When gas prices surged above $4 per gallon earlier this year, it didn't take Nostradamus to predict that there would be a resultant rush to carbon-free commuting options—especially in a place like Portland, which is known for its ample network of bike lanes. Cyclists in "Stumptown" are spinning their spokes here in unprecedented numbers, trading in their fuel-guzzling SUVs for stylish 27-speeds.
But the cycling surge has created conflict, as the new breed of commuters bumps up against the old, oil-powered kind.
First came a drunk cyclist repeatedly smacking the driver of a car with his bike July 6, before a passerby stopped the melee by knocking the pedaler to the ground with one punch (the driver happened to be a longtime cycling advocate, who'd kicked off the altercation by chiding the biker for blowing through a red light.) A week later, a drunken motorist drew a tirade from a cyclist who thought the car was driving too fast. The driver tried to run Jason Rehnberg down, only to have the biker land on the hood, hanging on by the windshield wipers for the next block—a surreal scene captured on video by a resident who heard the shouting and brought his camera out to see what was happening.
The very next day, a cyclist blew a red light and slammed into a pickup truck, which sent the biker to the hospital. The day after that, Adam Leckie and Patrick Schrepping wound up in fisticuffs over Schrepping's admonition to Leckie for riding around helmetless. Leckie allegedly responded by keying Schrepping's car, according to police (Leckie confirmed the keying episode; Schrepping wound up decking Leckie with his own bike lock. Both were arrested on assault charges (neither has a court date yet).
Finally, on July 18, a man carrying his bike ran a red light on foot to catch a city bus, blocking four lanes of traffic. The driver motioned for the man to get out of the way so the bus could pick him up; the man responded by punching a hole in the bus window and taking off.
An escalating war between two-wheelers and four-wheelers, brought on by sky-high gas prices? Absolutely not, insist cyclists, city officials and the local newspaper, which has called the hoopla "a war of anecdotes." Injuries to cyclists remain steady even as ridership surpasses record levels, according to statistics kept by the city. Portland was recently named one of two "platinum" U.S. cities by the League of American Bicyclists, and most agree that there's safety in numbers; more pedestrians and cyclists on the road means more awareness and greater caution on the part of drivers.
But there's also clearly plenty of tension on Portland's streets, and the strange two-week spate of clashes this summer that has people wondering whether the incidents are a sign of further trouble to come. "In 26 years as a cop, I've never heard of a string of facts like this," said Portland Police Sgt. Brian Schmautz. "It's pretty easy to draw the conclusion that there are some unusual influences at work in Portland."
The numbers of new cyclists on the road are staggering. City officials track the growth on four bridges that cross the Willamette River, connecting the east and west sides of town. Last year, 14,500 cyclists crossed the bridges, an increase of 21 percent over 2006. In May, the number of cyclists who crossed the Broadway Bridge was 24 percent higher than the peak in 2007. Eighteen percent of the vehicles that crossed the Hawthorne Bridge last year were bicycles.
The surge has by and large been safe. Last year, 29 people died walking, driving or riding a bike in traffic accidents in Portland, said Greg Raisman, traffic safety specialist with the city. In 1996, the number was 59. Injuries to cyclists has remained flat even with double-digit increases annually in their numbers over the last several years.
In part, that's due to a range of improvements on city streets to make bike trips safer, says Karl Rohde, government-relations director for the 5,000-member Bicycle Transportation Alliance. The Oregon Legislature passed a landmark bill in the 1970s that set aside one percent of state highway funds for bicycle lanes and paths. Portland has 40 bike shops and 150 bicycle-related businesses, plus 270 miles of on-street bike lanes, bike boulevards and paved trails, and 400 bikeway destination signs throughout the city. An estimated 16 percent of Portland residents commute on bicycles.
Motorists who hit bikers face tough penalties here. In April, a Multnomah County grand jury indicted Johnny Jerry Eschweiler of attempted murder, after his vehicle allegedly ran down two cyclists who were in his way last August (Eschweiler pleaded not guilty). Attorney Christopher Heaps found a rarely used state law that allows citizens to issue citations to drivers after his client, Siobhan Doyle, was struck by a car and hospitalized last October. The police didn't issue a citation to the driver, Lisa Wheeler, but the citizen complaint led to a $180 fine. Wheeler pleaded no contest.
All this infrastructure and enforcement adds up to a fairly safe environment for cyclists, most agree. So why the recent road rage?
Most cyclists chalk it up to coincidence. But on bike blogs and other web sites, a debate is raging between the two user groups. Drivers charge cyclists with blatant disregard for the law—especially when it comes to stop signs and stop lights. And cyclists (some of whom defend their disdain for such regulations, arguing it's a pain to hop off their bikes at every stop sign) say drivers often act as if they don't exist.
"It's reached a certain level of madness," said resident Jim Blackwood, who kicked off a fiery discussion earlier this month when he blogged about nearly hitting a cyclist who was riding at night without lights or a helmet and had cruised through a red light. Two blocks later, Blackwood saw two more bikes without lights. "Why isn't the bike community insisting everybody have a helmet and lights on the front and back of the bicycles?," he said.
Schmautz, the Portland cop, notes a "militant" attitude among citizens, which may explain why traffic disagreements sometimes boil over into full-blown fights. "We have a protest culture," he said. "We see a certain willingness to speak out in a way that's not completely legal."
Schmautz added that he has noticed an uptick in telephone calls he gets from angry motorists and cyclists. Motorists complain that bike safety improvements come "at their expense," he said. Ninety-nine percent of all traffic citations the cops issue are to cars. The police conducted a two-day sting this week, but it was largely aimed at raising awareness, and officers mostly handed out warnings to cyclists—a powerful political constituency in town, Schmautz said.
Rick Adams, who videotaped the scuffle that involved the cyclist on the hood of the car, says the problem may be cultural. "As a society, you can flip someone off very easily," Adams said. "But we have no hand signal that says 'I'm sorry.' "