Cycling in Portland

Portland loves to tout itself as the cycling capital of America, and it definitely deserves the title… but a recent visit there hinted that if this is the future of transportation in America, we’re all in for a bumpy ride during the transition to a less auto-centric nation.

On a vist to Portland last week I observed more bikes being used for everyday transport than I’d ever seen in any American city. A very wide range of ages, ethnicities, body shapes, genders, and pricepoints were to be found among the cyclists there. It seemed like every business had a full rack of velos chained up outside — especially the plentiful bars, lounges, and pubs that make Portland the Chicago of the west (and I mean that in the most devoutly complimentary way). Even strip clubs had full bike racks!

But why do bikes — which are legally vehicles — not get to park like vehicles? Cycling advocates love to point out that a single car parking space can yield 10 – 12 bike parking spaces. In theory, very true… but in practice, I can’t remember EVER seeing an automobile parking space converted to bike parking. Instead, bike parking is invariably carved out of pedestrian space. You can easily find any number of popular Portland watering holes where the sidewalk tables are plunked down in the middle of full bike racks! Is it going to kill the municipality to turn actual car parking into bike parking instead of taking up valuable sidewalk space? What if every block of every city had one less parking space and one more bike rack? Even in Bike City USA, that idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to the city planners. [Update: I learned from this blog that Portland does create bike parking by subtracting car parking! Good on ya, fellas!]

I am also sorry to report an enormous proportion of scofflaw cyclists on the streets of the Rose City. It seems like you can’t be outside for more than 10 seconds without seeing someone riding on the sidewalk, riding against traffic, blowing through a stop sign or red light, not signalling, or turning onto a busy street at a very high rate of speed. All that stuff would be illegal or seriously inadvisable if you did it in a car. It starts to look suicidally dumb if you do it on a bike. From what I could tell, bike people were quick to cop an attitude too… like just because car drivers do stupid shit, that makes it OK to “retaliate”. There were reports in the papers of road rage incidents on both sides, and of both cycling advocates and cops trying to inject some common sense into the maelstrom.

I was surprised how few bike lanes there appeared to be in the central part of the city — and the ones there were tended to be on the narrow side. Of course, I live in Bike Lane Heaven: the bike lanes near where I live in the South Bay are often nice and wide, and sometimes go on for many miles. What Portland seems to have instead is a system of streets parallel to the main drags, which are de-facto “bike first” or maybe “car last”. It’s definitely a different paradigm than I’m used to, and I have no real idea what mix of the two will end up being dominant on the nation’s streets. Seems like if possible the bike lanes are preferable, but the alternate routes are easier to retrofit in places with narrow streets. In the end we’ll all have to learn to share the roads though, and the sooner the better.

When all is said and done, I think Portland really is the future of transportation, for better and worse. If you haven’t visited lately, you really don’t know what you’re missing.

Best album of all time

It sort of… creeped me out that Caterina’s readers go for all those white 60’s classic-rock albums. Did your dad play the Beach Boys and Dylan for you? Must be nice, man.

I am hereby casting my humble vote, however conflicted, for Hatful of Hollow. Johnny Marr’s guitar work impressed itself upon me in a way that nothing musically ever has, before or since. If I were ever in a coma, I would suggest they play a few bars of “What Difference Does It Make?” before they conclude I’m brain dead.

City biking

There are all kinds of cyclists in the Bay Area, from the rich dude on his $10,000 racing rig to the little old lady taking her lapdogs for a plein-air outing down the bikepath in a child trailer. But I’ve always admired the utilitarian cyclists the most: the young Mexican guys in chefs’ whites on their way to work, the recent college grads braving the terrifying hills of San Francisco with their toe clips and messenger bags, even the leathery boozers with too many DUIs wobbling their way from the bar to the trailer park.

But for some reason, I could never quite see myself joining their ranks. I’d had a bicycle before, and it was frankly rather terrifying: a very light road bike with clipless pedals, skinny tires, no cargo capacity — and it was slightly too large for me to boot. I took it out two or three times, promptly fell over at each and every stop sign (no one ever said Troutgirl was coordinated!), and finally gave it away to a taller and more athletic woman.

But a wonderful thing has happened in the bicycle world in just the past few years. City bikes — simple, comfy, specifically designed for commuting shortish distances — have become the hottest segment of the market. As Stephan Schier of Seattle’s Dutch Bike Company aptly puts it: “Americans believe they need to cycle to work or participate in a weekend trek like Lance Armstrong, wearing spandex and, by ride’s end, a full sweat. But in Europe bikes are the vehicles of the common man. You climb on in your regular clothes and bike away.”

When I read this, I suddenly realized: the best bike is the bike you ride the most. It doesn’t matter if it looks goofy, if it’s heavy, if you won’t be able to break any land-speed records on it. I live in a dead-flat area of Silicon Valley, two miles or less away from from the train station, the library, the grocery store, and the farmer’s market. I want to be able to jump on in my skirt and flip-flops, before I’ve had my coffee in the morning, and just go to where I need to be. I want that feeling a bike gave you when you were a kid, when it represented freedom and adventure without any worries that somehow you weren’t doing something right.

So I went out and bought myself a simple bike (unfortunately Pepto-Bismol colored), and also applied for a locker at the Caltrain station. Look for me around Sunnyvale, hopefully not falling over at stop signs — proud to be a utilitarian cyclist at last.