In the past decade, Jim Parsons moved to Portland from Southern Oregon, lost his job as a travel agent and went back to school at PSU to study linguistics, where he’s currently a part-time student. But while his destinations have changed, his self-prescribed higher calling remains constant. The 42-year-old bicycle commuter searches the city for hazards to “vulnerable users of the roadway”—and eliminates them. From shaky storm grates to thick, obstructive curbs, this bike vigilante takes matters into his own hands.
“If I seem obsessive, it’s because I am,” Parsons said in April as I rode with him through Southeast, minutes before he stopped suddenly to trim some low-hanging branches. Parsons is a self-described high-functioning autistic, a condition he says makes him extra-observant. “As I’m riding along, I look for cracks in the sidewalk, storm grates...and I see the potential for accidents,” he said.
Even at first glance, few would mistake Parsons for a casual biker. His glittering behemoth of a helmet features thick bands of retro reflective film and strategically placed triangles of luminous red tape, a 2-by-2-inch headlamp, and a tiny rearview mirror protruding, antennalike, from one side. His bike, a GT Transeo 1.0 he affectionately calls “Ludwig Von Dammit,” is tricked out with five headlights, an iPod stereo system, a GPS unit and a bike computer to log distance, speed and time traveled.
Parsons stopped our ride again at a storm grate on Southeast Grand Avenue with deep grooves running parallel to traffic. “A bike wheel gets into one of these ridges and you’re looking at a face-plant. Broken nose, concussions at least—but it could be fatal,” he said.
With a heave, Parsons lifted the grate, flipped it over, rotated it and wedged it back into place. “There, that’s better,” he said.
When Parsons finds a hazard he can’t fix by hand or with the Swiss Army knife he carries everywhere, he calls the Oregon Department of Transportation or another of the many local transportation authorities into his cell phone contact list. “Anybody who’s anybody at ODOT knows me by name or reputation,” he said. (When I called ODOT’s District 2A office and asked about Parsons, office specialist Eileen Huss answered, “Oh yeah, we know him.”)
Parsons has taken his mission of building a cycle-safe city to the Internet as a forum moderator for BikePortland.org. To date, Parsons (who goes by “K’Tesh” on the site) has logged 2,371 posts, and his thread “What Have You Done Today?” is filled with before-and-after photos of transformed grates, upgraded bike lanes and pruned foliage. “The more eyes that go onto a problem, the more likely it is that somebody’s going to go, ‘You know, he’s right, we should fix this,’” he said.
But Parsons says the most common and dangerous hazard to urban cyclists—distracted drivers—can’t be solved with a Swiss Army knife.
“The last thing in the world anybody should hear is, ‘Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you,’” he said.
Two weeks after our ride, Parsons says the driver of a Lexus SUV failed to see him while he was traveling west in the bike lane on Highway 99W. He sprained his wrist in the crash, and Ludwig Von Dammit suffered irreparable damage. “Be safe out there,” Parsons wrote in a post describing the accident. “They are not looking for you.”