Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on April 23rd, 2007 at 7:42 am
"The fact is, Portland has largely built its bicycling infrastructure on non-controversial, inexpensive projects that squeeze bike facilities into current right-of-ways without inconveniencing drivers."
--Scott Cohen, PSU adjunct professor and member of the Multnomah County Bike/Ped Citizen's Advisory Committee
The other day I came across an interesting post on Scott Cohen's Transportation History blog, and it got me thinking about where we've been, where we are, and where we're going in terms of Portland's bicycle movement.
Cohen, who teaches courses on bicycles and transportation issues at Portland State University and is a member of the Multnomah County Bicycle and Pedestrian Citizen's Advisory Committee, was on a ride recently and reflected on the past and future of Portland's bikeway network,
"We undoubtedly have come a long way in building a comprehensive bike network since 1990 (see below), but we have a long, long way to go. For example, our bikeway network includes miles of bike lanes along Highway 30 from NE 11th to NE 178th and many more miles on the west side, from Northwest Portland to Linnton and beyond.
Unfortunately, these are not useful or realistic bikeways; they are dangerous, inaccessbile, and completely marginalized...when the city was getting the bike program and master plan developed they looked to streets that could easily accommodate bike lanes without significantly impacting automobile traffic...now we need to revisit those decisions in light of what we know about what really gets people on bikes (safe bikeways).
The fact is, Portland has largely built its bicycling infrastructure on non-controversial, inexpensive projects that squeeze bike facilities into current right-of-ways without inconveniencing drivers.
Portland often looks to Amsterdam as both a goal and an example for biking...If Portland really wants to grow beyond that 5% mode share mark, we're going to have to make tough decisions about our bicycling facilities."
Scott brings up some good points.
Throughout the 1990s, Portland's bike program (which used to be a separate bureaucratic entity, but has since been dismantled and absorbed into other departments) was in its heyday. This was due to several factors;
- a new bike lobby group called the Bicycle Transportation Alliance was formed in 1990 and got off to a blazing start by suing the city in 1993 over their bicycle funding foot-dragging,
- ample funding from The Bicycle Bill and Gas Tax Revenues,
- "low-hanging fruit" bike improvements and projects that were no-brainers to complete (for more on this, see the comment by former PDOT bike coordinator Mia Birk.),
- they had the country's most ambitious Bicycle Master Plan (adopted in 1995),
- and most importantly, the city had the political capital it takes to aggressively add bikeway miles.
And although I'm sure there were battles won and lost along the way, the decade was pure bliss for bicycles and the result was a major increase in both bikeway miles and ridership.
To demonstrate the success of the 90s, check out the animation below. I put it together by combining slides from a presentation by current City Bike Coordinator Roger Geller.
Slides taken From a presentation by City of Portland Bike Coordinator Roger Geller.
But in recent years, even though ridership continues to increase exponentially, spending (and the addition of new bikeway miles) has leveled off*:
*(It's important to note that PDOT has made recent investments in things like the new signal at 41st and Burnside that don't add to the bikeway miles total.)
What accounts for this lull?
Some point to the low-hanging fruit phenomenon. Also, given our success and reputation for being so bike-friendly, there's always a danger of becoming complacent. This can lead to dangerous assumptions; Do we just assume that bikes will be taken care of in big transportation projects? Do we just assume we have loads of political support? Do we just assume that related bureaus in city government (primarily police, maintenance, and traffic engineering) will put the needs of bicycles on level footing with other modes?
It's clear we can't just sit back and assume bicycles will be respected at every level of decision-making and planning.
Another factor is a lack of cold, hard, cash. Funding for bike projects is always competitive, but perhaps part of the lull is a perception among state-level bureaucrats (ODOT) and some politicians that Portland has had more than its fair-share in the past, and now it's time to spread the money around.
Another thing at work might be the reality that PDOT (which will soon be known as PBOT for "Bureau of Transportation") has used nearly all the tools in the American bicycle facility toolbox. Even if city bike planners want to try new treatments and innovative, Euro-like facilities, they are limited by what's currently available to them in the various code books for accepted engineering practices.
All this being said, let's not forget that we are in the midst of a very exciting effort to update the Bicycle Master Plan for the first time in over a decade. In that time PDOT has learned a lot about what works, what doesn't, and what they'd like to try. The man behind that plan is Roger Geller and I've never seen him more energized, focused, and determined.
He's leading monthly rides, he went to the National Bike Summit for the first time, he's calling meetings, sending long emails full of ideas to colleagues, researching innovative funding options, and generally leaving no stone unturned and no idea off the table.
I've heard Geller mention several times recently that he feels Portland is right near the "tipping point" for bicycling.
But no matter what ends up in Geller's Master Plan, it's just a plan, not a binding policy. To do it justice and to reach the potential it will lay out for us, we must come to table and put our collective weight behind it.
Amsterdam or not, there's no doubt we're peering over on an exciting precipice. On the other side, is an opportunity to become America's first world-class bicycling city. We can get there, but we must remain vigilant and not let assumptions, complacency or lack of focus cloud our vision.
In a neat coincidence, as I prepared this story, Joseph Rose wrote a piece in Sunday's Oregonian which deals with some of these same issues and ideas. Email This Post Possibly related posts