Living Car-Free in American Suburb

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. I’m currently living car-free in the American suburb of Oregon City, which is located at the southern edge of the Portland, OR region.

Portland Region Map

Oregon City is located at the southern edge of the Portland region. I live and work in southern Oregon City. Source: AARoads

I’ll admit that I didn’t envision living and working in a suburb similar to my childhood hometown of Kannapolis, NC when I moved from Kannapolis to Charlotte in August 2009 to start undergrad at UNC Charlotte. Since I hated feeling forced to drive an automobile for every trip in Kannapolis and loved the freedom of many transportation choices in Charlotte, I never imagined returning to a suburb after graduating from UNC Charlotte. As I hope this post shows you, returning to a suburb may have been the best decision for my career.

While I still prefer living in an urban area and miss living in Arlington, VA’s award-winning Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, I feel I’m making a much bigger difference working in the suburb of Oregon City than I could have made working in a big city. This is mostly because I’m the only transportation planner at Clackamas Community College (CCC) and one of the few active transportation planners in Oregon City.

I worked or interned in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Portland (OR), and the DC region, so I’m confident that if I worked in a large city I’d be in a large transportation department with many staff working on active transportation planning issues. While I’m not trying to devalue the work that planners do in big cities, especially since they have to work on more complex issues than I have in Oregon City, how much difference does EACH of these planners have in creating change in their big city?

Since I’m an entry-level transportation planner, I keep thinking about how much more difference I’m making in Oregon City than I could have made as an entry-level transportation planner among many entry-level transportation planners in a big city. While I have to get permission to do things like apply for grants, I have been given plenty of professional freedom so far to pursue what I feel would be useful for improving multimodal transportation choices at CCC. This also means that I have to be more responsible for the decisions I make because I’m the only transportation planner. Since I was micromanaged at a previous job (purposely not giving specifics because I don’t want to embarrass a previous employer) and this overwhelmed my supervisor and me, I’m thankful my current supervisor isn’t micromanaging me.

While I wrote earlier how Oregon City is a similar suburb to my childhood hometown of Kannapolis, Oregon City has much better active transportation access to Portland than Kannapolis has to Charlotte. After biking from my home in southern Oregon City to Downtown Oregon City on almost completely connected bike lanes, signed bike routes and sharrows, I can ride on almost completely connected trails all the way to Downtown Portland. The regional version of the below trails map can be found here. I actually helped create this map during my internship at Oregon Metro.

Portland to Oregon City Trails Map

Regional trails between Oregon City and Downtown Portland. Source: Oregon Metro

The below map shows most of the bike infrastructure between Oregon City and Downtown Portland. Since Portland’s famous neighborhood greenways and Oregon City’s signed bike routes and sharrows aren’t shown at this zoom level, I wanted to note that this is missing from the below map.

Portland to Oregon City Bike Map

Bike infrastructure between Oregon City and Downtown Portland. Source: Google Maps

Unless I rarely wanted to visit Charlotte or spend lots of time and money on transferring between multiple transit systems in the Charlotte region (I can take unlimited trips on TriMet’s light rail lines and buses throughout the Portland region for $5/day), I couldn’t have lived car-free in Kannapolis. While the Carolina Thread Trail is working to connect trails throughout the Charlotte region and I volunteered to help create the Carolina Thread Trail Map, it isn’t possible today to use trails or any other bike infrastructure to bike between Downtown Kannapolis and Uptown Charlotte. Since Charlotte’s bike lanes, signed bike routes and sharrows aren’t shown at this zoom level, I wanted to note that this is missing from the below map.

Charlotte to Kannapolis Bike Map

Bike infrastructure between Uptown Charlotte and Downtown Kannapolis. Source: Google Maps

Oregon City has good biking and transit access to Portland, so I have been able to visit Portland frequently without driving. While some people in Oregon City have suggested I should buy a car so I can travel quicker, owning and maintaining a car is expensive. Plus, my job literally involves helping people to reduce car dependency. I can currently motivate people to reduce car dependency by telling them that it’s possible to live car-free in a suburb like Oregon City because I live car-free here. How would they react if I told them I gave up and purchased a car for the first time in my life?

While I live car-free in my personal life, I can’t reach all my work trips by walking, biking and riding transit. Since I didn’t want to buy a car for work trips, my supervisor helped me reserve the below hybrid electric car, which CCC owns. Even though I was nervous about whether my supervisor would support my car-free lifestyle, he has been very supportive.

I have so far driven the hybrid electric car to and from the Clackamas County Coordinating Committee (C4) Meeting near Mt Hood. Since this was the first time I drove after moving back to Oregon and I didn’t drive much when I lived in Virginia, I had to adjust to driving again. I have always been a slow driver, but Oregon drivers have been proven to be among the nation’s slowest drivers so I fit in.

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Hybrid electric car provided for work trips. Photo: Ray Atkinson

As my below Instagram post shows, the C4 Meeting provided me with good insights into Clackamas County’s transportation priorities. Unfortunately for my work to reduce car dependency, widening I-205 is definitely the top priority. Oregon DOT (ODOT), which presented about the I-205 toll and widening project during the C4 Meeting, has been trying to get support for widening I-205 by saying this will reduce traffic congestion. While traffic congestion may be reduced in the short-term, induced demand has shown that widening highways never reduced traffic congestion in the long-term. This is why ODOT needs to use the I-205 toll revenue to fund active transportation projects, which have been proven to reduce traffic congestion on highways. If ODOT is looking for an existing program to review, I recommend the I-66 Commuter Choice Program because revenue from the I-66 toll in Northern Virginia is directly funding active transportation projects in Northern Virginia.

I haven’t decided what my next blog post will be about, but it’ll probably be something about what I’m experiencing in Oregon. Thanks for reading my blog!

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Moving Back to Oregon to Work at Clackamas Community College

I’m excited to share that after submitting 127 job applications over the past seven months I have accepted a written offer to become the Transportation Systems Analyst at Clackamas Community College (CCC) in Oregon City! A short position description is below. The position is grant funded from Oregon Metro through June 30, 2019. Oregon Metro is offering the grant again and CCC plans to reapply for it.

Develop and implement strategies to expand transportation options and remove transportation barriers.  Refine and operationalize strategies outlined in the Transportation Management Plan.  Develop and implement transportation survey tools.  Gather and analyze transportation metrics for use in developing new transportation strategies.  Act as liaison with local, regional, and state government partners; work cooperatively to create transportation plans and projects that reflect the needs of the College.

Since CCC wants me to start working in June, I’ll be resigning from my full-time, temporary Urban Planner I position at the City of Alexandria, VA on May 18. I plan to move back to the Portland region soon after Memorial Day, which is in time to participate in Pedalpalooza. I’ll miss my East Coast family and friends. Thankfully, I’ll be able to catch up with many of them during my upcoming trips to Boston, Charlotte area, Erie, and Cleveland area. Since I was in grad school when I previously lived in Oregon from 2014-16, I’m looking forward to having more free time to explore the West Coast.

You may be wondering why I chose the below photo for the featured photo. Since CCC’s three campuses are located in three Portland suburbs and my new supervisor said no one has organized a group bike ride at CCC, my future job at CCC reminds me of when I co-founded and led the Cyclists Club at UNC Charlotte (UNCC). Even though I wasn’t hired by UNCC to work on transportation issues, I felt I was the de facto bike coordinator because this position didn’t exist. I’m excited to use what I learned working on transportation issues at UNCC to improve CCC.

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Ray organized and led slow Cyclists Club ride at UNC Charlotte on February 14, 2013

Since I took an Internet GIS course at UNCC during Spring 2013 and created the below interactive bike resource map with my teammate during this course, I’m planning to see whether CCC wants me to create a similar interactive map for CCC. While I’m impressed CCC’s transportation page includes walking, biking, transit, and carpooling, I’m looking forward to working with staff to improve it.

UNC Charlotte Bicycle Resource Page

Ray and Jacob created the UNC Charlotte Bicycle Resource Map in Spring 2013

You may have noticed that I focused on my UNCC experience before my Portland State University (PSU) experience. I did this on purpose because transportation planning and overall transportation behavior at PSU is so far ahead of CCC. PSU is a Platinum-Level Bicycle Friendly University, which is the highest level that has been awarded. While I offered during my interview that I could help CCC apply to become a Bicycle Friendly University, which is also open to colleges, CCC currently isn’t a Bicycle Friendly University. UNCC also wasn’t a Bicycle Friendly University until it applied for the first time in 2017 and was awarded the Bronze Level, which is the lowest level, so UNCC and CCC share many things in common.

Even though I want my ideas for CCC to be context sensitive, this doesn’t mean I can’t think about what I did at PSU. As this BikePortland post and the below photos show, Gerald and I organized a successful Bike PSU outreach event at PSU during Fall 2015. We organize this outreach event to start creating bike trains. Since we had difficulty finding a method to connect bike train participants while preserving their privacy and finding participants with similar class schedules that lived nearby each other, we weren’t able to start a bike train at PSU. I expect to have similar challenges organizing bike trains at CCC, but one big difference is I’ll be a permanent employee at CCC. I had to stop organizing bike trains at PSU when I graduated in June 2016.

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Ray and Gerald organized Bike PSU’s outreach event during Fall 2015 (Photo: Michael Andersen/BikePortland)

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PSU student participating in Bike PSU’s outreach event during Fall 2015 (Photo: Michael Andersen/BikePortland)

Yes, I realize I have focused mostly on biking and my new job involves working on more than just biking. As my previous post shows, I have multimodal transportation experience. My PSU team did our planning workshop project on walkability in Tigard, which is a suburb of Portland.

Since I’ve never been to CCC or Oregon City, I’m excited to explore a new area of the Portland region. Due to Oregon City being the first permanent Euro-American settlement in the Willamette Valley, first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains, and Oregon’s first capital (Oregon City was selected the capital before the creation of the Oregon Territory in 1848), Oregon City isn’t really new. I’m excited to learn more Oregon history by visiting the Museum of the Oregon Territory, which overlooks Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

Walking, Biking and Riding Transit in Portland, OR vs. Washington, DC

Since my car-free travel behavior has changed dramatically between Portland and DC, I want to compare how my walking, biking, and transit riding habits have changed between living in Portland and now living in the DC region.

Except for the few months in late 2015 and early 2016 where I fully depended on walking and riding transit in Portland because I felt too anxious biking, I mostly walked and biked for all my trips in Portland. I was planning to also mostly walk and bike throughout the DC region because transit is expensive (not as expensive as owning and maintaining a car). While I still walk and bike in the DC region, my boss provided me with a transit card for work trips so I have been riding transit much more than I planned to when I moved here. My boss also provided me with a Capital Bikeshare maintenance key (no time limits like normal keys) for work and personal trips so I haven’t been riding my private bike as often. Since I can’t carry my panniers on Capital Bikeshare, I have been mostly using my private bike for getting groceries and other shopping trips.

Biking in Portland vs. DC region

I don’t live in DC so, while DC has bike racks almost everywhere and the bike racks are usually designed correctly, I have experienced no bike racks or poorly designed bike racks often in Arlington. The below photo shows a ladder or wheel bender rack at a grocery store near my home in Arlington. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with bike parking issues when parking a Capital Bikeshare bike because I have always found an empty dock.

 

Since I depended so much on the DC region’s great trail systems when I lived in the DC region during summer 2014, I was looking forward to depending on the DC region’s great trail systems again. Even though I rode a road bike last time I lived in the DC region, anxiety from my extreme fear of heights has gotten much worse so I have been struggling to ride on hilly trails like the Custis Trail and trails along steep cliffs like the Four Mile Run Trail. Since I doubt I will conquer my fear of heights soon, I’m planning to buy a $3-4,000 recumbent trike so I can reduce the anxiety I feel when biking on hilly trails and along steep cliffs.

 

While the trails are great for long-distance trips, they don’t go everywhere so I still have to use on-street bike routes. I forgot how bad most of the on-street bike infrastructure is in the DC region. Yes, I know DC has protected bike lanes, which are actually better than any protected bike lanes in Portland. However, protected bike lanes in the DC region are on very few streets so I rarely ride on them.

I’m missing Portland’s neighborhood greenways. I used to live at SE 27th and Salmon, which is on a neighborhood greenway, so I memorized the neighborhood greenways. I rarely had to ride on busy roads outside of downtown Portland because neighborhood greenways went almost everywhere. Thankfully, I have found one element of neighborhood greenways in the DC region. Sharrows are found throughout the DC region. Even though the DC region has installed sharrows, which is a critical and cheap element to Portland’s neighborhood greenways, the DC region has horrible wayfinding for cyclists so the sharrows aren’t part of a neighborhood greenway. Due to this, I feel sharrows are only used in the DC region to communicate to cyclists that the government believes that the street is safe enough for biking and to communicate to motorists that they should expect to see cyclists using the street. Sharrows do much more than this in Portland so I miss biking on Portland’s neighborhood streets.

Before I totally dismiss the DC region’s on-street bike network, I’m excited to share that the DC region has several Level of Traffic Stress (LTS) maps. As all the below maps show, the DC region has plenty of work to do to make their on-street bike network feel more comfortable and less stressful. However, I find these maps much more useful than normal bike maps. This is mostly because a normal bike map shows all bike lanes the same while a LTS map shows bike lanes by how comfortable or stressful they are to ride on.

Arlington County, VA 2017 Bicycle Comfort Level Map (click to download front and back of map)

Montgomery County, MD Bicycle Stress Map (click to view map)

montgomery-county-lts-map

According to a presentation by Stephanie Dock, who works for District DOT, at the Transportation Techies meetup in October 2016, District DOT will be publicly releasing their LTS map soon so I’ll add their map when it’s released.

This blog post is getting long. I try to keep my blog posts under 1,000 words and will go over 1,000 words if I keep writing this blog post. While I still want to compare how my walking and transit riding habits have changed between Portland and DC, I may have to write about them in a new blog post. Readers, do you want me to write about my walking and transit riding habits in this blog post or start a new blog post?

What should I do to avoid being left and right hooked?

I was almost left and right hooked several times last week while riding in bike lanes in downtown Portland, Oregon so am planning to buy a $65 Orp. The below video and photo show how an Orp works.

Unfortunately, I can’t use the Orp to communicate with motorists waiting at a stop light that I’m planning to continue straight from the bike lane. The Orp just alerts motorists that I don’t want to be hit. It doesn’t inform motorists whether I will be turning or continuing straight. Since I can see whether the motorist’s turn signal is on, I know when I need to communicate with the motorist that I plan to continue straight. In order to inform motorists that I plan to continue straight, I have been pointing straight, trying to make eye contact with the motorist and yelling “straight”. Even with all of this, I had two motorists almost hit me while I was biking in the door zone bike lane on SW 5th Avenue in downtown Portland on Thursday, October 22. I kept trying to make eye contact with the motorists and yelling, but their windows were up so they couldn’t hear me and they didn’t see me until I heard their brakes squeak. Thankfully, they both were going slow, which allowed them enough space to stop in time. However, I felt my heart beating very fast so know it was way too close for my safety and comfort.

Since my strategies aren’t working to keep me safe from being left and right hooked, what should I do to avoid being left and right hooked in the future? Vehicular cyclists (according to this discussion, I have now learned that they prefer to be called bike drivers) keep telling me in the Cyclists are Drivers! facebook group that I need to “just line up with the rest of the traffic that’s going straight.” Unfortunately, as I wrote in this blog post, Oregon law requires me to use the bike lane in most situations and doesn’t allow me to impede traffic so I am forced to feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the bike lane. I have copied the Oregon statutes to show you why the law needs to be changed. Section 814.420.3.e is copied below.

“A person is not in violation of the offense [of leaving a bicycle lane or path] under this section if the person is able to safely move out of the bicycle lane or path for the purpose of: (e) Continuing straight at an intersection where the bicycle lane or path is to the right of a lane from which a motor vehicle must turn right.”

Note the phrase: “where the bicycle lane or path is to the right of a lane from which a motor vehicle must turn right”, as this only applies to bike lanes to the right of right turn only lanes, and not lanes where motorists can go through or turn right, which is the overwhelming majority of cases on the streets.

After receiving more advice from the Cyclists are Drivers! facebook group, I am planning to break several Oregon laws starting on Monday by controlling the full travel lane on roads with a bike lane and impeding traffic. Since I value living another day more than following unsafe Oregon laws, I am open to being arrested and receiving a ticket. Do you see any safe and comfortable options that are permitted under Oregon law so I don’t risk dying while biking?