The Middle 50: The Holy Grail for Bikeable Communities

Posted July 20, 2010 by Eric France
Categories: Uncategorized

Who is a biker?  How do we get more people to bike for short trips?

The department of Transportation in Portland wrestles with this question as they try to build a more bike friendly city.  They have learned that their residents can  be categorized into four groups:

“Strong and Fearless”

These riders will be on the road during all conditions and are not intimidated by traffic.  Rain or shine, snow or sunny, they are riding their bikes.  They make up 1-2% of residents.  They don’t need bike lanes to feel comfortable.  They are likely to ride in the middle of the lane, like a car, and often prefer no bikeways at all.

“Enthused and Confident”

This is me! This group will ride their bikes for trips, enjoy bike lanes and other bikeways, and are confident riding in traffic.  In Denver, where bike riding is still not that common for short trips and commuting, these are the people you currently see on the streets.  They represent about 10% of the population.

“Interested but Concerned”

These residents have some experience with bike riding, they will ride on trails and during large events, like Sunday Parkways, but are not comfortable riding in traffic.  This is the “middle 50″, it’s about half of the population.  I can think of many people, including my wife and daughter, who fit this category.  They might like to ride more, but they do not feel safe riding next to fast-moving traffic on busy streets, even when bike lanes exist.

“No Way No How”

This is the group that is not interested in bicycling, making up about a third of the residents of Portland.  They will not ride a bicycle for transportation, either because they are not interested or they are unable to ride.

So what does this mean for a strategy of increasing bike ridership?  It should be clear that the middle 50 is the group you need to target.  How to describe them?  They want to be comfortable when they ride a bike.  As Roger Geller, the Bike/Ped coordinator for Portland described to me: It’s important that the experience of riding a bike is comfortable.  This comfortable experience will encourage a future ride.

While I have locked on to the phrase “Safe and Comfortable”, it’s really about having a comfortable experience.  Safety is actually expeienced as a feeling of comfort; safety as a concept is more about the injury prevented and therefore not experienced rather than something experienced during a ride.  So think of comfort and engineer roads for a comfortable biking experience.

For the Interested but Concerned middle 50, this means bike boulevards or separate bikeways like a cycle track.  Given the expense of building physically separated cycle tracks, bike boulevards is a great way to build a comfortable experience for this group.  See the new link to a youtube video, with Mia Birk describing the bike boulevard and showing you how it works.

Livin’ the Low Density Life

Posted July 7, 2010 by Eric France
Categories: Uncategorized

I spent the 4th of July holiday weekend in Eastern Washington, visiting family.  I was in a town that had essentially been built over the last 50 years – post automobile development.  I looked at this car-based city with a new lens after two weeks in Portland.  It’s clear that active transportation in a city, or a suburb, or a neighborhood that is based on the car provides a whole set of challenges.

Richland, Washington looks like so many Western towns and cities, where land was plentiful and lot sizes can accommodate the American Dream – nice house, a yard for the dog, room to store the toys (boat, trailer, and camper).  In many ways, this describes my own home in central Denver.  There are some obvious issues that make bikes as a transportation solution problematic.  First, this low density housing approach means there are few places within 1-2 miles that allow the residents to shop, or pursue other activities of living. This lack of neighborhood grocery stores and other amenities arises from the zoning rules that don’t mix residencies and businesses, and the low density of residents, which really can’t support a local business.

So where does biking fit?  In Richland, biking appears more as a recreational pursuit, both on the local streets and on the trails.  The city actually has some beautiful trails along the Columbia River, with lots of people out enjoying the bikeway.  But you certainly don’t get many people using the bike for short utilitarian trips.

My sister in Richland sees the large number of people on the trails as a sign that “if you build it, they will come” (her words) – that if more lanes were built, people would use them.  I’m not so sure.

Coming home to Portland after the weekend, I got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam, made a wrong turn and found myself heading across a bridge into downtown, upset because I knew I would have to get back in traffic all over again.  I came off the bridge into a wonderful Portland neighborhood, with small groceries, cafes, a library, families walking the streets and people getting around on bikes.  It was a neighborhood that just worked really well for the kind of short trips that bikes can create.

 “Transportation and Land Use”.  City planners stick these two terms together, and always point out you can’t plan one without the other.  I see that now.  Mixed use, higher density neighborhoods are more conducive to bikes for short trips, compared to the low density living of the more recently built neighborhoods.  These two neighborhoods will probably look to the bicycle to serve different roles, solve different issues.  Efforts to increase utilitarian, short bike trips have a natural place in the higher density neighborhoods of our cities, where destinations abound.

A Bikeable City is a Beautiful City

Posted June 30, 2010 by Eric France
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve been reading the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030, which was approved by the city this last February.  It is the vision of what Portland will look like in 20 years, and the role of the bicycle in that vision.  Portland mayor Sam Adams (below) writes in the forward, “a Portland with the bicycle as a pillar of its transportation is truly a beautiful city.” 

I am struck by two aspects of this statement – first, the concept of biking as a pillar of transportation, which has all kinds of implications, and second, the linking of transportation mode with the beauty of a city. The Plan is very clear: the goal is to make biking a critical component of the city’s transportation system, so that Portland will be cleaner, healthier, attracting tourists and business and keep more money circulating in the local economy.

“Pillar of Transportation”:

To do this, the Plan proposes the city create “conditions that make bicycling more attractive than driving for trips of three miles or less.”  More than half of trips in Portland are currently less than 3 miles, a trip that can comfortably be met with a bicycle. 

Think of the implications of this bold vision:

  • The city will triple the number of miles of bikeways, from the current three hundred to 962 miles; density of bikeways encourages ridership for short trips.
  • With the goal of 25% of trips taken by bicycle, there will need to be a strong consideration of road space for these large numbers of riders, including new paths that separate the riders from traffic.  Another great phrase in this plan: “safe and comfortable”.  Riders need to feel safe and comfortable if a large proportion of residents are going to use their bike.  Bikeways need to be designed to provide this sense of saftey and comfort.
  • The 20 minute neighborhood: the Portland City Plan promotes mixed use neighborhoods, where residents live within a short walk or bicycle ride to daily destinations.  This requires city zoning that allows shops and homes to coexist – a challenge for many neighborhoods.
  • Where there are more bikes, there need to be more bike parking.  Bike garages, corrals, racks all need to be expanded.  I hadn’t given this much thought before, but bikeway development and bike parking development have to go hand in hand.  Cities have to use space typically planned for car parking and convert it to bike parking.
  • The city will need to convert residents who currently are not riding into routine bicyclists.  This means increasing ridership among the young, among women, and among seniors.  Teaching children bicycle skills at school, and building neighborhoods with safe routes for biking and walking will be important.  Many schools today don’t have bike racks nor do they encourage kids to bike.  Encouragement of biking will require campaigns, resources and cityscapes that feel safe and comfortable.

So there are all kinds of implications about the work of the city that lie underneath the phrase, “bicycles as a pillar of transportation.”  It requires strong political leadership and a commitment to fundamental change to make this happen.

And it’s all worth it, in order to build a beautiful city!  Bikeable streets are often calmer streets, with people on the sidewalks, interesting shops to see, and slower car traffic.  Building places that bicyclists and pedestrians want to visit make for a more beautiful city, which is what everyone ultimately wants.

Does your city have a bold vision for bike transportation?  A simple phrase with profound implications for city building?

Sunday Parkways

Posted June 28, 2010 by Eric France
Categories: Uncategorized

“Opening our Streets, Connecting our Communities” is the tag line for Portland’s Sunday Parkways, an event modeled after the Cyclovias first developed in Bogata, Columbia, where streets are closed to cars and opened to people.  Walking, biking, skating, boarding are all encouraged.  Portland will host 5 Sunday Parkways events this summer, each in a different neighborhood.  This last weekend the event was in North Portland, where I am staying.  Each event is expected to attract between 10 and 20 thousand participants.

The Sunday Parkways closed off 7 miles of residential roads, forming a loop, and included three parks.  Food carts, booths, live music, activities for kids and families were set up for the enjoyment of the neighborhood.  The absence of traffic made this particularly appealing for families with young children – lots and lots of kids riding at a slower pace, enjoying the day. Among the various activities, a couple was married and took a ride around on a decorated tall bike!

This community event hopes to get people out enjoying their neighborhoods, and provides a safe environment for individuals who rarely use a bicycle to try it out.  The event familiarizes people in the neighborhood too with the local bicycle boulevards, which are part of the loop, so that they can see where to ride their bikes for local trips. 

I have had conversations with bike advocates in Denver regarding holding such an event in our city, and the price tag of the event (with many police officers directing traffic and assuring safe crossing of streets) seemed high for a one time spend. Now having experienced it, I am having a change of heart.  This event seems like an important marketing tool for active transportation.  It encourages biking and walking as a fun community event and makes a statement that bikes are an important transportation option.  They help build the fun bike culture that is part of Portland’s active transportation success. 

My Sunday Parkways ride began by meeting a group of young riders that were hosted by the Community Cycling Center of Portland.  The CCC helps to make bikes available in lower economic neighborhoods and is based in North Portland.  We spent time adjusting bike seats, fitting helmets, and attaching front and back lights to the children’s bikes.  We rode off as a group to the Parkway and headed to the park.  This was a great example of the human commitment it can take to help someone who doesn’t ride a bike to become a cyclist, if even for a day.  It’s clear it isn’t enough to build a city that makes biking easy, or for organizing events like Sunday Parkways. There remains the people work of one person helping another person to become comfortable with biking safely.  There doesn’t seem to be a short cut for this kind of encouragement work.

The Soft Stuff: Having Fun on a Bike

Posted June 26, 2010 by Eric France
Categories: Uncategorized

North Portland History Tour

This weekend marks the end of Pedalpalooza, a two week celebration of all things fun on a bicycle.  I attended a history tour of North Portland this afternoon with about 40-50 other cyclists.  We toured around North Portland, making a series of stops at historic locations, hearing from local citizens about how the neighborhood had changed over the last 4o years.  Mixing two of my loves – history and biking – made for a great afternoon!  Needless to say, my kids did not choose to attend.

Pedalpalooza is a grass roots initiative that promises “2 weeks of bikey fun”, and almost 300 events scheduled.  If you can think of something fun to do on a bike, then it should work.  The zoobombers race mini bicycles down a hill from the zoo.  The Star Wars vs. Star Trek ride is described as the following:

Time to choose sides. Do you think Han Solo can kick Kirk’s ass? Would Spock take down Yoda? Time to get your light sabres or tricorders and dress up for some serious nerd quotient. Decorate yourselves and/or your bikes and battle it out on the streets of Portland, the skies over Endor, and wherever else the ride takes us. Sound systems invited, kids welcome for the early part of the ride, but later on, the silliness may get too much for them. This ride is free, but we understand Starfleet Academy might assess penalties.

 You get the idea.

On our historical tour (interesting, but nobody dressed as Yoda), we heard some great personal stories from local citizens about the shipyards, the Vanford flood of 1948, the African American neighborhoods and their fights to improve the quality of their neighborhoods.  Our ride was slow, through neighborhoods, with nice conversations.  We managed to stop at some nice food carts for a snack or a drink.  I learned more about the city of my ancestors: my great-grandfather left Norway at the turn of the 20th century to fish on the Columbia river and live in a Norwegian neighborhood in this area.

This was about having a fun afternoon, and it happened to involve bikes.  It’s clear that making bikes fun is an important strategy for increasing bike ridership.  Biking the neighborhood gave one a more intimate look at the neighborhood, a slower look, a chance to daydream a bit about what it must have been like to live here 40, 60, 100 years ago.  I got to have conversations with other riders and hear their take on the biking life in Portland. 

Multiply this experience by 300 events, add the Sunday Parkways when streets are closed to cars and neighbors walk and bike to parks, and you have fun on a bike.  My town of Denver has many summer events, but nothing like this.  Building the soft stuff for a fun bike culture explains some of the success Portland is having with bike transit.

Building a Bike Friendly City

Posted June 25, 2010 by Eric France
Categories: Uncategorized

“Can you see that big bird over the river? It’s either a bald eagle or an osprey.”  I was overlooking the Willamette river with Councilor Rex Burkholder, from the Metro regional government, listening as he explained to me the changes made in the last few decades to the waterfront.  “We’re seeing more bald eagles around Portland – they have made a great comeback from when I was a kid.”

The same could be said about biking in Portland.  Fifteen years ago, biking here was not much better than in other American cities.  Now, bikes are an important part of the transportation strategy for the city.  So the bald eagle and the bicycle are both thriving here along the Willamette.

 After 5 days in Portland, I can already see that cities can be transformed to include bikes as an important way to get around.  Back home in Denver, it can feel like this is an impossible task.  But Portland cries out: Take heart!  It can be done!

I have had some great conversations with various players in the Portland bike transportation world including Rob Burchfield, City Traffic Engineer; Mark Lear, City Safety Program Manager; Mia Birk, CEO & Principal at Alta Planning & Design (along with her colleagues); Councilor Rex Burkholder of the metro regional government and staff; and Dr. Jennifer Dill from Portland State and IBPI.  They have all shared their view of the transformation of Portland.  It’s clear there are different domains or facets of the bike movement that need to be nurtured and grown in order for the transformation to succeed.  I have listed my summary below.  Look for a new book by Mia Birk of Alta Planning & Design that is coming out this fall that will explain how to make this transformation of our cities.

So what are the components?

Vision: A clear, bold plan for what the city wants to become is needed.  These plans should challenge us to make an important transformation and not be incremental.

Leadership:  Leaders in the city and elected officials need to continue to drive the change even when it gets hard to support it.  Just as important as the elected officials is the city staff – are they supportive of bike and pedestrian transportation?

Demonstration Sites: Cities need to show what this could look like.  Find a visible place for transformation and show off the active transit use that it creates.

The Hard Stuff (roads, intersections, trails): There’s no getting around it – the city has to invest in the infrastructure of road and intersection improvements.  But it is an investment, which will pay back dividends.  Building bikeways is much less expensive than building new roads.  So a commitment of money is required.

Strong Bike Advocacy Groups: Since the leadership and the money are not often committed to bike transit in our current state, our citizens need to ask – sometimes loudly – for these resources.  Organized advocacy groups also help support the politicians and city staff by providing them cover: the city planners and engineers are more likely to invest in a major transformation if there are crowds of citizens requesting this at city council meetings.

Measurement: Are we making progress?  Where are we now?  Being able to demonstrate progress through measures is required.  Bike counts with “tube counters” over the bridges here in Portland have demonstrated increase ridership over the years, and this has in turn made for a great graphic or chart that politicians can use to further their bike transit efforts. 

Origins & Destinations (Land Use): I first heard this phrase in Seattle, where bike ridership improved when the infill development of downtown occurred.  People need destinations that are close to where they live if they are going to consider biking as an alternative transportation mode.  This can be particularly challenging in the suburbs, where you typically need to drive to destinations.

One More Cyclist: Even if you build a bike friendly city, transforming a person from someone who hasn’t ridden a bike since childhood into a citizen who is willing to ride their bike often requires hands-on support.  This is hard, human intensive work.  Can a current cyclist help mentor, coach and model bike use to another? Help them with the basic questions of what streets to ride, how to wear a helmet, how to bike safely.  This is increasing bike mode share one more cyclist at a time.

Of course, you also need the long view!  Just as it has taken 40 years to see the success of our nation’s efforts to save the bald eagle, so too will it take 15+ years before we’ll see serious change in the bikability of our communities.  But it can be done!  Portland is the proof!

Bikes Everywhere!

Posted June 21, 2010 by Eric France
Categories: Uncategorized

Traveling the Oregon Trail

1850: 20 Miles in One Day 2010: 20 Miles in 18 minutes

After three days of driving from Denver to Portland, we unloaded the car and bikes and went looking for dinner.  My family and I were immediately impressed by how many people were riding bikes to their Saturday night destinations.  The neighborhood in which we will be living looks like many established Denver city neighborhoods, except there are bikes everywhere.  This feels quite different from the Denver experience, where bikes are primarily on the trails and recreation areas.  It’s clear that bikes are an important mode of transportation for this city, not something limited to hard core cyclists.

I met with transportation specialists from the city of Portland today and asked them what they would do if dropped in to Denver with the task of improving bike transit.  I heard a number of ideas:

* Build neighborhood greenways: These are streets with a low volume of traffic that have low-cost changes made so that they encourage biking and discourage auto throughway driving (also called bike boulevards).  Put in soft speedbumps; change the stop sign direction to make it easy for a cyclist to ride without stopping; make the intersections safe.  “Repurpose the asset”, meaning take advantage of a street (the asset) that is not being used very much, and with a relatively small investment, make it friendly for a family to ride.  These boulevards can be short – one to two miles – if they help people reach destinations of interest (library, coffee house, video store, rec center).  They can be long, providing a method to get downtown or to the office.  It doesn’t take a big budget to build bike boulevards (contrast to bike lanes or separate bike trails) yet can be effective at increasing ridership.  See http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=50518&a=263487

* Set clear goals:  In Portland, I heard the goal of having 80% of households living within a half mile of a family friendly bikeway in five years (current: 25%).   The city also measures bike use across its bridges as a measure of bike use.  A traffic engineer I met with today felt that when Portland’s cyclists made 5% mode share, “you almost saw a bike on every trip.”  When this happened, bikes began to have a meaningful role in the transportation discussion, and the role of bicycles in city transportation changed.  There are legitimate conversations about bikes as a mode of transportation.  Sounds like a tipping point? Once the city hit this level of ridership, conversations about how far they could go with a bike transit strategy grew, looking to the experiences of European cities as potentially feasible.

*Encourage Community Bike Fun:  While true advocacy for legislative change is important, the drive for continued bikeability can also come from an active bike culture.  I’ve certainly seen that in the 2 days I’ve been here: The Pedalpalooza is “2+ weeks of bike fun” (www.shift2bikes.org) with all kinds of events/rides underway.  The Multnomah county bike fair is this Sunday, following the Sunday Parkways event in North Portland, when 8 miles of North Portland streets will be carfree, encouraging cyclists, pedestrians and neighbors to get out and enjoy the roads without cars.  There are five Sunday Parkways events planned over the summer, and they each can attract 10,000 people.  They are an effective way of getting people who don’t think of riding or walking out into their neighborhoods.  This is all fueled by fun rather than by some sense of sustainability or health.  And it makes it easy to support bike transit.

It’s clear I picked the right week to be visiting Portland.  While my family and I enjoyed our first dinner out in Portland this last Saturday, we did miss the WNBR – World Naked Bike Ride – in downtown Portland, 13,000 riders strong!  I’m not sure of the health value from riding without clothes on a cool Portland night, and don’t plan any studies of this while here!


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