A Jersey Boy (and BTA Volunteer) Visits Portland

Editor’s note: If the BTA had a Long Distance Volunteer award, it would go to Neil Fein of New Jersey. Neil donates his time to provide copywriting and editing for a variety of BTA projects and publications. Last month, we finally got to meet Neil when he visited Portland for a week of bike riding and sightseeing. Here’s his writeup of how Portland is viewed from the eyes of a Jersey boy. MM

While waiting for the Red Line to take us to our hotel, we saw several cyclists; I noticed that many of them–most of them, almost all–were signaling their turns.

Sure, most of them were using that weird, left-arm right-turn signal that kids learn in driver’s ed, but they were signaling.

Portland is, to a right-coast denizen, bike paradise. I’d heard of the city’s amazing bike facilities. (I’m a volunteer copyeditor for the BTA, and why that’s the case is another story.) Actually seeing the bike lanes and transit facilities and the competent riders and drivers who know how to treat them–reading about all this did very little to prepare me for the reality.

We visited the city for a week, and had a great time. We rode on the Steel Bridge, and the bike traffic was inspiring. (We even saw a guy on a welded-together tall bike rounding corners. How do those guys dismount, let alone stay upright?) We rode the west-bank river walk. We visited Powells. (Several times!) We saw City Bikes paint their new mural. We spoke to buskers–and saw them get chased away by the police. And we drank coffee. A lot of coffee.

Sitting in Peet's Coffe and Tea in Portland, Oregon

Let’s back up a little bit:

Drivers in my home state of New Jersey have a pretty bad rep. The forums are filled with tales of drivers who scream at cyclists, and stories of idiot high-school seniors in SUVs throwing slushees at bike commuters. After all, bikes in New Jersey are ridden by children and people whose licenses were pulled after a DUI conviction.

To be fair, the cyclists themselves in the Garden State are said to be, almost to a rider, wrong-way cyclists with their saddles too low who run red lights and ride on the sidewalks when they feel like it. Or so the thinking goes. I can’t really fault any driver here who thinks that cyclists are scofflaws–because most of us are. But let’s get back to Portland:

After a day or so in the city, we rented bikes from the hotel: machines that the hotel called “cruisers” and I called “rattling deathtraps”. We had to pump up the tires and raise the saddles, and I did my best to tighten the handbrakes so they actually worked. (It’s a shame the city has no proper bike share program.)


When we were riding across the Burnside Bridge into SW Portland, I (stupidly) signaled at the last minute to make a left turn. A car slowed and let me into the lane. Maybe this is normal behavior for the city, but it’s nearly unheard of back home. (My wife was smarter than I was, and refrained from making that turn.) I rode more intelligently later in the day, but cars continued to treat me in a similar fashion: like a vehicle who deserved access to the road. Jersey drivers don’t even treat other cars this well.

Bikes are everywhere. There’s on-street parking for bikes. Businesses have racks as a matter of course, and they’re not hidden away where thieves can snip open locks with a reasonable expectation of privacy. (Privacy is a constitutional right, yes?)


This treatment of cyclists as equal rode users obviously must feed back in some way. Drivers and cyclists seem to respect each other in a way that’s hard to explain to someone that lives where cab drivers won’t even let you change lanes.

Later on in our trip, we stayed with cousins in town and they lent us a pair of mountain bikes. When we took those bikes on the MAX, people offered to move out of the way so we could get to the bike hooks (well, they did most of the time), and more than one commuter struck up a conversation with us. Did I mention that your transit is cheap? A seven-day pass for all Portland area transit is exactly the same as a single round-trip ticket on the train from our house to New York City. That’s one round-trip ticket = seven days of unlimited riding.

Portlanders, if you don’t realize what you have and what the BTA has done, I invite any of you to come ride with me in Newark or Paramus or Clark. You’ll figure it all out–and you’ll figure it out quickly–the first time a cab driver accelerates to keep you out of a lane, or a bus driver tries to squeeze you off a road.

Cherish what you have, and know that you have my admiration. (And my envy.) This Jersey boy knows you’ve done a great job!

Mural being painted at the Citybikes Workers' Cooporative in Portland, Oregon.

(A similar version of this post has been written for the Bicycles StackExchange blog.)


Comments (5)

  1. Andy B from Jersey Permalink  | Sep 14, 2011 10:08pm

    Hey! Neil. Stop dissing Jersey. Somehow NJ ranked #5 in LAB’s Bicycle Friendly State rankings this year while those Oregonians are a lowly 8!

    Despite having just about no bike lanes (and how again are we ranked #5?) riding in New Jersey is actually pretty damn easy with all our suburban and rural backroads. While Paramus and Newark can be a challenge (for different reasons), Clark NJ is pretty easy and even has a huge Biergarten to go to after the ride.

    Niel, keep up the good work for BTA but us New Jersey advocates could also use your talents (especially me).

    My best!

  2. Neil Fein Permalink  | Sep 14, 2011 10:29pm

    @Andy – The public transport in Portland puts New Jersey to shame. I’m frankly a little embarrassed at what we have here (or don’t have). New Jersey has a lot of greatness, and there are many wonderful areas to ride here. But we still have a long way to go when it comes to educating drivers and making major county roads more accesible.

    Most drivers here are nice, courteous, and safe. But there are stlll far to many “exceptions” for my comfort.

    Do feel free to get in touch if you’d like a hand with your blog sometime.

    What brings you to the BTA site? Are you a former Oregonian?

  3. Dan Permalink  | Sep 15, 2011 08:53am

    Okay, but New Jersey is a state, right? Portland is a remarkably progressive (WRT bicycling, at least) city (don’t get me wrong – I really dig what’s happening there 🙂 Come out and ride around the rest of Oregon for a while. You’ll see.

    And “… competent riders… “? I set my saddle height where I want (which happens to be about “correct”, but if I wanted it somewhere else that’s up to me), run red lights, and ride on the sidewalk (and wherever else) when I feel like it (may even “salmon” a bit now and then). For somebody so amazed at tall bikes, that’s quite a high horse you’re on.

  4. Arwen Kuttner Permalink  | Sep 15, 2011 04:51pm

    I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, later lived in Portland. Now live in Englewood, NJ. My dad in Portland sent me your link.

    I spent my teens and 20’s biking. I even refused to get a driver’s license for a long time because I didn’t see the point and didn’t feel safe in a car.

    Now I barely ever get on my bike. I”m not sure how much is that I’m overworked and don’t have time to care for my bike, how much is that I’m used to doing it with my dad who isn’t here, and how much is being a relatively new parent and just finding the logistics too complicated. The fact that drivers here are really scary (hey everyone, texting or cell. phone talking is as dangerous if not more so than drunk driving, yet it’s totally acceptable!!!) may be a part of it too.

  5. Charles Kuttner Permalink  | Sep 15, 2011 04:55pm

    Proud dad in Portland misses biking with his wonderful daughter. Heck, I even miss biking, haven’t hit the Portland roads in far too long. I guess I’d better.