Monday, May 2, 2022

When guide books can’t keep up with reality

I recently scored a copy of the 2014 book Pedal Portland by Todd Roll.

It’s a great book with excellent routes and easy-to-read maps, and includes a number of routes that echo some of the Sunday Parkways routes, so you know they’re mostly easy, enjoyable rides.

The challenge is that the book was released in 2014, before thousands of homeless people began camping along car-free paths like the Springwater Corridor and Springwater South. I used to ride these paths pretty frequently, but when I began getting harassed and even physically threatened by men camping and running bicycle “chop shop” operations in the bushes along the path, I made the sad decision to stop riding alone there.

Now that my health has returned enough for me to enjoy some longer rides, I’d love to ride out there again, but I don’t dare. In 2022, Portland’s homeless population has exploded all over the city, with encampments popping up everywhere from the Springwater Corridor to Laurelhurst Parkand, and several dozen large encampments near freeway ramps and on residential side streets.

Most of the people living in these encampments are not dangerous; they’re just unable to find affordable housing and often unable to find and keep steady employment due to a host of circumstances and a lack of relationships. But some homeless people are suffering from substance addiction, untreated mental illness and other issues that have rendered them angry and willing to commit violence to get what they need to survive. The last time I rode on the Springwater, back in 2016 or so, I was accosted by two men who’d laid trip wires across the path in an effort to make riders crash so they could steal their bikes. I’d seen the trip wire, and was trying to turn around and find a street that would lead me off the path. They ran map to me and yelled that they wanted to buy my bike. I yelled, “No thanks!” and began to pedal away. 

One of the mend caught up to me, grabbed at my jacket and tried to make me crash. I kicked out at him from the side, knocked him down and pedaled furiously until I was certain they couldn’t catch up. I continued my ride along residential streets and took a shortcut back home.

When I got home I called the police department’s non-emergency number and told someone what had happened. I was informed that, due to understaffing, they would not send someone out there right away, and that I should just avoid riding along the Springwater “for awhile, I’m sorry I can’t tell you how long.”

When I reached out to fellow bike riders about it on a bike chat site, and the mostly male respondents told me I needed to learn some self-defense and “take back the Springwater.” A couple invited me to consider riding with a gun concealed beneath my jacket. None of these responses appealed to me and in fact made me feel more isolated than ever. 

Six years later, I still avoid the Springwater. So has the City of Portland; since 2017 their Sunday Parkways routes have no longer included the path and so far there are no plans to change that. Because the simple truth is that there are simply too many people camping outside all over the east side of Portland, and not enough places for them to live safely and affordably. It feels like the city government has given up, calling it a “national” problem and bringing all the larger issues into the conversation whenever someone asks pointed questions about zoning and development.

The truth is that yes, capitalism is to blame. And yes, a LOT more people are living closer to the edge than ever before. But with the polarization happening everywhere, and more and more elected officials having washed their hands of the social compact, there remains very little that I can do beyond my small circle of influence. And so I revise routes, staying away from places where campsites are bleeding out onto multi-use paths, and into city parks. I stick to quiet streets deep in the heart of residential areas that are away from the conflicts, and carry a stouter lock than I used to.

I am also aware that having a fancy bike makes me more of a target for thieves anywhere I park.

So I am looking for a successor to the Rivvy. I will likely transfer parts to a less-flashy frame and let this one go. I’m considering this possibility as a path of lesser resistance. I don’t want to, and should have to, participate in some kind of “arms race” to keep me and my bicycle safe on a neighborhood ride. Is that expressing too much “privilege” in the face of so much need? Or is it simply a desire to live quietly and to avoid the fray more and more as I get older? I’m not invincible and I don’t want to feel like I have to be on high alerts whenever I leave my home. Maybe that’s privilege, or maybe it’s just a reflection of my 0ce on the timeline.

Feel free to scold me if you think I ought to be a martyr for some utopian greater good. 

I’m too old to utopias anymore.


I’ll be taking more bike rides as the days get warmer and dryer. And I’ll be mindful of where I ride.

That’s the best I can do.

If you go out this week, happy riding.


Honcho said...

Wanting to be safe is not an expression of privilege. From where I sit, Wisconsin, your description of Portland sounds quite dystopian. Tripwires? Sure, some toxic combination of late stage capitalism and your city’s inability to provide affordable housing are foundational to the problem. But people are still morally responsible for their response. Turning to predation might be explainable, but that doesn’t make it right. And cripes, a national problem? What you describe shocks me; it sounds Iike Bladerunner. I have never seen anything remotely like this in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, or any of the other places I’ve lived. As far as I know this level of homelessness only seems to exist on the West coast. Clearly the social contract is dying, for some it’s already dead. Keep yourself safe. And no, it’s not an individuals responsibility to fight people off to reclaim territory for cycling.

B.J. and JoLynn Ondo said...

Well it's not just on the West Coast, here in Colorado Springs, CO. our Homeless population grows everyday, Our only really long trail, the Pikes Peak Greenway is filled with trash and homeless, it use to be a beautiful trail! The Greenway is made up of 3 trails, Fountain Regional Trail, Monument Valley Trail and the New Santa Fe Trail and is about 55 miles long. Fountain, CO. where it starts to the south is a small town with a tiny police force, the Monument Valley Trail is thru the City of Colorado Springs up to Woodmen Ave. where it becomes the New Santa Fe Trail thru the hamlets of Monument and Palmer Lake, CO. and ends at the Greenland Open Space. The first part is all dirt trail along Fountain Creek as it get's closer to Colorado Springs, the homeless camps appear and some are huge, trash is everywhere! The City does TRY to close these camps but they leave and within a week are back, it's a constant battle. Just like Portland there are not enough "affordable living" spaces Colorado Springs is a very expensive place to live!! Most of the time these folks are the same one with drug or mental problems which there's never enough "needed services" or shelters for! So far the aggressive levels are more between the homeless than with trail users but it has gotten violent from time to time and unless the City makes MAJOR Changes it will just escalate the situation. All we can do is keep using the trails so the city won't just "close them off" as it seems Portland has done here and there! :( I do my best to be friendly and recognize that they too are HUMAN and really do need help but the city only will do so much so the "out of sight, out of mind" solution to the Homeless Problem is NEVER going to get much better, JMHO. Ride where it's safe and don't feel like you have to sacrifice everything or feel guilty, if you can help, do what you can, we all have to LIVE the LIFE we have the best we can! :)