Portland, Oregon is well known as a pioneer in the field of bicycling infrastructure and for this reason made it onto our travel itinerary.
Our home city of Peterborough has been engaged in a very heated debate for the past few decades about whether to build a new arterial road (the “Parkway”) through the middle of town. A right of way was set aside years ago for this possibility, but in the mean time it has become a fantastic linear greenspace corridor with a fabulous walking/cycling trail that our family and many others make great use of. The debate came to a head this past year through the completion of an Environmental Assessment that ultimately recommended the building of the road and a huge new brid1ge for the tune of $80 million. The paving over of the greenspace corridor and construction of the bridge over the city’s most beloved park was opposed by a huge number of citizens and I have been very active in organizing against the project. Yvonne, Kaia, Jake and I all spoke out against the project in the public meeting. So if not a new road to deal with potential future congestion, then what? Many of us have argued that Peterborough needs to more aggressively promote cycling, walking and transit before encouraging more auto use. But it became clear through letters to the editor that many other citizens were sceptical about the prospects of increasing cycling numbers. I don’t believe these folks have been to world class cycling cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or … Portland! We spent our time in Portland learning how they managed to get so many people onto their bikes. We will do the same in Copenhagen and Amsterdam and will bring our stories, photos and video back to Peterborough next year.
Portland used to be like any other city … stumbling along with sprawl, and then building new roads as sprawl demanded. In the 1980s a new freeway project ignited a debate not unlike ours in Peterborough that ultimately led to a decision NOT to build the freeway but to invest in cycling infrastructure instead. They hired Mia Birk to lead this work and she has not let up since. . Following a very successful (and challenging) stint as bicycling coordinator, Mia has gone on to found her own consulting firm (Alta Planning) that helps cities around North America get folks out of cars and onto bikes. We borrowed a copy of her book “Joyride” from the Peterborough library before we left, and through a fortuitous connection were able to arrange a meeting with Mia while in Portland. Our interview with Mia represented the start of our video work. Kaia and Jake posed a series of questions, with Yvonne filming the questions and I catching Mia’s responses. Mia is lovely, and very articulate, and was open to being interviewed … perhaps because of the novelty of the 12 and 13 yr old journalists?! Our hope is to produce a series of video vignettes centered on different elements of sustainability. They will be aimed at the grade 7-9 classroom, hence K&J as the hosts. I am learning film work by seat of my pants and some very helpful coaching from friends Chester, Barbara, Michael & George.
We rented bikes the 1st day in Portland and set out on a self guided tour of the cycling infrastructure that the city has set up for folks like us. GoPro camera on the bike, hand-held video camera on the ready. Through this tour, and from our meeting with Mia and reading her book, we saw how Portland has, among other things,
– created over 300km of cycling/walking paths
– designated key arterials and many other roads as cycling boulevards with very well marked lanes
– marked “trouble spots” (where cyclists and motorists typically tangle up) with green paint to get attention of both users)
– installed bike parking racks in previously car parking spots in commercial zones (these were very well used and appreciated by adjacent business owners – 10 bikes can park in 1 car space)
– removed some street parking to put in bike lanes
– installed special street crossing controls for cyclists to help them cross busy arterials
– developed and delivered cycling training programs in city schools to improve skills/confidence
– facilitated the accommodation of bikes on the city’s LRT (this really opens up possibilities for commuters)
– created a floating bike path (the “Esplanade”) on the Willameette river to link two bike paths that were otherwise unconnectable
– installed directional signs along all paths and routes, indicating cycling directions and distances to city landmarks
– held parties on bridges to celebrate installation of safe lanes to cross the bridge (bridges shut down for the day!)
– encouraged employers to install showers and secure, out of the rain storage of bikes at work
– encouraged employers to invite bike mechanics to the workplace for bike tune-ups
– fixed potholes and other dangerous cracks in the roads anywhere frequented by bikes
How successful has Portland been? There are cyclists EVERYWHERE! They go by in waves. Not much lycra – just folks getting from A to B … in the roads, along the paths. We actually created some commotion while trying to film in the bike lanes. A full 8% of Portlanders commute daily on their bikes, and 35% use their bikes for some trips around the city. Cycling is clearly a big part of the city’s culture, and this eco-status and ease of getting around has resulted in a significant upturn in tourism. And then there are the physical and mental health benefits of active transportation, cleaner air, less CO2, less congestion, more greenspace, and much money saved through avoidance of new road contruction (all this infrastructure comes at a cost of 1% of Portland’s transportation budget).
A large message board at the end of Hawthorne bridge provides realtime updates of bike traffic over the bridge – for the day and the year to date. The yearly increases in bridge traffic are nothing short of phenomenal since Mia got to work in the early 90s.
I told the barista at iconic “Stumptown Coffee” why we were in town, and he immediately replied “who needs a car …. you can cycle anywhere in Portland!”. I then of course asked him if he’d mind saying that in front of my rolling camera (note to self … ask video coaches how you’re supposed to handle this sort of thing). So, Peterborough, it IS possible. And Mia reassured inquiring Kaia and Jake that these strategies work in harsher climates (of course, rates dropping through worst of the winter), and work especially well in smaller cities. Anyone needing further convincing should know that the cycle shop that we rented our bikes from offers a cycling tour from local brewery to brewery. Hopefully along especially wide paths and lanes!
To close out this entry, here are some more pics of Portland bicycle culture. And our hats off to Mia for her leadership and making time for us.
I typed this entry entoute between Seattle and Houston. After 4 hr layover we are about to take off for San Jose Costa Rica. Whihoo!