SW Broadway cycletrack impressions

I’ve been curious about the cycletrack on SW Broadway since it opened a few weeks ago, and today I decided to go check it out on my way back from SE.

My impression of it was overall positive. It’s fairly clearly striped, and most of the left-turn boxes seem to be well-placed, although one of the first ones didn’t seem to line up properly with the road it was turning onto. It’s nice to be out of the flow of traffic a bit, especially going uphill like that, although as someone who’s accustomed to being in traffic I also found it kind of weird and disorienting.

However, the placement of signals isn’t ideal. The traffic signals are primarily over “in traffic”, where the cars are. It would be helpful to cyclists, who no longer have the cue of “oh, people next to me are stopping” (because there is an intervening row of parked cars) to have the signals moved closer to the cycletrack, or a new signal installed. Otherwise I predict some clueless red-light running. Though now that I think of it, maybe it doesn’t matter if you run the lights, since all the streets there dead-end into PSU campus. It’s very much like the situation on Evelyn in Mountain View, where the train tracks stop the streets from going through. U-turns or sloppy left turns are the primary danger on Evelyn, but Oregon is a prohibited-unless-permitted state for U-turns.

Although there isn’t noticeable signage warning pedestrians about the cycletrack, I did witness several pedestrians (on a quiet Sunday) clearly looking twice before stepping into it — luckily for me, and possibly for them as well. Still, I would feel more comfortable if the hatch-marked area and the sidewalk included a warning or two.

These are relatively minor quibbles, but I also have two major quibbles. The first was that a car was parked in the cycletrack. Just parked right there. This was also reported by some BikePortland commenters in the linked entry above. Clearly some people are missing the message. Enforcement would be good; possibly better would be having the special green striping throughout the cycletrack. I thought they had done this actually, and was surprised to find they hadn’t. It’s a special facility; why no special paint? This could also serve as the pedestrian warnings I feel would be useful, killing two birds with one stone. Green = bicycle = no parking and watch out.

The second major quibble I had is the beginning of the cycletrack. It starts at an intersection where the rightmost car traffic lane is right-turn only. The intersection has a green-painted bike lane and a bike box, as well as a sign I have become unfortunately familiar with whose meaning is “You’re about to turn across a bike lane, yield to cyclists”, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s really bad design to have through cyclists to the right of a right turn lane, especially right where a cycletrack starts so that most cyclists are almost certain to be going through and the area clearly has heavy bike traffic.

I have a feeling that I have a particular dislike for this configuration that doesn’t afflict PBOT’s bike facility designers, because this setup drives me nuts in two other locations I frequent: the approach to the Broadway bridge where Broadway crosses I-5, and the exit from the Hawthorne Bridge to city streets in SE Portland (actually an exit lane vs. a right-turn-only lane, but it’s the same basic problem). It may be because I’m accustomed to setups where the bike lane generally jogs to the left before the intersection, or where the bike lane is dotted to indicate that traffic should be mixing according to destination direction instead of by speed or vehicle type (vehicular cycling behavior). I just don’t believe that you can make cyclists safe in this situation by painting the road. Right hook situations are dangerous and in my experience are best managed by good merging behavior, not by paint and faith.

But aside from those major quibbles, this is an interesting facility and I look forward to seeing how it works and how it evolves.

I’m planning to send my written comments to PBOT through the PortlandOnline system, which took me a while to figure out how to do, but you can also call them at 503-823-CYCL.

Out of the darkness

This is a post that I’ve been allowing to incubate for a long time, to the point where its title almost has an extra meaning! I usually don’t write about personal, potentially controversial subjects on this blog, but I think it’s time for this post to exist.

About two and a half years ago, I went to see a therapist, and was diagnosed with dysthymic depression (DSM-IV 300.4). When I first saw the diagnosis (which was actually a while after I started seeing my therapist, although she told me intially that she thought I was depressed), I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. So I did some Google searching and found that it basically means I was having, and had had for a while, chronic mild-to-moderate depression. This wasn’t a huge surprise to me as I have struggled with depression on and off, with one serious episode each in high school, college, grad school, and my working life, all of which were preceded and followed by varying durations of more minor symptoms. I’ve seen counselors before, but this is the first time I’ve gotten genuine, thorough, lasting help from a professional.

What made me want to write about this, way back when I first conceived this post, was when I found a particular page about dysthymia that said “Dysthymia is a condition that tends to develop early in a person’s life, but most people delay approximately ten years before every [sic] seeking treatment.” And I thought, that rings a bell. I was first depressed when I was about 16, and I was 26 when I finally got serious about getting help. I wish I had gotten effective help sooner, and I don’t want other people to have to do what I did and struggle by themselves for ten years, not knowing they have a recognizable, diagnosable, helpable disorder. Going up and down with each new problem, struggling to keep going, to get out of the hole. Self-medicating, not sleeping well (or too well), not eating enough (or too much), maybe hurting themselves in other ways.

Part of the difficulty for me in getting my problems identified and diagnosed is that I remained largely functional through even my worst times. There were never the falling grades and slipping engagement in chores and activities that are classic symptoms of major depression. Instead, I kept pushing myself through the days or weeks when I looked up at a blue sky and felt a big gray blanket between me and my beautiful surroundings, when doing anything seemed pointless, when I felt simultaneously restless and yet paralyzed, unable to find anything to attach my restlessness to, and even when crushing and inexplicable pain and darkness seemed to crash over me, as happened on a few occasions — once, memorably, during a music theory class.

Finally, one morning in April 2007, I was passing through Burgess Park, looking up at another beautiful Bay Area day but feeling gray, and I thought, this is just not working. There has to be a better way to do this. And I started researching therapists.

I’m simultaneously grateful to and resentful of the part of me that kept going through all that. Without it I might have been diagnosed sooner, but without it I might have given up sooner, too.

I know that depression is not uncommon. I know a number of people who have been diagnosed with depression of some kind, and you probably do too. Some have seen therapists, some not, some have taken pills, some not. Yet I often haven’t shared much about my experience with them, or vice versa. Back in high school I was embarrassed to tell people I was seeing a counselor, and it’s still something that I’ve generally kept private, for reasons both personal and professional. Struggling with daily life the way I do when I’m depressed feels shameful. Why should I find it so hard to get things done, something that everyone else does to all appearances every day without trouble? There can be a significant stigma on it.

I found it really reassuring to know that I have a pattern of symptoms that’s recognized. My perspective on depression is a little uncommon, since I don’t regard my depression as an organic illness, based on brain chemistry — with some perspective to look back on it, it seems to me it was temperamental and/or habitual (in the sense of resulting from habits of thought), and indirectly, situational. But dysthymic depression, regardless of its origin, is a syndrome with recognized symptoms, different from other manifestations of depression, and thus with its own particular challenges, including the challenge of recognizing it in the first place. And it’s awesome that I finally found someone who told me what it was and who could help me with it.

I wish I had known ten years ago that if I kept looking I could find a helpful therapist, and that there wasn’t something unidentifiably, unpredictably wrong with my ability to cope with life. I wish I had known that life without depression would be possible for me, if not easy to achieve. And I wish someone who had experienced these problems and found possible solutions had come out in the open and told me that, and given me their knowledge and their experience and their hope. Told me that someone much like me had struggled and had suffered and had succeeded.

My life today, after two years of therapy (yes, that’s a lot, but I think of it as an investment in my future) is happier than it has been in many years, happier than I thought it would ever be again, and I look forward to more happiness in the future. Therapy helped me unwind the muddle that my thoughts and emotions had gotten into, and identify and change unhelpful ways of experiencing and thinking about myself and my life. Changing the way I approached the situations I was in naturally led me to change some of the situations as well (the indirect situational component), but in many cases it just led to feeling a lot happier about the same situation.

I still struggle at times with a tendency to think or process experiences the way that I used to, and it’s hard for me to say whether that’s just habit or an inherent, temperamental tendency, although it feels like the latter to me, so I do sometimes wonder if there will always be a bit of uphill struggle for me to avoid those patterns. But on the scale of things it’s a relatively small struggle in a life of much awesome.

So that’s why I’m coming out of the darkness. To be the one offering my experience and my hope, as I wish someone had done for me. It’s not just you struggling. It’s a recognized problem, and one for which there are solutions. The solution I tried may not be the right one for you, but there are solutions. If you’re stuck or floundering, keep trying — and ask for help. The right solution is out there.

More adventurous than anticipated

This morning I went on the Portland ByCycle Autumn Adventure to Vancouver and back via the two I-Bridges.

In a previous entry I described the ByCycle rides thus:

These rides are awesome. They start after work and end before dark, are hosted by incredibly friendly and knowledgeable city staff, and explore Portland’s bicycle infrastructure and nifty places.

This was a special ride, happening on the weekend rather than after work, and longer than the after-work rides: 25 miles rather than 5-10. Since it says 25 miles right on the description, and I knew perfectly well it was four or five miles from my apartment to the starting point, you’d think I’d be pretty clear that it was going to be a longish ride. But somehow I wasn’t: I kept thinking 20 miles, because it says 2 hours and the usual PBC pace is ~10mph.

Furthermore, yesterday in Portland it was in the eighties and sunny — a perfect, warm, late summer day. But today proved true to the “Autumn” epithet of the ride. Even now at 3:30, it’s only 68 degrees. This morning it was 58, and raining. I also somehow had a hard time believing it was really going to be wet and yucky out there, even though it said so clearly in the forecast.

So my brain was not really ready, and the adventure was more adventurous than I anticipated. I was wearing long shorts and a short sleeve jersey and jacket, and my summer gloves. My jacket was soaked through before I even arrived at Peninsula park, although I was doing fine staying warm. But after we started out at the group’s slower pace, in a continuing rain, and headed out toward the Columbia river with its associated wind, I got colder and colder, and my left thumb actually went numb — I couldn’t feel it properly when I rubbed against it. It became clear that I should have been wearing leggings and fall/winter gloves, and possibly arm-warmers as well. (My legs were warm enough, but most likely keeping them warm made it hard to make enough heat to keep my immobile hands warm.)

Fortunately, one of the wonderful Transportation Options staff managing the ride, Janice, lent me a pair of winter gloves that she wasn’t wearing. I was infinitely grateful for these as we went up the I-205 path: a bike path sandwiched in between two four-lane freeway segments. The path itself was like a normal bike path (blocked off with a low fence, two-way and about 5 feet wide in each direction) but was very, very wet, and very, very loud: probably one of single the least pleasant cycling experiences I’ve ever had. I felt deaf and headachy for a while afterward.

After we got over to Vancouver, it stopped raining for the most part, and with the gloves I felt more comfortable and enjoyed the paths we took along the river. Unfortunately, one person broke a chain, and then another later took a spill on some diagonal railroad tracks. I was very impressed with how well the staff handled everything — they were totally calm and cheerful about it. I was able to offer some band-aids that I often bring with me on rides (though no neosporin; it was in the cabinet at home).

On the way back, it finally cleared up and I was mostly dry (except for my poor sopping wet gloves, socks and shoes) by the time I got back. As the Ecotrust Hot Lips Pizza was on my route back, I decided to stop there and dry out and feed myself. Yum.

The whole ride was quite fascinating even aside from the weather. The first section was through low-traffic streets in North Portland, and then in an area west of the airport that seemed like it was almost in a different city/decade — quiet, semi-rural roads and houses. Very nifty. Then Marine Drive and the Marine Drive path to the airport and the I-205 path — a narrow bike lane, and a nice wide multi-use path, but very wet and windy.

The approach to the 205 path was quite well signed and designed — the street crossing of Marine Drive wasn’t signalized, but it was signed, with a light-activating button, and junctions were fairly clearly marked. Getting off on the other side was the same way — the path came down, veered left, and abruptly we were in a quiet neighborhood full of trees, then on a quiet street.

The paths on the Vancouver waterfront were impressive, wide and smooth, with new condos behind them and lots of trees, bushes, and other plant life. We went through several parks and saw lots of signs for the path showing that a lot of effort was recently put into it to revive the waterfront area.

The I-5 path was a totally different story. Although plenty of signs (similar to Portland’s green bike route signs, with distances and directions) directed us there, once we reached it we had to cross the street in a random and nearly unmarked spot. The path itself is set to one side of the bridge, and is one-way on that side (I assume there’s another side but didn’t see it). It’s a shared bike/ped path that is not even wide enough for a bike to pass a pedestrian unless the pedestrian ducks to one side when a pillar isn’t in the way. Still, the experience was less inherently unpleasant than the 205 path (quieter, because you’re to one side and have some steel supports between), and the bridge itself is certainly more attractive — like the Hawthorne Bridge on crack, kinda. (I can’t believe anyone wants to replace it with a 12-lane monstrosity, but that’s another story. ) But when you get to the other side, the access is TERRIBLE. Words are inadequate to convey its TERRIBLENESS. You have to get off the path, go around in a confusing way, cross the street a few times, ride on the sidewalk, cross the street again, and finally you’re on a path, which then curves around confusingly again. I have no idea where we were, and I’m so glad that I did it with a group led by someone who knew the way.

The fact that it’s so completely easy to take I-5 in a car to Vancouver (I’ve never done it but I can tell you how to do it from my place) and so completely confusing to navigate and/or unpleasant to do it on a bike is a classic example of how our transportation system is set up to encourage driving. It’s easy to drive; on a bike, it takes dedication to navigate and a certain amount of chutzpah to deal with the unpleasant noise and limited facilities on offer.

The freeway-crossings part of this was sufficiently educational that I’m glad I went, even if I did get wet and cold. I do like riding in the rain — I just don’t like doing so at 10mph when I’m underdressed. Can I suggest an optional, but planned, mid-route coffee break next time?

toes and heels

I’ve been wearing my FiveFingers around town (mostly to work and back) this week and last week, on and off. Flat concrete remains a tough surface for me to walk on. Every time I start again, I feel like I’ve gone back to square one, with the hurting heels. But there have definitely been moments when I’ve gotten everything in sync and walking feels totally different but very comfortable. It’s the same general principles as I listed before — shorter strides, more hip movement, better foot usage. But sometimes it only seems to ‘help’ (I still feel uncomfortable, but less so) and sometimes it all lines up and everything feels just right.

It reminds me a bit of what used to happen when I took Feldenkrais lessons — everything would get lined up for a while and moving would feel really cool and comfortable, then it would go back to normal. Line up, go back, line up, go back. I’m not sure I ever got any of the neural rewiring from Feldenkrais to really ‘take’, probably mostly because I didn’t keep practicing it — it was easy enough to keep moving the way I was moving (and the serious problem that I was trying to address through Feldenkrais and other movement therapies, my RSI, was eventually addressed through another method entirely). There’s a great temptation to go back to the habitual patterns of movement because the transition is slow, difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable. But knowing that from Feldenkrais I’m more willing to keep trying with the FiveFingers until it finally clicks in (for good, or at least for most of the time). Or it doesn’t. But it’s a fun experiment.

For now though, my heels are sore: back to my Keens.

five toes

When I was in the Bay Area this weekend I happened to walk in to a shoe store that carries Vibram FiveFingers. I’ve been looking for a store that carries these for a while, since seeing them on friends’ feet intrigued me, and took the opportunity to try them on. I decided to buy a pair of Sprints (the version with a strap system but an open upper) and have been breaking them in — or really, breaking my feet into them.

I’ve always liked going barefoot, to the extent that I’m (in)famous at my office for not wearing shoes in the office. I mostly wear sandals (for years, Tevas; these days, my Keen Newports) unless it’s cold outside. So the VFFs are a natural choice for me, especially since everyone I knew who had them raved about them. My only reservation was that I do not like toe socks (or flip flops), because I don’t like the “things between my toes” feeling. I worried that the Vibrams would be like toe socks in creating that feeling, and I also wanted to be sure they would fit well.

However, it turns out that for me at least, the VFFs don’t activate the “things between my toes” feeling, perhaps because I feel more like each toe is occupying its own space, rather than “something is preventing my toes from occupying the same space”. Trying them on at the store, they did feel like being barefoot, or wearing socks. So light and comfortable. But able to be worn anywhere! So I was persuaded.

So far I’ve climbed Telegraph Hill in them, worn them on the BART and in Oakland, driven in them, worn them hiking, and worn them to work in Portland. I haven’t worn them for longer than two or three hours at a time yet, following the suggestion given by the box insert.

I felt tiredness and some soreness after the Telegraph Hill experience, but was very impressed with the traction and the ease of climbing and descending the steep SF sidewalks (I never felt worried about slipping as I sometimes do with regular shoes) and transitioning between surfaces (sidewalks, grass, stairways, dirt). After the hike (two miles on packed, gravelly dirt), my feet felt tired and beaten up, with a few sore spots. The inner sides of my big toes seem to be rubbing a bit on a seam that’s in that area; I think it’ll go away once I’m used to it, but it’s not ideal, and it seems to be worse on the right because the seam is less smooth in that shoe. My heels also felt a little rubbed, which is a common problem for me with new shoes. I think my heels are shaped a bit oddly because I can’t wear some shoes at all because they rub my heels. The Sprints have a little ridge made of strap fabric with a pull tab back there that supports the heel, so I’m hoping I’ll get used to that as well.

I’ve really enjoyed wearing them so far, but they do take getting used to. I’ve had to pay a lot more attention to where I was putting my feet, especially on the hike, and the gravel on the trail felt painful. My feet also felt hot when we paused on some exposed, sunny ground to take in a view. Some grit got caught in the shoes, and I had to take them off to remove it, which was a challenge on the trail with no place to sit down.

I really have to walk differently in them, particularly on flat concrete which I find to be the hardest surface for me to walk on comfortably. I tend to be a heel-striker, and if I do that in the VFFs my heels hurt right away, which is good because it provides immediate negative feedback. My strides are shorter, and my hips move more. It seems to help if I think of the distribution of weight as following my “footprint pattern” — heels, outsides of the foot, forefoot, toes. Any soft, uneven ground is much more fun to walk on, and I can feel my feet adjusting as if I were barefoot, but without the worry of stepping on something painful.

I’m excited to see how I feel as I get more used to them.

Urban trails

Before I moved to Portland, I was fairly meh on bike paths/trails. I have no trouble cycling with car traffic, although on steep or windy roads, it makes me nervous if there is no shoulder or bike lane. Urban bike paths/trails are often poorly designed, especially when they are intended to be replacements for onroad facilities, or crowded with pedestrians when they are shared multi-use paths.

However, after two months here I am beginning to understand the purpose of such trails. It’s not that they don’t have the downsides that I listed above, it’s that they have a previously unforeseen advantage: fewer $#@%*#* stop signs.

If I want to go on a recreational ride out here, my options are different from Menlo Park. Back then, I could climb on my bike, ride less than a mile (encountering only three stop signs), and be on Sand Hill Road, a veritable freeway for bikes, and out into the hills (on shoulder-ful roads!) in less than three miles. What a paradise. And I recognized and fully enjoyed that paradise, knowing this was not the case for others, but not fully appreciating how annoying stop signs every other block (or more) are.

I am still exploring my options here and no doubt will eventually find some that work better for me, but at the moment I have to navigate a maze of stop signs, and then either 1) go straight up (okay, it’s only 6-8% grades, but that’s steep!); 2) (and) share the roads with heavier traffic than I’m used to, or 3) find a trail, which may be crowded, but, as previously noted, has no cars and many fewer $#@%*#* stop signs. And often is pretty as well.

Urban trails, how I have maligned thee, and how I repent, and thank the good works of previous Portland cyclists for the Waterfront, Springwater, Esplanade, and other trails that thread through Portland.