How to survive Portland’s wet and slippery streets

How to survive Portland’s wet and slippery streets

This rider has left the bike lane to avoid the dreaded Lake Michigan on North Rosa Parks Way.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Riding through leaves and standing water is part of the Great Portland Bicycling Experience. Since many of you might be new to this cycling thing (welcome, we’re glad you’re here!), I figured it was time to share a few tips and ask some of our more experienced readers to chime in with their advice.

Flooding at NW 13th and Lovejoy today.
(Photo sent in by a reader)

Before we go any further, remember you can report hazardous conditions like standing water and really bad leaf piles in bike lanes directly to the Portland Bureau of Transportation at (503) 823-1700 (for urgent issues) or 823-SAFE (non-urgent – see more maintenance contact info here).

What type of hazards am I talking about? The photo above is what I refer to as Lake Michigan. It’s a massive puddle that forms in the bike lane on North Rosa Parks Way at Michigan every year. From a hazard perspective, it’s no joke. It’s so deep and daunting in size that bike riders leave the bike lane and go around it. This introduces the potential for mishaps with other road users. Combined with darker skies this time of year and the ever-anxious mood of drivers these days, this de facto bike lane closure is a serious thing.

I wish PBOT would keep bike lanes cleaner. Heck, they even bought a special bike-lane-sized sweeper years ago! But the reality is they never keep up with this type of maintenance, so it’s up to us. If you have time and inclination, I recommend doing what you can to prevent standing water by clearing drains and/or calling them into PBOT.

If you find yourself faced with pedaling through a big puddle, you have two options:

  • Go around: Check behind you and then avoid the puddle altogether. I do this if I can’t assess the depth of the puddle or if my hunch tells me it’s not worth trying.
  • Slow down and roll through: Reducing speed will keep the spray from messing up your bike or your clothes. It will also let you take last-second evasive actions if necessary.

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Downside of protected bike lanes is they tend to trap leaves.

Leaves are an entirely different animal. There’s a chemical reaction that happens when leaves get wet and start to decompose. I’m not a scientist but I can tell you that the outcome of this reaction is excessive slipperiness. Leaves claim many victims every year. Everyone thinks they can outsmart them, but leaves always get the last laugh.

As with standing water, the best course of action is to ride around leaves. But if you can’t, here are a few ways to not fall:

  • Slow down before you get to them — especially in corners.
  • Rule of thumb: The darker and wetter leaves are, the slippery they’ll be. Bright and crisp leaves are generally safer.
  • Once you’re on the leaves, use brakes sparingly. If you are turning, don’t touch your brakes or you will slip out!
  • Even acceleration is dicey in leaves. If you’re on an e-bike and have gotten used to higher speeds, you should be extra careful.
  • What you can’t see can hurt you: Leaves can cover rocks and other road debris that can cause major damage to you or your bike. If you can’t see what’s under the leaves, don’t ride through them.
  • You’ll be more sure-footed with wider tires and lower tire pressure.
  • Remember, you have the legal right to leave the bikeway at any time to avoid leaves (and other hazards).

Anything else you want to know about riding this time of year? Ask me.

And my esteemed BikePortland Brain Trust, what else should folks know about staying safe in these conditions?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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