Building the framework for a safer South Willamette Street

By Ponta Abadi

When she first moved into her new home in Eugene, recent graduate Rachelle Hacmac didn’t know her roommates well. In an effort to get to know them she decided to go with them to a barbecue down the road. It was a clear, sunny day so the roommates decided it would be fun to bike to the barbecue. Hacmac didn’t have her own bike at the time so Samantha Buckley, one of her roommates, lent Hacmac her blue bicycle that Buckley called an “old lady bike” because of its basket.

The easiest way to the barbecue involved cycling on Willamette Street between 24th Place and 18th Avenue. But as anyone who frequents the area could tell you, there are no bike lanes on that part of Willamette. Hacmac and her new roommates decided riding on the small sidewalk was their safest bet.

Hacmac noticed a blue Toyota Prius driving down the hill they were going down. She thought she caught the driver’s eye so she felt safe continuing on through the small intersection. As the cyclists crossed, Hacmac watched in what seemed like slow motion as the car turned right and drove straight into her and the borrowed bicycle.

Was she in shock? Shaken up?

“More than anything I was pissed off,” Hacmac said. She felt frustrated that she had no way of avoiding the accident.

Hacmac walked away from the incident with just a few scratches on herself and on Buckley’s bike but not everyone who gets in an accident on that street is as lucky.

Willamette Street has the third highest number of bike accidents in all of Eugene, according to a recent city study. Four years ago, 27-year-old David Minor was killed by a motorist on the intersection of 13th Avenue and Willamette Street. It took his death for anyone to improve the crosswalk in that area.

However, the section of Willamette Street where Minor was hit isn’t even the most unsafe part of the street, according to residents. The worst of Willamette Street is further south.

Many of those who work and live in the area have to deal with feeling unsafe every day when they commute on South Willamette Street, but while several groups have their own ideas for how the street should look, city officials are being pressured from too many sides to quickly agree on a plan of action.

The problem of South Willamette Street

The section of Willamette Street between 24th Avenue and 32nd Avenue is not a street many residents of the area seem to approve of. Neighbors and employees of Friendly neighborhood are quick to express their hatred of South Willamette Street.

Austin McKimmey, employee at Arriving By Bike on Willamette Street and owner of BreadBike.com, lives down Willamette Street but takes a detour to work most days to avoid the chaos of that street.

“I truly thought if roads were all like this road in Eugene, they must all suck,” he said. McKimmey feels the road is dilapidated and too small to accommodate four lanes of traffic.

McKimmey grew up in central Illinois and has experience biking in busy cities such as Chicago, Ill. and Portland, Ore. The roads he learned how to cycle on were dangerous and the cars would zoom by him at high speeds — but he still thinks South Willamette Street is the worst road he has ever biked on.

“I’ve seen so many so-close accidents, it’s just ridiculous,” McKimmey said.

McKimmey isn’t the only employee at Arriving By Bike who feels South Willamette Street is unsafe. Many members of the store have had some kind of bad experience as a cyclist or as a pedestrian on the street. Courtney Moore is an experienced cyclist but said she feels walking on the sidewalks of South Willamette Street is even worse than biking on it.

Since cyclists often feel they do not have a choice but to use the sidewalk to get anywhere on that street, pedestrians walking on the sidewalks have cyclists nearly hitting them all the time.

“You can’t walk on it in a way that’s pleasant at all,” Moore said.

As a cyclist who lives right off South Willamette Street, Samantha Buckley has plenty of opinions on its shortcomings. She feels people drive more aggressively there than almost anywhere else in Eugene. She thinks this problem is partly due to the number of driveways coming off the street. Drivers seem to be in a bigger hurry because they know there are many stoplights to get through and many turning cars to pass. She said she thinks almost no one drives under the 25 mph speed limit.

“I hate this whole thing. This is awful,” Buckley said. “From 18th to 29th is just a shit-show.”

While the issue of remodeling the street is a complicated one, neighbors and residents want city officials to know the future they’d like to see for the street.

Envisioning a new street

Courtney Moore’s sister Kelsey Moore, who also works at Arriving By Bike, thinks Willamette Street could become a great community center where businesses would be more easily accessible by visitors. She’d like to see people get out of their cars and walk to get from one business to another on the street rather than having to hop back in their car between destinations.

The sisters and McKimmey have similar ideas for how the road should look:

  • A center turn lane so cars and cyclists don’t get backed up when someone turns left.
  • A single lane of traffic going in each direction to free up space.
  • Bike lanes on each side of the road, which would double as a way to put space between cars and pedestrians.
  • Improved sidewalks.

Major streets with bike lanes have 38 percent fewer accidents than those without, according to a study conducted by the Transportation Research Board.

Kelsey Moore said there have been plenty of plans from different groups who are trying to suggest things for the area. The original plans, however, didn’t include bike lanes. This is why the Bike Willamette Campaign was started. The leaders of the group didn’t think the city was purposefully discriminating against cyclists, just that the city didn’t know what locals wanted.

Paul Moore, who was part of the group that started the Bike Willamette Campaign and also happens to be Courtney and Kelsey Moore’s father, got involved in the campaign because he felt that the design of the street was discriminatory.

“I always felt excluded from that area as someone who uses a bike for transportation,” he said.

Right at the start of the campaign, the organizers sent out an email and 55 people showed up to sign a petition to tell the city they wanted improved access for cyclists on South Willamette Street.

As a part of the push to show Eugene how South Willamette could look, Urban Design Planner Patricia Thomas presented a model for the area that includes potentially safer access for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s a part of the Envision Eugene program that is being called the South Willamette Concept Plan, or the 20-Minute Neighborhood. The idea is that people should be able to get to the area and do all their shopping by walking from one business to another all in less than 20 minutes.

Thomas said important parts of the planning process include:

  • Integrating more places to live in the district by encouraging attractive, denser housing types.
  • Providing design guidelines to enhance the area as a neighborhood while it grows.
  • Encouraging vital, successful business.
  • Providing direction for infrastructure changes that support uses of travel modes other than driving.

Thomas and others involved in Envision Eugene hope to engage the community to accommodate 34,000 more people in the area in the next 20 years. They hope that by the year 2031 Eugene will double the percentage of trips made by pedestrians and cyclists compared with 2011.

City officials react

Residents and employees of the area generally agree that some sort of change needs to be made to South Willamette Street, but the city is only in the first stages of development. Reed Dunbar, associate transportation planner with the city, says they’re not even at a point where they know a change officially needs to be made.

At this point, city officials have seen several different plans for the area and are looking to do public outreach in the form of surveys and neighborhood meetings in order to evaluate what people in the area want. Many of the studies that have come out of the area have not had enough public involvement for city planners to agree on one course of action.

Kurt Yeiter, senior transportation planner, hopes the area will change to create a system that accommodates multiple modes of transportation. He hopes the new study being created will “provide an opportunity for broad community discussion leading to designs that can transform Willamette Street into a vibrant urban corridor accessible by all users.”

Transportation Planning Engineer Chris Henry said the city received a $200,000 grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Land of Conservation and Development Commission to develop a plan. They are currently waiting for a contract to start with ODOT and cannot move to the public outreach process until then.

“Often people ask, ‘So when are you going to start?’ and I can’t answer that question because we don’t have a contract yet,” Henry said.

The public outreach process could start anywhere from one month from now to a few months from now, Henry said. But until city officials work through the process, Rachelle Hacmac has to take the back routes to avoid South Willamette Street when she bikes for fun with her roommates, bikes to the store or even bikes just to get to work.

“I would love to be able to safely ride to work straight down Willamette,” Hacmac said. But for now whenever she even considers riding on that street she thinks, “Should I ride my bike? No, I don’t really want to die on Willamette.”


Q-and-A with Austin McKimmey
(Owner of BreadBike.com and employee at Arriving By Bike)

Q: Where are you from?
A: The pumpkin capital of the world, Morton, Ill.

Q: When and why did you come to Eugene?
A: I moved here in July of 2011 so my girlfriend could finish her environmental studies degree at UofO.

Q: What got you into biking?
A: I really didn’t get into it until after high school when I thought it might be a good way to save money by getting around by bike. I then started helping friends find bikes and helping them work on them. Happily, I moved to Oregon where I have been able to help out with some cycling advocacy work. They I started my blog and here I am.

Q: Why did you start breadbike.com?
A: I actually started my blog for my own amusement. I’m dyslexic so reading, spelling and writing have always been hard for me. I figured it could improve those skills, which I believe it has. It is also a great way to share my photos and other things I find interesting.

Q: What’s your favorite part about blogging?
A: It’s been a good way to connect with like-minded people, both online and off.

Q: What are your favorite biking-related websites, Twitter accounts, etc.?
A: Yehuda Moon, a daily bicycle comic online, BikePortland.org, UrbanVelo.com and Twitter accounts of other Eugene cyclists, are great ways to figure out what’s going on in town.

Q: What kind of bike do you have?
A: I only have one bike right now, my beloved Surly Long Haul Trucker, a fully loaded commuting and touring bicycle.

Q: Where is your favorite place in Eugene to bike?
A: I enjoy riding the paths along the Willamette River, as well as the South Hills, up Fox Hollow. The river bike paths can take you anywhere in Eugene; they’re so well-connected. Fox Hollow is just a great climb with fun descents basically in my backyard. I hope to discover more places this summer.

Q: What was your favorite biking-related moment in Eugene?
A: Probably the Moonlight Mash Ride during the supermoon.

Q: What do you think about South Willamette Street?
A: I try to avoid it, honestly. Working every day on Willamette, I can hear and see the cars struggling for space on the narrow and ill-maintained roads.


Video: Austin McKimmey biking down South Willamette Street. Around 02:13 a motorist honks then sharply cuts McKimmey off only to come to a stop right in front of him. Video used with permission.

Recommended cyclist-themed blogs of Eugene

WeBikeEugene.org: Packed with information about upcoming cyclist events in Eugene, current events involving biking in the area and what to expect when biking around town.
“We have come together to share our knowledge of ‘what’s going on,’ as best we can — and together with readers seek out new knowledge. We also ‘nerd out’ a lot about things that cyclists think are interesting,” they say in their “About” section.

Eugene Bicyclist: A quirky blog that also presents events of the area but goes into more depth about each topic. The author posts about what they experience on their bike commute and openly expresses opinion but isn’t afraid to put in their sense of humor.
“I’m a longtime lover of the two-wheeled contraption known as the bicycle,” the blog’s author says. “In the past, I’ve toured and ridden with clubs and raced — not well, mind you.”

Eugene Cycles: This is a branch off Eugene Weekly that focuses in on the city’s popular method of transportation. This blog is much more likely to be hard news than the other blogs mentioned in this section.

The City of Bikes: Includes quick posts about anything that is eco-friendly or cyclist-friendly. Will often also include excerpts of or links to news features on the topics mentioned. They are “hoping to bring a fresh new perspective to the discussion,” according to their website.

My Messenger Bag Is Bigger Than Your Messenger Bag: Alexander Hongo’s blog, which he updates frequently, includes photos from his bike trips around Eugene, fun (and not-so-fun) experiences he’s had biking and promotions for cyclist events in the area.

Bread Bike: As mentioned before, Austin McKimmey runs this blog. He posts Instagram-style photos from his biking adventures around Eugene (many with his girlfriend Angel) and from the many biking events he attends in the area. He’ll often also include videos in his posts: some he recorded himself and some interesting ones he found.

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