Cycle City, USA

How Portland plans to become the first world-class bike city in America.

It's become a cliche that Portland is America's most livable city, a hotbed for innovative ways to support green policies, public spaces, pedestrian amenities, transit, 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.

When it comes to bicycling, at least, the cliche is true. 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.

But Portland wasn't born with bike lanes. "No one in the 1970s or '80s would have singled out Portland as a great town for biking," admits city Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller. Its current success is the result of 20 years of transportation planning with bikes in mind.

That knowledge makes the city pretty ambitious about what it can accomplish over the next 20 years.

Earlier this year, the city council unanimously approved the 2030 Bicycle Master Plan, which envisions Portland as "a world-class bicycling city" with three times the bikeways it has now.

Meanwhile, Metro, a government body elected by the entire metropolitan area, is enacting a plan to triple the number of people who bike over the next 30 years. Their goal is for 40 percent of all city and suburban trips of three miles or less to be done atop a bicycle 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."

I recently spent several days exploring Portland as part of a transportation workshop, sponsored by the Bikes Belong Coalition, for city officials from around the country. We wanted to find out what Portland could teach us about promoting biking in our own cities: Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City.

Portland's Plan for Safer Cycling

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.

The best way to get more people on bikes, according to Portland officials, is to make biking seem less scary. The new Bicycle Master Plan will augment the city's established network of bike lanes-where a white line is all that separates riders from cars and trucks-with new routes that better protect cyclists. Currently, about two-thirds of Portland's 314 miles of bikeways are simple bike lanes, but the city is designing more bike boulevards (residential streets optimized for bike, rather than car, traffic), bike paths (off-street trails through parks or old rail lines), and cycle tracks (bike-only spaces separated from busy streets by a median, grade separation, or wide strip of painted pavement).

"We've found that people will go out of their way to ride on a bike boulevard," explains Geller.

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.
  • Traffic signals for bikes, which better inform 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. These include everything from the familiar traffic humps and median strips to elevated crosswalks and traffic diverters, which give bicycles priority on some streets.

As these methods take effect and more people feel safe enough to choose bikes over cars, biking will become even safer. Studies suggest that bike safety goes up alongside the number of bikers, in large part because motorists grow accustomed to seeing bicyclists and keep an eye out for them at intersections. Already the numbers of bicycle fatalities is decreasing in cities across the United States, and declining even faster in Portland, says Catherine Ciarlo, transportation director for Portland Mayor Sam Adams.

Spreading the Biking Gospel

A greater sense of safety and ease is not the only thing that gets folks out of their cars or off their couches and onto their bikes. Many people are intimidated by biking simply because they haven't tried it since childhood-and sometimes need only to be reminded of how much fun it can be.

That's why the city of Portland has launched an ambitious social marketing effort called Smart Trips.

The campaign zeroes in on particular parts of the city where car use is higher than average. It starts by mailing out a jazzy flyer to everyone in the area asking about their interest in biking, walking, or taking transit. All who show interest get a visit from a friendly transportation ambassador: a personal mobility coach who can answer questions and address concerns about getting around in Portland. Someone curious about bicycling would receive maps and materials on the best routes in their area and an invitation for an escorted ride to work. Geller notes that follow-up research in neighborhoods served by Smart Trips shows a nine-percent drop in the driving of single-occupancy vehicles.

The city's Sunday Parkways Celebrations are another way to reintroduce residents to biking. Certain streets are closed to motor vehicles, allowing bicyclists and pedestrians to get around without stress.

On the Sunday I was in town, a 4.5-mile figure-eight course running through downtown and adjacent Northwest Portland neighborhoods was cleared of cars. It was an amazing experience to pedal up to an intersection and be waved through by a traffic cop while motorists patiently waited for two-wheeled and two-legged traffic to cross. Even intermittent rain showers did not deter thousands of cyclists from turning out-including a large number of parents pulling kids in trailers or tag-alongs. All along the route food vendors, entertainers and bicycle information booths gave riders a reason to dismount.

This was the third year for the event, which began on a single Sunday in 2008. The program is inspired by Ciclovia, a car-free Sunday pioneered in the Colombian cities of Bogota, Cali and Medellin. In Bogota, as many as 2 million people (30 percent of the city's population) turn out to bike or stroll more than 120 kilometers of car-free city streets. The celebration has spread throughout Latin America and the world, now including Los Angeles, Miami, Vancouver, Cleveland, Detroit, Tucson, El Paso and Atlanta.

Good Economics Make for Popular Policies

The new biking push is expected to cost $600 million over the next twenty years. It's not cheap, but it's "a good investment," says Ciarlo. "The progress we've made in increasing biking came at a very low cost compared to other transportation funding." Between 2001 and 2007, bike facilities comprised less than one percent of Portland's overall capital expenditures for transportation but carried between 3 and 7 percent of all trips. The new plan will push bike infrastructure to 5 percent of the city's total transportation budget.

But there's a good reason so many cities are eager to follow in Portland's footsteps. The city has found that promoting cycling more than pays for itself. Biking is a selling point for attracting tourists, and a recent study from CEOs for Cities shows that Portland keeps $800 million that would drain out of town if local residents drove cars at the same rate as an average U.S. city. By spending less money on gas and less time on the highway, the study concludes, 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, a sustainable transportation planning firm, points to a study showing that Portland's bikes now account for $100 million 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 1,000 jobs in the region. A similar study in Wisconsin found a $1.5 billion boost for the state economy from bikes.

Even with its head start and big plans for the future, Portland doesn't have a national monopoly on urban biking innovation. When I asked Birk, whose firm has offices in 14 cities nationwide, where to find the next great biking city, she started drawing 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 explained. (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 here.) St. Louis; Boston; Dallas; Des Moines, Iowa; Long Beach, Calif.; Philadelphia; Fayetteville, Ark.; Tacoma, Wash.; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and Greeneville, S.C.; are also trying out cool ideas. Boulder, Colo., and Davis, Calif. have joined Portland as platinum bike-friendly cities on a smaller scale.

The race to become the nation's first world-class biking city, in other words, is wide open.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.