Friday, September 7, 2012

Utility Cycling in Salem in the Meantime

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to think about what it means to be a utility cyclist in a city where the auto still completely dominates and where there is very little interest in or understanding of cycling as a transportation tool. I haven’t done a lot of writing about it, but I think about it a lot…so, here goes.

Salem, Oregon is a fairly good-sized city. It is the state capital and boasts a smallish but highly regarded liberal arts university. Salem has a fairly interesting historic downtown, some attractive riverfront, enjoyable parks, and quite a bit of flat land around it well suited for cycling. My family and I (all natives or almost natives) are very happy to live here.

Much of the more upscale housing is located in the hillier, south and western portions of Salem. The most cycle-friendly neighborhoods tend to be less prestigious—but with a lot of potential. Indeed, Salem has land that could be very interesting to develop near downtown, and someday I believe this sleepy community will be well positioned for non-motorized living.

While there are some creative amenities for pedestrians and cyclists, much of Salem is deeply shaped by the automobile. Huge semi-freeways course through the heart of the city, creating moats or no-man’s-lands that effectively cut off various neighborhoods from each other. This contributes to some neighborhoods becoming isolated and then declining. Over the years, the general trend in development policy here has been a very steady and zealous preference for auto-centric transportation along a few hyper-strip mall corridors. The location of many stores and services makes this clear. There is public transport, there are some great coffee spots, shops, and restaurants downtown, and a very few grocery stores exist in the city’s core, but for the most part a car is the only practical way to participate in life here. Salem's core still seems meant to be visited by people on its fringes, not lived from the inside out.

The Union Street Bridge on a cloudy day...

A few great exceptions to this exist: a splendid pedestrian/cycling bridge across the Willamette River (with some problematic connection issues on both ends, though), a couple of sharrowed roads downtown, a great promenade along the railway downtown (again, with some strange problems at either end), wayfinding signs (both of the typical and more quirky varieties), and some odd bits of infrastructure here and there…but it is pretty piecemeal and fragmentary. Lots of bike lanes exist…but of the kind on very busy, debris-strewn streets that few but the most bold or aggressive cyclists take.  

This isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Unlike some other cities in Oregon, Salem is not very progressive. Sometimes I think this is OK. Trendiness can get very old when it becomes “more pose than poise.” All that progressiveness can make plenty of undelivered-upon promises, too, sometime throwing a party for everyone but not providing the food, dishes, or entertainment. But livability is another matter. What people want in a city—certainly of this size—is really changing, and changing fast. Perhaps because many of the people who guide government and private industry here are from an earlier generation, or maybe because of a “play it safe” attitude that trends to mediocrity, Salem continues to replicate the priorities of several decades ago in its transportation planning. The few courageous exceptions bring out a surprising amount of criticism from the populace—usually about the waste of money on non-auto infrastructure.

While other cities in Oregon are busy coming up with innovative ideas for how to get grants to build cycling or pedestrian projects that would point towards a renewed urban core (something that demographers say is clearly where the trend is going, just as it once was for loop-and-lollipop suburbia years ago), Salem has been flirting once more with a ludicrously expensive Willamette River bridge proposal that has all the fingerprints of a complete boondoggle. With a large underprivileged population needing transport, the bus routes keep getting cut back. When a Salvation Army Kroc center was painstakingly planned for and cited here, it was put in about the most remote and hard-to-get-to area in town. Now, it is in serious usage trouble. We just don’t seem quite ready for the future yet.

In the mean time, those of us who enjoy utility cycling and feel it has a positive social value for many reasons must make our way around town. That’s what this post is really about (finally).

When I began regular utility cycling in town about a year after moving back to Salem, I needed to learn the best biking routes to my office at church, the hospital, some good places to meet people for lunch, and various parishioner homes in the central section of town. I knew there were many routes I took in the car that wouldn’t feel comfortable on the bike (they don’t always feel very comfortable in my car, truth to tell). This put me on a number of weekend exploration rides.

Getting ready to cross one of the several speedways surrounding downtown

Gradually, I learned about some alternate routes, streets that avoided—or safe crossings of—the vast speedways built in various parts of town over the years. I got comfortable with previously unfamiliar quiet neighborhoods through which I could pass in order to move around in peace, and I learned where the best alternate routes were for different kinds of weather or road conditions. It proved to be a ball. This is, at heart, a town with excellent biking potential.

Along the way, I discovered that Salem has a number of enjoyable, rather hidden accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists, especially in the form of lovely bridges over the many streams that course through the older part of our city. I plan to do a little photo-tour of them here sometime.

A hidden bridge discovered one day
I discovered some parts of what seems to have been an abortive attempt at connecting various sections of our city’s core for pedestrians in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and I learned about how parks and alleys can figure into an ad hoc “Comprehensive Make-Do Salem Biking Plan.” All-in-all, I can get a lot of places pretty comfortably in the main body of Salem now.

A rather daunting, concrete brutalism underpass--made necessary by yet another downtown
speedway--allowing pedestrians and cyclists to move in relative safety...
just remember to ring your bell as you enter!

Do I think we are going to see a significant amount of change in the cycling infrastructure here in the near future? No. Some changes, yes, but I’m not sure that enough of the key folks in local government and the business community have a grip on this issue (or, for that matter, actually live here) to bring change yet. But I have hopes (this is, after all, a big part of what it means to be a priest).

Being a utility cyclist here is still very much a minority pursuit. It will likely be so for a while. But, I am seeing more people out there cycling in anything approaching decent weather. Rising energy prices, demographic shifts, environmental concerns, and  a new understanding of what community and the “good life” is are all going to turn the tables on the Heroic Auto Culture and the cities built to accommodate it—even in Salem. For now, though, it’s a time of creativity and adventure as we pioneers pedal along, under the radar.

Bringing Communion across the Union Street Bridge via the old portion of Front Street

As things go, we will probably end up thinking of these as “the good old days of do-it-yourself utility cycling” in Salem before the Big Change.

Wouldn’t that be nice…?!


  1. Yeah! Do a note about the bridges! You know the one you pictured has gained the moniker "hobo bridge"? And some people even check there in via foursquare!

    The small footbridges in Salem have a hidden life, small but significant, and deserve more attention. I'm looking forward to it.

    1. Thanks, SBOB, for taking the time to read. I'm planning to do a little shoot on "The Pedestrian Bridges of Inner Marion County" this fall. Should be fun! I didn't know about the "Hobo Bridge" moniker. Can't say I've seen many hobos there...or anyone at all...but I'll keep my eyes pealed!

    2. Was that a hobo OR was it a hobo spider? There isn't that much of a difference apparently according to my students. I can't imagine a Hobo Bridge - oh my! Is there somehow a spotted handkerchief attached to a pole and then attached to the bridge?

  2. Great post U. C. You sum things up pretty well. Look for a possible public hearing on the bridge boondoggle in October at the Salem City Council -- October 8 is a possibility. Your testimony would be great to have!

    1. I'm looking into trying to be there. I can't believe that anyone seriously thinks the planned project could work, or would not devastate Salem. This is a plan worthy of Robert Moses.

  3. Nice summary of the situation here. I made the same kinds of discoveries when I decided to conduct more of my business around town on foot a few years ago.

    I think the “play it safe” attitude has been a hallmark of City Hall thinking for decades. It was evident when I worked in Parks & Rec in the 1980s and we weren't allowed to offer any classes in "high risk" activities such as backpacking and kayaking, or put a climbing wall in a park. Portland did! Eugene did! So did Bend. Not Salem. I still work for the City and see that liability fears and a desire to minimize both backlash and risk of looking foolish affect decisions. I'm sure they do everywhere, but based on the results I think it's fair to say these concerns carry more weight here than in some other cities, and that most residents are not visibly (or audibly!) unhappy about the situation.

    Another feature of Salem city life that affects everything that happens here is that "many of the people who guide government and private industry" are not Salem residents. Yes, our City councilors are, and top management and members of boards and commissions are, but many of my coworkers are not, and I bet many of our local business owners/managers aren't either. They likely don't use our parks, schools, libraries, or buses, attend our churches, patronize our businesses on evenings and weekends, walk or ride bikes on our streets and pathways, volunteer for, donate to, or use the services of our nonprofits. They also don't pay property taxes that directly or indirectly support any of these things. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I think this may hamper their ability to imagine, evaluate, and implement anything outside what they see as they commute into and out of town, and, sorry to say, may reduce their ability to deeply *care* about the future of the city. I hope I am wrong about both the number of people making decisions in which they do not have a personal stake, and the effect this has on their ability to lead the city most effectively.

    Two last things:
    Salem/Keizer has a public transport agency, but we only have, at best, 71% of a functional public transport system (no weekend service whatsoever, inconsistent geographic coverage, and frequent route and schedule changes that are confusing and make it hard to commit to using the gotta keep that car, and since you have it, you might as well use it). I'm not griping, don't claim to know how it could be made better, just describing what I've experienced and observed.

    That tunnel underpass is downright scary. I either hustle across the Parkway on the surface during a big gap in traffic or go out of my way to cross at a corner rather than go through the tunnel.

    1. Thank you, Janet, for a wonderfully expressed response. Your experience very much matches mine. Growing up in Corvallis in the late 60's -- early 80's, I can see some interesting differences. One factor clearly is the much larger economic spread in Salem. Another is the lack of a clear sense of "place" here...perhaps aided and abetted by many key people living outside of town. I have heard this opinion from many folks, but I don't know if anyone has done any research on it to test the theory. If it is true, it would mean that for things to change, a very different vision from the top would have to be cast, one that requires people to be part of the community. Being a State Capital will always skew things, but I believe we should be able to do better than what we have been, especially since the mid 1980's, when the vision seems to have run into some sort of brick wall (with some great exceptions, of isn't all frustrating by a long shot).

      The two tunnels I photographed are places I often take on my rides around town. The chief problem I have found there is the danger of running into a pedestrian or other cyclist. Frankly, I think I have only run into one rather less than comfortable situation there over the years. The way they are built--with no attempt at attractiveness, indeed, it looks a bit like the entry to a bunker or a slaughterhouse--makes the situation much worse. During much of the year, when you get to the other side there are a gaggle of retirees smoking by the Mill Race. They can be a lot of fun to banter with. But, I understand your anxiety. I have just been fortunate so far. I am glad to be able to get to Church street this way, as it is much more enjoyable to use it than Winter street at Bellevue/Pringle Parkway most of the time.