Family Biking: Discovering ‘traffic gardens’ on the west side

Posted by on October 27th, 2021 at 1:32 pm

Hand signal practice at Bicentennial Park in Hillsboro.
(Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

Do you have any growing kiddos who are almost ready to bike around on their own? Looking for a safe place to teach them how to signal, and when it’s safe to go? Then now might be the perfect time to check out a traffic garden (a.k.a. traffic safety playground) near you. Quite a few of these popped up all around Portland and surrounding areas during the 2020 Pandemic lockdown and the City of Portland even maintains a handy list.

Traffic gardens usually have painted designs of streets, crosswalks, stop signs, etc., on a paved area separated from cars. They provide a safe space for community members, especially children, to practice crossing a street or using bike signals, without the dangers of real traffic. Before making a visit, you and your kiddos might find it useful to watch some bicycle education videos from Oregon’s Safe Routes to School program. These gave my children good visuals before we ventured out, along with ideas for things to do/practice on the playground.

Our family recently made visits to the traffic gardens at Channing Heights Park in Beaverton and Bicentennial Park in Hillsboro.

At Channing Heights Park, the installation is limited to painted streets on a basketball court. The compact size and flat paint (with no signs or 3D elements) makes it difficult to distinguish what’s a road, versus a pedestrian pathway, and had us all looking down at our feet to figure out where to go. My littlest kids enjoyed jumping from footprint to footprint on the marked pedestrian paths, and we practiced looking both ways before crossing the pretend streets, but the space was too small to really bike around or hold their attention for long. Thus, our lessons were limited, and my kids preferred running and scootering on the paved path around the perimeter of the park, which felt more like their own miniature car-free roadway.

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Our experience with the traffic garden at Bicentennial Park in Hillsboro on the other hand, was fabulous! This installation covered a large and interesting area, with painted roadways on looping, curving paths, complete with a roundabout, crosswalks, and actual upright stop signs. It really looked and felt like our own miniature set of roadways! It provided the perfect place to practice some of the skills my oldest son, age 8, needs to learn for when he follows me around on his bike, and for when he soon begins riding around town on his own. Here’s what we enjoyed practicing:

— Coming to a complete stop at stop signs, yielding to pedestrians, then looking left/right/left and making sure it’s safe to go before proceeding.

— Signaling to the right and left when turning. (My son got a lot of much-needed practice signalling.)

— Staying in your lane. No zig-zagging around the roadway.

— Learning and practicing whose turn it is to go when multiple bikes/cars arrive at a stop-sign intersection, either in succession or simultaneously. (My son enjoyed practicing this the most, and it was one of the more useful things to practice: whose turn is it to go? And after getting that sorted out, would he still remember to signal before turning?)

— How to use a round-about (yield to circling cars and make sure there is space to enter the round-about, then signal your intention to turn/exit the roundabout).

I was pleased at how much my eight-year-old enjoyed this practice session, and how much it improved his new biking skills. He really enjoyed the opportunity to ride on the carfree paths. He liked to practice signalling, and when I pretended to be a car approaching the stop sign, he got to practice figuring out whose turn it was to go. He wished we had more friends on bikes to join us so we could create heavier traffic conditions, which would increase the challenges of practicing with other “vehicles” on the pretend roads (rather than Mom pretending to be the only other car around). And I enjoyed being able to observe my son in different simulated traffic conditions: it helped me to really pay attention to him (rather than watching for real traffic when we bike together), so that I could correct/remind him of things he forgot or could improve. It really was a pleasant and productive afternoon of cycling safety lessons, and I can tell my son felt more confident afterwards. Now I need to bring his younger sister’s bike, so she can practice too. At age six, she’s a nervous rider, and I think this sort of safe practice space could be just the thing to develop her skills and increase her confidence.

If you have young cyclists around, and happen to have one of the larger traffic garden installations near you, then I definitely recommend a visit — and take some friends. It’s a good place to practice, before venturing out on the real thing. Have fun, and be safe!

— Shannon Johnson, shannon4bikeportland@gmail.com
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Oh if only adults used these and actually learned how to drive!

There’s an “old school” smaller version of this at Gammans Park in N Portland. I’ve heard it called the tricycle track, too. Kinda fun figure 8 section on it.