Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Editorial: While Portland stalls, New York City moves boldly forward

Posted by on February 26th, 2009 at 2:53 pm

New York City has a plan to radically transform Broadway at 7th Ave. near Times Square.
(Photo courtesy Streetsblog)

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg — arm-in-arm with his visionary and bike-loving director of transportation Jeanette Sadik-Kahn — has unveiled a bold new vision for Broadway Boulevard in Midtown Manhattan.

Here’s the news from Streetsblog:

“New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan unveiled plans to pedestrianize a large swath of Broadway in Midtown Manhattan at a small briefing in City Hall this morning. Intended to improve motor vehicle traffic flow, enhance safety and provide more and better public space to pedestrians, the plan seeks to solve what Sadik-Khan called a ‘problem hidden in plain sight for 200 years’.”

Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek — whose website is one of the reasons for the street renaissance in New York City — wrote that the plan is, “arguably, the boldest and most transformative street reclamation project since Portland, Oregon decided to tear down Harbor Drive in 1974.”

In part because of our removal of Harbor Drive (and other things like our light rail and nation’s-best bikeway network), many people around the country and the around the world see Portland as a leader in livability and transportation innovation. And in many ways we are. But when I read the fantastic news from New York City this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if Portland’s platinum patina is losing its shine.

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As New York City moves forward to transform their city into one that prioritizes the movement of people over the movement of cars (and this is hardly the first thing they’ve done in recent years), Portland is still living off fumes of its illustrious green legacy. However, our recent history is much less admirable.

Here are a few examples: We just had a Mayor and a city council vote in support of what many think will lead to a 12-lane CRC bridge; our local bike advocacy group claims that the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation’s budget “ignores bikes”; our nationally renown and successful Safe Routes to Schools program is set for a budget revision that will see its funding go down 40% over last year (meaning core Safe Routes services will be cut from 49 schools); the new transit mall downtown has no accommodation for two-wheeled transportation; we were unable to muster the political will to pass a transportation funding measure; and we had a bike and pedestrian only bridge (that would have create a safe and connected route across a downtown freeway) shelved at the last minute because it got too risky.

Sure, there has been some good news of late. We have gotten bike boxes painted at 12 intersections (at a cost of just $3,000 each and they came after two people were killed on their bikes), we now have dedicated access through the Rose Quarter Transit Center, and we had a successful Sunday Parkways event (which is now scrambling to find sponsorship for its second year).

But none of these successes beckon words like “bold” or “transformative”.

What gives? Where is Portland’s big and innovative green transportation project? Where is our local leadership that will take us on a path like Mayor Bloomberg and Sadik-Kahn are taking New York City? Who will emerge to take back the wheel of this ship and steer us back into the lead?

Maybe I’m just having a pessimistic day or two (if you’d been on the phone calls and in the meetings I’ve been in in the past few days you might be pessimistic too), but I would love to report on something as exciting, important, and transformative for our city as New York City’s plan to create a human-friendly Broadway Boulevard.

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

  • bahueh February 26, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    huh? you’re worried about PDX because NYC is rebuilding/restructing 7 city blocks of the most heavily tourist trafficed areas?

    NYC is HUGE man…7 blocks is nothing. I’m not sure I’d call that “boldly moving forward”…

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  • the future February 26, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    super duper for the tourists. zero help to anyone who lives there. do what i did new yorkers and move to portland if you know whats good for you.

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  • cyclist February 26, 2009 at 3:24 pm


    “the new transit mall downtown has no accommodation for two-wheeled transportation;”

    While this is not an outright falsehood, it’s a very negative spin on the mall redevelopment. Before the mall got redone, only Trimet had free and clear access down 5th and 6th avenues, bikes and cars both had to turn off every couple of blocks. Now bike and cars share a through lane the length of the mall. I ride in that lane every day from Main to Alder.

    While it’s true that there may not be a bike-only accommodation on the mall, the facilities that we can use have been improved (significantly) over what was there before, and I plan to take full advantage. To suggest that bikes can’t use the new transit mall seems disingenuous to say the least.

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  • david February 26, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I agree with bahueh. 7 blocks is hardly bold, if the plan included a large portion of downtown I’d be inclined to say it was bold. But as it stands now it looks like a project to make tourists happy.

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  • michael downes February 26, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    I agree…New York is huge so the projects, while seeming large, impact a relatively small percentage of people but on the other hand they seem to have a clearly outlined vision and that is what I believe is missing in Portland. Yes…we have a bicycle master plan but I have never seen it presented in a way that allows people to grasp the overall vision….where we are and, more importantly, where we are headed.

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  • Zoomzit February 26, 2009 at 3:48 pm


    I agree with you on the downtown transit mall. The proposed right hand turn process for bikes (pull LEFT, press cross walk button, cross to the RIGHT with pedestrians and then merge with traffic) is counter-intuitive, to say the least. I fear that many accidents will occur with this process as 1. it is encouraging bikes to travel with vehicular traffic, then travel with peds and then merge back to vehicular traffic and 2. I don’t think anyone who was not aware of the “recommended” crossing process would actually intuitively follow these steps.

    I wish the transit mall had a cycle track to the right of the light rail. Amsterdam has this setup and it works well.

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  • David Anderson February 26, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    too bad we couldn’t transform our Broadway in to a Pedestrian Mall, with curving pedestrian and/or bike mall with mini-shops along the edges leading to bigger shops behind the sidewalks. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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  • Bdan February 26, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I agree in many respects that we have stalled as of late. But the difference is that NYC has a mayor who can get things done. We have had a lame duck and now have another in office. NYC is also able to do these things because it is extremely compact and has tremendous public transit. We are just a midsize place with much less funds to work with. I see this current phase of Portland’s development as its midlife crisis.

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  • Tbird February 26, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    @3, I’d say there’s darn near 0 accommodations for bikes on the Transit Mall. We are allowed (forced) to ride in the motor vehicle lanes, perhaps that’s what your referring to.
    At least there’s no one standing on the corner throwing rocks at cyclists riding on the Transit Mall, but that’s about the only pro-bike statement I could make about it. Considering we’re supposedly the best biking city in the US (whatever that means…), one would expect a TRANSIT MALL to properly accommodate appropriate modes of transit.

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  • ScottG February 26, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    I think I’m just going to ride my bike around the city during rush hour and feel immense gratitude that I live in this city as opposed to any other (*especially* New York).

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  • Meghan H February 26, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Sorry, what’s the “bike and pedestrian only bridge … shelved at the last minute because it got too risky” you speak of? Maybe I missed a day of news on this site?

    Those are the projects I desperately hate seeing get canceled. Unsafe or missing connections over freeways are the things that drive people back into their cars.

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  • Dave February 26, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    I understand, and I begin to feel like not much is moving forward here in Portland as well… I think in general our bike-friendliness depends a lot on the city planning of the people who originally plotted out Portland and made it easily walkable/ridable, and really, not a huge amount has been done since then except painting some bike lanes on the sides of some roads and putting in some roundabouts here and there. It would be nice to see Portland’s bicycle plan, 20 minute neighborhood plan, etc publicized, advertised, put out in public for people to see. As far as I can tell, there is almost no effort towards informing the general public at all. There is almost no public push from the city to start biking or taking transit, there is almost no effort to increase public awareness of the benefits of doing so. It would be great, if nothing else, to see the city trying to inform people. Get it out in the mainstream media that Portland wants to move forward in certain ways, and get it out in mainstream media the ways that they feel the city and individual residents will benefit from that kind of change. I know we are increasing bicycle usage without any of that, but I believe we are going to need more than just a steady trickle of bikes here and there in the city before we really reach the point where the city can make truly bold moves without major throwback. The bicycle was already a prominent mode of transport in the Netherlands prior to them implementing the infrastructure they currently have.

    The thing I’m hoping will happen with the transit mall, is that automobiles will get tired of waiting in the increased traffic (due to only having one lane they can drive in), and decide to take other streets, leaving the bus mall lane largely open for bike traffic 🙂

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  • Barry February 26, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Having lived in NYC for many years (including many Bloomberg years) and Portland for the past 2, I have to say that NYC is a polar opposite from Portland when it comes to accommodations for cyclists. Tourists are really the only ones to benefit from this most recent development, because hardly anyone commutes through midtown on Broadway. It’s really more about business district development than livability, unfortunately.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 26, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Let’s put this into perspective with some facts.

    In July 2006, NYC committed to building 200 miles of bikeways in three years; over 80 miles have already been installed.

    In that time, Portland built (ready for it?) 5 miles of bikeway.

    NYC got three Summer Streets, we got one.

    NYC is building multiple separated bike lanes; we have none.

    NYC is removing vehicle lanes and parking spaces to benefit pedestrians and bicyclists all over the city. I can’t recall any project in Portland that can say the same. (Am I wrong? Let me know if so – I’d like to believe…)

    I agree with Jonathan that the exceptions are exceptional (the green bike boxes, the Rose Quarter fix, and many of the wonderful cultural happenings and programs we enjoy). But we seem stalled on some key issues, while NYC, formerly known as a terrible place to ride a bike, is aiming for the stars.

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  • GLV February 26, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    NYC has 8 million residents, we have one-half million.

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  • peejay February 26, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    The big thing is that for all his good intentions, we now have a mayor who has lost his way. He backs down on transit issues faster than Harry Reid backs down to a threatened GOP filibuster. Worse than useless.

    Recall Sam Adams and lets get a mayor who can get things done.

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  • PDXCyclist February 26, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Jessica said “NYC is removing vehicle lanes and parking spaces to benefit pedestrians and bicyclists all over the city. I can’t recall any project in Portland that can say the same. (Am I wrong? Let me know if so – I’d like to believe…)”

    To b fair, they did install bike corrals, which removed parking spaces and benefit bicyclists and pedestrians.

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  • molleeeb February 26, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    “Portland is still living off fumes of its illustrious green legacy”

    I strongly agree, and have worried lately that Portland is starting(?) to rest on its “green city” laurels. What has happened recently (or ever) that makes us so very green? Certainly not the recent compromise for a TWELVE lane bridge–the outcome of the CRC crossing project could have been a way to show real commitment to the cause– instead it’s business as usual.

    I think “green-ness” is mostly a nice stereotype to cling to, and there are a lot of progressively-minded people living and moving here that are helping add to this stereotype. However, I also feel that we need to really walk the walk and urge our regional leaders to take the big, tough steps that will prioritize bicycles and alternative transportation, rather than touting how green we are while planning huge freeway expansions.

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  • Barry February 26, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    More perspective:
    NYC 9 million people
    PDX 500,000 people

    Consider the difference in miles of roadway, existing bike paths (there are already 260 miles of bike paths/lanes in PDX), cars on the road, and so on.

    I think Portland has got it pretty damn good.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) February 26, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Since Portland is a smaller city, shouldn’t it be easier to do some big projects?

    Also, Barry wrote:

    “I think Portland has got it pretty damn good.”

    That kind of sentiment is exactly what worries me. “pretty damn good” isn’t good enough and we should not be patting ourselves on the back so much.

    Portland is awesome. We all know that.

    BUT, Portland has much more exciting potential than is being realized. It’s not being realized because we lack local leadership and political will to get us there.

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  • P Finn February 26, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    I always thought 3rd and 4th would make a nice cycletrack couplet with extra-ped-friendly features/cafe tables…take out a lane and/or one side of parking… get a comfy n/s route with little elevation gain…

    A CycleMall to go with our TransitMall!

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  • P Finn February 26, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    SW (& NW) 3rd and 4th, that is…

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  • Jessica Roberts February 26, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Good point, PDXCyclist. I do indeed love our on-street bike parking corrals, both because they provide much-needed bike parking AND because we took that space back from the cars. Thanks for the reminder.

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  • Paulo February 26, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Get out there and take the streets, build a campaign and present it to the people, to city hall. I think Portland is in dire need of some pilot programs to use the streets better. It only takes a few bollards, large planters and signs to restrict car traffic 🙂

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  • fredlf February 26, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Taking a broad view, I’d say Portland has “stalled out” because for the last decade large chunks of the federal, state and local government has been systemically defunded and decommissioned by those clever folks who want a government small enough to drown in a bathtub. Now we are starting to see the results, an economy in the toilet and every agency fighting over every remaining penny in the over-stressed budgets.

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  • Zaphod February 26, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Not to revisit the proverbial dead horse but where is the physical Sauvie Island bridge right now? Has it been melted? Is it sitting somewhere?

    I have to believe that it’s exactly the kind of “shovel ready” project that we could bang out fast if the thing is still in one piece.

    I agree that it is the missing crossings over major arterials and freeways that inhibit ridership.

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  • bikieboy February 26, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Jessica (#14): “NYC is removing vehicle lanes and parking spaces to benefit pedestrians and bicyclists all over the city. I can’t recall any project in Portland that can say the same. (Am I wrong? Let me know if so”

    bike lanes on the following streets were accomplished by:

    – N Willamette Blvd (parking removal)
    – N Vancouver (lane/parking removal)
    – NE 41st (parking removal)
    – NE Glisan (lane removal)
    – SE Madison (parking removal)
    – SE 26th (parking removal)
    – SE 28th (parking removal)
    – SE Bybee (parking removal)
    – NE Cully (lane removal)
    – SE 42nd (parking removal)
    – SE Harney (lane removal)
    – Se 7th (lane removal)
    – NE Irving (parking removal)
    – NW 3rd (lane removal)
    – NE 7th (lane removal)

    i could pull out the bike map and find a few more – some of the NW bike lanes involved lane removal, i think. But the salient point is that all of these have been in place for a decade, which (not coincidentally) coincides with the demise of the City’s Bike Program.

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  • Coyote February 26, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Any space taken away from cars in NYC is bold. 300,000+ people walk through that section of town every day.

    IMO Portland is going through what Eugene went through 20 years ago. The low hanging fruit is gone, through a combination of good planning and a mostly mellow population, Portland is plausible as a self-propelled city. The analogy to a mid-life crisis is not bad. The bold stuff is mostly done, what remains is hard work. Creating a culture of comfortable and dignified transportation that is not car orientated is daunting task. Every effort will be rewarded, although those rewards may not come in time to suit the impatient.

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  • Adams Carroll February 26, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    I still don’t understand why cars and bikes (personal transport) should be allowed in a mall designed for “mass transit.” If I remember correctly, it is because the portland business alliance, who aren’t exactly our best friends and certainly aren’t very progressive thinkers, lobbied for the inclusion of an auto lane. Basically, this is the kind of watering down of transit infrastructure that makes the whole mass transit system less efficient and a less viable alternative to cars.

    I also agree that most of the recognition we get for being so green is the result of the momentum of projects past. We are a green city because of the work of the people who killed the Mt. Hood Expressway, removed Harbor Drive, brought in light rail, and so on. Essentially, all of these things happened before bicycles were ever a spending priority in this city. Furthermore, when you look at the amount of money PBOT has spent on bicycle infrastructure since it became a “priority”, it makes you wonder if our officials are even aware that people here ride bikes. I don’t remember the exact number–maybe somebody here does–but its like less than one percent.

    What all of this means to me is that our time as cyclists has not yet come. At this point, we’ve only been given crumbs and we’ve done a lot with them. But if we want our efforts to make a real, permanent difference, we need demand to be taken seriously and pull off the kind of grand scale project that the highway removers who came before us did.

    The CRC is the Mt. Hood Expressway of our generation. Allowing it to be built as the 12-but-actually-18 lane behemoth being proposed is basically an admission that the momentum that brought our city to where it is today has run out. I’m not ready to believe that and I hope the rest of you aren’t either.

    Sam Adams is letting us down by going with twelve lanes, and so are commissioners Leonard, Fish, and Saltzman, who all voted in favor. We need to let ALL of them know how wrong they are, and we need to do it soon. The Columbia River Crossing must be scaled down, and its transit, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities must be emphasized. Then state and city budgets need to be reworked so that bicycles are no longer treated like second rate citizens, even (or perhaps especially) if it means taking away money from auto-centric projects, which tend to pollute our air, break up our communities, and leave our citizens sedentary and unhealthy.

    Just my two cents…

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  • Scott February 26, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    9 million vs. 1/2 million people
    $1113 billion GDP vs. $87 billion GDP!

    There is simply NO comparison in scale between these cities.

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  • Adams Carroll February 26, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    One last thought- comparing PDX with NYC probably isn’t very productive for the reasons of scale, density, and so on that have been mentioned, but that doesn’t mean that Jonathan doesn’t have a point.

    I don’t see the point of competing with other cities to be more bike friendly or more green just so we can say that we are the #1 bike city or #1 green city. Frankly, such a statistic doesn’t say much when you take in to account how hopelessly ungreen this country is.

    The point is that we are failing to meet our own standards, which we have set for ourselves not in pursuit of fame or recognition, but to repair all of the environmental and livability problems that have resulted from our old world auto-centric thinking.

    What is at stake is not our reputation- it is our air, our water, our health, and our communities. These are things that are worth more than a spot on a “best of” list.

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  • Michael M. February 27, 2009 at 6:19 am

    I agree with cyclist (#3), Jonathan. Bike-friendliness does not necessarily have to equate with “bike-specific” facilities. My (early) impression of the transit mall is that it will be a big improvement for everybody — cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians alike — and I don’t see that as a step backward or resting on laurels.

    As for NYC, having lived there for so long until four years ago, it has a long way to go before it is nearly as accommodating to bicycling as Portland is. It’s great that they are taking all these steps in the right direction after so many years of neglect, but all these improvements NYC has seen recently in this regard don’t add up to a city that is, overall, as bike-friendly. NYC is doing more than Portland because it has a lot more that needs doing. (I interned at the NYC DOT one summer in the mid-80s, when Sam Schwartz ran things. I never heard the word “bicycle” once. It wasn’t even a blip on the radar, it was non-existent. The DOT was all about moving cars through the city.)

    From my perspective, one of the big problems Portland faces is push-back to “infill” and density, from people on both ends of the political spectrum. I just don’t think Portland has the will or desire to be the kind of city that is truly walkable, the way that NYC always has been. The east side, especially, is pretty much a collection of suburbs strung together that we call a “city,” though there’s nothing particularly urban about it. Under those circumstances, I think Portland is doing a pretty good job of trying to connect the dots. But there’s only so much you can do when people wail and moan about this or that condo or any new construction that might be taller than (shock! horror!) three stories. That mindset would just be laughed at in NYC, and you can see it as an undercurrent of sentiments expressed here all the time (see, for example, ScottG #10 comment). Portland, as anywhere, will always be restricted, for good and for bad, by the kind of environment its residents want; here, there’s a pretty strong anti-urban zeitgeist that will make the kinds of things NYC is doing unlikely if not impossible.

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  • Chuck February 27, 2009 at 6:56 am

    NYC = 23 cyclists killed in 2007. Rates have been growing since 2004. I moved here from a place that, just last summer, there were 3 deaths. The thing that makes Portland so much of a “cycling friendly” city, it that a VAST majority (at least a pleasant amount more then I’m used to) understand how to drive and be aware of cyclists around them.

    That is more meaningful to me then any overly righteous bike lane.

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  • peejay February 27, 2009 at 7:20 am

    The number one issue in Portland related to transit and overall quality of life – which is so much more important than narrowly defined “bike issues” – is the CRC. And, you might have heard, our illustrious mayor gave the farm away to the sprawl-based Vancouverites.

    If this 12-lane monstrosity moves forward, it will have cancelled out all of our good work so far.

    Recall Sam Adams!

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  • frank February 27, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Dont forget your ill designed bike lanes that get people killed while obeying the “mandatory side path” law.

    That is why I did not like riding in Portland. You cant just paint over blood stains with a green bike box that does NOTHING to protect bicyclist during a green light.

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  • bahueh February 27, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    oh wow…frank..do much creative, dramatic writing?

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  • peejay February 27, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Hey Frank:

    Actually, most people know when to get out of the bike lane, and we have a law that says we can, for a number of conditions.

    Gotta defend Portland here a little, because we have a great group of people who ride in this city. It’s great to ride in Portland because so many other people are riding. That we also have political leadership who likes to pretend to be on our side and then stab us in the back is another story.

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  • BURR March 1, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Interesting historical perspective from the NY Times:

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  • Martin March 2, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Time to put more Bikes on the Bikemall. With enough bikes on the Bike Mall, we won’t need cars or buses. New York is light years ahead of Portland. When they need to get somewhere they walk.

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  • Dave Thomson March 2, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Amazing how quickly the positive “bike fun” attitude Portland had a year ago has soured. Must be the economy. I’m still absolutely certain I’d rather be riding in PDX than anywhere else in the US, including NYC. I’m still happy to have the BTA representing me; they understand how to get things done – even if a lot of people here think they should be able to do the impossible and blame them when they can’t. Pushing for change is enabling. Whining is just whining.

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  • Jessica Roberts March 16, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks bikieboy #27. I love all those projects and use the facilities that were created frequently. But looking at that list I have the impression that a lot of them were built many years ago. Where are the recent bold projects? I think the rate of growth in bicycle facility miles should mirror the growth in ridership, not stall out just when the modeshift is happening…

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  • Todd Boulanger March 16, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Back to Bikieboy #27’s nice list…I would suggest these descriptive terms vs. ‘removal’
    – ‘traffic capacity conversion/ shift’ (creating 2 bike lanes from 1 car lane)
    – ‘traffic capacity increase’ (creating 2 bike lanes from 1 car storage lane)

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  • alex June 23, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    I’d say that the project on Broadway is in fact huge. Broadway is a hugely popular street (in terms of both tourist and resident use). Remember that the street is a diagonal street in a city full of east/west avenues and streets. It’s a time saver for those going from one corner of the island to the other.

    To do away with much of its road capacity in a city as congested as NYC is a big step. It also makes it more difficult to drive in the city and more comfortable to walk and gaze. Much safer now.

    In any regards, I wouldn’t downplay the importance of this move. Especially with how much visibility this type of urban planning is seen by the masses.

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