This post was made possible by Portland Design Works, a local company that designs beautiful and functional parts and accessories for everyday cycling. Ben is one of three winners of our Ride Along Contest we held last March.
A 20-mile pre-dawn bicycle commute might sound horrible to some people; but if anyone can enjoy such a long haul it’s Vancouver resident Ben Sanders.
Sanders is a 37-year old firefighter who rides 20 miles each way from his home on Columbia Street in Vancouver to Fire Station 214 in Lake Oswego. Since he works a 24-hour shift he doesn’t have to ride home until the next morning and since he has all the comforts of home at the station he doesn’t have to carry anything with him on the bike.
I met Sanders just after sunrise and tagged along on his commute. Like all the long-distance rides I’ve done in this Ride Along series over the years, I experienced an incredible array of conditions — from truly sublime to downright scary.
My first impression as we rolled out of the driveway and headed down Columbia Street (a main north-south street that connects directly to downtown Vancouver and its marquee gathering place, Esther Short Park) was how nice the inner neighborhoods felt. Vancouver has changed a lot in the past decade. Sanders told me he since he and his family (his wife Kelly and their three kids ages 2, 4, and 6) moved back here in 2008 he’s noticed a lot of young people have moved in and put down roots in the neighborhood.
Columbia is a small road with sharrows and bicycle-specific way finding signs (including one of my favorites, “Bicycles May Use Full Lane”). During the morning rush it felt a bit uncomfortable with so many people driving on it and we dodged quite a few bumps and cracks. “It’s a bike street,” Sanders said, “But it’s also a car street.”
Fortunately it’s downhill in the southbound direction so our speeds made it easy to take the full lane and people drove at reasonable speeds.
From Columbia it’s an easy connection to the I-5 bridge (except for that big-rig blocking the bike lane outside the Red Lion). I was happy to see some new paths installed as part of a construction project along the Columbia riverfront.
While scary for many people, Sanders and I are are experienced riders so crossing the bridge itself wasn’t a big deal.
Connecting to the paths on the south side of the bridge was relatively smooth; but that’s only because we’ve both done it many times and have come to expect its requirements for zig-zags, beg buttons, sidewalk riding and other annoyances.
After riding through the smooth and tree-lined path in Delta Park, Sanders opted to take Whitaker Road toward the Columbia Slough instead of N Denver Avenue to avoid an ongoing ODOT construction project on that street. Whitaker doesn’t have much of a bikeway at all and when the adjacent shopping center is crowded this can be a hectic route, but it was fine early in the morning.
Whitaker makes a nice connection to the Columbia Slough path — or what Sanders calls “Goose Shit Highway.”
Between the slough and downtown Portland Sanders joins the throngs of other people commuting by bike on N Vancouver Avenue, then goes over the Broadway Bridge into downtown. Forced to observe the situation as a photographer I was ever more amazed at how terrible Broadway is — and how it much better it should be. Merges with trucks, a narrow bridge crossing, door-zone bike lanes with lots of clueless behavior, and so on on.
Then, in an impressive display of confidence, Sanders opted to take the lane on Broadway/Hwy 26 and connect to SW Barbur via 4th rather than take the 6th/Sheridan connection. That put him in the path of a few right-turning TriMet buses that he capably avoided.
The inner part of Barbur, controlled by the City of Portland, felt fine with its buffered bike lanes; but as we rolled further south to the State of Oregon portions, the buffer went away and driving speeds shot up. High-speed traffic and a narrow, often debris-filled bike lane was enough to spook even accomplished riders like Sanders.
“This is the worst part of my commute because of the speeds,” Sanders yelled so I could hear him over car engines rumbling mere feet away.
We left Barbur and continued south on Terwilliger. That intersection is not for the faint of heart.
Then, just a few minutes later (south is the easy direction for Terwilliger in this area because it’s downhill) we finally left the Broadway/Barbur/Terwilliger chaos and tucked into Tryon Creek State Park. This place is such a gem. It’s a State Park right in Portland! I’ve hiked it before, but this was the first time I’d ridden on its path. The path perfectly follows Terwilliger for about three miles and it dropped us off right in Lake Oswego.
After coasting through that serenely forested path through Tryon Park, we rode sidewalks a few blocks to B Street in Lake Oswego which has an uphill bike lane. We pulled into the fire station just as Sanders’ crew was rolling up the doors.
And yes, Sanders is aware of the irony of biking to work and then hopping in a fire truck that gets seven miles to the gallon.
Thanks for letting us tag along Ben. And thanks for being a firefighter.
— Special thanks to Portland Design Works for sponsoring these last three Ride Alongs. You can read all of them here.
If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.
That’s not very ironic. Fire trucks are meant to haul tons of people and equipment and pump many gallons of water, not get good fuel economy.
Also, sweet Macho Man disc. I hope Ben can convince other Vancouverites to bike into Portland.
P.S. I ride that Tryon creek path every day. Hopefully I’ll bump into Ben now that I know what he’s riding, and convince him to take the cemetery and the springwater. It’s worth the extra mile or two not having to deal with Barbur.
Thanks for the props on the bike, Scott. I dig it. I occasionally take that cemetery route, but opt for Terwilliger most times if it’s foul weather or dark. Barbur in those conditions is terrible.
Riding the transition from ODOT Barbur to Portland Barbur can convince just about anyone that “mere paint on the road” sometimes makes a huge “perception of comfort” difference.
Nice photos, the light on the trees in Delta park 🙂
Love the Tryon Creek trail. I ride it occasionally. It requires attention this time of year with wet leaves, and it is bumpy, but OH SO SWEET.
Love Tryon too. When I’m headed towards Lake Oswego I’ll hop off the path before the final descent- no reason to terrorize dogs and walkers or burn up my brakes by staying on the trail.
What kind of bike does Ben ride, and what does he like about it?
Scott answered half the question. I like the steel frame ride and the disc brakes. Plenty of fender mounts and rack mounts is a plus too.
When my commute was a short 25 miles, a friend of mine who was a fire fighter rode the same route, but his was five miles longer. Neither of us considered our commutes to be long hauls. Bikes substitute for cars, not for walking.
One fine night, by spouse decided to ride out to meet me on my way home. The intercity portion of my commute was somewhat remote, so when she saw someone my size riding my speed with the same light set-up that I had, she turned around and got on his wheel. After a few miles, he turned and asked if she was lost. It would be several years until we became friends with this cycling firefighter, but we always get a chuckle out of that memory.
Great write up. If I wanted to commute to work I’d be riding that LO to downtown portion every day. No way.
You could ride the path/sidewalk on Terwilliger all the way to downtown. It’s only 100ft more climbing and an extra half mile. The worst stretch would be between Boones Ferry and Barbur but one could take the sidewalk up to Taylors Ferry and 7th+6th to where it meets Terwilliger again. You would have to keep it slow and careful at the driveways and intersections and might decide that the bike lane or even traffic lane is more convenient in many places (or safer at higher speeds), but it wouldn’t be a bad way to start. In downtown, you can’t ride the sidewalks, but the light timing keeps the traffic at an easy pace and you just have a lane to yourself.
The old streetcar line along the river would be nearly flat. I would think the daily parking lot #43 in downtown LO would lead more people to push for this.
I totally agree, Eric. I prefer Terwilliger to Barbur on all but Dry, Summer weekends when the traffic is slow. Then I take a bit more risk to make up some time on Barbur (and maybe have time to stop in Burlingame for a cofee).
I love reading this kind of piece! It’s just this kind of documentation that exposes the madness bicyclists have to experience to get from one part of town to another. More of this please!
On another note, while I appreciate PDW for sponsoring the piece, I have to say that I don’t care where PDW designs their products; I care where they make them, and it isn’t in America. Also, being that they are one of the market leaders in handlebar-mounted blinking headlights and seatpost-mounted blinking taillights, my opinion (and German law – StVZO) is these products are completely useless on their own; they must be combined with a steady beam, road surface-focused, fork crown-mounted headlight and a solid red taillight, both with additional reflectors, to be useful. I’ve never seen this described on the package, and I’ve never seen a rider with a bike set up like that. Strobing lights belong on emergency vehicles and nowhere else. I understand and acknowledge that is a controversial opinion and there are folks, including the sponsor of this piece, that would disagree with me.
So, if you’re from Germany don’t set your bike up illegally. Most readers on this site are based in the US.
I’m not from Germany, but I was stationed there until a couple of years ago, for the majority of my military career. I am an American living in Portland! Germany has pretty much the gold standard for road use laws, and for any light to be sold in Germany for road use, it must be labeled with, and approved by the StVZO. I don’t think PDW has any products that pass the StVZO, so I think they’re probably marketed for offroad use officially. A lot of people use these products on the road, and it is my (controversial) opinion that they should consider other products instead.
I was making a point, not about legality, but about making safe and useful products versus producing a false sense of security. A light that blinks is OFF half the time! That is a difficult concept for a lot of people to wrap their heads around, and the evidence is the number of these lights in use today. Again, I admit that it is a difficult concept to imagine something that blinks being unsafe. I also understand that otherwise intelligent people might disagree with me.
I consider StVZO rules to be more concerned with pandering to german motorists than cyclist safety. A great example of this was the resistance of StVZO to battery-operated lights.
I concur. But considering every motorist there must pass Fahrschule, at least they have no excuses – in order to obtain a führerschein they must KNOW the law. It’s very different here in the states, where just about everybody is completely DIY with traffic law, b/c driver education is NOT mandatory… just a multiple choice quiz.
The best possible protection from idiots isn’t to stay in your house, because your house could have been made by idiots too. The best way to live your life and enjoy it is to limit exposure to others’ homocidal tendencies when practical and have fun and risk your life when necessary. Mitigate danger when you can and take a deep breath when you can’t.
“these products are completely useless on their own”: I disagree
“Strobing lights belong on emergency vehicles and nowhere else.”: I disagree
Or it shows (and even teaches) how a person riding a bicycle can successfully and calmly navigate in traffic.
I would not ride a bike without a flashing light – continuous light is not as effective at attracting the attention of motorists. I use a flashing light front and rear any time I’m in traffic. Do you consider a strobing light to be the same thing as a flashing light? I have seen those lights that blink really fast, and I think they are good attention getters.
Agree with you on not using a flashing light for use at night – gotta have continuous beam for night time riding. Preferably both: one to see with and one to get motorists attention.
Jonathan, great piece. Thank you.
I was thinking about your “maintenance” comment and photo of the clogged storm drains in the ride along article and remembered this article from a few years ago:
Is there any journalistic follow-up that can be made on this special city equipment? I imagine that it is out working on the streets 24/7 except when it is in the shop having tires and oil replaced, but I am not sure of this.
I ride in lots of City/Portland arterial bike lanes that seem to have a pretty infrequent maintenance/sweeping schedule. Seems like they should have a priority schedule for bike lane arteries. I realize that Barbur is ODOT, but I am curious about PBOT.
The bike lane up to the Sunset Transit Center is terrible, probably the worst one I ride in regularly. Rocks, glass, thorny vines, overhanging bushes — only the last few inches are any good for riding in. I request service from them every once in a while, and have suggested that they PUT IT ON A SCHEDULE, but they don’t seem to like that idea.
Anyone know if the path along the PIR and golf course on the West side of N. Denver is open? I rode the whole thing earlier this summer from west to east only to get to the locked gate at the end….
It is open now.
Yes and I expect the geese to return any day. The clean path is nice right now.
Where did I read that a large majority of Portland’s firemen and/or EMTs live in Vancouver and might have problems responding to the Big One?
You’re right. Unless he bought a home a decade ago, a fireman’s salary (with 3 kids and a non-working spouse) would not buy a house in LO or most parts of PDX.
You’re going to be on your own anyway. Better prepare so you can be self-reliant.
I live is LO( a few blocks from that fire station) and was wondering why he doesn’t ride the Eastbank Esplanade to the Sellwood bridge then up Riverview cemetery to Tryon Creek? He would have the whole last half of his ride nearly car free. Going through downtown and then Barbur Blvd adds so much more stress to the ride. Just a thought.
And I also love this piece. Its nice to see the routes people take.
That’s the route I take when I have to ride between Lake Oswego (Ugh!) and Portland. While not great, it does seem much better than the one the fireman is using.
The Esplanade is just slower with all the food/bike traffic, in my opinion. I agree, though, it is much nicer to ride and I have done it a few times when I wasn’t in a hurry.
The piece of US26 from SW Broadway to 5th looks much scarier than it actually is. Because of the way the offramp light is timed there’s seldom cars behind you & if so they are not moving fast & generally trying to get left for the Ross Island
I ride this daily on my way down toward the Ross Island bridge, and you’re right. The little dip between 6th and Caruthers makes it easy to get up to auto speeds and just power through to Barbur in whatever lane you want. That’s why I wouldn’t use the bike lane there; I’d stick to the right-hand Big Lane and merge over to the bike lane only after turning onto 4th/Barbur.
The city of Vancouver has quietly improved cycling and walking environments–I think it has to be kind of sneaked in! The transition from the I-5 bridge through Delta Park has seen some small improvements recently, too.
I dislike the term “Fast and Fearless” for experienced cyclists, which seems like a way to marginalize their input. Perhaps we should ditch that term for something like the “Competent and Confident”. (Yes, that term was coined by Jan Heine.)
Also, no offense to Ben, but I certainly wouldn’t count him among the competent and confident. The photos consistently showed him choosing lane positions that either put him in the door zone or encourage close passes unnecessarily. I’d hate to see him become a former cycling commuter because he won himself a door prize.
I like the title change, but after reading this comment, I do have to say that in all the pictures of him in the door zone, it looks like he is riding in bicycle lane.
Granted I prefer taking the lane to riding a bike lane, but I ride the bike lanes when present – because you kinda (legally) have to.
Well-mentored riders have been taught to stay out of the door zone, bike lane or not. Two of the photos show him on a street with sharrow markings riding in the door zone, so it’s not merely that he rides in the door zone when the city has put in a dzbl.
Door-zone riding is a habit that all to often ends badly. I know more former riders who gave up after being doored than people who returned to their cars for all other reasons combined. The fact that one passes many cars that don’t door you leads to a false assessment of the risk involved in being in the door zone.
You seem to be assuming that people can’t evaluate whether there is anyone in the car. Being proactive and determining if there is someone in the car or not can greatly reduce any risk of being doored.
It’s easy – always assume there is someone in the car.
Ride down the middle of the chevron
Ride in the left side of the bike lane
Ride in the left side of the bike lane
B Carfree says: ” I’d hate to see him become a former cycling commuter because he won himself a door prize.”
Me too. I wish him well on his commutes and congratulations on commuting by bike. BUT I agree with you that he could make things safer. He might consider a better route, as suggested by someone above – I think they recommended the East Esplanade route, etc. Also, his choice of colors is not acceptable for the safety-minded. He needs some hi-viz. I didn’t see any hi-viz on any bike riders in the photos. For a firefighter that’s pretty amazing – he should know better – no offense intended.
This ride was not a “pre-dawn” ride at this time of year although it may have been a pre-sunrise ride. In a few weeks it will be pre-dawn and high-viz (with reflective material) will be even more important at that time.
Totally agree, Dead Salmon, When it’s darker and worse weather, I rock the biker green and am lit up like a christmas tree. And there are much safer routes, but they would add a considerable amount of time to my commute. Good point on the door zone you guys. I feel pretty comfortable in the door zone in my hood, but Broadway and a lot of other areas I should be closer to the left in the bike lane.
What an epic commute and writeup. And great pics, too!
Do you ever do ride alongs with scofflaws?
I don’t discriminate Andy… But I have to warn you, as a bike advocate and journalist I am a mandatory reporter when it comes to traffic law violations. 😉
I’m also very strict about traffic laws!
(I observe ID traffic law for signals, WA traffic law for mandatory sidepaths, and NC traffic law for lane position.)
I have, but it requires looking in the mirror to do so. Well…, I don’t have the blinking front headlight because I think they are confusing to oncoming traffic, but do I use a cygolite on slow-blink at the back as an auxiliary to hub-powered, always-on front and rear lights (crown and rack mounted, respectively).
Excellent! My bikes are similarly equipped, and for the non-dynamo set, Busch & Müller make the most practical battery-powered lights I’ve ever seen: the IXON IQ headlight, but you have to buy the fork crown mount separately :(, and the Toplight Line Permanent taillight, for which there is currently no practical commercially available mount except for on a rack :(, although it is possible to mount one to seat rails with some creativity.
I laugh (though I cry a little inside) when I see the expensive neon rainsuits come out this time of year, and are combined with impractical lights. Prada suit, JC Penney Tie.
I bought a couple of IXON IQ’s many years ago when they first became available. Both of them are sitting in my “repair it someday” pile. They are incredibly cheaply made. Even the $20 Chinese lights are more durable. I really couldn’t recommend these lights to anyone in good conscience.
I wholeheartedly disagree. The mounts it comes with are garbage, though. They’re the exact same mounts you’ll find on the cheapest handlebar-mounted lights around, like Planet Bike, etc. That’s why I mentioned the fork crown mount that must be purchased separately; it turns it into a very practical and rigidly mounted system. If you’re judging on the included accessories, I agree with you.
The widely celebrated Schmidt Edelux uses the exact same reflector, designed for the IXON IQ and its dynamo brethren.
I will concur that it is not perfect nor is it completely waterproof, however it is 100x better than any blinking non-focused non-pattern-optimized headlight from PDW, which I think also fit in its mount, BTW.
Your comments about PDW lights prove you have spent no time looking at them. It’s pure speculation.
The Esplanade -> Sellwood Bridge -> Cemetery way takes longer but is much nicer.
I used to take that way to L.O. until one morning the gates at the top of the cemetery were locked and I had to throw my bike over the fence and crawl through a hole.
After that I took Barbur -> Terwilliger
I love the ride-along series and how it showcases the variety of beautiful paths but also highlights the problem areas.
I would like to see 10 families doing 2 mile commutes and more people without drop bar road bikes. I know that’s more work to cover than one person’s 20 mile ride and each ride is less sensational, but I fear that many of the car-bound look at a 20 mile ride and think “I can’t do that” rather than being inspired by it.
The green at Barbur crossing Terwilliger is pretty long. If you’re westbound and it’s not red while you’re merging, go to a copenhagen left. If it is red (looks like it was), the drivers behind you need to stop in 50yd anyway, so they don’t have much to reason to complain. If you get caught at the red, just take the crosswalk over to the left turn lane. I know there was a wide truck, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone on a bike sit in line at a protected left onto a street with a bike lane. Get up front and be seen!
I wish the photos included a shot of the Boones Ferry fork where the path through the woods starts. That’s pretty tricky and the traffic can get fast, plus the median has a huge bump. (I’ve seen some ride around the median on the Terwilliger side.) The ride through the woods is awesome and about 10 degrees cooler in the summer. I wish it weren’t so lumpy and clogged with joggers, but most of the blind corners are not really suited to fast riding. Something flat and closer to the road but still in the trees would be amazing. That curb is a nice (if small) bit of security, but those few driveway crossings could stand to be less terrifying.
Is the sidewalk-riding section on O-43 at the end of Terwilliger more of ODOT’s handiwork? (Curb-tight, next to 4-lane stroad, 5ft wide, poles in the middle. Sounds about right.)
how many of the “car bound” are actually spending a lot of time on this site?
This is why a rails-to-trails project needs to be built now for the Willamette Shore Trolley.
Seeing as LO shot down the idea of a streetcar then a trail would be a much better use for the ROW. I think the city of Portland may have a streetcar extension from sowa to Sellwood in mind as a future project; if you recall, the Sellwood bridge rebuild originally called for tracks to be included. They were removed to get the bridge within budget, doesn’t mean the idea was axed altogether. But accommodating a MUP along the ROW would be the common sense choice.
Hey Ben – you and I share the exact same route all the way from Vancouver ’til crossing the Broadway Bridge. Your extra 10 miles beyond that point compared to my 1 mile in the Pearl is humbling. Days I am not feeling it, I will think of you and rally. Great photos too!
Awesome, Heather. Maybe I’ll catch you at the Fourth Plain light that seems to last for 20 minutes!
“but this was the first time I’d ridden on its path” ( Tryon Creek State Park). Really?! It’s a very nice ride. My wife and I took this route from NE Portland for a date once (but we arrived via Terwilliger from downtown, not Barbur) and it was pretty nice. I’ve also taken my kids to the state park that way by bike several times. If you take the Aerial Tram up to OHSU you can avoid much of the uphill section on Barbur, and even cargo bikes and trailers fit fine.
It’s a nice recreational path but it’s hardly optimal for transportation. it’s also ridiculous that this stretch of terwilliger has no bike lanes and is signed at 45 mph.
Perhaps more ridiculous is the stretch with bike lanes signed at 30 and 35, but the part signed 25 with no enforcement isn’t far off.
Love the ride along! And a big thank you to the sponsor! I will be buying the owl cage. So cool and fun.
But it doesn’t look like an owl.
This guy Ben is a badass there’s no questioning that but I’d like to see if he can go to Lake O and back twice a day, 5x per week.
That would be impressive. I can only manage 30 miles round trip 3x per week. And in between I work from home, which is a nice break. Pretty sure I couldn’t do it 5x per week.
That would be tough, Andy. I’m not sure I would be an everyday commuter if I was working 5 days a week in LO. That’s a big time commitment, as well as a big physical commitment. Props to anyone who does that kind of thing every day (I’m sure there are a few).
I meant WOULDN’T be an everday commuter!