Bike Lessons From Portland: Take Cycling Seriously

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There's a lesson in the bicycle discussion that points to the fundamental difference between systemic change and personal change. Any one of us can choose personally – and many of us do – to bike to work, to the grocery store, to the park. For some of us, that means consciously choosing to use a bike over a car. The way things are now, choosing the bike over the car, while it might be enjoyable, is less convenient. So choosing the non-polluting, health-promoting bicycle becomes, for many, the admirable decision. Good work, us!

Now imagine a system so drastically different that the bike is actually more convenient than the car, at least for short trips. Driving the car is not only the more expensive choice, it also takes more time and is less pleasant than simply hopping on a bicycle. The bike feels safe, and totally normal; in fact, there are so many other cyclists out on the road that even biking solo is practically a social activity. Riding our bike is no longer an admirable sacrifice. It's actually not much of a decision at all. It's just the best way to get somewhere.

For many reasons including reduced carbon emissions, boosting public health, and creating a more vibrant urban environment, this is the end result we want. But how do we get there? What makes a city a bike-friendly city? It's not simply something in the air. According to Roger Geller, bicycle coordinator for the City of Portland, creating a bicycle friendly city takes strategic planning and investment, and it's something that a city must decide, very intentionally, to do for itself.

Our neighbor to the south is an undisputed leader in bike friendliness, at least when it comes to the bike-skittish United States. In 2007, surveys reported that about 5 percent of Portland residents use a bicycle as their primary mode of transportation. In some neighborhoods, that number gets as high as 12 percent (Seattleites come in between 1 and 2 percent). But the change didn't happen overnight. Portland began working in 1974 (with the passage of its forward-thinking "Bicycle Bill") to improve its bike infrastructure with policy decisions and consistent – though very limited – government funding.

In the thirty-plus years since then, Portland has built a network of highly visible cyclist infrastructure improvements. Some, like bike boxes at intersections, are primarily to keep cyclists safe. Others, like on-stree bike "corrals" – where street parking spots are reserved for bikes in place of cars – add convenience for cyclists and pedestrians alike, but also serve the important function of making cycling a visible part of daily city life.

All the improvements of the past 30 years have cost the city (specifically PDOT) a total of $55 million. To put that in perspective, that's less than half of what it costs to build one freeway interchange. Now, Geller wants to convince the city to invest more than three times that amount (about $18 per capita per year) for the next 16-20 years to bring cycling in Portland up to the level we see in European cities like Copenhagen, where 36 percent of commuters ride their bikes to work every day (and as a result, age nine is considered the "age of independent mobility," a fact that a suburban-raised child of the 80s like myself can barely comprehend). He wants strong policies that prioritize the bicycle, with the stated aim of making the bike the "preferred vehicular transportation for trips of 3 miles or less." For that title, bikes will have to compete directly with cars.

Portland's previous – and hopefully future -- success, Gellar says, is due to a mix of very concrete factors: policies, consistent funding, political leadership, innovative professionals, and effective advocacy. Education and awareness are important, but the ultimate truth is, only the most die-hard cyclists will travel regularly by bike unless infrastructure makes cycling convenient, safe and irresistible (click the link to download John Pucher's famous essay on the topic).

Seattle has a long way to go before cycling becomes comfortable, safe and easy enough to have mass appeal. But hopefully with Portland's model to learn from, we won't have to wait 30 years before we start to see big changes. Right now, Geller is targeting bike boulevards, which are also being tested out in Seattle, as the best means of making cycling accessible to the most entry-level riders.

So, will Seattle invest in cycling on a systemic level? As Sightline's Deric Gruen warns, the ambitious Bicycle Master Plan is still just a recommendation. If we're going to learn from Portland's example, a more committed approach will be necessary.

I heard Geller speak at a lecture hosted by the UW College of Architecture and Planning (as part of the college's Green Futures Lab program). The lecture, hosted by Peter Steinbrueck, FAIA, also included presentations on the Seattle Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans, the evolution of walkability in Copenhagen, and Victoria, B.C.'s Dockside Green.

Photo credit: flickr/, Creative Commons license.

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