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Family Biking: Intersections are scary, until you wiggle around them

Posted by on October 8th, 2019 at 10:04 am

If my kids (sharrow, bike lane, bike box) still let me make them bike infrastructure costumes, they’d be intersections for Halloween.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

Not scary: A protected intersection in Vancouver, BC.

It’s definitely October. There’s a chill in the air, leaves are turning, there’s extra candy in grocery stores, and Halloween decorations are going up in our neighbors’ yards. So it seems like a good time to talk about a scary topic: intersections. Granted not all intersections are scary — I biked through Vancouver BC’s protected intersection earlier this year and I can’t wait to see more of them in Portland soon.

But until they’re protected, or we get more leading bicycle intervals, intersections will remain the spookiest part of most bike rides. So I’ve started to find routes around the worst ones.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

Much like horror movie characters who feel their only option is to run upstairs when being chased by monsters, it can be hard to leave the marked bike route, especially when dozens of other bike riders are fine with it. Even so, I’ve found two spots on my commute (see map below) where I stray from the pack and it makes me want to work in more little route wiggles to avoid some of the spookier intersections. I hope my two examples might yield some ideas for you.

SE Clinton St & SE 21st Ave when heading northwest
This isn’t a horrible intersection — it’s on super-bike-friendly Clinton Street after all! But it’s a four-way stop that’s usually full on all sides and it’s pretty easy to avoid. I found this wiggle by observing a commuter who turned off Clinton early to avoid getting stuck behind a stopped bus. He didn’t end up getting to 21st quick enough to turn in front of the bus or me, but I realized that, because I value simplicity over speed, it would work great for me. This works very well in the northwest-bound direction (with a right-left-right turn sequence), but isn’t quite as simple heading the other way due to two left turns. And that’s a thing: the main bike routes are usually identical in both directions, but wiggles often only work well one way. I’m happy to wait at a stop sign for cross traffic to clear if it’s a relatively quiet street and I know the wait won’t be long, but it’s not often I want to make extra left turns.

Screenshot from my Ride with GPS route.

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SE Woodward St & 52nd Ave when heading northwest
This one might not look appealing on the surface, but it works very well for me, even during rush hour. I’m not fond of making left turns from bike lanes — I bike slowly and I often don’t think to get out of the bike lane and over to the left well in advance. This intersection is additionally scary because Woodward doesn’t line up straight at is crosses 52nd and there is a lot of crosswalk traffic from Franklin High students.

I’m happy to avoid this bike lane blockage.

My kids and I used to approach this intersection from the east along Woodward so there was no avoiding it, but since the bike lanes went onto Foster (which I wouldn’t call family-friendly, but I still like them enough to use them) we suffer through a few blocks of 52nd, approaching from the south. The first time I tried this wiggle (which uses half a block of SE Powell Blvd, a state highway) I arrived to the intersection as everything aligned in my favor: there were no cars in the lanes next to me, the left-turn arrow had just come on, and there were no people biking behind me (who might pull to my left to pass as I was moving left to turn).

It’s been months since that first wiggle and each time I’ve encountered the same or almost-as-good conditions. I think the lack of heavy car traffic must be because northbound people also want to avoid the busy high school crosswalk and choose 50th, and westbound people are turning left a few blocks earlier at Foster. Whatever it is, I usually have the left turn lane to myself and can trigger the light even without a painted bike detector and have made it the 275 feet along Powell (and most of it in a long bus stop if I don’t want to use the right lane) and turned off before the light has changed bringing traffic behind me.

The seven blocks of 51st aren’t without problems: there’s a very bad hidden bump just past Kelly St (if there’s no oncoming traffic I avoid the worst of it on the left side of the street, otherwise I use a wiggle my kid discovered and skirt around it to the right in a driveway), there’s a stop sign at the bottom of the hill at Tibbetts that’s tempting to blow through, and there’s always a wait at Woodward for the bike commuters who haven’t left the bike route. But I find these little things worth navigating rather than making that pesky left turn. Plus there’s currently (and often) a closure of the bike lane that I avoid.

I’ve done this wiggle with my kids when the lights have cooperated, but I’d rather use sidewalks for the half-block through the intersection and Powell. I don’t like resorting to sidewalks, but as I’ve written before, sidewalk cycling can be a savior.

Do you have any similar wiggles or are you interesting in trying some? My neighborhood is devoid of greenways, but it’s full of quiet streets with alternating stop signs and I’d like to find some routes that zig-zag more to take us places with minimal stops. Thanks for reading!

Note: This story has been edited after a reader pointed out that a word we used in the headline and several times in the text has historically been used as a racial slur. We’ve edited the story and replaced the word with “scary”. We apologize for any harm we caused. – Jonathan.

Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com if it sounds like fun to you.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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10 Comments
  • Avatar
    Champs October 8, 2019 at 10:35 am

    Northbound, I’ve become extremely fond of crossing Sandy on SE 9th and using those signals at Burnside and Couch. The official route jogs onto SE 12th and is more difficult in every way.

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    El Biciclero October 8, 2019 at 11:22 am

    I absolutely do not want to detract from this article in the slightest—I bike with kids and completely understand the discomfort of dealing with drivers who can’t figure out the rules of the road (the first of which is “watch where you’re going”).

    However, I live for the day when helpful articles such as this one are unnecessary. One of my pet subjects with respect to bike riding for transportation is what I call “route equity”, meaning that if I am in my car, I expect to be able to follow my nose along the quickest, most direct route to my destination. Bicyclists and pedestrians should be able to do the same. Drivers, when they do anything like a “wiggle” are doing so almost exclusively to save time and go faster. They are not avoiding a particular intersection because the probability of them or their children being injured or killed is statistically significantly higher—it is so they can avoid other cars that will slow them down, not kill them (often putting bicyclists and others in greater danger to do so).

    Yes, it might be fun “insider knowledge” to discuss among other bicyclists, but really, how to avoid high stress and real danger by seeking out invisible cattle chutes narrow “protected” bike lanes, or adding extra twists and turns (while still avoiding left turns, as the author notes)—and travel time—to one’s route should never need to be a topic of conversation. Everyone should be able to select the vehicle of their choice and the route of their choice whenever they need to go someplace. Routes should be determined by which train or bus line one is taking, or by which destinations need to be visited, not by which streets or intersections are least likely to frighten my children into never riding again, or worse, get us run over.

    So, yes—a very helpful article. Also, sad that we need this kind of help.

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    esther October 8, 2019 at 1:58 pm

    My favorite naughty wiggle is going northbound on the SE 19th St greenway right after the diversion to 20th for a block before reaching SE McLoughlin Blvd. The road markings indicate that one should take SE Insley St west from 20th to 17th to rejoin the shared single road lane to cross McLoughlin. That is always full of fast and grumpy cars, along with it being parked up all the way to the gas station on the east side. There is a southbound bikelane for that block, but not a northbound one. So i always take Insley to 18th instead of all the way to 17th and then go north for a block and get up on the sidewalk/gas station lot to reach the corner of 17th and McLoughlin. The button to get a walk signal is there on the sidewalk anyway, and i have never managed to trigger the light from the street on my bike – it takes a car to do that there, it seems.
    The only time i ever had any issue with this wiggle is when a cyclist on the sidewalk zoomed up right at me in the gas station parking lot. Oh, and the terribly broken pavement at Insley & 20th prior to my wiggle. Oh, and one night there was a skunk lurking between the parked cars and stinking things up!

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    Joel B. October 8, 2019 at 2:05 pm

    Your method of using the gap created by the signal to safety travel down Powell is often a great way to negotiate busy streets. I’ve found that this can be a convenient way to access my destination when it happens to be located on the busy street in question. Some examples:

    -Travelling down SE Caesar E. Chavez from the signals at Franklin, Clinton, Lincoln, Main, or Taylor.
    -Travelling down Hawthorne from the signals at SE 41st, 37th, 34th.
    -Travelling down Burnside from the signals at 41st, 30th, and 28th.
    -Etc.

    It’s frustrating that people on bikes have to use these sorts of tactics to reach our destinations safely, but our ability to do so is also a powerful statement of just how efficiently bicycles can utilize even the smallest slice of time and space (when given the opportunity to do so safety).

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    Dan de Vriend October 9, 2019 at 7:58 am
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    Carrie October 9, 2019 at 9:06 am

    esther
    The road markings indicate that one should take SE Insley St west from 20th to 17th to rejoin the shared single road lane to cross McLoughlin. That is always full of fast and grumpy cars, along with it being parked up all the way to the gas station on the east side. There is a southbound bikelane for that block, but not a northbound one.

    I’m some weird hybrid between Esther and ElBicyclero. But it really does depend on who I’m riding with. If I was riding with kids, I’d definitely take Esther’s wiggle. However, as I’m usually by myself, I take the lane on SE 17th Every Single Day because I belong there. I’m going to work just as much as all the other people using the road and it’s how I get there. And it’s testament to how messed up that part of the Greenway is if I can’t get the 0.5 miles from my house on the SE 19th greenway to the bike lanes on SE 17th north of McLoughlin without ‘sharing’ a stressful road. There should be zero car parking on SE 17th, because the greenway routing is stupid for anyone who is actually trying to get somewhere in inner SE.

    Whew, that was a digression. :). My only wiggle when I’m with my kids is where Terwilliger meets Hwy 43 in Lake Oswego — we head west one block to ride parallel to 43 until we can reach Leonard St (ha!) to get onto River Road.

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      pixie October 9, 2019 at 9:47 am

      “There should be zero car parking on SE 17th, because the greenway routing is stupid for anyone who is actually trying to get somewhere in inner SE.”

      Comment of the week, month, year, etc.

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  • Avatar
    Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 9, 2019 at 9:27 am

    Note: This story has been edited after a reader pointed out that a word we used in the headline and several times in the text has historically been used as a racial slur. We’ve edited the story and replaced the word with “scary”. We apologize for any harm we caused. – Jonathan.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

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