Tuesday, February 4, 2014

multi-modalism: bikes and buses

Bicycling weather for Portland tomorrow and Thursday:

Wed. Feb 5: H29° L20°
Sunny / Wind
WIND: E at 22 mph
Riding? Probably, but most likely multi-modal.

Thur. Feb 6: H29° L16°
WIND: E at 14 mph
Riding? As little as possible, but I'll need my bike with me so again it'll be multi-modal.

I share this mini weather report to illustrate why multi-modal transportation is vital to a city's livability.

Trimet, the transit system serving the Portland Metro area, has been scorned and scoffed at for year, the butt of jokes from riders and operators. We have some of the highest single-ride fares in the nation ($2.50 for a two-hour ticket), routes are constantly being cut in both areas served and frequency, and the company is embroiled in a virtual war with the transit workers' union over healthcare costs and retirement plans. Fare inspectors lurk the rails, checking fares unannounced on MAX light-rail trains; if you're caught without a fare it's a minimum fine of $175 and depending on how badly you behave when caught that can go as high as $250 with a few mights in jail. But don't stress out, because there are only about 18 fare inspectors monitoring the entire system. So it's unlikely you'll ever see one on a bus. They can be found along the light-rail lines, mostly those serving lower-income populations where fare evaders are statistically ten times more likely to need a ride somewhere. (Yeah, Portland is still a city of sharply divided neighborhoods and the truth isn't always pretty.)
And don't get me started on the never-ending skirmishes between bus operators and bicyclists. Buses dart in and out of bike lanes, then the operators shake their fists at the bicyclists those lanes were designed for. Bicyclists play cat-and-mouse with operators, trying to beat the buses to the next light before the bus can block the bike lane again.

But I digress.

On a good day -- and there are plenty of those in Portland -- bicycling and transit go together pretty well. Every bus and light-rail train in the system is equipped with racks for bicycles. The Portland Streetcar -- that touristy thing that seats too few people, runs on downtown and Eastside streets mostly for the purpose of getting tourists to the shops and is painted to look like Pepto-Bismal -- has no racks, but if you're polite and sensible (i.e., don't try it during rush hour) you can usually squeeze a bicycle on there for a few stops at least. So it's possible to shorten the ride or avoid a hill on a creaky-knees kind of day by tossing your bike onto transit. I do this a fair amount, especially during the winter.

The best bet is to utilize MAX (light-rail), because its four (and soon-to-be five) lines cover a larger swath across town and get you there faster than a bus. In Portland, at least, there are no rush-hour restrictions to using the bike racks (as I found there were when I lived in Center City Philadelphia a decade ago and couldn't take my bike on the outbound train during evening rush hour), and most drivers will be decent about buckled-on saddlebags. (One bus driver did demand that I unbuckle and remove my empty Carradice saddle bag before putting my bike on the rack; when I saw that he wouldn't compromise I told him no thanks and rode away. He yelled after me, "NO bags on the bikes! I can't see around them!".

It's good to remember that every driver is at times a little fiefdom unto himself (I hate to sound sexist but no female driver has ever given me grief, while any number of guys cannot wait to throw their weight around), and err on the side of outright avoidance if necessary.

Mostly going multi-modal has been a godsend for me during the winter months, when my knees get really creaky and I get tired faster in the bitter cold. And trying to negotiate the transit system on foot can be difficult for "slackers" like me with odd working hours; in the middle of the day a bus line might run only every half-hour, making multiple errands around town much more time-consuming. So it's best to bring a bike with you.
Tomorrow and Thursday I'll take a bike into town, though I doubt I'll actually ride it more than I need to. Still, I'll be glad for the ability to choose my mode of transport.

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