I recently enjoyed several days exploring Portland, Oregon by foot, bicycle, and tram.
Given their high rate of bicycling, often without helmets, and many years now of decriminalized recreational use of marijuana (and now fully legal to grow and purchase) I expected the carnage and debauchery that we’re so often warned about with both of these. Imagine my surprise that Portland is such a wonderful, inviting, healthy and safe place!
Over three days I was able to spend my mornings and lunch walking and riding around town on their brand new Nike Biketown bike share system. My exploration was mostly limited to the area currently served by Biketown though I did venture outside a couple of times.
Though it falls far short of The Netherlands and many other places outside of the US, biking and walking around Portland feels safer and more comfortable, for me, than Minneapolis or Chicago and much more so than St Paul or New York.
On the other hand, my wife enjoys riding to lunch or the grocery store on the protected bikeways in Shoreview MN but won’t ride in Portland with only paint for protection.
A large number of Portland’s streets include painted bike lanes and on most of those that do not the traffic level is low, fairly slow and fairly patient. The narrower traffic lanes likely contribute to the slower and more attentive drivers. Thanks to this, I didn’t feel the need to plan a special bike route to get wherever I wanted to go as nearly every street felt fairly safe—to me at least.
Most of Portland is Bicycle Driver infrastructure. You have to be a good vehicular cyclist, good at bike handling and comfortable in traffic because you’ll have a lot of interaction and conflict with drivers. Bicycle riders in Portland often have to share turn lanes with drivers or do a lane exchange—a conflict not for the timid. It’s better than nothing but still only good enough for a very small minority of people to feel and be safe.
There was a surprising amount of glass and other debris in the bikeways and more so than typical in MN. I had to veer in to motor traffic numerous times to avoid broken glass. Fortunately the Biketown bikes appear to have very good tires for those cases where motor traffic wouldn’t allow me to avoid it.
If you build infrastructure for 8% of bicycle riders then that’s the best you’ll get.
Overall, Portland’s infrastructure sort of works. At least if you’re part of the Strong & Fearless or Enthused & Confident contingent of Bicycle Drivers. Portland’s bicycle modal share — how many people commute via bicycle — has hovered near 6% since 2008. This largely validate’s Roger Geller’s ‘Four Types’ chart.
We were in Portland with a bunch of healthcare folk from across the nation. I queried a lot of them about bicycling around Portland and 9 out of 10 said that they would not ride on streets with just painted bike lanes — they want more protection than that. A few had tried and found the cars passing close by, shared turn lanes, and lack of protection in intersections to be too uncomfortable.
Portland views this as not only important for safety, improving downtown, and attracting businesses, but also for improved health and lower healthcare costs. They know that each $1 invested in making it safer and more comfortable for people to walk or bicycle instead of sit in a car (that will also need space to drive and park) will be more than paid back in a healthier community and lower costs of healthcare.
St. Paul is installing some painted bike lanes similar to those in Portland and are also working on protected bikeway in downtown. In my experience people drive much faster in St. Paul than Portland though, perhaps due to the wider traffic lanes in St. Paul. Some who will ride in a painted bike lane in Portland’s slower and lighter traffic will not in St. Paul. Walking and crossing streets in Portland is also much safer feeling than in St. Paul due to shorter crossing distances and slower motor traffic that is more likely to stop.
Minneapolis is ahead of St. Paul and to their credit are now doing more with protected bikeways. I give Portland the nod because a much higher percent of their roads have some infrastructure, even if just for the bravest 6%, and those that don’t have narrower traffic lanes, slower motor traffic, and shorter crossing distances. However, I’d not be surprised to see Minneapolis top Portland in the near future.
How about Rochester, Duluth, and other Minnesota cities?
I’ll rank Shoreview, a suburb of St. Paul, better than Portland if for no other reason than people like my wife (and many many others) will ride there. Shoreview has protected bikeways on all but a couple of major county roads and those two are scheduled for 2017 and 2018. The other streets are slow and rarely-see-a-car residential streets.
Portland however aren’t resting on their leather saddles and paint. Taking Geller’s Four Types Of Bicycle Riders to heart, they are aiming to build infrastructure for everyone, not just the fearless and confident minority.
Beginning this year they have instituted a policy that every new bikeway must be a protected bikeway. They are also planning to begin upgrading older painted bike lanes to protected bikeways and program traffic signals to provide people walking and riding bicycles protection from turning cars — separation in time.
The core of Portland is a wonderful inviting and comfortable city. Very walkable and more comfortably bikeable than almost all other cities in the US. Portland is what I imagine St. Paul could be. Or better.
Portland is far from perfect (and beyond the core is not as good) and far behind cities outside of the US, but they’re making progress and more so than most US cities. The coming years will be fun to watch.
Next — a look at Portland’s new bike share system.
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