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USA Today declares: "Bikes rule the road" in Portland

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on September 10th, 2012 at 10:49 am

Portland is once again received major national press coverage for being bike-friendly. A 'Cover Story' (front page, below-the-fold) in yesterday's edition of USA Today — the paper with the second largest circulation in America — gave major props to Portland as a place where "bikes rule the road." The story has also been picked up in smaller papers nationwide. On USAToday.com, the story was accompanied by a video that features the head of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) Rob Sadowsky and Portland State University researcher Jennifer Dill.

The framing of the story is that Portland is on the leading edge of a push across the country to "rethink... the automobile". This story comes just a day after The Economist magazine proclaimed, "A cycling renaissance is taking place in America." While this coverage is exciting, it comes with pitfalls we should be aware of.

Here's the lede from the USA Today...

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,

The story mentions our great success with getting kids to bike to school, how the demographics of bicycling is changing, our progress on bike boulevards/neighborhood greenways, and it highlights that, while obviously there are some haters (on both sides of the windshield), the majority of road users here in Portland tend to get along just fine.

And, given all the talk about the economy, here's one my favorite parts:

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.

The story also captured an interesting theme I've been noticing here in Portland: Among our politicians, academics, advocates, and city employees, there's a clear aversion into being perceived as "anti-car". Fearful of that label and the pushback that can come with it, leaders here work hard to avoid the "war on cars." While I'm critical at times of how we're not more forceful and bold in moving forward with bicycling, the PR message that Portland is simply "creating options" to car travel — and not being blatantly anti-car — will probably help move us forward (with less divisiveness) in the long run. Here's the last article's conclusion:

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.

While I think the headline is a bit over-the-top (I wish it was true!), and I'm concerned at how this type of 'Portland is bike utopia!' coverage exacerbates our underlying complacency problem, the article is well-written and includes important aspects about what's happening in Portland. The story will do a lot to inspire other cities to follow suit and it provides a well-deserved validation to local advocates and bureaucrats that we are headed in the right direction.

But there's a caveat: Portland has enjoyed this type of press coverage for many years now. I think there's a real danger that it's much more difficult to create a sense of urgency among elected officials and the public at large to improve bicycling if the narrative is always that "bikes rule the road" or "we're #1!" or "Portland is bike utopia." We currently suffer from a gap between the myth and the reality of the quality of our bikeway network. This gap manifests itself in stories like the infamous Oregonian article declaring that our transportation budget's "Road to ruin" is due to spending on bike lanes and a recent blog post on Red County entitled, The City of Portland's bloated bicycle budget edges out essential services.

Celebrating success is good. But given the bicycling plateau we're on and Portland's glaring gaps to easy and convenient bicycling for everyone ages 8-80, I strongly believe we need a lot more pushing and lot less patting on the back.

Watch the video below:

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Comments
  • Ethan September 10, 2012 at 10:56 am

    There's no doubt that Portland deserves accolades, but we mainly shine by comparison. We know what's really possible, the article even points out that much of what has been done is "paint". When we actually do real bike-specific capital projects . . . that's when we'll really lead the nation, by doing different, not just doing more.

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    • 9watts September 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      "planners in Portland aren't trying to force people out of their cars,"

      I think this kind of phrasing is very unfortunate, even in the negative, because it fails to question the premise from which a statement like this comes. Force people out of their cars?! Please.

      People are already giving up on the car in nontrivial numbers, and it sure isn't because some planner figured out a way to force them to hand over the keys. No, what can be said (and many people do when you ask them why they spend so much time in their cars) is that they are forced to own and drive a car more than they'd like, against their better judgment, their true preferences, because of how poorly our land use laws, our transportation planning, our infrastructure is laid out. To let anyone get away with calling the incrementalist undoing of this in the teeny tiny ways that we are here in Portland 'forcing people out of their cars' is beyond ridiculous.

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      • Craig Harlow September 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm

        Yep. And that statement in the article (by Pucher from Rutgers) that planners should go slow and easy with improving active transpo infrastructure, is directly at odds with the aggressive message delivered by Gil Peñalosa at Velo-Cities this year...

        Pucher (slow and steady wins the race):


        Pucher, the Rutgers professor, says the key is to create some bike infrastructure and gradually
        [emphasis mine] expand it...That way, bikes become an accepted and acceptable means of transportation..." A bike lane here, a bike crossing there, one route and then two and then five slowly create the infrastructure.

        Peñalosa (basically go big or go home with separated bikeways):

        Do not settle for painting lines on the pavement...that is a step backward...Do not wasted your energy on "nice to haves" [paint/signs/racks/bike share, etc.]...if it's not good enough for a child, it's not good enough.

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        • Tacoma September 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm

          "Do not wasted your energy on "nice to haves" [paint/signs/racks/bike share, etc.]...if it's not good enough for a child, it's not good enough."

          That is a powerful image. Thanks.

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  • Matt Haughey September 10, 2012 at 11:01 am

    The funny thing about any article about cycling uptake in the US is when I recall reading an article last year about Europe's most congested, worst city (Brussels, Belgium) where ONLY 4% of the population takes trips by bike instead of car and I realized that would put Brussels in the top ten, possibly top 5 of US cities.

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  • Jake September 10, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Absolutely agreed 100% RE: complacency. We see this time and again with corporations, countries, people, you name it. Being told you're #1 in cycling gives people a great excuse to say "We're already #1, why do more for bikes?" and to not feel like we should get more done. I think this is easily our biggest problem going forward (worse than automotive lobbying; an active, vocal group can overcome that). We're doing some great work, but it's frustrating to feel like we're not making progress.

    On the more positive side, I didn't realize the walk/bike to school crowd was so big. That's awesome!

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  • Arem September 10, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Didn't Allstate insurance put out some report recently about something like "cities with the worst drivers in the U.S." or some such? I thought I saw a thread on a forum about that and Portland being somewhere down in the low 150s out of 200.

    I told a new coworker the other day that I'll ride my bike or motorcycle to work and that I'd sometimes use a car now and then. I was dubbed a "daredevil." I guess I'll put that feather in my hat/add that to Facebook, but I sure don't feel like one.

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  • Gregg September 10, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    "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."

    I don't know what city has a 12-week course on how to ride a bicycle safely for every public school student between fourth and 10th grade, but we should consider doing that here in Portland!

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    • Spiffy September 10, 2012 at 1:02 pm

      I also thought that was a weird claim... I'd never heard before that all Portland public schools had that program in place for all their students... in fact, I thought that was one of the new proposed Huckabee laws...

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    • staborrez September 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      Not to burst any bubbles on this one, but I'm feeling confident that the most signification reason this happens is that school buses don't pick up or drop off within a mile of the school, except for students that have disabilities.

      Honestly with a kids in 8th and 3rd grade, this is the first time I've heard of this program in the schools. Though I do admit they heavily promote the Safe Routes programs (at least at the elementary school). Though getting information about school from a 13 year old boy is problematic at best.

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    • jocko September 10, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      I think this is a misquote on the bike safety classes but I do thing the percentage is fairly close.

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  • staborrez September 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    I should also add that Portland will almost always have a leg up on this bike battle nationally for what would seem to be a totally unrelated "Portland" thing. And that is the Urban Growth Boundary.

    For the most part this city lacks suburban sprawl. A ten mile ride in Portland can get you across most the town. Head out to most other cities and a ten mile ride will barely get you out of the subdivision. Heck some Taco Bell parking lots in the mid west seem to be 10 miles long.

    I'm by no means knocking the efforts of everyone that works to make cycling better in this town. There are just many under laying factors that created this perfect storm for bicycles in Portland. And not to add to the complicity argument, most cities wont catch up with us because their cities lack these unseen back bones.

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  • A.K. September 10, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    I hate sweeping, generalizing articles like this. Sure, we have it good here when you look at many other places, but we have a LOOONG ways to go.

    I especially dislike the title. "bikes rule the road", hardly!

    We are merely begrudgingly accepted by drivers, when they aren't busy playing "police" and telling us what we are doing wrong, even when we are doing everything right - like the arse who revved his engine at me the other week and told me to get out of the street (I was waiting for a left hand turn at a light), because I "was in the way".

    Articles like this make drivers think we're even more "entitled" than they already think we are. "Look at all the stuff they have! I'll be damned if any more of MY tax money is going to them!"

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  • Granpa September 11, 2012 at 8:16 am

    In the war between bikes and cars the bikes won. Now that that is settled I will either spend my time working toward social justice or saving the whales.

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  • Fred September 11, 2012 at 10:16 am

    At this point we should be able to rank bike-friendly cities by the number of Strava segments within city limits.

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  • Justin September 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Nice take on this, Jonathan. The reporter took pains to be fair on this and I think it shows. It goes a lot deeper than a lot of stories that are little more than "10 biggest bike paradises" lists. Portland's investments seem sensible and not at all unusual on a national stage.

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