Portland’s vision: where cycling isn’t just for cyclists
Recently, the Bikes Belong Foundation hosted a workshop in Portland, Oregon — perennially regarded as one of the most advanced bicycling cities in the United States — for city leaders and traffic engineers all looking for good ideas to make their cities better places to live, work, play. Portland has an impressive reputation nationally, not just for being ahead of the curve with bicycling but for its common-sense land use laws, urban planning, and high-quality public spaces. Workshop delegates heard from the local experts about the innovative tools the city is deploying to coax bicycling into becoming a mainstream transportation option. Portland is beginning to reap the economic and urbanistic rewards of its modest 15-year investment in bicycle infrastructure and programs. Jay Walljasper wrote an excellent recap of the event.
As a frequent visitor and Portland native, what impressed me the most was not how far the city has come, but how boldly it’s looking ahead. Portland’s 2030 Bicycle Master Plan — adopted unanimously by city council earlier this year — is perhaps the most visionary and ambitious road map to more equitable mobility in the United States today. The plan elegantly describes a not-so-distant future where bicycles make up a quarter of all trips — especially for short errands less than three miles — and residents who use bicycles no longer self-identify as “cyclists,” but rather as people using a preferred means of transportation for everyday needs.
One of Portland’s best contributions to the workshop participants was a framework for thinking about how to plan for bicycling networks.
The chart identifies four types of potential bicycle users:
• Strong and Fearless (<1%)
• Enthused and Confident (7%)
• Interested but Concerned (60%)
• Not Interested or Not Able (33%)
While developed in Portland, this tool has national applicability for city leaders working to unlock the potential of bicycling in their communities. Nearly everyone riding bikes today — including all of us at Bikes Belong, our friends in the bike industry, and leading bicycle advocates — fit into either the strong and fearless or enthused and confident categories. We are the people you see out riding in American cities, yet we only represent 8% of the population. We are comfortable mixing with cars when needed, appreciate and use bike lanes and paths when available, and are willing to tolerate an occasional negative experience in exchange for all of the positive benefits that bicycling brings to our bodies, our pocketbooks, and our cities. Most of us would call ourselves “cyclists” if given an opportunity.
What makes Portland’s 2030 Plan innovative is that it identifies the largest group in the spectrum, the "interested but concerned," as the key audience for bicycle improvements over the next 20 years. Portland’s Bicycle Plan is primarily focused on the needs people who are not currently riding bicycles, but would like to. This cohort, about 60% of the population, includes our friends, neighbors, co-workers, parents, children; all the people in our lives who like the idea of riding a bike at least some of the time but have concerns about safety and accessibility to destinations. Few of these people would ever call themselves “cyclists,” even if they enjoy an occasional spin around the block or a weekend ride on a bike path. But given an attractive, low-stress ride that gets them to where they’re going quickly and conveniently, many will gladly choose the bike.
Bicycling is growing in nearly every major American city, and planners, engineers, and policy-makers are eager to include bicycling in their long-term planning as a valued and essential component of a transportation network (which also includes transit, walking, and private cars). While Portland doesn’t have all the answers, its leadership has the right idea: cycling in the future will be for everyone, not just cyclists.