• Eugene Weekly Loves You!
Share |

Bike Dreams

Breaking down the barriers to bicycling in Eugene
Illustration by Sarah Decker

 

Every other year, University of Oregon professor Marc Schlossberg takes his students to the Netherlands or Denmark — Copenhagen is a bicycling utopia, where 45 percent of people commute by bike. It’s a cyclist’s dream come true.

Students from Eugene explore the European streets by bike, opening their eyes to a world where people take cycling seriously. 

“My mind was blown by the things I saw in Copenhagen,” writes student Holly Hixon in a 2015 compilation of the students’ reflections on the class. “The cycle track system is so complete, comfortable, heavily used by every type of person you can imagine and is ingrained in their way of life as a major form of transportation.”

They marvel over the well-connected web of bike paths, and they ride with less fear of cars squashing them.

In Denmark and the Netherlands, “it’s like a completely happy, joyful, stress-free, everlasting-smile-on-your-face kind of experience, and I’m totally serious about that,” Schlossberg describes. “The infrastructure is there, and it’s set up for you. It’s liberating in a way that’s hard to imagine unless you experience it.”

When students come back to the U.S., they note the marked difference, particularly in terms of infrastructure and connectivity.

Eugene has a reputation for bike friendliness, and for an American city, it does well. Pretty much everyone loves the Ruth Bascom river path system, and Eugene has more bicycle and pedestrian bridges across the Willamette River than it has bridges for cars. Census Bureau data says that among medium-sized cities in the U.S., Eugene ranks 12th for rates of biking to work, and technically, you can bike anywhere in the city.

But while Eugene ranks well nationally, census data also shows only 6.8 percent of Eugeneans bike to work. Compare that to 65 percent who commute by driving alone in their personal vehicle.

So what gives? Why aren’t more people biking?

 

Start poking at the reasons to bike or not to bike and a complex brew of factors bubbles to the surface, including infrastructure, housing availability, gas prices, cultural norms and media propaganda (really). 

The city of Eugene’s Transportation System Plan aims to double the percentage of bicycle trips in Eugene by 2035. It’s a praiseworthy mission, and this story won’t use up space describing the myriad reasons why biking is better.

In order to meet its biking goal, Eugene has to tackle the barriers to biking. Eugene needs to create safer bikeways, connect existing pieces of bike infrastructure, curb bike theft and boost education to get more people biking in Eugene.

Every day, groups of local bike advocates work at tearing down the barriers to biking. Here’s what they’re doing.

 

KIDICAL MASS

You’ve probably seen them before: a sizeable flock of brave young bicyclists pedaling around town as a many-wheeled unit, strutting their active transportation stuff. This legion of youthful bike enthusiasts calls itself Kidical Mass, a monthly family ride that proves there’s strength in numbers.

Shane MacRhodes started this venture in 2008 as a way of encouraging parents to ride with their kids. It’s a play on the idea of “critical mass,” which in biking terms means the safety, camaraderie and visibility that comes from riding in a group.

MacRhodes manages Eugene School District 4J’s Safe Routes to Schools program, although he’s soon stepping down to become a fulltime dad. To him, the future of a bike-centric Eugene hinges on families allowing kids to take control of their own transportation. 

“We’ve gotten to this point where we’re protecting our kids to death,” MacRhodes says. “We fear for their safety so much that we are driving them around everywhere out of fear.”

Look at some of the top killers, MacRhodes says — car crashes and health problems that arise from poor diet and inactivity. 

“We’re not teaching our kids the important skills of being out and moving around their community. We’re really doing a disservice to them,” he explains.

Education, MacRhodes says, can play a huge role in boosting the number of bikers in Eugene. Through Safe Routes to School, sixth graders in the Bethel, 4J and Springfield school districts take a nine-hour bike safety education program that helps them build the skills necessary to navigate roads safely and predictably in traffic. Graduates of the course emerge equipped for a future of biking.

MacRhodes describes his dream for a “traffic garden” near the 4J Education Center, just off the river path — essentially, a city in miniature where kids and their parents can practice biking skills in a mock urban setting.

It takes both pieces, MacRhodes says: education and infrastructure.

 

'To actually increase the number of people who ride bikes, we're going to have to move beyond bike lanes.' — Reed Dunbar,bicycle and pedestrian planner for the city of Eugene. Photo by Todd Cooper.

 

BEYOND BIKE LANES

“Eugene is still essentially a suburban community,” explains mayor-elect Lucy Vinis, who spent most of this year canvassing neighborhoods, talking to the people of Eugene about everything from homelessness to transportation.

For the most part, she says, “we’re going to drive to the grocery store, or we’re driving children around to their various events.”

A 2014 survey found that one-third of Eugene residents bike at least once a month, but as with many U.S. cities, transportation systems here still revolve around big, loud, carbon-emitting cars. A 2014 study found that about 75 percent of people in Eugene drive in a personal vehicle on a weekly basis, and 50 percent drive daily. 

Ipso facto, Eugene’s roads serve cars. Bike lanes, while better than nothing, will never feel as safe or freeing as structures built specifically for bikes.

“What we’re learning now is that to actually increase the number of people who ride bikes, we’re going to have to move beyond bike lanes,” says Reed Dunbar, bicycle and pedestrian planner for the city of Eugene.

This gets at the barrier of safety — many people don’t feel safe riding a bicycle next to traffic with only a thin line of paint separating them. The experience becomes even scarier when they have to merge with traffic and stand their ground with cars flanking them.

Vinis says she wants to make it easier to bike in Eugene, but she understands the safety issue — it’s one of her own personal barriers.

“I am not one of those people confident being on a bike in traffic,” she shares. That lack of confidence prevents many people from hopping on a bike to get to work or run errands.

Take an average bike lane on a busy street, Schlossberg says — only 7 percent of a given community will feel comfortable biking there. 

In Denmark and the Netherlands, “you almost don’t feel what’s happening with cars on the street,” Schlossberg describes. “They’re parallel systems, but it doesn’t matter what the cars are doing.”

In Eugene, everyone knows someone who’s been hit by a car, and damages range from scrapes and concussions to injuries requiring reconstructive surgery and, in rare cases, death. Eugene's David Minor Theater is named after a biking accident victim. People have real reasons to feel apprehensive about sharing the road with cars.

Add protections and buffers so the pathway feels separated from traffic, and it’s a different story.

 

'When you're biking, you're happy,' says Emily Farthing with the city of Eugene.

 

JOIN THE NETWORK

On a sunny fall afternoon, people on bicycles glide freely down 24th Avenue near University Park. They have the whole road to themselves, save pedestrians, and a slaphappy ease presides over the cyclists as they parade down the street. Cars? What cars?

Without looming hunks of metal zooming past and belching exhaust, people on bikes ride side by side, chatting, rolling at a conversational pace and taking it all in. It’s the complete opposite of a rush-hour traffic jam.

Two times a year, Eugene Sunday Streets sets up shop in an area of town and closes streets to car traffic — it gives cyclists a chance to experience the safe, car(e)free feeling that boosts the number of people who feel comfortable on a bike. More than 10,000 people participated in this year’s events, according to the city of Eugene.

“When I’m biking, there’s a lot more freedom,” saysEmily Farthing, coordinator for Eugene Sunday Streets. “At this time of year, you get to experience all the fall colors on the bike path and all Eugene has to offer — the sights, the smells, the people.”

Protected bike ways tap into this sense of security and enjoyment. They make the experience safer and more pleasant, and when biking offers that feeling for people, they’re more likely to jump on a bicycle.

“Communities with nearly 20 percent of people biking have a protected bikeway network, and that means people of all ages and abilities feel comfortable on the same network,” Dunbar explains. “We don’t have to take a confident cycling class to feel comfortable in the system. The system just works for us.”

In Eugene, the two-way bike line on Alder Street near the University of Oregon campus represents the closest thing to a protected bike way, but actual protected paths are in the works — one on 24th Avenue near Roosevelt Middle School and a two-way path on 13th Avenue between campus and downtown. The 13th Avenue project will happen in 2018 or 2019, costing a little more than $1 million.

Many students bike to school via 13th. According to a 2013 UO commuting survey, 79 percent of students get to campus by walking, skateboarding, biking, carpooling or public transit instead of driving alone in a car — they have high active transportation rates.

Richard Hughes, a member and former president of Greater Eugene Area Riders (GEARs), says bi-directional, protected bike lanes make sense, especially for routes often used by new students. Even though diehard bikers might not need them, protected bike paths bring new cyclists into the fold. 

On 13th, Hughes says, new students “go the wrong way in the existing bike lane” or ride on the sidewalk to get to and from campus. “When they get to the UO,” he says, they don’t know how to get back. Allowing them to go either way on 13th is “intuitive,” he adds. 

Dunbar describes the protection as a vertical and flexible physical barrier between bikes and car traffic. At intersections with lights, bikes would get their own signal, which solves one of the most common bike-car conflicts — the “right hook,” when a bike and car are moving parallel and the bike goes straight but the car turns right and hits it.

“If we give the bikes their own movement, we’ve eliminated that conflict opportunity,” Dunbar adds.

 

6,000 people participated in Eugene Sunday Streets' downtown event. Photo by Athena Delene.

 

MAKE A CONNECTION

Turning 13th into a protected two-way street has more upshots than just safety — it also improves Eugene’s bike path connectivity, which currently has gaps. 

“I think connectivity in Eugene is still something that has a ways to go,” says Steve Hecker, the current president of GEARs, which hosts group rides throughout the year. GEARs provides bike education courses, including confident cycling classes that acquaint people with laws, crash avoidance techniques and safety tips for cycling in urban settings.

These classes can help people feel safer on Eugene bike lanes, Hecker explains, although a fully connected path system would help with that, as well. 

“For cars, you would never have roads that don’t connect with each other,” Schlossberg explains. “It wouldn’t work, but in some ways that’s what it’s like for the bike system in Eugene.”

Many in the biking community speak longingly of a two-way protected bike path on High Street, which would serve as a needed connector between the Amazon bike path in south Eugene and the river paths.

Here’s the thing: Sometimes, giving space to bikes means taking space away from cars, like parking and extra lanes. As a result, not everyone wants new bike lanes — just revisit the fury and ire over restriping South Willamette Street. With the pilot project in full swing, South Willamette currently has two lanes of traffic, one southbound and one northbound, with a center turn lane and bicycle lanes. 

Previously, it had two lanes of traffic going each way, but options were limited for bike travel. People on bikes could either ride on the sidewalk, ride on the road with traffic or take side streets to get from downtown to south Eugene.

Before the restriping, business owners along the corridor worried that the reduction in car lanes and slowing of traffic would discourage people from visiting South Willamette entirely; some threatened to move their business elsewhere. In a compromise, the city agreed to test the configuration for a year, study the restriping and make a decision based on the data it collects.

Hughes and Hecker of GEARs say the restriping seems to be going well and allows better access for cyclists to shop and travel. It’s unclear if the new striping slows traffic, but Hughes says he’s observed an overall increase in the feeling of safety.

As the city plans to install more bike-friendly infrastructure in the future, it’s likely to face more opposition. 

“We have all these goals that most people are on board with, but when it comes down to an actual project in an actual place, it’s a different story,” says Bob Passaro, a member of the Active Transportation Committee, which advises Eugene’s Transportation Planning staff on biking and walking.

Last summer, he says, businesses complained about removal of parking and thwarted the city’s plans to install a bike lane on Lincoln Street between 11th and 13th avenues. (Full disclosure: EW’s office resides on this street, and the paper was in favor of adding a bike lane.)

“It wasn’t a really high priority for the city, so they didn’t want to spend political capital on it,” Pasarro explains. “I think for larger projects, they’ll be willing to fight harder for them.”

After all, the city didn’t back down on South Willamette, Passaro points out. When the time comes to redesign 13th Avenue, the city may have to make a similar stand, as the plan calls for a reduction in off-street parking.

“Hopefully [South Willamette] will be an experience we can point to and say, ‘Look, everyone predicted the end of the world, and it didn’t happen,’” Passaro says.

 

LOCK IT UP

This wouldn’t be a story about biking in Eugene without going down the rabbit hole of bike theft. According to the Eugene Police Department (EPD), thieves snatched more than 1,000 bicycles in 2015, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost.

“I’ve had two bikes stolen,” shares Kevin Gilbride, president of LiveMove, a UO student group that promotes active transportation.

While theft hasn’t stopped him from biking in Eugene, he acknowledges that for some people it’s a significant barrier. “You’ve seen the carcasses around Eugene,” he laughs, referring to the mangled bike fragments left behind after a thief snags all the pieces that pop off easily.

Local bike advocates don’t have any easy answers to bike theft, and many of them say they’ve had their bikes or parts of their bikes stolen at some point. Portland has a Bike Theft Task Force, and Farthing of Eugene Sunday Streets says EPD Officer Jeff Blonde has spent the past year looking at how to better prevent thefts. 

Over and over again, bike experts extol the value of investing in a U-lock instead of using a cheap cable.

“We don’t want to victim blame and say you shouldn’t have used a cable,” Dunbar explains, “but part of our role is to educate and say how easy it is to defeat a cable.”

Even with a solid metal U-lock, thieves can steal tires or accessories like lights and panniers. Dunbar recommends taking removable parts off the bike when it’s left outside and using a cable lock to secure wheels to the frame of the bike. It’s not foolproof, but it decreases the odds of theft.

Bike-friendly policies at workplaces and schools can help — it’s nice having the option to bring a bike inside, where it’s secure. Biking advocates recommend registering bikes through the UO or the city of Eugene, since registered bikes stand a greater chance of being recovered in the event of a theft.

Hecker with GEARs tells the story of an Oregon State University student who wasn’t allowed to bring his bike into his dorm, so he implemented an elaborate security system that cost $200 and required a unique wrench for each part of the bike. “Not everyone can do that,” Hecker acknowledges.

He’s heard from GEARs members with experience in other cities where citizens worked together with police to conduct a series of stings and stakeouts. 

“I tell people not to leave their good bike anywhere, for any time, locked or unlocked,” Hecker says. “I hate to have to say this, but until a large enough group of citizens are willing to spend the time it takes to have a concerted effort, and until the police make it a big priority, I don’t know how it’s going to change.”

 

TRAFFIC GAFFES

Bike theft is a problem, but so is behavior. Scads of resources exist to educate cyclists in Eugene, but spend five minutes on a busy street corner watching bike traffic and it’s easy to see those resources either aren’t being used or they’re being willfully ignored.

Rampant bad bike behavior gives cyclists a poor reputation and fuels the fire of animosity between people who drive and people who bike. It’s more than just rolling through a stop sign — people riding bikes in Eugene whiz through red lights, ride the wrong way on sidewalks, blow past pedestrians on the bike path without warning and weave through traffic.

“Thank God motorists don’t behave like bicyclists,” Hecker laughs. “I’ve said that to people and they get so upset with me, but it’s true.”

That’s not to say drivers are paragons of traffic safety — read the “Letters to the Editor” section of any local newspaper and find tales of texting motorists, flippant pedestrians and asshole cyclists. Everyone sucks.

For cyclists and pedestrians, though, law-breaking bears a higher risk. Dunbar says that people riding bicycles the wrong way down the street are 70 percent more likely to get hit. 

Speed also plays a role in risk: According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, 5 percent of pedestrians die when hit by vehicles traveling at 20 mph, but the death rate shoots up to 80 percent with vehicles going 40 mph. 

No wonder bicycling seems scary.

GEARs participates in a diversion program that offers cycling classes to bicyclists who get ticketed. Instead of paying a fine, wayward bikers can choose to take the class and, at the very least, become aware of the rules of the road.

But not many bicyclists get ticketed by EPD, Hughes says, leading to low turnout in the diversion classes. 

EW requested that EPD provide the number of cyclists ticketed yearly in Eugene, but the department was unable to fulfill the request due to changes in the way “traffic violations related to cyclists” are issued and catalogued.

“Whatever the priorities of the EPD, traffic does not seem to be one of them,” Hughes says. “They’re not writing tickets to cyclists, so there went our program.”

GEARs continues to offer confident cycling courses for interested parties, but bike advocates say mandatory bike classes don’t work. Sometimes the only option involves modeling good behavior.

“I’ll talk to other cyclists who I see are about to run a red light or dart through traffic and say, ‘This is really bad for all of us when you do this,’” Hecker explains. “It’s hard to do that. But we’re constantly in the situation of figuring out how to follow the rules and trying to get others to follow them.”

 

CULTURE CHANGE

That’s why Shane MacRhodes’ Safe Routes to Schools program thrums with hope for the future. Sixth graders learn bicycling and traffic skills before they learn how to drive, setting them up for a lifetime of bicycle savviness. 

The bicycle revolution will inevitably dawn, local bike advocates say, as it moves achingly slow but steadily in the direction of progress.

MacRhodes envisions a Eugene where bikes entwine intimately with peoples’ lives, from birth to adulthood, parenthood to old age. 

“When I started this work 20 years ago, I saw a culture change that was needed,” MacRhodes says. “At the time, I thought it was the infrastructure piece and how we change our cities. But now I realize it’s also letting children reclaim their childhood and building skills in them that will help them and you.”

Maybe that looks like parents biking their kids around in trailers, forgoing the manic minivan stereotype that dominates parenting culture. Or kids biking and walking themselves to school, as they once did years ago before “stranger danger” took hold. 

It takes communities that embrace the changing face of transportation needs instead of fighting tooth and nail for every lost parking spot.

And as Eugene adds each new piece of the infrastructure puzzle to its framework of bike paths, it inches ever closer to reaching that bicycle utopia.

“The systems in Denmark and the Netherlands are 40 to 45 years in the making,” Schlossberg explains. “It’s important to understand that this is not an overnight shift, but over time, as we gradually chip away at shifting infrastructure and shifting attitudes along the way, I think Eugene could easily be one of the top biking cities in the country.”

Eugene overflows with bike resources. A few gems: For bike classes and group rides, contact GEARs at eugenegears.org. For workshops and bike-related activities, go to the Center for Appropriate Transport, 455 W. 1st Avenue or catoregon.org. For commuter bike gear, check out Arriving by Bike, 2705 Willamette Street or arrivingbybike.com.

Disclosure: The writer served as a judge for Eugene’s Beautiful Bikes Pageant.