Pedaling Portland Boldly into the Future
Portland Oregon is an interesting, dare we say "weird" place, it has both some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation and some of the highest numbers of residents using bicycles as their main source of transportation. Like so many of you, we have been spending a fair amount of time communicating on Facebook, Instagram and Skype, plus the almost-daily, ubiquitous Zoom meeting. It was during one such meeting we were reminded of our friend Marne, who has been trumpeting the bicycle as a means of transportation in the "Keep It Weird" city for quite some time. Marne has always been a "beat of your own drummer" type of person and it was great to reach out to her and hear about her adventure in transportation.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do?
I work for the Portland regions’ elected government called Metro (original, I know). We are the country’s only elected regional government, and besides acting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), we also manage regional parks and venues, our (awesome) Urban Growth Boundary, and our garbage and recycling system.
I work in the Regional Travel Options program, within Planning and Development Department. We are funded Federally to work with partners to implement programs that make it easier to walk, bike, take transit, carpool and vanpool in our region. We counter the motto “if they build it they will come”, knowing that many people who have travel options right outside their front door continue to drive alone for all of their trips. Additionally, there are many people in our region who, out of need or choice, use other travel options and we work to make it easier, more convenient and comfortable. We do this through educational programs, outreach and incentives.
From the outside Portland seems like perfect bicycle city, to what extent is this true?
When I moved to Portland from Nashville, Tennessee and queued up to cross an intersection with 20 other bike riders at 7:30am, I admit I cried a little. But seven years in, I often say Portland is a bike city in spite of itself. Coming from 97% of the country, don’t get me wrong, Portland is amazing, both in the number of riders and the infrastructure.
On closer inspection, and getting out of my commute, there is definitely a different side of the coin. Like most cities, Portland struggles with the balance of building infrastructure where it’s most needed (often lower income, traditionally underserved communities) or where it will be used the most, and make biggest dent in mode shift. When I work with partners out of city center, things go downhill quick. Most bikeways there are unprotected on major arterials (there are a few brand new ones that are protected). I can’t believe cities still build unprotected bike lanes on busy roads. These are 5 lane mini-highways with folks going 40+ mph. Bike riders (and pedestrians for that matter) don’t stand a chance when the inevitable “accident” happens.
I could go on for pages on how Portland needs to be bold, but really it comes down to this – if we are really serious about biking for everyone – close our bike greenways to car traffic and build only physically protected bikeways on major streets.
There seems to be a bicycle boom going on around the country and in other parts of the world, as bike shops have been named essential business. Are you seeing this where you are?
Yes. The percentage of folks who don’t have cars is high in Portland. And with Car2Go and other carshare options leaving town, many people just have their bikes, including me. My disc brakes are acting squirrely, and I’m grateful to have (bicycle) shops open.
There seems to be three semi-distinct groups of riders: people using them for transportation, those for recreation and those for fitness. How do you balance these in your decision making?
Our program is really only for transportation, we do not fund recreational riding as our goal is reducing SOV trips.
Some leading bicycle brands are heralding this as a turning point for the bicycle. An opportunity to push the two-wheeled agenda and to grow the use of the bicycle to new levels. Do you agree with this and can this so called "boom" continue after the virus is under control?
Yes, folks will stop taking transit for a long time and it’s gonna be terrible. The only way we can accommodate folks coming to work is bike trips and maybe carpooling. Take away traffic and parking lanes, turn them into protected (not by paint!) bikeways. Get incentive programs for e-bikes (similar to electric cars), and get e-bikes to be a part of bike share programs (added benefit, this will allow them to expand their coverage areas).
Oakland has closed 74 miles of roads for walking and biking, how can we collectively make this more the norm than the exception?
I’d like to national organizations like NACTO, and pushed by regional and local groups, set up standards on how to quickly assess where street closures can be most effective – give cities a starting point.
Portland is playing it safe on street closures. One area that might be over looked by advocates is parking policy. Can folks change parking in local neighborhoods to be one-side of the street only, freeing up space on the other for walking? Portland already has an extensive bike greenway network that could easily be a template for walk/bike streets. If they changed just the parking structure for those streets we have a network ready to go.
What are the benefits of bicycle culture that most people in their automobiles are not aware of?
I am not generally a “bike culture” kinda person. I have to question any club that would have me as a member. I guess a benefit of bike culture is you don’t have to be a member.
In Portland, you can jump in for Pedalpalooza, and jump back out. My bike is just how I get around. I love it, like how some folks love and adore their car, but my culture is more my circle of friends I’ve made through biking and working in transportation. And having them not think I’m crazy when I say let’s go somewhere by bike when it’s January.
Any other advice you would like to share with bicycle riders?
I was really intimated when I moved to Portland. It’s a whole nother beast to ride in bike traffic and navigate busy streets. I definitely had a year when I felt like I was doing it wrong.
My advice is just find what works for you. It’s fine to see what others are doing, but if you don’t want to ride in the winter – don’t. If you don’t like bike lanes and prefer residential streets – do that. And don’t let anyone try and make you feel like you are doing it wrong. I had a few folks tell me I was “cheating” when I bought my ebike, and I had some choice words for them. It works for me, it helps me love to ride and that’s all that matters.