“Social distancing from the comfort of your car.” That’s how the folks behind the annual Winter Wonderland event at Portland International Raceway are marketing this year’s event.
Since 2009 organizers have set aside one night of the five-week event where bicycle riders could enjoy the lights and festive vibes without the toxic emissions, noise, or threat of collisions posed by car drivers. But this year they’ve decided to cancel it. “Due to COVID-19 safety protocols, our special annual dog walking and bike nights will not be offered this year,” reads a statement by Sunshine Division, the Portland Police Bureau’s nonprofit arm that runs the event.
And if you’re wondering whether or not they’ll let you show up on a bike and ride through the lights with the car drivers, I asked a spokesperson that today. The answer is no.
This is unfortunate news given how popular this event has gotten over the years. It’s also an interesting decision given how safe cycling is. Other similar events, like the Oregon Zoo’s Zoo Lights (which is typically walking-only), have also gone to a drive-through only format. (Peacock Lane? It’s not happening at all.)
The reader who tipped us off about this said he was “sad” to hear the news: “While Christmas lights are not as serious as Covid testing, food pickup, presidential victory speeches, or other services that have been routinely denied to those without cars, I’m sad to see yet another example of the pandemic being used to extend extra privileges to car owners while denying them to everyone else. I have to believe that there’s enough space at PIR for cyclists to visit in a safely-distanced way”
I understand the concerns and the reflex to assume keeping everyone inside their cars is a safer bet; but is having people pack into an enclosed vehicle really safer than people riding bikes?
Riding a bike outdoors has been a go-to activity for thousands of people in the region since the pandemic began its grip on our lives. Portland has recognized this by giving riders extra help to ride safely on over 100 miles of streets. When people ride bikes, not only are they outside but they tend to naturally create a buffer zone around themselves and other people. Add proper mask wearing and it’s a very safe activity — especially when done at an easy pace with low exertion.
On the other hand, cars prevent people from giving each other the six feet of distance health guidelines require. Cars with windows rolled up when it’s cold outside are also not very well-ventilated. And the use of cars seems especially problematic at fun, recreational events like Winter Wonderland and Zoo Lights because there’s a greater likelihood people outside safe family “pods” will come along for the ride, thus increasing the risk of spread.
Hopefully by next year we’ll all be virus-free and events like this will be carfree once again. For 2020, maybe we should create a route of great light displays and publicize it ourselves. Stay tuned.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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