Cycling in Portland

July 31, 2008

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.

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