What’s so great about biking in Portland?
Everyone says Portland, Ore., is a great place for urban bicycling. But what exactly makes cycling work so well there? Last Friday I took a two-wheeled tour to try to find out.
My guides were Elly Blue and Meghan Sinnott, creators of PDX by BIKE – a new pocket-sized guidebook for visitors – and two of the most active bike organizers in a city chock-full of them. Blue runs the blog Taking the Lane and writes a column on the under-explored economics of cycling. Sinnott volunteers for the ride series Pedalpalooza and organizes the Multnomah County Bike Fair (featuring tall-bike jousting). They’re involved in so many other volunteer and civic projects I lost track of all of them. (Portland’s reputation as a slacker haven seems highly inaccurate.)
Here’s what I learned after a day of pedaling: There is no single design feature that defines the Portland approach to bike planning. Instead, there is a distinct willingness to experiment, relentless attention to detail, and a thousand subtle cues that, hey, however you’re traveling, you’re not the only vehicle on the street, so pay attention.
Bike lanes, naturally, show up all over the place. Sharrows – those markings reminding drivers to share their lane with bikers – are in the middle of lanes, not pushed off to the side in dangerous door-zone of parked cars. At several storefront locations, the city has replaced streetside parking spots with “bike corrals” that fit 10 or so bikes in the space of one car. Business owners were skeptical at first, but a survey last spring found that 84 percent of them think the corrals improve a streetscape and bring in customers. (This tracks with broader research that cyclists are a boon for local businesses.)
Like I said, it’s not that Portland has invented so much. Blue suggested that its bike-planning style draws from Northern European cities, especially Utrecht, the Netherlands. “We take their philosophy of slowing traffic down to a human speed and providing more through-ways for bikes and walkers and less for cars – and do it with concrete and paint,” she said.
Los Angeles, by contrast, draws more from Latin American cities that use bus rapid transit to shuttle citizens more quickly across large distances.
Not every experiment succeeds. After years of building roundabouts on residential streets, the city heard anecdotal evidence that cars don’t slow down as intended, but instead use roundabouts to try to pass cyclists. “Drivers hate them and bikers hate them,” said Sinnott. “So they’ve mostly stopped building them.”
Likewise, when an artist designed oversized ground paintings for the Hawthorne Bridge bike lanes, cyclists discovered they were very slippery when wet. The city removed them. But these tests provide knowledge for both Portland and every other place wondering if bicycle planning is a viable way to promote health and cut transportation emissions.
The city’s also willing to spend time fitting designs to difficult locations. That became clear at the corner of Clay Street and 11th Avenue in southeast Portland, site of one of the strangest curb designs I’ve ever seen. Clay Street, I’m told, is a popular shortcut for cyclists heading to the Willamette riverfront, so there are bike lanes painted to mark their course. It’s a pedestrian area, so the city planned curb extensions to make the crosswalks shorter and safer. But it’s also a busy freight route from nearby industrial yards. Truck drivers said the planned curb bump-outs wouldn’t leave room for semis to make the turn.
The city compromised by using half-raised corner extensions that are clearly visible as pedestrian turf but can still be driven over. (They’re hard to explain and don’t sound safe, but they’re a clever solution for a difficult intersection.)
I mentioned to Blue that cycling seems safe here not just because of the physical infrastructure but because there are so many subtle cues to drivers to expect bikers and not tune them out. I noticed that right away driving in the city. Maybe the lesson for other places is that a bike-aware culture is just as important as design improvements.
“I think about that all the time,” she said. “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Culture and awareness or physical design? There’s a chicken camp and an egg camp.”
They go hand in hand, although I’m convinced infrastructure almost always matters more that we assume. Whether or not people “love biking” depends not just on their natural disposition or political leanings, but on whether it feels pleasant and safe to bike where they live. And that depends on how streets are designed. Not every city is looking for Pedalpalooza and bike-jousting, but we can all use the health and environmental benefits that Portland has found by making cycling easier and safer.