The beauty of chaos: Why I love East 13th Avenue

As long as the University of Oregon is winning awards for cycling friendliness, I should tell you how much I love that campus stretch of 13th Avenue.

It’s the part of 13th that runs from the Starbucks at Alder Street, down to the bookstore, then onto campus proper, past the business school and the stout fortress of Johnson Hall,  all the way up to the student union at University Street.

At busy times, say about 10 o’clock in the morning, it is perfect, utter chaos. But it manages to work. Somehow. Inexplicably. It’s like Italy.

Have you ever been to Italy? I once was wandering around Rome, and I saw a guy on a Vespa, craning his head around like an owl so that he could kiss his girlfriend — or some woman — who was sitting on the Vespa behind him — while he was buzzing through traffic at 25 mph. They were beautiful people.

While I was on that trip to Europe, I also saw a guy hit a car with a shovel — an impulse you yourself may have had from time to time. The car just sped off, too. Didn’t stop or anything. That was in Paris. Europeans, I think, sometimes have a different way of expressing their emotions than we do.

I suspect that Americans in general tend to dislike chaos. We make a lot of rules to avoid it. We want for things to be orderly and tidy. And safe, by god, safe.

But our exception in Eugene is 13th Avenue. Here we can witness an amazing flow of humanity — by foot, bicycle, skateboard, car, bus — all tossed together like a salad. There seems to be no convention as to which side of the street to cycle or walk on.

Not long ago, I watched a slow-moving car jerk to a stop for a stream of pedestrians strolling across Kincaid toward the bookstore. The pedestrians seemed oblivious to the car. They didn’t stop, as the motorist might have expected. They didn’t even look up from their phones long enough to notice it.

A cyclist, meanwhile, had to swerve a bit to miss the car, as it suddenly stopped. The cyclist slammed the back of the car with his fist as he pedaled by. The motorist seemed lost and confused, stranded in a strange and hostile land.

I don’t think this would go over anywhere else in town — not on a daily basis anyway. But the usual rules of traffic do not apply here.

Here there is a true critical mass of non-motorized travel. (The guerrilla cycling advocacy ride that bills itself Critical Mass must wish it could be even half of this. Any Critical Mass ride I’ve ever seen, was nowhere near achieving what is really meant by the term critical mass.)

I have an architect friend who doesn’t share my love of 13th Avenue. He thinks 13th, as it passes the business school and Johnson Hall, is an abomination — just a regular old street with regular old curbs and ugly old bike racks. “This?” he asks incredulously. “This is the grand entry to campus?!”

Aesthetically, I suppose he’s right. It is not visually beautiful. But the way it functions is beautiful. And perhaps there is a symbolism in it that is beautiful, too — the old automobile-style street reclaimed by the unwashed, non-motorized hoards.

For the fiercer cycling advocates among you, this should be an important monument of hope and inspiration.

We should mention here that there are some events happening today (May 5) to celebrate UO’s Silver Medal in the BFU (which is, we think, a rather unfortunate acronym for Bicycle Friendly University).

A guy named Andy Clarke will be here. He is the executive director of the American League of Bicyclists (which makes these awards). UO President Richard Lariviere is even scheduled to make a showing. For bicycles!

There is a ride at noon, an awards ceremony at 3:15 and a lecture tonight at 6:30. Details of all the events are at WeBikeEugene.

Eugene Bicyclist himself, alas, will not be partaking in these events. I don’t mean show any disrespect, but I try to avoid going places where there are officials giving speeches, bestowing medals, tossing dirt with chrome-plated shovels or cutting big ribbons with a cartoonishly large pair of scissors. Please.

It is my birthday today. I will be partaking elsewhere.

9 thoughts on “The beauty of chaos: Why I love East 13th Avenue

  1. Happy Birthday!

    Over in Springfield at Cabela’s (as far as I can tell, it’s like REI for conservatives), they also avoid cartoonishly large scissors, instead opting for a famous elk hunter with a compound bow!

    My wife was going to school at OSU and I think something like 3 of 20 of her fellow grad students got hit by bikes while walking… they even saw somebody on crutches get knocked over.

    I got yelled at by a “One Less Car” cargo bike who was moving at a good clip down 13th and misjudged whether to go in front of me or behind me as I crossed on foot. I can imagine that the combination of being the biggest bike on the road and the smuggest delivery vehicle makes it pretty easy to know you’re always right.

  2. Thanks for the birthday wishes, guys.

    Yes, Lvc, I do need to ride some hills. The biggest rise on my daily commute is the Ferry Street Bridge.

    Shane: Did UO prez Lariviere get on a bike?!

    Kevin: Yeah, I know there’s a lot of this. I hope I didn’t make it sound too idyllic or imply that it’s love and harmony. It nuts sometimes. Which is why it’s sort of fun in a twisted way — unless you’re the pedestrian getting your foot run over or worse. … uh oh, I just got an idea for a follow-up post …

    Stay tuned.

  3. I’m thinking that they must have pretty low standards when handing out “BFU” awards (a perfectly apt designation for U of O if you ask me). Let’s note that Oregon received a “silver,” third place essentially. But let’s talk about five issues that spring to mind immediately.

    One, when U of O finished the road behind (east of) the new music school, they put in speed bumps with cuts for bicycles. It lasted a few weeks before they filled in the cuts, to not purpose that I could see other than to inconvenience bike traffic.

    Two, when I got to Oregon in fall of 1985, 13th between Kincaid and University was truly “car free.” Aside from very occassional University service vehicles, no motorized vehicles used the stretch. Now every butthole who needs to fill a Pepsi machine feels the right to drive though, and parked vehicles line the roadway.

    Three, U of O seems to feel they have the right to run their golf carts and small (and larger) trucks along the bike path between campus and Autzen stadium.

    Four, after the completion of the previously mentioned music school addition, Alder between 14th and 18th was left trashed by the passage of all the heavy construction vehicles. The bike lanes through there are in particularly bad shape, and years after completion of construction the U of O has yet to make it right.

    Five, there seem to be way fewer bike racks than there used to be. I could be wrong on this, but when I used to hang out at Friendly Hall there used to be bike racks where there are none now (this may have changed since last I checked).

    “BFU,” certainly. “Bike Friendly University,” I think not.

  4. @skinner city cyclist: You may or may not have noticed the Alder Street paving project signs that went up this week along Alder. The whole stretch from 18th to Broadway is getting a facelift and a considerable bike accessibility improvement.

    Project Description
    A project to reconstruct Alder Street (Broadway to 18th Avenue) and 13th Avenue (Hilyard to Kincaid) combines standard pavement repair work and innovative streetscaping improvements, including a two-way “cycle track” on Alder between Franklin and 18th Avenue.

    Also note that the city is responsible for the maintenance of streets around the University of Oregon.

    1. Yeah, roosterblocker, I do notice the city is responsible. The university tears it up, the rest of us are responsible. Those bike lanes were in bad shape before tha addition to the music and Ed. schools, they now look like the Burma Road after a bad air raid. And construction there ended years ago. In case YOU had not noticed, Alder is already two-way for cycle traffic.

      I notice you have nothing to say about my other points, so I will assume that you grant that U of O is not such great shakes as a “bike friendly university.”

  5. I agree that the increased traffic on Alder and construction work has made those bike lanes terrible. I’m surprised the city let the contractor who made those repairs get away with such a shoddy job.

    The part of Alder that is most important to *me* is not two-way and this forces me to ride through the dreaded Broadway/Hillyard abomination so I’m pretty excited about the new project.

    I think the University of Oregon is bike friendly if you compare to many other Universities, but you’re correct that there are growing pains as the University continues to increase enrollment. You could apply this to pretty much every other part of the University as well.

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