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How Portland Is Planning to Become the First World-class Bike City in America

Portland may be the only large city to earn the League of American Bicyclists' coveted platinum status as a bicycle-friendly city, but they have even bigger plans.
 
 
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It’s become a cliché that Portland is America’s most livable city, a hotbed for innovative ways to support green policies, public spaces, pedestrian amenities, transit, and, of course, bicycles.  In fact some people are growing weary (and the rest of us envious) of hearing about how great things are in Oregon’s largest city.

When it comes to bicycling, at least, the cliché is true. Today Portland sports the highest share of bicycle commuters (6-8 percent) of any large U.S. city.  It’s also the only large city to earn the League of American Bicyclists’ coveted platinum status as a bicycle-friendly city.

But Portland wasn’t born with bike lanes. “No one in the 1970s or ‘80s would have singled out Portland as a great town for biking,” admits city Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller. Its current success is the result of 20 years of transportation planning with bikes in mind.

That knowledge makes the city pretty ambitious about what it can accomplish over the next 20 years.

Earlier this year, the city council unanimously approved the 2030 Bicycle Master Plan, which envisions Portland as “a world-class bicycling city” with three times the bikeways it has now.

Meanwhile, Metro, a government body elected by the entire metropolitan area, is enacting a plan to triple the number of people who bike over the next 30 years. Their goal is for 40 percent of all city and suburban trips of three miles or less to be done atop a bicycle by 2040.

“In some neighborhoods in Portland, 10-15 percent of people already bike each day,” notes Lake McTighe, manager of Metro’s Active Transportation Partnership, “which means that we could be making parts of Portland into a mini-Amsterdam or Copenhagen.”

I recently spent several days exploring Portland as part of a transportation workshop, sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation, for city officials from around the country. We wanted to find out what Portland could teach us about promoting biking in our own cities: Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City.

Portland’s Plan for Safer Cycling

Both the city’s and Metro’s plans signal a strategic shift in bicycle planning—a new push to serve more than the 8-10 percent of people who feel at ease biking today. Portland is now focusing on meeting the needs of the 60 percent of people who report in surveys that they’re interested in biking more but feel nervous doing it on streets with cars zooming past. 

The best way to get more people on bikes, according to Portland officials, is to make biking seem less scary. The new Bicycle Master Plan will augment the city’s established network of bike lanes—where a white line is all that separates riders from cars and trucks—with new routes that better protect cyclists. Currently, about two-thirds of Portland’s 314 miles of bikeways are simple bike lanes, but the city is designing more bike boulevards (residential streets optimized for bike, rather than car, traffic), bike paths (off-street trails through parks or old rail lines), and cycle tracks (bike-only spaces separated from busy streets by a median, grade separation, or wide strip of painted pavement).

“We’ve found that people will go out of their way to ride on a bike boulevard,” explains Geller.

Portland’s plans also involve ways to increase the safety and comfort of bicyclists when they do come face-to-face with traffic at in intersection. Among these innovations, most of which have been proven to work elsewhere in the world, are:

  • Bike boxes, a designated area in busy intersections where bicyclists can gather in plain view of cars at the stoplight, increasing visibility and reducing the risk of being struck by right-turning cars and trucks.
  • Colorized bike lanes, which offer a clear visual reminder to motorists and bicyclists that they share space on the roadway. These can be particularly helpful for bicyclists making left turns at an intersection or to command extra attention at key locations. 
  • Traffic signals for bikes, which better inform cyclists of the safest time to cross, and sometimes gives them a head start to reduce turning conflicts with motorized traffic.
  • Traffic calming, an entire toolkit of roadway techniques that remind drivers to heed speed limits and look out for bikers and pedestrians. These include everything from the familiar traffic humps and median strips to elevated crosswalks and traffic diverters, which give bicycles priority on some streets.

As these methods take effect and more people feel safe enough to choose bikes over cars, biking will become even safer. Studies suggest that bike safety goes up alongside the number of bikers, in large part because motorists grow accustomed to seeing bicyclists and keep an eye out for them at intersections. Already the numbers of bicycle fatalities is decreasing in cities across the United States, and declining even faster in Portland, says Catherine Ciarlo, transportation director for Portland Mayor Sam Adams.

 
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