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By **Jay Walljasper**


It’s become a cliché that Portland is America’s most livable city, a hotbed of innovations when it comes to green policies, public spaces, pedestrian amenities, transit, public spaces, and, of course, bicycles. In fact some people are growing weary (and the rest of us envious) of hearing about how great things are in Oregon’s largest city.

But clichés often turn out to be true. After spending several days exploring Portland as part of a Bikes Belong Foundation transportation workshop for city officials from across the country, I must admit that Portland offers a wealth of inspiration and practical tips for how we can make our towns more bikeable, vital and fun.

Yet, as the delegation of transportation leaders from Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City discovered while biking across the city, Portland is no Ecotopia. Local bikers still contend with roaring traffic on crowded streets and motorists who park illegally in bike lanes or honk for no apparent reason.

As Laura Spanjian, Sustainability Director in the Houston mayor’s office, observes, “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 nineteen nineties, we’ve tried to make biking safer and more comfortable, and good things have happened. What you see are the results of a twenty-year effort to promote biking.”

The accomplishments are impressive. Today Portland sports the highest share of bicycle commuters (6-8 percent) of any large U.S. city. It’s also the only large city to earn The League of American Bicyclists’ coveted platinum status as a bicycle-friendly city. (The others in that league are Boulder, Colorado, and Davis, California.)

“We don’t see the bicycle as simply an end in itself,” notes Catherine Ciarlo, Transportation Director for Portland Mayor Sam Adams, “but the means to a clean, green, vital city.”

“Biking is healthy for the economy as well as people”

The city is undertaking ambitious new plans to boost biking even more over the next twenty years. Calculated to cost six hundred million dollars between now and 2030—a price tag that’s drawn some criticism in this era of tight municipal budgets—Ciarlo lauds the 2030 Bicycle Master Plan vision as “a good investment” that accounts for no more than five percent of the city’s overall transportation budget.

“The progress we’ve made in increasing biking came at a very low cost compared to other transportation funding,” she explains. Geller adds that between 2001 and 2007, bike facilities comprised less than one percent of Portland’s overall capital expenditures for transportation despite carrying between 3 percent and 7 percent of all trips.

Bikes actually pump a surprising amount of money into the local economy, according to Ciarlo. It’s a selling point for attracting tourists, and a recent study from CEOs for Cities shows that Portland keeps eight hundred million dollars that would drain out-of-town if local residents drove cars at the same rate as an average U.S. city. The conclusion is that by spending less money on gas and less time on the highway, Portlanders have more of both to spend at local businesses.

Mia Birk, Portland’s Bicycle Coordinator from 1993-1999 and now CEO of Alta Planning+Design, points to a study showing that bikes now account for one hundred million dollars in local economic activity each year (including retail sales, national firms based here, and proceeds from bike events and rides), and are directly responsible for almost one thousand jobs in the region. She notes that a similar study in Wisconsin found a $1.5 billion boost for the state economy.

“Promoting Biking Beyond the Young and the Fearless”

Today Portland sports the highest share of bicycle commuters (6-8 percent) of any large U.S. city.

Portland’s 2030 Bicycle Master Plan, unanimously adopted by the city council earlier this year, envisions Portland as “a world class bicycling city” by tripling the overall mileage of bikeways in the hopes of encouraging even more people to ride.

Meanwhile Metro, a government body elected by the entire metropolitan area, is enacting a plan to triple the number of people biking throughout the region over the next thirty years. Their target goal is that 40 percent of all trips of three miles or less in the city and suburbs would be done atop a bike by 2040.

“In some neighborhoods in Portland, 10-15 percent of people already bike each day,” notes Lake McTighe, manager of Metro’s Active Transportation Partnership, “which means that we could be making parts of Portland into a mini-Amsterdam or Copenhagen.”

For those who say that people living in outlying suburbs will never bike in large numbers, McTighe answers by quoting from a study by the National Association of Realtors showing that the second most desired amenity homebuyers want today is access to biking and walking trails. (Access to a freeway is first, proving that it’s not question of bikes vs. cars in most people’s minds.)

Both the city’s and Metro’s plans signal a strategic shift in bicycle planning—a new push to serve more than the 8-10 percent of people who feel at ease biking today. Portland is now focusing on meeting the needs of the 60 percent of people who report in surveys that they’re interested in biking more but feel nervous doing it on streets with cars zooming past.

This means reaching beyond the young, macho, ultra-fit white men we typically think of as urban bikers to broaden the appeal for women, families, middle-aged and non-white riders. In the Netherlands, for instance, where 27 percent of all trips nationally are made on two wheels (and up to 50 percent or more of all trips are pedal-powered in some urban centers), more women ride than men. Even among people over seventy-five, a quarter of all trips are on bike.

The best way to get more people on bikes, according to Portland officials, is to make biking seem less scary.

Actually the numbers of bicycle fatalities is decreasing in cities across the United States, Ciarlo says, and declining even faster in Portland—which shows that the more bicyclists there are on the roads, the safer biking becomes.

But even in Portland, many people feel that biking on city streets is a risky proposition. That’s why the new Bicycle Master Plan will augment the city’s established network of bike lanes—where a white line divides riders from cars and trucks—with new facility types where people can ride on less-traveled streets optimized for bike speeds or roads with physical protection between bikes and motorized traffic.

Portland’s plans also involve ways to increase the safety and comfort of bicyclists when they do come face-to-face with traffic at in intersection. Among these innovations, most of which have been proven to work elsewhere in the world, are:

• Bike boxes, a designated area in busy intersections where bicyclists can gather in plain view of cars at the stoplight, increasing visibility and reducing the risk of being struck by right-turning cars and trucks.

• Colorized bike lanes, which offer a clear visual reminder to motorists and bicyclists that they share space on the roadway. These can be particularly helpful for bicyclists making left turns at an intersection or to command extra attention at key locations.

The best way to get more people on bikes, according to Portland officials, is to make biking seem less scary.

• Traffic signals for bikes, which better informs cyclists of the safest time to cross, and sometimes gives them a head start to reduce turning conflicts with motorized traffic.

• Traffic calming, an entire toolkit of roadway techniques that remind drivers to heed speed limits and look out for bikers and pedestrians on the streets. These include everything from the familiar traffic humps and median strips to elevated crosswalks and traffic diverters, which give bicycles priority on some streets.

“What place is the next Portland?”

But what about the folks who want other examples of great biking cities in addition to Portland?

When I asked that question of Mia Birk, founder and CEO of Alta Planning+Design+, a sustainable transportation firm with fourteen 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 leaders among large U.S. cities, she explains. (Minneapolis, in fact, recently unseated Portland for the title of America’s Most Bike-Friendly city in Bicycling magazine—a decision that was disputed by many in Portland.)

Birk also points to other places beginning to do “cool stuff” around biking: St. Louis, Boston, Dallas, Des Moines, Long Beach, Philadelphia, Fayetteville (Arkansas), Tacoma (Washington), Greenville (South Carolina) and Jackson Hole (Wyoming).

So who knows? Some day, not too far off in the future, city officials seeking great new ideas about biking may be traveling to Iowa or Houston, as well as Portland.

After all, “no one in the nineteen seventies or eighties would have singled out Portland as a great town for biking,” admits city Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller.

Copyright 2010 Jay Walljasper


This post originally appeared at

Jay Walljasper is an editor at On The Commons. He is a writer who covers urban, community, environmental, cultural, international, and travel issues. His most recent book is the The Great Neighborhood Book, a guide to how people can change the world on their own block. He is a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces and senior editor at Ode magazine and writes a blog on green cities for the National Geographic Green Guide and covers sustainable travel for National Geographic Traveler. For many years Jay was editor of Utne Reader.

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