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Drive through or ride through? In Portland it's sometimes both

Not in a car? That could be a problem for some businesses


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Houston Bolles sips his strawberry milkshake after ordering from the Burgerville drive-through window. Alas, no cup holder on his bike. More local stores are serving bike riders at drive up windows.Southeast Portland resident Houston Bolles was riding his bike home from a trip to the library last week minding his own business, certainly not intending to become a focal point in the latest dust-up in Portland’s biking culture wars.

Bolles was riding past a Walgreens pharmacy at Southeast Belmont Street and 39th Avenue when he remembered he needed to pick up a prescription for his son. Rather than lock up his bike and take his stuff inside, he rode up to the empty drive-through window. And was denied service.

Bolles was told that Walgreens, concerned about safety in the parking lot and insurance liability, doesn’t serve customers on bikes at their drive-throughs. He did what any dedicated Portland bike rider would do — he posted a comment about the incident on a bike email list and blog.

The blog responses started pouring in. Walgreens corporate offices in Chicago got into the act. Bolles says he didn’t want to make a big deal out of the incident, but he does wonder, what with mopeds and motorcycles and all, “Where do you draw the line and what’s the reason for it?”

After a few days to consider the matter, Walgreens has decided that the line is clearly on the side that will include bikes, mopeds and every other vehicle. Walgreens corporate spokesman Jim Graham says that from now on Walgreens employees everywhere will be told to serve drive-up customers who are on bikes.

Insurance was never the problem, Graham says. The corporate policy simply hadn’t been clearly communicated to all stores previously. Now it has, thanks to Portland.

From his vantage in Chicago, Graham says the commotion had a little bit of a life-imitating-art feel to it.

“I kind of enjoy the TV show ‘Portlandia,’ and I have to admit it came to mind,” Graham says.

Jonathan Maus, publisher of the popular bikeportland.org website, noted that bike access to drive-through windows has come up before. In fact, as far back as four years ago, bike riders had complained on his site about Walgreens not serving them at the drive-up, or ride-up window, as some bicyclists prefer it be called.

Most national corporations don’t have policies for drive-throughs, so some stores allow it while others don’t, Maus says. Bicyclists in other cities have the same problem. But leave it to Portland to get Walgreens to stand up and listen.

“We’re sort of the canary in the coal mine because our culture around bike riding has evolved more than in other cities,” Maus says.

Burgerville dealt with the same problem three years ago, when a woman bicyclist who couldn’t get served at the window of a store in Southeast Portland complained. The local chain hadn’t formulated a policy, so some Burgervilles were serving riders and others weren’t.

Now, all Burgervilles serve bicyclists, says company spokesman Jack Graves. And signs warn auto drivers to watch out for bikes in the drive through lane. Other signs, Graves says, tell bicyclists that if they don’t get a response while talking into the speaker box, move up to the window to order. Apparently some bikes don’t have enough metal to set off the underground magnetic loop that tells employees a drive-up customer is waiting.

Graves says even with the company policy encouraging bicyclists to ride up and order, only about six or eight riders a day bother at most stores. He wonders if convenience might be a problem for bicyclists, given the popularity of Burgerville shakes.

“Are there cup holders on bicycles? I don’t know?” Graves says.

And then there’s Southwest Portland resident Kate Welch, a bike commuter and bike advocate who also happens to be a pharmacist. Welch wants bikes accepted everywhere, but she feels conflicted about riders using drive-throughs, especially at pharmacies.

People going to a pharmacy assumedly care about their health, Welch says.

“That’s the last place I want to be, in a lane breathing exhaust from people idling their cars,” she says.