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Comment of the Week: How the history of cell phones explains American streets

Posted by on February 12th, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Ride Along with Ali Reis-30
Surrounded by investments in everything else.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

“Why is Portland-ish planning not spreading more rapidly?”

That was the question BikePortland reader Paul asked on Monday morning, after reading about how the Danish rust-belt city of Odense is rebuilding its economy around livable streets. It’s a great question, and it got a great answer from BikePortland reader Anne Hawley.

Anne went back to the 1800s for an analogy of how too many U.S. cities went astray and have stayed that way:

I wish I knew the answers. I don’t. But I feel like there’s an analogy to be found in the story of telephone service. Exceptional, powerful, rich-and-rolling America went whole hog into running copper wire everywhere in the late 19th and early 20th century. Because we had a fully built out, functional, and profitable phone system when cellular came along, the titans of the phone industry tried to fit cellular to the old, wired-network model. It took us YEARS to break out of the stupid pricing plans and restrictions that they put on this “competing” service.

Meanwhile, the developing world, never having strung the expensive copper in the first place, has gone hog-wild with cellular, leap-frogging us in inventive uses for the system, with wide deployment (even to the poor! OMG!).

So now we’ve got one of the slowest, most poorly-deployed, most restrictive cellular business models in the world. Those dinosaurs died hard.

Maybe other cities are on the verge of jumping into a brand-new system, an urban transportation model that doesn’t quite exist yet, a toolbox made of parts from Portland AND Copenhagen AND Singapore AND Los Angeles AND Tactical Urbanism. I don’t know. There are dinosaurish elements to Portland that other cities would be wise not to follow when newer models are coming along.

This isn’t a definitive answer, as Anne notes. And if there’s a transportation model from the developing world that is successfully slowing the spread of cars with wealth by creating a radically better transportation network, I’m not aware of it.

But maybe she’s right that someone, somewhere that the costs of building everything around cars haven’t sunk in quite as deeply yet, is on the cusp of figuring the better way out.

Yes, we pay for good comments. This regular feature is sponsored by readers who’ve become BikePortland subscribers to keep our site and our community strong. We’ll be sending $5 and a little goodie bag to Anne in thanks for this great addition. Watch your email!

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

57 Comments
  • Michael Wolfe February 12, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    This is what’s called “path dependence.”

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    • Anne Hawley
      Anne Hawley February 12, 2016 at 6:36 pm

      Is that like the story of why the Space Shuttle is the size it is, going all the way back to Roman chariots?

      (The engines couldn’t be wider than a certain rail tunnel they had to be transported through. The rail tunnel was built to accommodate 2 sets of rails. The US rail width was established by English engineers, who built railroads based on old Roman roads. The Romans built their roads to accommodate a chariot, with ruts to fit the wheelbase. And the chariot was built based on the size of two horses in tandem harness. So the Space Shuttle’s final configuration was constrained, essentially, by the width of two horses’ asses, basically.)

      Is that what we mean by path dependence?

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      • Jay T. February 12, 2016 at 6:52 pm

        I nominate this comment for next week’s award!

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      • Ted Timmons (Contributor) February 12, 2016 at 10:04 pm

        There are great elements of truth, but not 100% true: http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.asp

        I do think there’s something to be said for the failure in war being partly attributed to track gauge (france/spain, germany/russia).

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        • Anne Hawley
          Anne Hawley February 13, 2016 at 11:21 am

          I figured there had to be an apocryphal element to that too-neat story, but I was genuinely wondering whether it’s a useful metaphor for “path dependence”. Sometimes I have to grope my way to abstraction concepts via metaphor.

          I sensed a metaphor for Portland somewhere deep in the original Odense, Denmark story, and in the history of cellular communications.

          Also, as I think about it, in early adopter syndrome: those who jump first on a new technology pay more and get the prestige points along with all the pains of being beta-testers for underdeveloped ideas (Portland), while those who wait and watch pay less, get less prestige, and get all the second-wave improvements.

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          • Ted Timmons (Contributor) February 14, 2016 at 7:18 pm

            Yep, very true, Anne. I’ve seen it argued that our internet service is (relatively) poor because we were very early getting the infrastructure in place. If you are late and catching up, it makes more sense to put in more modern infrastructure (like fiber).

            Totally parallels there. “resting on laurels” and all that.

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            • B. Carfree February 14, 2016 at 8:22 pm

              Well, our poor internet service may also be a function most of it being privatized and the fact that the internet was developed just as the tax revolt got going, which coincidentally started in the same state as the first router was built, California, albeit one of those took place in NorCal and the other in SoCal.

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  • ethan February 12, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Great comment! Definitely worthy

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley February 12, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    Thanks, Michael! And please, donate my five bucks back to the BikePortland coffers.

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  • Jimmy February 12, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    The cell phone industry is among the most competitive of all industries in the U.S. The only reason our networks are as “poorly deployed” is because our country is massive and the capital outlay to provide cell service to an area 2+x the size of the entire EU while competing against 3 other national carriers means something, namely rural coverage, has got to give. If the bean counters determined that a tower can turn a profit somewhere, you bet those Wall Street analysts/profiteers will find a way to make it happen. But they aren’t going to spend a quarter million dollars to build a tower in b.f. nowhere out of the kindness of their hearts. If it were just as easy as copying Africa’s builds, someone would already be fast at work putting the other carriers out of business.

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    • paikiala February 16, 2016 at 10:07 am

      to wit, I live 5 miles east of I-5 and have no T-Mobile service, and there were no service centers in Bozeman, Montana last year.

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  • soren February 12, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Poverty in developing nations generally means an income of less than a dollar per day (PPP). The poor do not, in general, own cell phones.

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    • Anne Hawley
      Anne Hawley February 12, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      Cellphone penetration in sub-Saharan Africa is surprisingly high.

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      • Chadwick F February 12, 2016 at 10:09 pm

        And is also a way for people to share and listen to music:

        https://sahelsounds.bandcamp.com/album/music-from-saharan-cellphones

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      • Reginald February 13, 2016 at 2:06 am

        How do they pay for them?

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        • paikiala February 16, 2016 at 10:07 am

          they are a lot cheaper than a computer, and do most of what people use computers for.

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      • soren February 14, 2016 at 9:34 pm

        even to the poor! OMG!</blockquote

        Being classified as "poor" in a developing nation is very different from being classified as poor in the USA. For example, only ~30% of the 1.1 billion people in India are officially classified as poor. Cellular phone penetration in this demographic is low on an individual basis. (It's ~70% overall in India).

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    • Joseph E February 13, 2016 at 4:28 am

      Cell phones in middle and low income countries are surprisingly affordable. Indonesia is not as poor as some countries, but in 2012 the lowest 22% of households lived on less than 20M rupiah a year, or less than $200 a month. Average household income was only twice that, or about $400 a month: probably less than $100 a month a person.
      But you can buy a new smart phone for less than $80 now, and basic phones are even cheaper. Service is pay-as-you-go, and costs about $3 for 900 megabytes of data, about $0.02 per text message sent (free to receive) and a few cents a minute for calls. So even farm laborers, construction workers, housekeepers, pedicab drivers and other low-income folks have cell phones, despite making only $0.50 an hour / $4 a day (and usually supporting kids or elderly parents)

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    • Scott H February 14, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      This perpetuated myth that cell phones are an expensive luxury or that you have to be wealthy to own a smart phone, it’s just ridiculous and it needs to stop. Not only have they become a necessity but they’ve become extremely inexpensive. A used iPhone 3G will set you back about $30, that’s a smart phone for the price of 2-3 pounds of coffee.

      I still remember the concerns some commenters had that using smart phone apps to collect bike trip data would leave out lower income individuals. Again, not true in the real world, I witness folks who live in tents and collect aluminum cans for a living often have iPhone fours and fives.

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      • Reginald February 14, 2016 at 4:09 pm

        That smart phone may be an indicator of why they are living in tents – they spent money on stuff they don’t need. What is the cheapest monthly plan that is useful? I don’t have a smart phone because I refuse to pay the ridiculous monthly fee and I would never sign up for any contract – I just use an old flip phone that I only use for phone calls. Cheap, cheap.

        I buy my Folgers coffee on sale when it’s $6.99 for 1.5 pounds.

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        • Scott H February 14, 2016 at 10:09 pm

          Congrats on your simplistic lifestyle, but the fact still stands, there are homeless individuals who are more technologically advanced than you. And, while there’s no denying that some folks are homeless as a result of the inability to manage money, without getting into the details, $30 for a smartphone and $25 a month for a data plan is not going condemn you to living in a tent. In other words, the cost of a phone is not going to make a difference. Also, Folgers tastes like burnt dirt.

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          • Reginald February 15, 2016 at 1:03 pm

            SH,
            Don’t know who said it first, but this is very applicable to our world today:
            “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

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        • Matt S. February 15, 2016 at 7:35 am

          Cheers to using an old flip phone! I’ve had the same number for 14 years, never missed a month of service. I’ve probably spent less than 200 dollars on all the phones I’ve ever used and my service costs 27 dollars AFTER taxes! 700 minutes, unlimited multimedia texts.

          I’m sad though, without data, I can’t check my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Vine accounts. I’m always bored when I’m at a stop light and my girlfriend and I actually have to talk to one another when out to dinner…

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          • Reginald February 15, 2016 at 1:04 pm

            $27 dollars! Are you rich?! Mine only costs me $15.

            🙂

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  • wsbob February 12, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    What is “…Portland-ish planning…”? Is it the city’s gradual move towards higher density residential neighborhoods, with equally gradual bike lane construction, and mass transit to some extent, to accommodate them?

    The entire state, going back to the 70’s, has a system in place for funding bike lanes. Although those bike lanes often have been too narrow, more recently greater width has been given some of them. The light rail and trolley system continues to be expanded.

    Residents of Portland and surrounding communities have the mode of transportation they do…motor vehicles…and the street system that supports them, because that’s largely their choice. It’s fairly well known that before widespread affordability of motor vehicles, streetcar lines originating in Portland, went far into surrounding counties. Once people commonly had the availability of affordable motor vehicles made to them, the freedom that mode of transportation offered them was irresistible.

    Portland could create the best protected bike lane system in the world. Without a corresponding community design to support its use, how much use of it could be expected beyond current biking levels? Not to say there may not be one, but what is the incentive to build such a system, if the demand and need for it is not there?

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    • Reginald February 14, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      Supply and demand. It works.

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      • Ted Timmons (Contributor) February 14, 2016 at 7:12 pm

        Supply and demand. It works.

        Exactly. When we oversupply an asset (roads) and make them free, the demand quickly fills them.

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    • paikiala February 16, 2016 at 10:11 am

      “…because that’s largely their choice”
      Of course you mean others chose it for them. Almost every city is constructed the way it is because of decisions made 50-100 years ago, or more.

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  • Reginald February 13, 2016 at 2:10 am

    “But maybe she’s right that someone, somewhere that the costs of building everything around cars haven’t sunk in quite as deeply yet, is on the cusp of figuring the better way out.”

    It’s a comin’. Bicycles. But not because we chose them.

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  • Mike Quiglery February 13, 2016 at 5:43 am

    Portland (and the whole of America) is afflicted with establishment affluenza. Praise, coddling and money are heaped upon the established order. The corporation, for one, has to be paid first and preserved by all means. Result: progress and new thinking proceed at a glacial pace if at all.

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    • Anne Hawley
      Anne Hawley February 13, 2016 at 6:03 pm

      Maybe I’m just reading too much David Graeber and Paul Mason at the moment, or watching the polls for a certain leftist presidential candidate, but it seems to me like this pattern may be changing. We can hope.

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    • Reginald February 13, 2016 at 9:55 pm

      MQ said: “…The corporation, for one, has to be paid first and preserved by all means. Result: progress and new thinking proceed at a glacial pace if at all.”

      I’m glad the corporation is preserved because that’s how we earn money to eat and have a roof over our heads. Progress and new thinking in the US is light years ahead of the rest of the world – our nation has done more to lift up the rest of the world than all other nations combined throughout all of history – and much of that is due to the freedom we have although that freedom is being eroded. Yes, we have problems, but the rest of the world has far worse problems. That’s why people around the world want to come to the USA, and it’s why very few of us choose to go live in other countries. Of course anyone who disagrees is free to hop on the next flight and go elsewhere. Any takers? I didn’t think so.

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      • Ted Timmons (Contributor) February 14, 2016 at 7:10 pm

        Right. This is why we are number one in terms of education. And healthcare outcomes. And happiness index.

        Oh wait, we’re laughably low in all those areas. We *are* number one in suicide by firearms, and our overall gun violence rate is well up in the “developing nations” category.

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        • Reginald February 14, 2016 at 9:51 pm

          TT,

          Here are the real facts. We are not even close to number one in suicides per 100,000 people – in fact we’re number 50. However, South Korea, with almost no firearms, is number 2.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate

          Look carefully at the list. See number 50? How many of the highly touted, “civilized” nations of Europe are above the US? 🙂

          How can that be? We’re number 1 in gun ownership by a mile, yet number 50 in suicides. Hmmmm……
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_guns_per_capita_by_country

          What is the lesson to be learned from the suicide statistics? People commit suicide – it’s part of life – they will do it using whatever means they have at their disposal. Bridges, cliffs, ropes, razors, needles, guns, buildings, car exhaust, pills, cops, car wrecks, drowning, etc.

          Obviously our educational system is broken, that’s why so many foreign students come here to study, right? 🙂

          And Canadians come here for sophisticated medical procedures because they like the backwardness of our health care, right? 🙂

          🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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          • Ted Timmons (Contributor) February 14, 2016 at 10:16 pm

            You quoted suicide rates. Not suicide by *gun*.

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            • Adam H. February 15, 2016 at 1:07 pm

              Actually, yes it does. Suicide by gun is instant. No way to change their mind afterwards. If the person instead tries to overdose, then immediately regrets it, there is time to save their life.

              Of course, the better option is to provide people suffering from depression and mental illness with adequate health care, but that’s a separate matter.

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              • Reginald February 15, 2016 at 9:56 pm

                AH,
                Most of the time suicide death by gun is pretty quick if the shot is well placed and of adequate caliber. But the process of deciding to do it is not quick, and it is not easy to put a gun barrel in your mouth and pull the trigger – physically it may be easy, but mentally it is not easy. Bottle of whiskey and a bottle of pills would be much less painful.

                My stats above prove that you are wrong. Suicide is a condition of life for some people – the availability of guns has no bearing on the number of people who commit suicide, although when guns are available they are a top choice in the hopes that death will be instant as you describe – and for many that happens. But apparently you prefer that they suffer a horrible death as they jump, hang themselves, poison themselves, walk in front of MAX or a bus, ram their car head on into an 18 wheeler, or pull a gun on a cop, etc, etc, etc. For most of the successful ones, suicide is probably the best option available to them – and no “help” could change that.

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  • BJCefola February 13, 2016 at 10:59 am

    I suspect the difference between Portland and other cities starts with urban growth boundary. Prior to that, was Portland’s development path noticeably different from other cities?

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    • Anne Hawley
      Anne Hawley February 13, 2016 at 11:37 am

      Agreed. Something about the hippie era really stuck.

      The UGB in 1969, the statewide Bottle Bill in 1971, the first Bike Plan in 1973, the Harbor Drive conversion and termination of the Mt Hood Freeway in 1974, Tri-Met Mall in 1976, MAX in 1982: all landmark sustainability decisions that began to set Portland and Oregon apart. It was a period of remarkable ferment and change, and our laurels were well-earned, much-mocked, and sometimes-copied.

      Before that (and I speak here as a native who remembers the changes in my NE Portland neighborhood at the time), Portland was pretty much just another podunk small city with massive white flight to the new ‘burbs, except that there was quite a bit less racial diversity to fly from.

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      • Anne Hawley
        Anne Hawley February 13, 2016 at 11:43 am

        In my last sentence: less racial diversity than in most other cities.

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      • Reginald February 13, 2016 at 10:09 pm

        AH,

        Please provide a few examples of what you consider to be successful US cities that have adequate diversity.

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        • Anne Hawley
          Anne Hawley February 14, 2016 at 10:01 am

          I’m not sure why you think I should do that research for you, since the answer wouldn’t have any bearing on my comment. Portland’s era of white flight to the suburbs is well established, and followed the same pattern of other US cities. Portland’s overwhelming majority-whiteness, then and now, is also undisputed. Other cities’ relative diversity is irrelevant here.

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      • B. Carfree February 14, 2016 at 8:29 pm

        Notice that all of those things are from long ago. Most Portland-area residents didn’t even live here, or weren’t born yet, when Portland was making edgy decisions. Somehow, there remains a self-congratulatory ethos long after we have fallen.

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  • Rob Chapman February 13, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    I’m still sad that Anne is too smart to run for office. I mean it.

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    • Reginald February 13, 2016 at 10:06 pm

      RC,
      Don’t know her personally and she may be very smart. However, I could not really follow what she and Paul were discussing – it did not seem to make a whole lot of sense. I know those on this very biased website are eating it up and that’s fine, but in order to determine if her logic is sound, I’d like to see it put on a forum where people of different beliefs and values hang out. I’d like to see what kinds of holes they shoot into her argument. Many people who are very smart have no common sense and believe in things that don’t work in the real world.

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      • Anne Hawley
        Anne Hawley February 14, 2016 at 9:47 am

        In the comment honored by this post, I was following up another comment I made.

        My original comment was to speculate that maybe Odense, Denmark, with no fancy laurels to rest on the way Portland rests on its, was poised to make some real progress in bike infrastructure. With no hoity-toity credentials and no worldwide reputation to maintain, maybe it has an advantage.

        I don’t know exactly what that advantage might be. In my original comment, I simply expressed the wish that Portland could get over itself and start on a humbler, more Odense-like path, instead of continuing to accept accolades for its outdated painted bike lanes and half-realized bike boulevards.

        In the conversation that followed, I tried out a metaphor: how developing countries (metaphor for Odense) have leapfrogged over the US (metaphor for Portland) in cellular rollout because they had no huge corporate investment in copper wire (metaphor for 5′ bike lanes and greenways) to protect and defend. They could spend what resources they had on cell towers, skipping expensive copper infrastructure altogether.

        I don’t know exactly what sort of bike facilities the cellular network represents in this little exercise in metaphor. I don’t think I need to know to post the idea and have a conversation about it.

        I hope this helps you follow my thinking, for what it was worth.

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        • wsbob February 14, 2016 at 1:06 pm

          “…I simply expressed the wish that Portland could get over itself and start on a humbler, more Odense-like path, …” hawley

          Where exactly the idea that Portland somehow has an over inflated opinion of itself as a provider of premium biking infrastructure, came from, ought to looked at to see what truth there is to that idea.

          I don’t think Portland does particularly does have such an opinion of itself. For sure, Portland has had its share of attention in the national spotlight for some years, of being a bike forward type of city, ascribed to it by organizations not from the city, such as the League of American Bicyclists (LAB), national transportation engineering associations, government officials, people using the city’s streets, and so on.

          City Hall officials of many cities, as a matter of course, seek to pitch their cities attributes in ways that may be considerably more positive than the real experience on the ground actually may be. Why? because they want the money a positive image may help to bring them from federal programs and grants, from business and corporations looking for new bases of operations… .

          Despite the apparently irresistible attractiveness to some people, of some of Europes’ comparatively more bike supportive infrastructure, geographically small, high population countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, even Germany fairly large, but compared to the U.S., no.)…those countries need for the bike infrastructure they have, is far greater than any need that any U.S. city, including Portland, has had to date.

          It’s self defeating for people wanting improvements in infrastructure for better biking conditions, to engage people in a slew of disparaging remarks about the city’s supposed opinion of itself, and of the quality of its current biking infrastructure.

          Where the need and interest is there, Portland’s and other city’s residents and business, will be willing to invest in better infrastructure for biking. Odense, Denmark apparently has been at that point and responded positively. Cities in our area, in the Willamette Valley, still just barely have the bike infrastructure needs to meet, that Europe’s bike supportive cities have.

          From bikeportland, I look forward to good ideas exploring improvements to biking infrastructure people feel are needed. Are such improvements really needed, and why? If people that believe this type infrastructure is needed, can’t rise above contemptuous one-liners about their city, to work instead towards solid reasoning as to whether the need for better biking infrastructure truly exists, and why…and how to persuade people to support it…progress towards realizing that infrastructure will be slowed.

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        • Reginald February 14, 2016 at 4:33 pm

          Thanks for the explanation.
          Video on Odense cycling infrastructure:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN8noxNpv3E

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      • Anne Hawley
        Anne Hawley February 14, 2016 at 9:55 am

        PS Yes, I’m pretty smart. My only common-sense credentials are that I’ve managed to reach the age of 60 in reasonably good mental, physical, and fiscal shape.

        Please don’t mistake my speculation and metaphor-spinning comments here for arguments designed to bear the weight of logical examination. I’m just interested in talking about stuff, throwing out ideas, and starting conversations, here in the relatively safe, like-minded community of bike-riders in Portland.

        We don’t set policy here in these comments. We don’t have any official “voice” in government. If public officials pay attention to us, it’s probably to triangulate their own positions by noting the concerns of an invested and well-informed special-interest group.

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    • Anne Hawley
      Anne Hawley February 14, 2016 at 9:57 am

      IDK about too smart, but I’m definitely too old, too poor, and way, way too lazy.

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  • greg byshenk February 15, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    wsbob
    Where the need and interest is there, Portland’s and other city’s residents and business, will be willing to invest in better infrastructure for biking. Odense, Denmark apparently has been at that point and responded positively. Cities in our area, in the Willamette Valley, still just barely have the bike infrastructure needs to meet, that Europe’s bike supportive cities have.

    This seems to reflect a common misconception among Americans about European cycling. The issue is really not the size of the county, but the size and — more importantly — the “shape” of cities.
    Denmark and the Netherlands may be pretty small countries, but what people don’t seem to realize is that they both have a lot of empty space. Odense, the city referenced above, is actually pretty isolated; no one is going to be biking regularly from there to Copenhagen or Aalborg. What makes the difference is the form of the city. So also for Groningen, the cyclingest city in the Netherlands, which is similarly surrounded by a lot of empty space.
    So, in the case of Portland, it doesn’t matter how bit the USA is, nor even how big and empty Oregon is; almost no one will be biking even from Portland to Salem. What matters is how compact the urban area is. And, unfortunately for biking, Portland, though much better than a lot of US cities, is vast, empty, and sprawling compared to most European cities, and especially those that are cycling havens.

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