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!