Last week a professional conference brought me to Portland, OR. It had been about five years since I’d been there, and I fondly remembered its great bike infrastructure and transit. I wasn’t blogging back then, so this trip offered a belated opportunity to explore a little more of downtown Portland by bike and to document my thoughts about its bike and alternative transportation infrastructure.
What’s offered here is neither a comprehensive nor a systematic review. I admit that my 3-day sojourn does not offer the same perspective as that of a day-to-day commuter. Instead I approached it from the perspective of how Portland compares to Southern California in terms of getting around car-free. I know that some in Portland’s bike advocacy community are frustrated with what they see as the lack of progress on new bike infrastructure, but Portland still ranks as one of the best bicycling cities in North America, though it is starting to get some competition. And, compared to SoCal, well, let’s just say we have a long way to go to catch up. Despite the recent slowdown in Portland’s bike improvements, the city’s most recent plan calls for a majority of Portlanders to get around by means other than the private automobile by 2030.
One example of Portland’s commitment to car-free living is its soon-to-be-opened “bridge of the people,” Tilikum Crossing. This new bridge across the Willamette River, connecting SE and SW Portland, is designed for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit (streetcar and bus) traffic only. No cars. By contrast here in LA, bike advocates have been forced to fight tooth-and-nail for the simple addition of bike lanes on the new Hyperion Bridge. In LA, it always feels like we’re stuck with an ideology of automobile prioritization in which bicyclists might be thrown a scrap of “leftover” roadway space if it can be shown not to inconvenience a single Prius driver.
From the moment I stepped off the airplane, I noticed bikes and transit are integrated. There is a covered bike area right next to the Airport’s MAX light rail line. All MAX trains have space for bikes, and all Tri-Met buses have bike racks (though the bus bike racks are limited to a capacity of 2 bikes–as in LA, an insufficient number). It was an easy MAX or bus ride to Portland State University, where I rented a bike from PSU’s awesome Bike Hub, run by students. I was able to reserve a Linus 3-Speed city bike online and I used it to get around town all 3 days I was there. My rental bike came with fenders, rack, lights, lock, and helmet, all for a very reasonable price of $45 for the weekend. Most hotels have bike racks where guests can lock up their bikes overnight, but I was able to keep mine in my hotel room which saved me the hassle of having to lock it up overnight. My first-floor room location also allowed me to come and go with the bike as I pleased without having to go up or down crowded elevators with a bike.
Here’s the big thing about Portland: the comfort and convenience of riding downtown is far superior to anywhere in Southern California, except maybe certain sections of Long Beach. Southern California has made some limited progress toward wresting street space away from the ubiquitous death boxes that dominate its roads, but it has been timid, exceedingly slow, and sporadic. Portland, by contrast, has designed its downtown streets as if it expects people to walk, bike, or use transit. It’s seen as the norm. As a result, everywhere I went I saw other people bicycling. Most riders were wearing regular clothes and rode practical bikes with fenders, lights and racks for carrying things. In short, bicycling has been normalized as a form of practical transportation because the street design encourages it.
Portlanders who bike will tell you there is still much to be done, and I hope they continue to make improvements, but from where I sat, it was like living in a different world. For one thing, there is a network of bike lanes, and just about everywhere you’ll find convenient places to lock up your bike. I’m talking good bike racks, not signposts, railings, or crappy wheel-bender racks that you have to make do with, like I see so much of down here. It may not seem like a big deal, but knowing you’ll be able to lock your frame to a good rack just about anywhere in town is a huge thing to encourage people to ride. These bike racks are not only placed at regular intervals along sidewalks and in front of businesses, but there are numerous bike corrals around town. The only time I had to lock my bike to a railing due to a lack of good bike racks was in the parking garage of the Downtown Hilton (I mean, really Hilton?). Everywhere else, bike racks were plentiful.
The bike infrastructure downtown gives bicyclists in Portland a tolerable level of comfort, which induces more people to bike for transportation. It also increases safety. Last year, Portland recorded zero fatalities among bicyclists. Zero, despite a roughly 6% mode share citywide. Some of the bike routes are painted green, increasing visibility (In LA, the Spring Street green lane paint was removed by LADOT after complaints by Hollywood location scouts) and there are plans to extend the city’s Cycletrack on Broadway. Meanwhile, here in LA, Councilmember Gil Cedillo recently vetoed bike lanes on North Figueroa based on the utterly spurious claim that they would make the road less safe.
The beautiful part of visiting a real bike-friendly city like Portland is the realization that American cities can be made much more livable, sustainable, healthy and safe with a good integrated transit and bicycle system and by de-emphasizing the car. It felt easier to get around the city by bike and transit than by car. That’s not a personal preference, that is the residue of design. The hard part of my visit was coming back to the reality that my own city is still struggling to emerge from the dark ages.