Joe Bike

At night by bike, Portland’s streets are a surreal dream amid the nightmare

Posted by on March 19th, 2020 at 9:31 am

Southwest 4th Avenue last night.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s often said in activism circles that we have perfect streets for biking on, there are just too many people driving on them. It’s true. When you remove drivers and their cars from the equation, cycling is suddenly sublime no matter what street you’re on. It’s not just the addition of space and absence of fear, it’s the quiet zen and feeling of power — things we take for granted when we drive, but prize when we pedal.

With virus fears keeping so many people at home, our carfree dream has become a reality. I know this because I lived the dream last night.

I left my house near Peninsula Park in north Portland around 9:00 pm. I rode down to Sellwood, over the Sellwood Bridge, up into hills of Southwest, then home through downtown. I didn’t feel like taking my typical route on bike paths like the Esplanade, Springwater, and Willamette Greenway because they’re too dark and narrow. Given the virus, I wanted to see who was around me and be able to keep my distance. And with so few people driving, I could take major roads were bike riders are usually prohibited by design.

Advertisement

Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, the 99E/SE McLaughlin Viaduct, SE Milwaukie, SW Barbur, and the main decks of the Sellwood and Broadway Bridges. They were all free and clear and comfortable. Mine for the taking, just as I’ve dreamt all these years.

For all 20 miles or so of the loop, I only saw about a dozen or so people out on the street and about as many people in cars. Imagine Bridge Pedal by yourself.

The video below has major Escape from New York vibes — especially the motorcycle gang blasting AC/DC’s Thunderstruck outside a bar on 4th and the bonfire under the Morrison Bridge viaduct…

There’s an incredible surplus of space on our roads right now. If you’re lucky enough to have a bicycle and the ability to ride it, I highly recommend getting out there. Just please do it safely (remember, drivers might be excited about this too), and as far from others as possible.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.

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

23 Comments
  • Avatar
    Champs March 19, 2020 at 11:22 am

    This is a good time for a few things:

    1. Idaho law downtown—lots of people doing it anyway
    2. The “interested-but-concerned” crowd taking action
    3. Riding any busy street

    I have a couple routes that shadow MLK, so I took full advantage of riding it (and Grand) for several miles around sunset on Tuesday. Not for everyone, but it was WFO at times, and drivers were courteous when not. Even the left turn onto my street was easy. It’s been great.

    I’m just not going to convince myself that it’s something to get used to. People have a way of backsliding.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Avatar
    Holtz March 19, 2020 at 11:33 am

    I’m certainly enjoying the open streets… while keeping in mind that when traffic is very low, drivers seem more likely to fudge things, like rolling through red lights. Yesterday I saw a driver on NW 12th stop at the light at Everett… and then just go, as though it were a stop sign or flashing red.
    So enjoy, but keep an extra eagle eye out for careless drivers.

    Recommended Thumb up 16

    • Avatar
      Sam March 19, 2020 at 4:09 pm

      I’ve see lot of drivers run red lights before all this. Especially when they are making a left onto one way streets. I ride on Vancouver and Williams daily and see car drivers stop at the light, then making a left if they don’t see any cross traffic all the time. So much so that I wonder if that is legal in Oregon. Similar to a “right on red”. Does anyone know the rule on this?

      Recommended Thumb up 1

      • Avatar
        mark March 19, 2020 at 8:07 pm

        It’s legal if you come to a complete stop and yield to other traffic. This is only for turning onto a one way street, and is negated by a sign indicating “no turn on red.”

        Recommended Thumb up 10

  • Avatar
    JeffP March 19, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    Some of the best commutes I ever had when working downtown were around 3 a.m.! But yes, more liberties taken by all now. And then.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Avatar
    Wylie March 19, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    I originally fell in love with cycling riding with the Midnight Ridazz during the witching hours… it’s honestly the perfect time to ride except for how it doesn’t mesh with all of our obligations (work/school/kids)

    There is a narrative that it is more dangerous, perhaps because of drinking and driving, but I really don’t buy it when you are looking at such a reduced volume of traffic, especially now.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

    • Avatar
      Chris I March 19, 2020 at 1:49 pm

      I’ve noticed an increase in average driving speeds, so that could be an issue. However, having all of the bars closed will most likely be the biggest factor here.

      Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Avatar
    Todd Boulanger March 19, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks Jonathan for documenting the “expected”…versus just ignoring what we are all seeing.

    Given this reduction in SOV motorized demand, the upswing in bike share (in many cities) and private bike use, community commercial’s need for less parking and more loading/ drop-off zones (1x per block minimum now) AND the state of emergency…

    …is there anyone at the city leadership level planning to to implement some interim strategic bike lanes + business loading zones and reducing any remaining transit bottlenecks? Its paint and RPMs stuff.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar
    Asher Atkinson March 19, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    I experienced a lot of people out on bikes yesterday, but by sunset the streets emptied of everyone. The pictures in this post remind me of group rides I’ve joined in Jakarta that start at 4:30am before 12 million people pour into the streets and the contrast is mind boggling. Jakarta does car free Sundays that make our summer parkway events seem like ghost towns. It is understandable why everyone enjoys the anomaly of car free streets.

    But let’s remind ourselves that the current situation is the product of a pandemic and economic collapse that is good for no one. If anything, it shows me that dreams of car free streets are actually nightmares, and that advocating for a car free world requires a seismic shift that is both illusionary and I believe unnecessary. Instead, l dream of a bustling cities where packed streets, and the thriving commerce they reflect, are both desirable and compatible with safe cycling. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum world.

    Recommended Thumb up 10

    • Avatar
      matt March 19, 2020 at 11:05 pm

      Our parkways events are so crowded they’re no fun any more. If what you’re describing makes them seem like ghost towns, why bother at all? Sounds like anti-fun.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • Avatar
        Lowell March 20, 2020 at 10:55 am

        You haven’t been to Jakarta. The traffic there is truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and the resulting smog chokes you, it’s like you are perpetually standing five feet behind a diesel bus. Crossing the street anywhere is a literal game of frogger. Even if it’s crowded, a car-free street would be a joy there.

        Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Avatar
    Joe Adamski March 19, 2020 at 9:16 pm

    Of course there is light traffic.. all the bars are closed.
    sad reality.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Avatar
    Jake Cummings March 19, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    Wonderful this week with the weather and people away from the office.. Fewer cars and more people out riding for recreation. Many vibes of how I remember PDX in the 2000’s

    Yesterday late morning I was delivering on bike and yeah, took the whole lane on Hawthorne, SE 11th/12th.. and I also kinda felt like drivers didn’t mind it.. it was very unusual.

    I wonder if there’s any opportunity in this pandemic to set a new precedent.. or should I say,
    TAKE BACK THE STREETS!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Avatar
    mh March 19, 2020 at 10:51 pm

    I started “self-isolating” on Wednesday, and every time I’ve been out on bike or foot these two days, every VRU was beaming. We’re visibly happier, and I don’t think that’s just because we’re off work.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar
    RudiV March 20, 2020 at 9:10 am

    I really enjoyed this. I’ve always loved the late night, cross town bike commute. I doubt I’d brave some of the routes you took in normal times though.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Avatar
    Glenn II March 20, 2020 at 9:41 am

    Yesterday during what is usually rush hour I was struck by how Beaverton could actually be a tolerable place to live, if only…

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar
    Landrew the bike ninja March 20, 2020 at 10:16 am

    I ride every day in portland its ok

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Avatar
    Jim Lee March 20, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    I don’t ride at night any more, but out here SE in the Woodstock–Mount Scott neighborhood daytime on the streets, whether walking or riding, is really fine.

    It is so much quieter now! Mucho relaxing.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Avatar
    Jim Lee March 20, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    Also mothers and fathers out in the yards with children.

    Many kids and dogs in Woodstock park.

    What have we been doing wrong?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar
    Ed March 20, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    I’ve had the same thoughts and feelings on Friday mornings when biking from Sellwood to my post-retirement weekly job (currently on hold due to COVID) at the Pulmonary Clinic at Kaiser Sunnyside. Riding with traffic along SE 13 th almost any time has become really terrifying, but doing it at 5 AM, with a good light, is exhilarating, even in the cold and rain. Ditto along SE 92nd in the last stretch of my ride. A stark contrast when I ride home in the evening between 5:30 and 6:30 PM.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar
    El Biciclero March 20, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    “What have we been doing wrong?”

    Going to work.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar
    todd boulanger March 20, 2020 at 4:32 pm

    Seattle and now Bellevue have started to set up emergency loading zones for restaurant meals…

    https://sdotblog.seattle.gov/2020/03/17/take-out-pick-up-zones-coming-today/

    Et tu Portland?!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Avatar
    todd.boulanger March 20, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Seattle’s transit company (METRO) will be shifting to a farefree operations tomorrow along with rear boarding (other than ADA).

    https://kingcountymetro.blog/2020/03/20/king-county-metro-to-discontinue-fare-collections-direct-riders-to-board-buses-at-rear-doors-beginning-march-21/

    Now all I wish we had were the open air load from side pre-1920s trolley cars (“toaster rack” style). 😉

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Avatar