Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “car-free travel”

Portlandia

Cyclists on Portland's waterfront parkway, until the 1970s, this space was occupied by a highway.

Cyclists on Portland’s waterfront parkway. Until the 1970s, this space was occupied by a highway.

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.

Portland's newest bridge bans cars, prioritizing transit, bicycling and walking.

Portland’s newest bridge, Tilikum Crossing, bans cars, prioritizing transit, bicycling and walking.

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.

 

Light rail and bike integration at PDX airport.

Light rail and bike integration at PDX airport.

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.

Portland has added green paint to improve the visibility of bike routes on several of its streets.  Green bike boxes are also common at major intersections.

Portland has added green paint to improve the visibility of bike routes on several of its streets. Green bike boxes are also common at major intersections.

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.

Bike corrals and bike lanes are commonplace on Portland streets.

Bike corrals and bike lanes are commonplace on Portland streets.

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.

Broadway's cycletrack uses parked cars as a physical barrier between bicyclists and traffic. The city has plans to extend it in 2015.

Broadway Ave. cycletrack uses parked cars as a physical barrier between bicyclists and traffic. The city plans to extend it in 2015.

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.

LA, I can dream, can't I?

LA, I can dream, can’t I?

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Why bike lanes matter

The city of Carlsbad narrowed vehicle travel lanes on the coast highway to create buffered bike lanes that increase safety.  Traffic speed limits were also lowered.

Carlsbad narrowed vehicle lanes, creating buffered bike lanes and lowered speed limits on the coast highway.

I spent last week in Carlsbad and the surrounding North San Diego County area with my family for a summer beach break.  We come down here every year, and it is always interesting to watch the area slowly become more bike-friendly.

One of the new bike corrals in downtown carlsbad.

One of the new bike corrals in downtown carlsbad.

Perhaps the biggest change I noticed this year was the addition of more bike lanes and lots of additional bike parking in Carlsbad’s downtown business district.   The city got an active transportation grant from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and installed over 180 bike racks throughout town.  There are literally scores of new bike racks up and down Carlsbad Village Drive, the town’s main north-south artery, and even a new “bike corral” near the intersection of Carlsbad Village and State Street (see photo).  There are ample bike racks throughout town, especially at restaurants, beach access points, and other popular destinations in town.  It may seem like a small thing, but knowing there will be bike racks when you get to your destination is a major improvement, and the city has installed good “inverted U” racks (not the crappy “wheel bender” racks that some cities install as an afterthought).

Carlsbad Village Drive, the main artery through the village business district, now has new bike lanes along the shoulder of the road.  In years past, my family and I had not felt safe bicycling Carlsbad Village Drive and always avoided it, taking the long way around if we rode our bikes to the stores and restaurants on that road, but this year we were able to ride to shops and restaurants in the safety of a bike lane.  The ease with which one can now access the Village’s shops and restaurants by bike is remarkably improved.  These small changes made a huge difference for us, and I noticed more people bicycling around town than ever before.

The most impressive infrastructure improvement is the road diet on Carlsbad Blvd., the portion of the coast highway that runs through town (top photo).  Carlsbad Blvd already had bike lanes, but 40-45 mph traffic on the road made it an intimidating experience for all but the most fearless cyclists.  The city’s transportation department has now reduced the two auto traffic lane widths in each direction from 12 feet to 10 feet, creating 4 feet of space with which to provide wider bike lanes and buffer zones between automobiles and the bike lanes.  Meanwhile traffic speed limits have been lowered on the highway to 35 mph, and 30 mph in the central town area and pedestrian crossings have been improved.  The effect is to make the road much safer for everyone and make the town more accessible on foot and by bike.

By comparison, travel further south on the Coast Highway (Hwy 101) through Leucadia and Encinitas, and the value of separate bicycle infrastructure becomes abundantly clear.  There, with traffic speed limits averaging 40 mph, the bike lanes end and are replaced by sharrows in the right-hand lane and signs indicating bikes may use full lane.  I traveled that stretch daily for much of the week I was in Carlsbad, and noted the behavior of cyclists along the stretch of road that had sharrows.  Invariably, cyclists of all ability levels stayed as far to the right as possible, often riding on the shoulder instead of the middle of the sharrow lane.  Meanwhile, cars continued to zoom by heedless of the sharrow lanes.  In several instances, I saw slower cyclists leave the street entirely when the bike lane ended and continue on the sidewalk instead of the sharrow lane.  I can’t say I blame them, as automobile traffic on Hwy 101 can approach 45-50 mph on that stretch.

The situation may be different on the weekends, when packs of experienced cyclists could take and hold the sharrow lane on their fast-paced rides up and down the coast.  However, for a lone cyclist, whether an experienced commuter or an inexperienced kid on a beach cruiser, the sharrows on 101 seem so much wasted paint.  Some combination of lane removal, road diet, and/or removal of curbside parking on Hwy 101 should be undertaken to create space for bike lanes.  After viewing this dramatic demonstration of the difference between bike lanes and sharrows, Vehicular Cycling advocates who promote sharrows instead of cycle tracks or bike lanes cannot convince me that sharrows are superior.

The southbound side of the coast highway in Carlsbad now has a buffer protecting cyclists from the "door zone" as they pass parked cars.

The southbound side of the coast highway in Carlsbad now has a buffer protecting cyclists from the “door zone” of parked cars.

Carlsbad, like many beach towns in Southern California, struggles with traffic and parking congestion in the peak summer months (and, yes, tourists like me add to the problem).  As such, encouraging people to ride bikes for short trips around town makes good sense from a variety of perspectives.  It decreases traffic and parking congestion; decreases pollution, noise, and carbon emissions; increases the accessibility and vibrancy of the downtown business district; and improves public health.  Best yet, with its accessibility from the Coaster commuter rail, it’s now feasible to visit Carlsbad car-free and it should become a premier destination for bicycle tourism.  We’ve always loved Carlsbad for its beautiful beaches and lagoons.  Now it’s also becoming a great place to walk and bicycle and we have more reasons to love it.  It’s time for the neighboring towns of Oceanside, Leucadia, and Encinitas to catch up to Carlsbad.

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