Portland’s not perfect, but still offers valuable lessons for improving biking in your town
September 27, 2010
By Jay Walljasper
It’s become almost a cliché that Portland ranks at the top of the class among American cities when it comes to transit, public spaces, green initiatives, good government and, of course, bicycles. It seems many people have grown weary (and certainly envious) of hearing about how great things are in Oregon’s largest city.
But clichés often turn out to be true. After spending the past two days exploring Portland on foot and bike as part of a Bikes Belong Best Practices Project study trip, and hearing from local officials about their plans for the future, I must admit that Portland still offers the rest of the country valuable ideas for making our towns more bikable, vital, and fun.
Yet, as a delegation of transportation leaders from Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City discovered yesterday on a 3-hour bike tour, Portland is no Ecotopia. It contends with thick car and truck traffic along crowded arterial streets that can test a biker’s nerves. Like anywhere, drivers park illegally in bike lanes and lay on the horn if they think you’re not pedaling fast enough.
As Laura Spanjian, Sustainability Director in Houston mayor’s office, noted, “I was surprised there’s so much traffic. Actually that made me hopeful—that we can do some of the same things in Houston even with all our traffic.”
“Portland is still an American city,” explains Roger Geller, the city’s Bicycle Coordinator. “But since the 1990s, we’ve tried to make biking safer and more comfortable, and good things have happened.”
The city now sports 314 miles of bikeways, which fall into four categories: 1) roadside bike lanes; 2) specially designated neighborhood greenways where bikes take priority over cars; 3) off-street bike paths; and 4) cycle tracks along streets where cyclists are physically buffered from cars. Bikes lanes, which separate two-wheelers from four-wheelers with a white stripe, still predominate but other kinds of bike facilities are drawing enthusiastic riders who feel more at ease when biking through the city away from heavy traffic
Portland’s 2030 bicycle plan, unanimously adopted by the city council earlier this year, plans to triple the mileage of bikeways in the hopes of tripling the number of bikers. With 6-8 percent of household trips made by bike, Portland already is tops among large U.S cities.
The new plan aims to make strides in biking by reaching out beyond the one percent of hard-core bikers who will bike anywhere and the 7-9 percent of people who feel at ease biking on busy streets when there’s only a bike lane. Portland is targeting the 60 percent of Americans who says they’re interested in biking more, but nervous about being on streets with roaring traffic. That’s why the city is putting an emphasis on creating more cycle tracks, which provide a buffer between bikes and cars, and low-traffic neighborhood greenways sometimes called “bike boulevards.”
Street improvements to make intersections safer and less intimidating also figure prominently in the plans. These include traffic calming measures, special traffic signals for bikes and bright green “bike boxes," which allow cyclists to gather ahead of cars at intersections so they won’t be hit by right-turning motorists.
“We don’t see the bicycle as an end in itself,” notes Catherine Ciarlo, Transportation Director for Portland mayor Sam Adams, “but the means to a clean, green, vital city.”
Here’s a selection of comments from transportation leaders who toured Portland about what ideas they are bringing home to their own cities:
Scott Dibble, State Senator from Minneapolis: “The bike boulevards and the bike corrals,” where auto parking spaces on commercial streets are replaced with bike parking, which has proven surprisingly popular with business owners.
Malihe Samadi, Senior Traffic Engineer, City of Chicago: “I am very interested in doing some of these bike boulevards in Chicago, and I want to see how these buffered bike lanes would work.”
Yadollah Montazery, Assistant Director of Traffic Engineering, City of Chicago: “I was very impressed with the continuity of the bike lanes; there was never a place where they suddenly stop like in many cities. And the bicycle markings in the street were not faded.”
Becka Roolf, Pedestrian/Bicyle Coordinator, City of Salt Lake City: “I am looking at the buffered bike lanes and the great bike maps, which I think would be very useful to new riders.”
Anne Clutterbuck, Houston City Council: “The realization that it takes a long time to make things happen, and that it’s not all about cars or even bikes—all forms of transportation have a place.”
Laura Spanjian, Sustainability Director for the Mayor of Houston: “The Sunday Parkways bike ride and the sense that you need to do a lot of different things to make things happen.”
Eric Widstrand, Chief Traffic Engineer, City of Seattle: “What am I taking back? As much as I can. I am here to steal ideas, starting with the bike left turn lanes.”
Tim Blumenthal, President of Bikes Belong: “I’m amazed how much you can accomplish to promote biking for very little money by applying some paint to the streets.”
Zach Vanderkooy, Best Practices Program Coordinator for Bikes Belong: “I am really surprised at how much less stressful it is to bike here than when I rode my bicycle to high school here in the mid-1990s.”
But what about hearing some good news from someplace other than Portland?
When I asked that question to Mia Birk, former Portland Bike Coordinator and founder of Alta Planning Design, a sustainable transportation firm with 14 offices around the country, she quickly drew up a list on the back of an envelope. Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and D.C. are some of the leaders among large U.S. cities, she wrote.
Then she pointed to other places beginning to do “cool stuff” with bikes: St. Louis, Dallas, Des Moines, Long Beach, Fayetteville (Arkansas), Philadelphia, Tacoma (Washington), Boston, Greenville (South Carolina), and Jackson Hole (Wyoming).
So stay tuned. Some day not too far off city officials may be traveling to Iowa, Houston, or Southern California in search of great biking policies. As city bike coordinator Roger Geller points out, no one in the 1970s or‘80s would have singled out Portland as a great town for biking.
Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler, Fellow of On the Commons, and Senior Fellow of Project for Public Spaces.