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PORTLAND, Ore. – America spent 50 years and billions of dollars after World War II redesigning itself so that cars could move people across this vast country more quickly.
Now, with many cities in gridlock, one-third of the population obese and climate change forcing innovators to look beyond the internal combustion engine, cities are beginning to rethink that push toward the automobile.
Perhaps no place has thought about it more than Portland, rated America's most bike-friendly city this year by Bicycling magazine and the only large U.S. city to earn "platinum status" from the League of American Bicyclists . City planners, businesses and, yes, the citizens of this Pacific Northwest city have embraced a shifting of gears designed to enhance the quality of urban living with a nod to the environment.
At the street level, many Portlanders go about their daily lives in ways that would be unfamiliar to most Americans. Downtown and near-city neighborhoods are awash in bikes and bike lanes, delivery bikes dot the urban landscape and bars aren't encased in massive parking lots — they have bike corrals out front.
Portland boasts that 6% of all trips to work are by bike, the highest percentage of bike commuters in any large U.S. city, says Dan Anderson of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
Even kids get around differently. Nationally, only 13% of children walk or bike to school, according to the National Household Travel Survey. Here, 31% do, in part because of a program that gives every public school student between fourth and 10th grade a 12-week course on how to ride a bicycle safely.
For Tree Marie Wood Smith, the evolution here has already made "life so incredibly easier." She and her husband moved to Portland from rural California where "to go anywhere you had to get into your car." Portland is the opposite, she says. Now WoodSmith can go "days on end and never even get in a car. It was pretty amazing."
This self-declared Bicycle Capital of the nation is even drawing fact-finding missions from other cities and nations. Indeed, groups arrive almost weekly to pedal the streets and hear from city staff how Portland has accomplished what no other major U.S. city has: getting people out of their cars and onto the bike paths coursing through this hilly metropolis. (This summer alone, groups from Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C., Holland, Japan and South Korea made the trek.)
From Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., cities across the country are hopping on the bike bandwagon. Next year, New York, Chicago and San Francisco will join Portland in launching major bike-share programs that allow citizens to rent a bike for an hour or a day from convenient kiosks.
But Portland's will come with "this amazing, safe, connected, intuitive bikeway network. We have signs all over, our drivers know how to coexist with bikes — we've really teed it up," Anderson says. Portland, he says, is simply paving the path for what he believes the rest of the country will do in the coming years.
A little rain? No problem
Portland's famous rainy climate isn't a limitation to serious bikers, Anderson says. The weather is more temperate than many people believe. "We don't have heavy rainstorms; we don't have snowstorms and blizzards," he says. "Yes, it rains eight months a year, but most of the time it's just a drizzle."
People are more inclined to bike in the summer, when Portland enjoys warm, dry weather, but the city's annual biking count doesn't measure the differences, he says. The development of Gore-Tex and other lightweight rain gear has helped a lot. "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear," Anderson says.
While Portland has been officially pro-bike since the 1970s, the real transformation has happened in only the past decade or so, Anderson says. It came about because Portland focused on building safe, low-traffic bikeways that serve as arterials through town and "bicycle boulevards" in neighborhoods that feed into them. Today more than 60% of Portland homes are within a half-mile of a neighborhood bikeway; in 2006, only 29% were.
All of this has helped Portland's economy, too, fostering a growing concentration of bicycle builders, manufacturers and retailers that have brought jobs, and young workers, to town. A slew of bike-friendly businesses "prioritize bike access and bike parking, making it easy to ride to work or to your favorite restaurant," says Margaux Mennesson of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.
All this positive reinforcement is working. Between 2010 and 2011, bike ridership grew 6.4%, and on the new neighborhood bike boulevards the numbers jumped 61%, she says.
The transformation is visible on the streets and especially apparent to those who once lived in a very different Portland. Kristin Flynn grew up here but now lives in Stone Ridge, N.Y. The 58-year-old artist was back this summer, and what she saw stunned her. She has friends who do their grocery shopping by bike and others who are considering giving up their cars altogether. "It's just so easy," Flynn says. "The bike lanes, the routes, the signs. It's not like this in New York."
The city is so bike-friendly that when auto club AAA sought suggestions from Portlanders, roadside service for bicycles was one of the biggest requests. They launched the service in 2009, AAA's Marie Dodds says. Oregon and neighboring Washington are the only states offering it.
Cars vs. bikes
The shift in the city's streets isn't always smooth, though. Bicyclists complain about cars not being respectful of them as vehicles. Drivers complain that people on bikes act like they don't have to follow the rules of the road.
"I was driving last night, and there was this guy coming down the hill without a light, and I almost hit him," says Tom Dietz, 58, a Portland emergency room physician. He rides a bike but says some bikers — just like some drivers — simply don't obey the laws.
More people on bikes does mean more accidents, though. Portland figures show that there were 265 crashes in 2008, 287 in 2009 and 321 in 2010, the last year for which data are available.
Very little data are available on bicycle injuries. Even so, a 2010 study found that among Portland bike commuters, approximately 20% experienced an injury over the course of a year's commuting, though only 5% required medical attention.
Caryl Taylor is a hospice nurse who drives across the region caring for dying patients. She loves Portland's neighborhoods but lives across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., partly because while Portland is "a great place to bike, it's a very dangerous and unsafe place to drive."
Far too many cyclists are almost militantly anti-car — and poor cyclists to boot, she says. "They'll decide to ride against traffic, or they'll weave in and out of the cars," and if a driver looks at them funny? "They'll flip you off. They'll yell at you. Their attitude is, 'We own the road!' " she says.
John Pucher, co-author of City Cycling, knows the kinds of people Taylor is talking about. Though bad riders are a tiny proportion of cyclists, he says, they give the rest a bad name
Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, points out that cyclists — the law-abiding and those who aren't — are frequently subject to harassment. Cyclists nationwide complain of shouted obscenities, rude gestures, thrown objects, near-collisions and attempts to drive them off the road.
Here, too, Portland — where people are famously friendly — might be an exception. That visceral anger that bikers elsewhere in the country describe as a constant threat on the roadways isn't such an issue here, says Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. "We're making strides here. A lot of people who drive cars also bike, and we have places for the people to bike so that we minimize those interactions. And maybe it's just your basic Portland politeness."
The biking infrastructure
The cyclists most Americans see on the road have historically been male, young and aggressive, says Jeff Mapes, Portland author of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities. But who is biking, and how they're biking, is beginning to change as biking shifts from a fitness regime or political statement to simply a way to get from Point A to Point B.
Having the bike paths to make that A-to-B trip is what makes Portland such a biking haven. After 20 years of building, it now has a network of bike lanes, including:
•Cycle tracks. These bike lanes are physically separated from motor vehicle lanes by concrete barriers or curbs. Pucher says cycle tracks can increase bicycle ridership 18% to 20%, especially among women and children.
•Bike lanes. These painted lanes on streets provide no physical separation from cars.
•Sharrows. "Sharing arrows" street markings show an outline of a bicycle and two arrows pointing forward, indicating that bicycles and cars both have full use of the lane.
•Bicycle boulevards. Also called neighborhood greenways, these residential streets are marked for both bikes and cars and have a speed limit of 20 mph.
Most of what's been created so far has been relatively simple, requiring only paint and a few concrete barriers. The infrastructure Portland is developing now will displace more cars and cost more money. The Portland-Milwaukie bridge over the Willamette River, currently under construction, will be open only to mass transit, bikes and pedestrians. Price tag: $135 million.
Pucher, the Rutgers professor, says the key is to create some bike infrastructure and gradually expand it while getting more cyclists on the road. That way, bikes become an accepted and acceptable means of transportation.
"You don't all of a sudden put in 500 miles of bike lanes," Pucher says. A bike lane here, a bike crossing there, one route and then two and then five slowly create the infrastructure.
In the end, planners in Portland aren't trying to force people out of their cars, says Jennifer Dill, director of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium at Portland State University. Their goal is to give people choices.
"In many cities you have no choice — you have to drive to work," she says. "Here, you have a choice. What we've found is that given an array of choices — driving, taking the bus, biking or walking — a lot of people will choose other options than driving."
4: Size, in stories, of the mural in downtown proclaiming the city “America's Bicycle Capital"
319: Miles of bike routes
6%: Percentage of bicycle commuters
17,000: Workers who commute by bicycle
5,000: Number of publicly installed bike racks
87: Number of multibike corrals in on-street parking spaces
20: Speed limit, in miles per hour, for all vehicles on bike boulevards
31: Percentage of children who walk or ride bikes to school
321: Bike crashes in 2010
Source: USA TODAY research