that by making the right choices now, Portland can overcome its current lull and keep on using bikes to improve the city for everyone.

What seems to be maddening to Vanlue, and probably to many people who use Williams and the other streets he tweets about, is that the problems here are relatively small and solvable.

It takes effort to communicate to contractors that comfortable biking and walking is more important than automotive speed when designing detours — but not that much effort. It requires tradeoffs to avoid sending bikes and cars into the same chaotic mixing zone at the busiest point on the most important biking artery in the country’s would-be biking capital, but not insurmountable or totally ridiculous tradeoffs.

It’s clear that city leaders want cycling to be comfortable for riders of every age and ability. And it seems equally clear that without people like Vanlue, who have so much faith in their community that they mount campaigns like this one, the city could convince itself that their current street designs are already working fine for everyone.

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