Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Few Good Snowmen

Snowmen keeping the peace in NE Portland.
Tuesday night's historic snowfall in Portland stirred up memories of wintertime hijinks when I was a kid in Spokane. Snowfalls like this were routine, but always an opportunity for fun. One snowy night in particular, some neighbor kids and I went out and rolled up a bunch of huge snow boulders in our front yard, and then proceeded to line them up across the street to block cars. We lived in a subdivision, and it was after dark and snowing hard, so cars were passing just once in awhile. That gave us enough time to build a quick wall, and then duck behind the bushes to wait for cars to come. Most drivers would stop in front of the blockade, get out, kick it down and then drive through. But I have a clear memory of a pickup coming along, and then hitting the gas and bashing down the wall Red Fang style. Very cool!

Last night in our neighborhood in Northeast Portland, the conditions were similar: perfectly moist, packable snow, and just the right amount of traffic in front of our house. At age 52, I actually had an idea to repeat the Spokane roadblock escapade of my childhood. But this time, not for the naked thrill of it, but because I'm fed up with the rat running traffic in front of our house. Our street is just a block and a half from the intersection of two big thoroughfares, Sandy Blvd. and NE 82nd Ave. During rush hour, a lot of drivers will cut up our street and around the corner in order to avoid the traffic light at Sandy and 82nd. They'll do this at speeds way too high for a residential street -- so this is a big nuisance.

Scene of the hijinks.

The snow patrols are placed so they discourage tight cornering -- which slows cars down.
Last night, while the kids were sledding on the walk and having snowball fights, I rolled up four big snow boulders and lined them up at the corner where the rat runners make their high speed turns. But when it came to it, I decided against creating a full-on road block. I was too concerned that somebody coming up the sloping street from Sandy would get stuck. And maybe it wouldn't be a rat runner at all, but a nice, responsible somebody who lives on our street. The barricade was too blunt an instrument, I decided.

Looking down the hill toward the big throughfare, Sandy Blvd.
Instead I created two tall snowmen right at the corner. They're placed a couple feet out from the gutter so that they constrict the traffic, but still allow cars to pass. As such, they're more like traffic calmers (or maybe, considering the materials, traffic coolers?). At any rate, I did notice that cars slowed down as they the came to the snowmen. This was helped by the fact that a car was parked along the opposite sidewalk, leaving a fairly narrow passage. I think it's also due to the nature of Portlanders: They're just very appreciative and respectful of anything that might be considered temporary public art. No more than five minutes into my little experiment, a big, obnoxious-looking pickup with a lifted suspension approached the corner from 82nd: unfamiliar vehicle and most probably a rat runner, I judged. The passenger window rolled down and I braced for vitriol. Then came a cheerful, female voice: "Hey, those snowmen are AMAZING!!" Totally took the wind out of my sails. "Thanks!" I said. So the tenor of my political statement seems to have been lost on the rat runners. Snowmen are too cute, I can see in retrospect. However, they do slow down traffic, so that's something.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bus bail out

Sequoia may not look it, but in this week's cold weather, she's much happier to ride a warm bus than to ride a half hour on the back of a cargo bike.
Some unusually cold weather struck Portland as school opened up after the holidays, making the morning commute a bit of a trial.

Normally, I take our first grader, Sequoia, to school on a cargo bike. It's about a half-hour journey and in good weather it's a pleasant way to start the day. But the temperature on the first day of school this year was below freezing and the howling wind coming down the Columbia brought the "real feel" down to the mid-teens (about -10° C).

Sequoia was a trooper that first day on the bike, but the next morning, she was begging to go by bus. And with the temperatures dropping rather than rising, I could hardly say no. My selfish hesitation was that the school commute is the only exercise I get all day. But then I remembered that Portland's buses have bike racks, and that would allow me to take along my bike so I could cycle on the return trip home from Sequoia's school.

When the rack is not in use, it folds up and out of the way.

When you need to use it, you unlatch the rack at the top. It folds down,
you pop in your bike and then pull a spring-loaded, extendable arm over
your front tire to secure the bike. Easy when you get the hang of it.
In Budapest, city buses are not equipped with bike racks, and I was told this was because of a European regulation that forbids it for safety reasons. Despite this, bike racks are a common feature on American public buses, and Portland is no exception.

The racks on Trimet buses are mounted on the front and have capacity for two bikes. They're quick and easy to use, although the first time I tried it I couldn't figure it out and started panicking because I was holding up the bus. The driver came out and did it for me, and the lesson stuck -- precisely because it left a lasting scar on my delicate male ego.

One limitation with the racks, of course, is that they hold only two bikes. In times of high demand -- like in a torrential downpour that coincides with rush hour -- these racks quickly fill up so you can't count on Trimet to bail you out of a wet commute. I've also discovered that the racks are not big enough to accommodate my Kona Ute longtail cargo bike -- one reason I'm using a regular-sized bike this week.

But for this cold spell, the bike racks have been very handy and there have been no capacity problems (knock on wood). Until it warms up, the plan for our school commute is to bus one way and bike the other.