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Rex Burkholder: The Dangers of Wet Weather Biking

Monday, October 27, 2014


(Cyclist geared up in the rain. Photo by jrodmanjr  Creative Commons)

Last week we got the first sock-soaker of the year—despite wearing rainpants and a hooded raincoat, I squished-squished as I walked into my first stop of the day. Despite the rain, there was a steady stream (pun!) of people cycling across the Hawthorne Bridge. By the time I got there around 8:30 am, the bike counter had registered 1986 that day already. Not quite the numbers of summer when almost 3000 riders would have crossed by that time of morning but a good showing for a dark, very wet day in October. 

Back when I was part of starting up the Bicycle Transportation Alliance I would joke that I knew just about every bike commuter heading downtown---because there were all of five of us! 

Then Mia Birk, who was the head of the bicycle group in the Portland Bureau of Transportation told me that I was wrong. They had done a count of cyclists on the bridges and there were actually fifteen. 

Of course, back in those days, the sidewalks on the Hawthorne Bridge were four feet wide, there were no bike lanes on the Burnside, the sidewalks on the Broadway were made of wood—really, cross my heart—and the Steel Bridge? Well, imagine sharing the road with the new Max trains, buses and speeding cars on ten foot wide lanes. 

Proving the maxim from the film, Field of Dreams, we have witnessed an explosion of bicycle commuting in the past two decades. Today, over 15,000 commuters to downtown get there on bike. Truly, if you build it, they will come. 

Which brings me to my point. People will ride bikes where and when they feel safe. Bike lanes, green boxes, bike boulevards really do work. But the real challenge is motorist behavior: all the paint and signage in the world won’t stop a two-ton steel missile from taking your life. Only an attentive and careful driver can do that. 

On our first rainy morning last week, in the wet rush hour, when everyone should be on their very best behavior to protect their lives and the lives of others, here is what I saw in my 15 minutes on the road: a black Ford 250 continue right through the stop sign at SE 8th and Salmon. 

Salmon is one of the most heavily-traveled bicycle boulevards in town, leading to the Hawthorne Bridge and this driver didn’t even slow down. 

Then, just a block away at SE 8th and Main, a woman in a maroon sedan followed the car in front of her and rolled through the stop sign right in front of me. I yelled “NO” as I jammed on my brakes. She didn’t even turn her head. Add to this the usual four or five drivers sneaking through intersections on yellow and red lights- is it any wonder that most Portlanders see riding a bike as risky? 

We have seen crash rates drop dramatically as numbers of people cycling have gone up. It’s been years since I’ve had a confrontation with a motorist over my right to the road or been spit on or had something thrown at me from a passing car. 

Most people driving cars are careful and polite to people on bikes nowadays. Maybe its because so many people are riding on Sunday Parkways every summer, averaging 20,000 riders on each of the five rides. 

The biggest danger I feel out on the road is inattentiveness. Drivers have tremendous power at the tip of their toe. With this tremendous power comes tremendous responsibility. A person hit by a car traveling at only 30mph has less than 2 in 3 chance of surviving. Hit by a car traveling at 40mph reduces survival rates to 1 in 5. (source: Speed Kills)

Chicago streets plan

We become lulled by cars that make driving too easy, handling like race cars, silent and fast. In the rain, we roll up our windows, turn up the heat and crank the radio. We become detached from the outside world, the world where I and thousands of others cycle and walk alongside traffic. 

Winter has come to the Pacific Northwest. Let’s be careful out there.

Trained as a biologist, Rex Burkholder worked as a science teacher and in the Northwestern forests. He started the bicycling revolution in Portland, Ore., as a founder and policy director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. An early leader in sustainability and equity, Burkholder also cofounded the Coalition for a Livable Future, bringing together over 100 diverse NGOs in the greater Portland region. He was elected to the Metro Council in 2000, serving 12 years, during which he led efforts to reform regional transportation policy and to integrate climate change into the decisions of all levels of government in Oregon.


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