Note: Video has no sound. Filmed by Jonathan Maus.
On Sunday afternoon I was biking home from Vancouver. As I headed west on the Columbia Slough path toward North Denver Avenue and began to roll down the path under the overpass, a large box-van came rumbling toward me. Given that this is a bike path, I was shocked to see a driver there. However, since I knew there was a big event (Indycar race) at Portland International Raceway, I figured the van was part of the event and needed some type of special access to the path.
Before I share what happened next, please realize I’m actually a very reasonable person. Despite the caricature some haters on the Internet like to draw of me, I’m not one of those people who get irate whenever any driver blocks a bike lane for any amount of time. Yes it bothers me when bike lanes are ignored and disrespected, but we live in a city and I realize that people need to do things, not everyone in a car is evil, sometimes things just suck, and sometimes we just have to move on.
So while I was a scared and surprised at this one utility van coming at me, I was prepared to simply gesture my dissatisfaction at the driver and move on. But as I rounded the corner there were more drivers coming at me. A line of them! On a bike path!
Now I was mad.
I quickly realized someone at PIR made the decision to direct traffic leaving the venue directly onto the path. I watched dozens of drivers motor down the path, totally unaware they were sharing it with bicycle riders. And I watched bicycle riders use the path totally unaware that there would be multiple drivers coming in the opposite direction. Since it was an underpass, there was also a downhill-uphill involved. Combine that with the clueless path users (some of whom just watched a car race!) and a sharp corner with reduced visibility and you had the recipe for a collision.
Once I realized what was going on I rolled into PIR and started yelling my concerns at a traffic worker. He said he was just following orders and didn’t care about what I had to say (I don’t blame him). I didn’t have time to hang around, but as I started to leave, I noticed three Portland Police Bureau SUVs drive toward me as they left the event. I gestured to the first officer to roll his window down. Still on my bike, I described to him what was going on. The officer’s reaction was very disappointing. He looked at me like I was crazy and then said, “It’s pretty obvious [what’s going on], just ride around them,” or something like that. He clearly thought it was no big deal (despite not really taking time to understand my concern).
That first officer pulled away before I was done talking, so I flagged down another one. The next officer just looked at me and said, “Yeah, it’s a big mess,” as he continued to drive away.
PIR is owned by the City of Portland Parks & Recreation. I’ve reached out to their office and will share details from them when I hear back.
This bike path used to be a section of North Schmeer Road. However, in 2014 the Oregon Department of Transportation (who owns North Denver Ave because it is Highway 99W), closed it to cars as part of a road realignment project (see graphic above). As I reported at the time time, “Currently the northbound transition from Denver Avenue to Schmeer is a rarely used section of the road with pavement that’s in terrible shape. ODOT plans to repurpose that road and make it open only for walking and biking.”
Please note that I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable for PIR to temporarily use this path for exiting car traffic after large events. However, when you put drivers in the same space as bike riders, there must be significant traffic controls in place. On Sunday there was only one orange “Caution” flag up. I saw it and like all the other bike riders out there, continued to ride. Nothing about “Caution” says, “There are cars and drivers driving directly at you ahead.” PIR should have placed either: Directed traffic somewhere else; installed hard barricades with “Bike Path Closed” signage; or they should have placed a human flagger on both ends to make sure no conflicts happened.
If we want people to ride bikes, we must respect the spaces we tell them to use.
We have enough problems with people using this path illegally, the last thing we need is our own government adding to the mess.
I hope this never happens again.