Eugene’s meanest streets: West 11th

We continue our “Meanest Streets” series taking up a nomination from Shane, who suggested the achingly beautiful West 11th Avenue.

Look, trees! This bucolic thoroughfare is beloved by all: Motorists adore the graceful, easy flow of traffic. Cyclists appreciate the calm safe haven it provides. Pedestrians lose themselves amid its charm, its walkability and its magnetic quality as a community gathering spot. Pets romp freely without fear. Wildlife is spotted frequently — oh, wait. No, no. I’m thinking of something else — this maybe:

Which shows what a road might look like on the planet Zork, which has no petroleum reserves. (Rendering by Gehl Architects, “urban quality consultants” based in — where else? — Denmark.)

I’m no expert in such things as “urban quality” — except that I live in a city — but I’m guessing Gehl Architects would rate West 11th to be of rather poor quality.

Strip mall followed by strip mall. Heavy traffic at 35 mph. No bike lanes. Cars braking hard in the right lane to turn suddenly into Burger King. The most common phrase spoken by the stray couple of people who might, on some rare occasion, find themselves walking on the sidewalk being the shouted, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” as a bus roars by.

Of course, unlike south Willamette Street, at least West 11th has a center turn lane for cars, thus offering easy access to Taco Bell and Shari’s.

The funny thing is West 11th Avenue was the first piece of Eugene I ever saw. And I moved here anyway.

Many years ago, about 15 years ago I think, I did a bike tour of the Oregon Coast. I began in Portland and — after spending the night in a generic motel near the airport reassembling my bike after my flight — I rode through some burned-out industrial areas, over the St. Johns Bridge, out Highway 30, past the idled old nuke plant, to Astoria. I remember it was 113 miles that first day. I had planned to camp, but ended up collapsing into another cheap, generic motel and then going out in search of a large plate of spaghetti.

I then spent a few days heading down the coast, listening to raindrops pelt my tent at night. It was May, and I noticed that the rain here seemed wetter than normal. I had been living in Idaho, land of 10 percent humidity, where the rain dries practically before it hits the ground. You can go outside in a hammering summer thunderstorm, walk around for a few minutes and then come back in and you’re basically as dry as you were before you went out. Maybe drier.

The final day took me from Florence to Eugene. I had shed most of my moldering, soggy camping gear at the post office in Florence, where I shipped it home to myself. I kept just a change of clothes and my wallet for the final 60 miles to Eugene, where I planned to arrive in plenty of time to find a brew pub for dinner and a beer, before packing up my bike and flying home the next morning. I ended up in the old Fields brew pub (in the building where The District now resides, at 13th and High). I found a bike shop, too — which I don’t think is there anymore — that actually charged me for a cardboard bike box so that I could pack up my bike for the flight.

But I remember vividly my entry into Eugene that last day on West 11th Avenue. I remember being forced onto the sidewalk several times out of sheer discomfort with the traffic and the nonexistent bike lanes.

I am pretty sure that was the last time I tried to ride my bike on West 11th Avenue. Until a few Saturdays ago, when I decided to put Shane’s nomination to the test. Shane had written:

(I) run errands out there a lot. It’s great to have the Fern Ridge path on the south side of it but access to 11th from the path and especially ON 11th are horrible if I need to go a block or two to a certain store …

Shane identifies the reason I didn’t mention West 11th on my original post: that the Fern Ridge Path seems a fine alternative. But I decided I would try to run a simple errand out West 11th as my test.

Destination: CD World. Here is the stretch I rode, from Garfield to Seneca and back.

The thing about riding a bike on a road like this: I feel most comfortable if I’m just going as fast as I can, trying to stay more or less with the flow of traffic, and thereby putting into action Isaac Newton’s fourth law of motion, which actually gets much less attention in schools than the first three, a situation we really need to rectify.

Newton’s fourth law: The faster you go, the fewer cars will have a chance to run you over from behind.

Of course, the speed limit out here is 35 mph, which is a little beyond my abilities for any sustained amount of time. Not to mention that cars probably exceed the limit routinely.

But I was doing my best, partly out of pride, partly out of terror. I  found that the most comfortable place to ride was the gutter, which offers about 15 inches of concrete between the curb and the blacktop. You just have to watch out for the storm drains, which are not of the greatest design if you happen to be on a road bike.

Actually, these aren’t as terrible as they look if you head straight through at a fair clip — unless of course your tire pressure is a little low, in which case you may find yourself suddenly flatted at 27 mph and in danger of veering into the curb — or traffic.

Speaking of storm grates, there is, of course a better design. Like these on Coburg.

My arrival at CD World was accompanied by a sense of (1) relief and (2) duh! as I realized I had brought neither a lock nor any kind of bag. So I used the clever and ingenious “helmet lock,” in which you clip the chin strap of your helmet around the top tube and the bike rack, essentially, yes, “locking” up your bike with a plastic quick-release clip.

In tests run by Bicycling magazine and Consumer Reports, the “helmet lock” came in slightly behind both the U-lock and the cable lock in Theft Prevention and Indestructibility. It did, however, score surprisingly well in the category: Ability to Confound a Toddler.

I weighed the risk of my bike being stolen vs. the risk of riding West 11th a second time. I decided to trust the helmet lock and go inside. I made my purchase and went back outside. My bike was not stolen.

But being bagless, I had no place to carry my newly purchased CD, which was a gift for my lovely wife. So I tucked it into the waistband of my underwear and headed off again, onto the mean streets, to repeat this route in reverse.

So. There I was on my way home, hammering as hard as I could down the gutter on West 11th, trying my best to avoid being run over or plowing through a storm drain, the new Arcade Fire CD — titled “The Suburbs,” ironically enough — growing ever more sweaty against the small of my back as the blocks ticked past.

Of course, if you do find yourself on a street like this, the gutter is just one option. You have others.

  1. If you are a brave and idealistic kind of person who will take a stand for the rights of cyclists everywhere, you can “take the lane.” The cars coming up behind you will be forced to either slow down or run you over.
  2. If you are less willing to die for your core beliefs you can ride on the sidewalk. As much as I dislike sidewalk riding, I think on West 11th it may well be your best option. But you need to watch out when crossing driveways and cross streets — which means you need to watch out almost constantly. Go slow, lest you become a demonstration of Newton’s first law of motion: “Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.”

I have to say that most motorists seemed to deal pretty well with this idiot riding on 11th (meaning me). They usually gave me some room, but this was a Saturday afternoon, so traffic was fairly light. This would have to be a lot worse on a weekday when traffic is two lanes thick and the car coming up behind you may not be able to veer out into the left lane to give you a little more room.

I arrived home safely. I pulled the CD out of my underwear, wiped it on my shirt and later gave it to my lovely wife. I said nothing of its mode of transport. She seemed to suspect nothing unusual.

West 11th final rating: Your kind is not welcome here. The Fern Ridge Path may be more to your liking. If you’re going to a destination out West 11th, just know which cross street to take to make your time on West 11th as short as possible. And when you get to West 11th itself, my recommendation is to just roll the half-block or so to your destination slowly on the sidewalk. Take care of your commerce like the good American you are and then get your butt back to the bike path.

Eugene’s meanest streets

To see the other posts in the “Meanest Streets” series, go here.

6 thoughts on “Eugene’s meanest streets: West 11th

  1. Despite being legal, I can see no reason to risk injury by putting a bike on West 11th. The bike path is close and there are numerous ways from there to destinations on West 11th.

  2. I work out in West Eugene and have ridden the Fern Ridge daily for over 2 years, and I’ve also had to do lots of errands on West 11th. It sucks. One or two roads per mile connecting to West 11th is not what I’d called “numerous.” You have to ride on 11th for some sort of time to any of the businesses there.

    Often I ride the sidewalk the wrong direction because it’s near impossible to cross the street. Other times I ride the gutter in the correct direction. Every time I hate it and wish they’d put in bike lanes. Maybe if they put in EMX we’ll get some bike lanes out there. The Fern Ridge is not an viable alternative for anyone with business on West 11th.

    Also, if a toddler figures out my helmet lock I’m blaming you. :)

    1. Yeah, looking at it more closely, there aren’t as many points of access from the path to West 11th itself as I had assumed. On the other hand, this street is so awful all the way around maybe it’s better to stay away as much as possible.

      I really can’t say whether I think a West 11th EMX line would be a worthwhile project — though it’s hard to imagine how that street could actually be made worse. But, yeah, if they go digging things up, bike lanes would be nice.

  3. I’m all about vehicular cycling… but then hop on the sidewalk where it makes more sense. I *do* vividly remember the century ride with a long stretch on a Pretty Busy Two-Lane (but rarely with traffic in both directions at once), where my buddy and I were getting buzzed constantly. He said something about it and I said, “Isn’t this where vehicular cyclists say to take the lane?” So we nudged out a foot to about where the right tire would be… and yes, instantly, drivers gave us double the room passing us. We stopped to eat and when we came back out, the bad drivers were out again — but as soon as we remembered to get out away from that white line, gosh, the good drivers took over.
    I wouldn’t have been happy had we been getting a row of vehicles behind us, and I don’t apply it when that would be the result, but I was amazed at just how obvious it was.

    1. Thanks for the story. I agree. I stumbled upon a post about this not long ago (link below). This guy makes the case that riding as “far to the right as practicable” (a common phrase in laws regarding cycling) should not mean 2 feet from the edge of the road, but more like 5 or 6 feet from the edge. I’m not sure I’d do this all the time, but I think it is a useful technique to keep in your toolbox.

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