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A preview of Portland? Vancouver BC’s new downtown bike network (photos)

Posted by on October 3rd, 2013 at 9:49 am

bikers crossing
Vancouver’s three-year-old downtown bike lane network.
(Photos © M. Andersen.)

Lots of people know you can go to Copenhagen or Manhattan to see grids of protected bike lanes in action. But there’s another set of them 300 miles north of Portland — and they run right through a city so similar to Portland that they could be siblings.

Stumptown could learn plenty of things from Vancouver B.C., where I spent two days last week. And our tall, skinny younger sister, which is almost exactly our size by population, could learn things from us, too.

But Vancouver is definitely ahead of our curve in one way: in the last few years, it built the simple network of physically separated downtown bikeways that Portland seems to be getting ready to install. Here’s what they look like, from the nitty-gritty to the grand.

1) Planter barriers in the highest-traffic areas…

planters downtown

The protected bike lanes in Washington DC and now Chicago are quick and cheap, made to cover lots of ground on a low budget: they use plastic bollards as separators. Portland’s newest one, on Northeast Multnomah, also has a nice set of huge round planters the city has had on hand for years. But my favorite barrier in Vancouver, above, was almost as thin as a row of bollards and much more attractive: a foot-wide row of planters with grassy bushes inside.

2) …and low concrete barriers farther out.

jersey barriers

I’ve sometimes heard people talk about Jersey barriers to set off bike lanes, and imagined the huge hulking sort you see on highways. This photo, from just southeast of downtown proper, shows how neat and unobtrusive concrete can be while still keeping cars away on a local street.

3) Lots and lots of traffic signals.

three stoplights

Count them: The intersection above has three signals in the same direction, each set to a different phase (through-driving autos, right-turning autos, and bikes), and two “no turn on red” signs for good measure. Elegant? No. And on the two-way cycle tracks like this one, riding against auto traffic meant stopping almost every block, because the lights weren’t timed for you. Still, it did all seem to work.

4) Street-specific bike signage.

smithe street sign

If Vancouver does one thing better than anywhere else I’ve ridden, it’s signs. This city is mad for signs, and I loved it. Not only does every bike boulevard have an officially designated name; every intersection of two bike boulevards near the central city seems to have a set of custom-printed signs that show which crossroads you’ve reached. But maybe my favorite detail of all was the bike marking on the auto-oriented street sign above — unquestionably indicating to people in cars that, next time they happen to be on a bike, Smithe would be one of the streets for them.

5) Painted midblock crossings.

midblock conflict

Driveways are the enemy of the protected bike lane, because people in cars and on bikes don’t always think to look out for one another. If Portland ever puts protected lanes on Northeast Broadway or Southwest 4th, midblock driveways will be the biggest problem to solve. Here’s how Vancouver handles them: with dashed lines and lots and lots of green paint. (And, of course, a sign.)

6) Wayfinding signs everywhere.

biking walking sign

This close-up of a combined bike-and-foot wayfinding sign is similar to the ones on Portland’s neighborhood greenways, but it includes walking, too. Honestly, this seems like a lot of information for a street sign.


7) Not nearly enough parking…

nobikeparking

The worst thing about biking in Vancouver (or, worse still, in nearby Victoria BC) is the lack of public bike parking. British Columbia’s official bike education guide actually recommends locking bikes to parking meters or signposts, inviting bikes to teeter, slip and block sidewalks. Scenes like this (from Kitsilano, southwest of downtown) are rare in Portland now, but common in Vancouver.

8) …except when bike staples serve as separators.

many bikes

Pretty efficient, right? Easy to see over, too.

9) Crossbikes.

crosscutting crossbike

You know — like crosswalks, except for bikes. This one cut diagonally across the intersection. I didn’t even try to figure out all the nuances of how these signals worked.

10) Bikeways on the downtown tourist maps.

downtown map

Cities that are serious about making their bike networks legible should clearly mark their bike networks on every map posted on downtown sidewalks for use by tourists and newcomers. Here’s a detail shot from Vancouver’s.

11) A comfortable bridge out of downtown…

viaduct

The Dunsmuir Viaduct, which crosses railroad tracks and other obstacles east of downtown Vancouver, is the comfortable, appealing bikeway that the Morrison Bridge’s separated bike lane wants to be. Unfortunately for Portlanders, the Morrison bikeway essentially dead-ends into Water Street and the truck-oriented Central Eastside, making it invisible to all but the savviest bikers.

12) …that almost seamlessly connects to a neighborhood greenway.

parking-protected

This parking-separated bikeway is the east landing of the Dunsmuir Viaduct that leads to downtown. It sort of looks like Southeast Hawthorne, if you were to squint … and then move the parked cars nine or 10 feet to the right.

trafficdiverter

A few blocks further east is one of the most impressive of Vancouver’s many wonderful traffic diverters, which protect its neighborhood greenways from becoming automotive shortcuts. This one doubles as a parklet — incuding a public bicycle pump.

Is Vancouver a bike paradise? Definitely not. Despite much more density, its bike commute rate is lower than Portland’s. In fact, I was surprised by how auto-oriented central Vancouver’s streets felt. They’re generally wider than Portland’s and regularly offer two auto travel lanes in each direction, a formula that invites cars to zoom between the skyscrapers and dart around one another at a bizarrely out-of-place 35 mph. Maybe this highway-style driving is a reaction to the city’s lack of urban freeways — it’s the largest in North America that doesn’t have any, thanks to successful activism in the 1960s.

But downtown Vancouver is now, compared to almost any other central city on the continent, a joy to get around on a bike. And if the result is anything other than a substantial increase in downtown Vancouver biking over the next three years, your next Japadog is on me.

— Hat tip to our friend (and valuable comment contributor here on BikePortland) Ted Buehler, whose Facebook comments about biking in Vancouver helped me know what to keep my eyes open for.

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Comments
  • Matt October 3, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Um, yes please.

    Recommended Thumb up 10

  • 9watts October 3, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Impressive. That infrastructure has a platinum sheen to it.

    Recommended Thumb up 11

    • Andrew N October 3, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      Seriously! How we maintain our ‘Platinum’ rating is completely beyond me. We’re significantly behind the curve these days.

      Recommended Thumb up 11

  • pdxtex October 3, 2013 at 10:18 am

    me likey. im glad portland has been trying new experiments over the last few years. the main grid south of burnside is still pretty easy to negotiate as it is. if anything, we need some dedicated and safer infrastructure coming off of the burnside bridge. burnside in general could be a useful east/west route across downtown but its too busy for casual commuting. lets work on that.

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  • dan October 3, 2013 at 10:41 am

    The best thing about biking in Vancouver IMO is how courteously riders interact, with very little unsafe passing or other daily annoyances of riding here. We could stand to learn something from them.

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    • MaxD October 3, 2013 at 10:47 am

      However, I will take Portland drivers over Vancouver drivers any day of the week! Vancouver drivers suck.

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      • Scott October 3, 2013 at 11:49 am

        Oregon has the worst drivers ever. It is a total mixed bag and there is no identity to the motorist. Some courteous, some not, some speed, some don’t, some mad, some calm.

        I got yelled at by a guy in a Prius the other day for stopping at the red light! What is that about? He even had those bicycle plates and a Thule hitch rack on the back of his Hybrid.

        Texas, Illinois, Boston, and New York all have a style of driving that is almost universal and you can learn it. Not count on it, but learn it. Oregon has nothing that even approaches a scent of cohesion or identity. THE WORST.

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        • MaxD October 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm

          Scott,
          I disagree. Friends From NYC and Vancouver BC, even Michigan have all commented on the laidback, slow and courteous driving style of Oregonians. I know that day to day we all encounter asshats behind the wheel, and that when one is on a bike, the jerks make a BIG impression. However, I think if you commuted for a week in Vancouver, our drivers would look pretty calm.

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          • Scott October 3, 2013 at 1:19 pm

            Courtesy has no place on the road. Follow laws on the road, follow courtesy on the sidewalk and beyond.

            A single car stopping at a through section and trying to wave you across MLK is not courteous, it’s dangerous.

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            • MaxD October 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm

              Scott,
              there are laws that require cars to stop at an intersection (even a through one!) when a pedestrian is trying to cross. It strikes me as extremely sad that you do not support courtesy on what amounts to something like 20% of the land in the city, and our biggest publicly-owned resource in the city! What do you have against courtesy and civility? How does courtesy on the road diminish life in Portland?

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              • Scott October 3, 2013 at 3:02 pm

                Courtesy diminishes nothing, but only police, crossing guards and construction flaggers are allowed to direct traffic. Crosswalks are not for bikes that are being ridden and this post is not specifically about pedestrians (who should find a crosswalk!).

                If I want to cross a street, that should be no concern of yours. You should concern yourself with operating your vehicle in compliance with safety and law so that I can make a safe judgement about operating mine and effecting my crossing. You can’t use your car to hold the door open for me, why should you try to use it to stop many lanes of traffic that are unaware of your misguided courtesy so that I may cross? Following the laws and everyone being on the same page seems like the very essence of courtesy and civility to me.

                I think you are reading my comments and thinking about low traffic and supposedly low speed neighborhood streets and places where an exception to law can be friendly. That is not what I am talking about. I am talking about thoroughfares and high traffic crossings, multiple lanes and options abound. Know the law and follow the law.

                I think Portland drivers see themselves as doing good, and it is unreliable. That is why I think Portland has terrible drivers. I will take aggressive over, misguided courtesy or passive aggressive every single time. Aggressive goes for a goal, and you can see a goal, and prepare for it.

                I am not trying to make you sad.

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                • MaxD October 3, 2013 at 4:42 pm

                  ” I am not trying to make you sad”
                  -good call, that was a dumb thing for me to write! I think we are probably not too much in disagreement, but there is one point you make that I believe is incorrect, and one point I want to continue to niggle about. I believe you are incorrect that “pedestrians should find a crosswalk” because in Portland, every intersection is a crosswalk and cars and bikes are supposed to stop for them (if they are signalling an intent to cross). I agree that this gets problematic and even dangerous on multi-lane roads, but simply following the law would imply that you would stop. Always. For every pedestrian regardless of other traffic. Actual safe driving requires a lot of awareness and nuance and making decisions based on what is happening at that moment. I think that Portland is a better place when drivers make those decisions informed by courtesy rather than felling entitled by law. Which gets me the second point and my niggling: I think roads are the most important place for people to be courteous. While driving, you are doing the most dangerous thing you will likely do that day. You can very easily hurt other people while driving. But don’t jsut take my word for it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8062QEFk5g

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                • Scott October 4, 2013 at 8:53 am

                  Legally, you are correct. Every intersection is a crosswalk. And even thought this post is about bike infrastructure, I would like to respond to your “niggle” (I have no idea what that means).

                  Your argument feels a little like, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Totally true but an absolute diversion. It could also mean that toaster don’t toast toast. Toast toasts toast.

                  When relying on other drivers to know what is going on, wouldn’t the smart play be to use the crosswalk. It would be courteous. It would help communicate your intent to the driver.

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        • Chris I October 3, 2013 at 1:10 pm

          I disagree completely. Nearly every other large city I have visited has had more aggressive, dangerous drivers. The state of Florida is the real-life version of Death Race 2000.

          The death statistics show that Oregon is near the bottom:
          http://vehicle-fatalities.findthedata.org/

          Recommended Thumb up 5

          • Scott October 3, 2013 at 1:20 pm

            So then we can put off this infrastructure push and spend money in other places where it is more needed. That sounds like a plan Chris I.

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          • spare_wheel October 3, 2013 at 6:49 pm

            You are conflating aggression and danger. I wish we had more drivers in PDX that were as hyper-aware and “emotional” as drivers in NYC, boston, and philly.

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          • spare_wheel October 3, 2013 at 6:53 pm

            Oregon may be a relatively safer state for motorists but it is among the worst for cyclists:

            www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811743.pdf

            See Table 6: Total and Pedalcyclist Traffic Fatalities and Fatality Rates by State, 2011

            Recommended Thumb up 1

        • dwainedibbly October 3, 2013 at 5:32 pm

          Worst ever? Have you ever been to Florida?

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          • Scott October 4, 2013 at 3:06 pm

            I was born at Baptist hospital in Miami, FL, and spent many years there on a bicycle. It is much better than here in my opinion.

            Portland is so passive aggressive, drivers are afraid of using horns. HORNS, MAN.

            It is one of the four ways you have in your car to communicate with the rest of the road. Lights, left turn signal, right turn signal, and horn. That is all you have and people act like I just burned a church whenever I use mine.

            Aggressive driving IS NOT dangerous driving and slow driving is not a sure fire way to be safe.

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            • Dwayne Dibbly October 4, 2013 at 3:11 pm

              I lived in Florida for 45 years. My opinion is vastly different.

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  • MaxD October 3, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Portland needs to also look at Vancouver’s parking regulations/charges. The city actively discourages people from driving downtown, and backs it up with very expensive and limited parking. To get transportation alternatives to work, I believe you need a carrot/stick approach. This bike network plus a really good lightrail/bus/ferry system are the carrot. Very limited parking and congested roads are the stick. Portland is WAY too timid when it comes to accommodating driving lanes and on-street parking.

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  • shirtsoff October 3, 2013 at 10:51 am

    I love The Dunsmuir Viaduct.. especially during rush hour. :)

    One question: Are mopeds allowed within the bike lanes? When I was up there last summer biking around I kept on seeing mopeds using the cycle tracks in the downtown. I suspected it was wrong but as a foreign guest I didn’t want to argue. Does any one know the laws in British Columbia regarding this?

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    • Cecily Walker October 3, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      Electric bikes/mopeds are allowed (though it drives me bonkers!). Gas-powered vehicles are not.

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      • shirtsoff October 4, 2013 at 6:35 am

        Ah. Yeah, it feels not quite right, but if that is the law at present then alas! Thanks for the insight.

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  • Peter W October 3, 2013 at 11:33 am

    The photo with the planter, then bikes, then sidewalk really shows how that infrastructure has the added side effect of improving the walking environment.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • spare_wheel October 3, 2013 at 11:37 am

    the dunsmuir viaduct and burrard bridge (under construction) are decent facilities. the hornby and dunsmuir separated-bike lanes are far too narrow for 2 way traffic. moreover, despite traffic light cycles there is still right hook risk during the green cycle. a buffered bike lane or a genuine cycle track would have been a far better solution, imo.

    i also was shocked at how little bike traffic there was downtown. hornby was often empty when i rode it last month.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor) October 3, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      I didn’t have a problem with facing traffic in either of the two-way PBLs you mention, but I wasn’t on them much in rush hour. As for volumes, I too thought the quality of the infrastructure outpaced the number of bikes on the road, though the amazing Adanac greenway (which we were staying on) seemed as busy as North Williams during afternoon rush hour, something I can’t say for any Portland greenway.

      I wouldn’t be nearly as confident predicting rapid growth to come if my girlfriend, a mostly fearless biker but a recent convert and one who prefers taking it easy, hadn’t immediately and dramatically changed her opinion about biking in Vancouver (and, actually, Vancouver in general) the moment we were riding on these protected lanes.

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      • spare_wheel October 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm

        I did not measure the bike lane but I’m guessing they were ~8 feet wide in some sections. I do have to give the city of Vancouver kudos for addressing right hooks. The signals are messy but they are definitely an improvement over the last time I rode these lanes. Portland needs more bike signals!

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    • Todd Boulanger October 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      Yes…I agree from my use of these facilities in 2012 that some of the “hook” opportunities seems higher than it should be…as compared to the NL facilities I have used a lot.

      When I made a few initial errors and opened myself up to potential MV hooking collisions…I found myself wishing for the secondary nearside small bike signal heads common in N. Europe for similar facilities. The existing far side bike signal heads seems to get lost in all the other signals if one is not careful when using the facility initially.

      I spoke to VBC City staff at the VeloCity conference in 2012 about this omission…have they installed the near side smaller Dutch style bike signal heads yet? (Jonathan did you see any?)

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  • pixie October 3, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I visited for the first time this summer with the specific intention to stay downtown and explore their bike riding infrastructure. Simply wonderful and really puts Portland to shame. All these pictures are excellent examples of what you’ll find. It really shouldn’t take Portland much effort to emulate some of the simple designs.

    One aspect that really stood out was connectors. More often than not, a bike lane or path would flow well to a new connection, as opposed to simply ending leaving a rider stranded as to how to get to another route very close by, which I see far too much around here. Also key, the physically separated bike and pedestrian paths around the waterfront. There are still conflicts by confused or oblivious users but for the most part bike and ped traffic flows well together.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Mark October 3, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Awesome work, Michael! This is your best post since joining BikePortland. Perhaps you should visit us here in Seattle to illustrate what *not* to do.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Steve B October 3, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Great photos, great write up. Very inspiring!

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • dachines October 3, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Am I the only one who thinks bike wayfinding signs are undersized? I find that they are of little use at anything other than a walking speed. Their legibility/usefulness diminishes quickly as riding speed increases, even to something as modest as 10-12mph.

    Why are the signs for a bike so much smaller than for other traffic? For example, in downtown more often than not bikes can and are moving just as quickly as other traffic. Yet the text on bike wayfinding signs is at least half the height of the text on a standard street sign.

    The design standards for bike wayfinding signs (if they even exist) should be no different that the standards applied to signage for other types of vehicles.

    If whoever is creating the wayfinding signs for bikes thinks that the smaller text is justifiable for the perceived slower mode of transportation that are bikes, then I challenge them to get on a bike and try to use those wayfinding signs at a modest 10-12mph, while negotiating all of the other traffic controls and hazards that one encounters while on the road!

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  • MaxD October 3, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Great write up! I would add that they have a lot of really nice examples of high-functioning MUP’s. They tend to separate bikes and peds. The seawall at False Creek that they build for the 2010 Olympics is a great example: plenty wide, but eh modes have a narrow planter in the middle. In fact, I believe that most of the path and planter is built on structural blocks called Silva Cells that support the paths but great large, uncompacted soil zones beneath for healthy trees and stormwater infiltration. Imagine this kind of separation along the Esplanade!

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  • Erinne October 3, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Vancouver is a joy to ride in. I love all the cut-throughs. There are so many little plazas and parks to act as traffic calming. And the signage! It’s so easy to stay on their bike routes and tell where you’re going.

    And you didn’t even mention how they have buttons to change the signal at stop lights right up against the right curb so you can easily reach them from your bike (mostly seen on side streets crossing major streets). Of course, that means you have to go to the side quite a bit when you’re waiting at a red light (putting you at some risk of a right hook), but you never have to wonder whether your bike is being recognized to change the signal. I don’t recall the magnetic circles that we have here in Portland–those are great but you also have to understand them.

    And unlike some posters above, I found Vancouver auto drivers to be *extremely* courteous.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • spare_wheel October 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      There are an awful lot things to like about canada but when it comes to energy waste and car-centrism they are #1 in north america.

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  • Todd Boulanger October 3, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Also…to add a detail to Jonathan’s discussion of the landscaped planters…they are designed to also provide some self contained irrigation for some watering. The vendor was at the VeloCity conference. I was impressed at their form and function.

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  • was carless October 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Waste of money. We need to build cycle tracks on East 182nd ave instead!

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    • Nick Falbo October 3, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      How about we leave that street in Gresham’s hands.

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  • Kirk October 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    I love biking in Vancouver, BC! Their cycle tracks are great and are actually located on roads of citywide significance…but I found their neighborhood greenways / bike boulevards to be a dream compared to Portland’s.

    When creating our neighborhood greenways, for the most part we slap down a speed hump every 2 blocks and call it good – with very little diversion in place (I know we use some – but not a whole lot of it). Yes, it is a good start to slow the speed of *most* vehicles, but for those that have good shocks / just don’t care how much their vehicles get bounced around / or are willing to accelerate-decelerate every two blocks, they’ll continue to go fast down the street taking advantage of no stop signs and very few cars to get stuck behind – resulting in the same ability to scare the bejesus out of someone just wanting to ride their bike down a casual road. Sometimes (more so in the future, hopefully!) it just comes down to reducing the number of cars on the road, which results in a whole lot more of an enjoyable experience for people walking/biking than having to deal with a lot of slow cars and a few fast cars which is what most of our neighborhood greenways provide today.

    If there is one thing I’ve learned about making our streets better for humans, you can’t rely on only one tool in the toolbox (such as just speed humps), you’ve got to use all sorts of the tools. Vancouver’s neighborhood greenways use all sorts of diversion tactics. From the hard closure of roads to motorized vehicles (http://tinyurl.com/pgod83v), to this nifty little one-way for cars and two-way for bikes (http://tinyurl.com/pxyz822) on a downhill/uphill road where cars are likely to gain speed (keep moving yourself down the road in ‘Street View’ to see how they use multiple of those in a row).

    There are other tools they use that are similar to ours (such as the ‘beginning’ of this neighborhood greenway: http://tinyurl.com/oa544nz), but the fact that they aren’t afraid to use a bunch of these in combination says a lot about the comfort of their roads and their view towards the future.

    If they had more actual bike parking staples like Michael pointed out, and a similar amount of energy in their form of Pedalpalooza, I’d probably move there in a heartbeat even though I love Portland to death. (They also need more food options/carts! … but that isn’t bike related so I’ll stop there.)

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  • GlowBoy October 6, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    I don’t know why Portland doesn’t use the “street-specific bike signage” (or is that bike-specific street signage?) shown in #4 above. I was in Minneapolis and St. Paul this past week and a half, and they have signs like that all over the place to mark their bike boulevards. Honestly, most carbound Portlanders are probably only vaguely aware of where the off-arterial bikeways are.

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