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Ride Along with Ben Sanders: Vancouver to Lake Oswego

Posted by on September 25th, 2015 at 11:07 am

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This is Ben Sanders. He commutes to work 20 miles from Vancouver to Lake Oswego.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

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.

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Grrr.
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Merging onto the I-5 bridge path.

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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.

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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.

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Delta Park, smooth and serene after riding a few feet from I-5 traffic.

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.”

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Whitaker Road with mega-shopping center on the left.
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Newly built connector path from Schmeer/Whitaker to Columbia Slough.
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Not many droppings that morning on “goose shit highway.”
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Pretty lucky if this is on your commute.

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.

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This section of Vancouver near Cook Street (note the new signals coming soon) is a drag.
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Modeling good behavior at the infamous Flint/Broadway stop sign.
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Broadway is so bad. This is the view of one of Portland’s most important and busiest bike connections to downtown.
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Portland, America’s #1 bike city!
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Broadway “protected” bike lane.

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.

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A view only fit for the “strong and fearless.”
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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.

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Sometimes it’s amazing what paint can do.
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Barbur’s dangers are made worse by lack of maintenance.
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Vermont Bridge, thankfully with no traffic.

We left Barbur and continued south on Terwilliger. That intersection is not for the faint of heart.

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Taking lane prior to left at Terwilliger.
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Would you want to bike here?
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Running the gauntlet.

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.

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Aaaahhhh.
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A little curb separation from Terwilliger. I’d love to see more use of these small curbs in other places.

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.

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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.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. 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

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Scott H
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Scott H

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.

soren
Guest
soren

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.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

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.

John Cooper
Guest
John Cooper

What kind of bike does Ben ride, and what does he like about it?

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

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.

JF
Guest
JF

Great write up. If I wanted to commute to work I’d be riding that LO to downtown portion every day. No way.

David Lewis
Guest

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.

Bald One
Guest
Bald One

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:

http://bikeportland.org/2013/11/18/meet-portlands-new-bike-path-sized-street-sweeper-97302

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.

Bald One
Guest
Bald One

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….

Josh G
Guest
Josh G

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?

abomb
Guest
abomb

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.

Paul Souders
Guest
Paul Souders

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

Dave
Guest
Dave

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.

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

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.

Andy K
Guest
Andy K

What an epic commute and writeup. And great pics, too!
Do you ever do ride alongs with scofflaws?

Stephen Keller
Guest
Stephen Keller

David Lewis
…I’ve never seen a rider with a bike set up like that.Recommended 4

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).

Jenkins
Guest
Jenkins

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

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

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.)

rick
Guest
rick

This is why a rails-to-trails project needs to be built now for the Willamette Shore Trolley.

Heather
Guest
Heather

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!

Joseph E
Guest

“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.

JMH
Guest
JMH

Love the ride along! And a big thank you to the sponsor! I will be buying the owl cage. So cool and fun.
https://www.ridepdw.com/goods/cargo/the-owl-cage

Andy K
Guest
Andy K

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.