Today something happened to me that I’ve never experienced before. I was verbally attacked (called “a piece of shit,” if you really want to know) for taking a photo of the ground (see below). I’ve done some obnoxious things in my life and deserved the curse-laden tirade that was flung in my direction on those occasions, but not this time. It happened on the bike path. I’ve been observing conditions on the paths of my home city for the last few years and collecting my thoughts about why we’re allowing the cycling infrastructure to be abandoned and abused. I’ll tell the story of my confrontation and other adventures from today’s lunchtime ride below, but first let’s examine why such paths and other infrastructure are essential, especially in America’s car-choked cities.
We live during a time when we desperately need to stop burning fossil fuels, spewing ever more carbon pollution, and further destabilizing the climate. The privileged among us also live in an age of comfort and convenience that has promoted sedentary lifestyles which cause a cascade of health problems. The humble bicycle offers much help on both fronts. Bikes present a cheap, healthy, low- to no-emissions way of getting around. And they’re the most efficient mode of transportation we’ve ever invented — one hundred calories can power a cyclist for three miles, but only 280 feet for a car. They’re also a fun way to get some exercise while going from point A to point B – that is, when you have a pleasant place to pedal and don’t feel like you have to fear being flattened by a road rager behind the wheel of an all-too-appropriately-named Dodge Ram. That’s where the bike infrastructure comes into play.
As a lifelong rider, I’ve often felt like a second- or third- or seventeenth-class citizen. All the dollars, space, and preferential treatment go to cars and drivers. Bike riding in a city can feel like a demented video game. The goal is to get across town, but you have to dodge the randomly opening doors of parked cars, avoid slipping on the wet leaves and detritus that have accumulated in the foot-wide corridor you’ve been allocated against the curb, watch out for those potholes and railroad tracks seeking to snap your collarbones, and be ready to bunny hop six feet in the air to clear the grill of that aforementioned Dodge Ram. Having dedicated bikeways, safe routes, signs, secure places to lock a bike, and other infrastructure meant to facilitate and encourage cycling feels like a break from the madness. Such infrastructure, if well designed and maintained, can make riding a joy, and we cyclists need all the motivation we can find to keep mixing it up in traffic and braving those days when it’s too hot, too cold, too hilly, too windy, or too tiring.
Risky business: trying to navigate auto infrastructure by bike. Photo by
Angelo Pantazis <https://unsplash.com/photos/JWweTjBosws> Unsplash.
The joy of riding safely on a designated bike lane (hopefully the green paint enables the cyclist to block out any sense of doom as the bus bears down on him). Photo by Aaron Doucett <https://unsplash.com/photos/JwAeeifBANs> Unsplash.
Carefree hiking and biking on a well-maintained path. Photo by James Lewis <https://unsplash.com/photos/dxNsJq_WS1o> Unsplash.
My city, Portland, Oregon, has developed a reputation as the standard-bearer (at least in the U.S.) for bicycle infrastructure. It often takes the number one spot on lists of America’s best bicycling cities. PBOT, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, has a “Bicycles in Portland Fact Sheet” that was last updated in April 2019. Some of the facts include:
- Portland has 385 miles of bikeways, with more than 95 more miles funded to be installed in the next five years. The bikeways mostly consist of:
- 94 miles of neighborhood greenways;
- 162 miles of bike lanes; and
- 85 miles of dedicated bike paths.
- As of 2017, 6.3% of Portland commuters go by bike. This is the highest percentage of bike commuters for a large American city.
- The city council adopted three bicycle plans (in 1973, 1996, and 2010) to guide Portland’s growth as a bike-friendly city.
- $60 million was the estimated replacement value for Portland’s bicycling infrastructure in 2008. That’s the approximate cost for one mile of urban freeway.
I find the last bullet point instructive. The city with the most extensive cycling infrastructure invests an infinitesimally tiny percentage compared to what’s invested in the auto infrastructure. One mile of freeway?!? Really?!? Imagine if the ratio of cycling investment to auto investment were reversed. We’d have a cycling paradise on our hands. We’d have the most efficient transportation system in the country – maybe even the world! OK, back to reality. Having lived in some less cycling-friendly and less investment-oriented cities, I feel grateful for what we do have in Portland. Some of the infrastructure is downright impressive. For instance, there’s Tilikum Crossing, a shiny cable-stayed bridge across the Willamette River, built in 2015, that is solely for transit, pedestrians, and cyclists. My current favorite piece of infrastructure is Gateway Green, an urban mountain biking park lodged into a sliver of land between two interstate freeways where the county jail used to be located. The park is still under construction, but areas of it are open for practicing mountain bike skills and other recreational pursuits. In fact, it was a desire to visit the trails and jumps of Gateway Green that put me on a collision course with my potty-mouthed combatant.
Tilikum Crossing, the shiny new transit/pedestrian/biker bridge in downtown Portland. Photo by Cole Keister https://unsplash.com/photos/W0TpJFM7aXw Unsplash.
It had been sunny for a few days in a row, a rarity during the Pacific Northwest winter, so I figured it would be fun to spend lunchtime practicing my mostly nonexistent mountain bike skills. I love mountain biking – it’s the activity that makes me feel the most like a kid. A sculpted trail through the forest is probably the only place in the world you’d hear me yell, “Weeeeeeee!” I live about four miles from Gateway Green, and much of my route to pedal there is along the I-205 Multi-Use Path, a paved hiker/biker trail that parallels Interstate 205.
Portland is suffering a multifaceted crisis. Many people are houseless and living outside in marginal zones around the city. Many people are also addicted to drugs that cause severe health problems: heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamines, and alcohol. And there’s a lot of overlap among these people. The city has struggled mightily, especially since the onset of the COVID pandemic, to help neighbors get off the streets, to work on addiction treatment, and to manage a hugely visible litter disaster. I have tried to help in my own small way by volunteering with Adopt One Block to clean up trash around my neighborhood. It’s amazing (and pretty damn disgusting) to list some of the things I’ve picked up over the past few years – countless used syringes, an eviscerated cat, a backpack filled with human excrement. I know that I have quite a bit of privilege. Here I am playing around on a mountain bike while people around me are suffering. But I try to be helpful, and I’m building connections with neighbors to see how we can care for our community together.
I knew before pumping up the tires on my bike that the I-205 path would have some messes along the way to Gateway Green, but… There was so much broken glass that it was a minor miracle I didn’t get a flat. Many tents were pitched directly on the path. I passed two men, at two different places on the trail, actively peeing in the grass alongside the trail. I passed another man injecting himself with some kind of drug. I waited patiently as a group of four people with a dog swept some of their trash out of the middle of the trail so I could pass. The state of the trail was getting to me even more than usual, and I felt compelled to stand up for cyclists and write this article. I thought it would be useful to grab a photo, so I stopped where the path crosses a busy intersection, took my phone out of my backpack, and captured the image below.
The photo that sparked my “piece of shit” encounter. Photo by Rob Dietz.
The scenic I-205 Multi-Use Path. Photo by Rob Dietz.
As I was putting the phone back in my backpack, I noticed a man walking briskly toward me, about 50 yards away. When he got close, he shouted, “What the fuck are you doing?” I answered, “Taking a picture – I volunteer in the neighborhood picking up trash, and I’m trying to document litter on the trail.” That’s when he offered a few not-so-glowing opinions on my character. As best as I can tell, he thought my plan was to call the police and try to get him evicted. He further “explained” that I looked down on him. I asked him if he would stop yelling at me so we could talk to one another. He yelled, “I’m not yelling at you!!!” Worried that he might want to start a fist fight, I took a step back. I felt reasonably protected, as I was wearing a helmet and knee and elbow pads. Sensing that I had little chance of convincing him that we could have a calm and productive dialogue, I decided to disengage. I turned around, got off the path, and rode home along city streets.
I don’t know what ridership was like along this path prior to the pandemic, but I’ll take a wild guess that it’s now lower. I passed one person riding a motorized scooter while I was on the path, but not any other cyclists. And of course, I chose to vacate the trail in favor of streets teeming with cars. I don’t blame people for pitching their tents along the bike paths – it’s way better than many other places around the city. It’s exactly where I would go in that situation – far safer, less noisy, more private, and much more pleasant overall than a highway exit. Those are the exact conditions cities are trying to create when they build such infrastructure, and the exact conditions cyclists are seeking when they go two-wheeling. I want to be clear. People need help, and we have to develop policies and institutions that promote equity and opportunity for all. We shouldn’t have a society in which some folks have trouble deciding which of their yachts they should use to host this weekend’s cocktail party, while other folks are deciding which highway underpass will be the driest place to shiver through the weekend weather. In the meantime, as we’re working on these painful, systemic dilemmas, we need to prioritize which elements of the public sphere we want to protect and maintain.
At the scale of a single city, there’s a lot at stake. People worked tirelessly for decades to develop Portland’s infrastructure and culture, and all that work built a well-deserved reputation over time. Now that reputation is being compromised right along with the infrastructure and culture. But at the scale of all cities, there may be even more at stake. If this moment in history, marked by a social and environmental polycrisis, threatens the established cycling tradition in Portland, how can we expect other cities with a less-ingrained bike culture to embrace cycling and sustainable alternatives to the automobile? And if the polycrisis worsens, how can we address rising houselessness and a greater need for clean modes of transportation without pitting different interests against one another?
Cyclists, who are already forced to reckon with the thinnest margins of safety, shouldn’t be pushed off what little infrastructure was built for them. Why build Tilikum Crossing if we can’t maintain the simple trails that funnel bike riders to it? In my experience, there is nothing in the human-built environment that can compete with the beauty and wonder of natural landscapes, but if I were to hold one thing in the anthro-environment sacred, it would be the cycling infrastructure.