The afternoon of Thursday, July 5, was hot and dry, and the sun was just peeking through the scattered clouds as Nancy Wernert, 26, pedaled her silver Signal Cherokee home from work along her usual route, heading west on Northeast Sandy Boulevard.
Nancy liked commuting by bike: It was good exercise and a great way to enjoy the summer weather. Besides, she didn't own a car.
At approximately 2:20 pm, she sailed through the intersection of Northeast 37th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, hugging the right side of the roadway, and crossed the on-ramp to Interstate 84--at the exact same moment as a double-semi veered right to get on the freeway.
The semi's driver, Michael Downer,
didn't--and couldn't--see her. Within seconds, the truck and bike collided, and Nancy had become an anonymous statistic.
"Cyclist killed on Sandy Boulevard," KOIN announced. "Police say rider likely at fault."
"Police say a semi was turning onto the ramp when a bicyclist darted in front," echoed KATU.
The Oregonian ran a standard three-paragraph story the next day, mentioning that the cyclist "was passing on the right." It seemed a clear, if unfortunate, case of a cyclist killed by her devil-may-care attitude.
But in fact, local cyclists say that intersection is one of the most dangerous crossroads in Portland--and Nancy's death has sparked an effort to do something about it.
The intersection at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 37th Avenue is a bewildering five-spoked tangle of concrete and steel, a misshapen crossroads twisted out of true by the Banfield freeway. Under the bottle-shaped shadow of the old Steigerwald Dairy building, cars, trucks and buses jockey for position on 11 separate trajectories along Northeast Sandy Boulevard, 37th Avenue, Halsey Street and the I-84 on-ramp.
For cyclists, it's a nightmare.
"It's one of the most dangerous intersections I've ridden through," says Jay Graves, owner of the Bike Gallery.
"It's a terrible, terrible spot," says Sara Stout, a mechanic at Citybikes.
"There is no safe and legal way through this intersection," says Bob Daugherty, an anthropologist who is studying bicycle culture and who happened upon the scene of the crash a few moments after it occurred.
Three other serious bicycle crashes have occurred at or near the same intersection since 1987, according to city traffic records.
"It's a really busy intersection," says Roger Geller of the city's bike program, who says at least 34,000 cars drive down Sandy every day. "Motorists are not forgiving. The bikes feel intimidated, and they stay to the right when they really should be in the middle of the lane. It's a tough place to be."
Despite the intersection's notoriety, however, there is nothing to warn cyclists or motorists of the potential danger.
In fact, the only indication of the recent death was a bunch of flowers atop a black-and-yellow lane divider and, scrawled in black marker on a utility pole, the single word "Nancy."
It just so happens, however, that the state department of transportation recently allocated $245,000 to upgrade the intersection--money that Nancy's friends and bike advocates say should be used to improve safety for cyclists.
"Something needs to be done," says Alissa Hartman, Nancy's former housemate. "This is such a serious problem; it shouldn't be ignored."
Hartman, a graphic designer at Nike, who has never undertaken anything remotely resembling a neighborhood crusade before, wants the city to paint a bike lane down Sandy.
Failing that, Hartman would like to see a "blue lane" at the intersection to allow cyclists a safe way through; or at the very least, warning signs.
"We're not radicals," says Carrie Hartle, another former housemate. "We just want something to happen."
"That intersection should be studied right away and moved to a top priority," says Karen Frost, program director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.
But traffic experts point to problems with each of those suggestions. To install a bike lane on Sandy, the city would either have to wipe out street parking (angering merchants) or else reduce the number of traffic lanes from four to three (angering motorists).
And in the absence of a bike lane, Scott Batson, senior traffic engineering associate at PDOT, says that a blue lane (where cars turning right yield to bikes) at the intersection would only sow confusion.
Finally, it is accepted dogma among traffic engineers that motorists ignore warning signs. "I share the frustration," Batson says. "If I thought a sign would make a difference, I'd be the first to recommend it."
City and state engineers have not yet finalized plans for upgrading the intersection. In the meantime, the friends of Nancy Hartman are crossing their fingers--and steering clear of Sandy Boulevard.
Last month, 100 cyclists from Critical Mass blocked off the intersection at Northeast 37th Avenue and Sandy and held a moment of silence in honor of Nancy Wernert.
Last year, 163 serious bicycle crashes were reported to the Portland Department of Transportation. The number of crashes has held fairly steady over the past decade, despite increasing ridership.