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Breaking Down Barriers to Bicycling
Breaking Down Barriers to Bicycling

Many Portlanders may recall the boastful “Welcome to America’s Bicycle Capital” mural that adorned the exterior brick wall of a building on the corner of Southwest 2nd Avenue and Ash Street in downtown. Though the mural reportedly drew anonymous complaints from parties influential enough for the city to order its removal in 2014, Portland, nevertheless, has a reputation as one of America’s best bike towns in terms of ridership, infrastructure, safety, and innovation.

But while Portland is ranked in the vanguard of bike-friendly cities by Bicycle Magazine, Time, Forbes, and the League of American Bicyclists and has one of the highest municipal ridership rates in the country, many of the city’s residents lack access to the benefits of cycling.

At Portland State, sociology professor Dr. Amy Lubitow and graduate student Kyla Tompkins are working to better understand how Portland might expand the percentage of trips residents take by bike while also increasing the diversity of Portland’s cycling population.

Tompkins, who earned her bachelor’s at PSU, is interested in the intersection of cycling and gender issues. Dr. Lubitow, who mentored Ms. Tompkins as an undergraduate and graduate student, focuses her research broadly on issues of equity and justice in transportation. By interviewing and observing individuals and small groups within communities and literally putting their concerns on the map using G.I.S., she facilitates engagement and participation in transportation-related matters where race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic factors are involved.

Recently, Dr. Lubitow joined the Institute for Sustainable Solutions’ Portland Climate Action Collaborative, a partnership that matches PSU students and faculty to the goals and activities outlined in the region’s Climate Action Plan. Contributing a sociologist’s point of view to efforts underway in the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, she examined the city’s proposed “Green Loop” bike and pedestrian pathway from a social justice and equity perspective. As a part of that evaluation she conducted qualitative interviews and held focus groups with residents of North, Northeast, and Southeast Portland. As a result, the community’s input was included in the conversation about the Green Loop and other efforts to increase active transportation in neighborhoods outside of the central city.

Expanding upon that work, Dr. Lubitow partnered with PSU’s Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) and the Institute for Sustainable Solutions to pilot a study intended to shed light on barriers to cycling faced by women and minority populations in Portland. Additionally, the project aims are to increase ridership by addressing those barriers, and improve access to the benefits provided by cycling.

“The share of ridership among minorities is increasing every year,” Dr. Lubitow said. “And while male cyclists still out number their female counterparts by a large margin in Portland, there are modest increases in the numbers of women taking up cycling. We want to hear from folks in those cohorts, women and minorities, who are not so disadvantaged that they cannot access the benefits of cycling. They can. Perhaps they even want to, but there are barriers in their way. And we know some of those barriers. Some people aren’t comfortable riding alone, but would ride in a group if they knew how to find one. Some don’t know how to get around busy streets without bike lanes. And others would buy a bike and ride, but they don’t have anywhere to keep one. If we can identify barriers like these through this project, we can start working with the community and organizations like the Community Cycling Center, whose previous outreach efforts are the foundation we’re developing our research on, to find suitable solutions.”

In the coming months, Dr. Lubitow and Ms. Tompkins plan to develop surveys and conduct qualitative interviews with women and members of Portland’s minority communities who are also potential cyclists.

“We plan to meet with community members to learn about the positive and negative experiences they’ve had while riding,” Ms. Tompkins said. “We would like to know their attitudes towards bicycling. Do they think they’d feel comfortable riding in their neighborhoods? Have they participated in events like Sunday Parkways? Would investments in bicycle infrastructure change their opinion? Are they uneasy about sharing the road with automobiles? Maybe they don’t ride because they think cycling is child’s play. Whatever the case may be, by sharing their thoughts and experiences, they can help us better understand what it would take to overcome barriers to cycling and encourage them to choose riding a bike over driving a vehicle to a friend’s house, the grocery store, work or school.”

The insights to be gained by the study could inform the city’s efforts to meet the equity and social justice mandates established by the region’s Climate Action Plan, increase participation in active modes of transportation, and achieve the goal of raising bicycle rideshare to twenty-five percent by 2030 as is stipulated in the city’s Bicycle Plan. The study could also illuminate previously unknown or misunderstood conceptions about cycling held by participants.

“We have these potential cyclists that no one has paid any attention to,” Dr. Lubitow said. “No one has asked them what it would take to get them to ride a bicycle as a means of transportation. As a result, no one has come up with a plan to encourage them to integrate cycling into their everyday lives. That is the gap we hope to fill with our study. Our aim isn’t to get people to become the kind of cyclist that commutes seven miles to work every day. But if we could learn from groups like women—and I’m thinking of mothers in particular, and minorities what it would take to get them on bicycles, we could see a decrease in the number of single occupancy vehicle trips Portlanders take as more people choose active modes of transportation in their everyday lives.” 

While year after year, Portland receives high rankings and kudos from cycling associations, publications, and the media, it is still a city in which the community of riders is not representative of the city’s diverse population. Needless to say, there is much that needs to be done to expand participation in cycling throughout the city. One way to increase the number of cyclists on the road is to make it as easy as possible for residents—women, minorities, and anyone else facing persistent barriers—to overcome those obstacles and feel comfortable getting on a bicycle. By working with the community to make cycling more accessible to all Portlanders, Dr. Lubitow and Ms. Tompkins are inching the city ever closer to deserving the moniker “America’s Bicycle Capital.”