The Oregonian Editorial Board weighed in on the state of bicycling in Portland today. The editorial appeared on the same week that PBOT released its annual bike counts showing a 6.4% increase between 2010 and 2011.
Whenever our state’s newspaper of record devotes major opinion space to bicycling, it’s worth noting. Regardless of what you think about The Oregonian, the fact remains they own an influential voice that helps frame the conversation. In Biking the path to urban health, The O’s Editorial Board seems to give a big thumbs up to bicycling in general, but when you look more closely, their opinion isn’t quite as clear.
The opening paragraphs lay out our success and tout that bicycling has, “become part of Portland’s DNA and identity.” They even mention how bikes make us healthier, contribute to our economy, and attract businesses and families. Sounds fantastic to me! Oh wait, then there’s a “but”…
But the drive to make biking an easy and safer choice for more folks, including those stuck in traffic in Portland’s suburbs, is tough and expensive — the city’s commitment to achieve the 25 percent benchmark was budgeted at a breathtaking $600 million…
I disagree with this completely. First, one of the main reasons improving our bike network has been “tough” is that local politicians have cowered under public “controversy” fueled in large part by media bias and sensationalism around bicycling — much of it from The Oregonian themselves (the lack of strong local advocacy to bolster City Hall’s support hasn’t helped either).
Improving bike access on roads and bridges in our city isn’t always technically difficult; it’s often more about political will. At a recent meeting, I heard a high-level PBOT traffic engineer, while addressing the agency’s difficulties in moving forward with separated bikeways in the downtown core, say, “That’s the magic of these projects, having the political feasibility and the technical feasibility come together.”
And “expensive”? Really?!
Bicycling is by far and away the most affordable transportation investment we can make and it has the greatest return on investment. The Oregonian trudges out the “$600 million” bike plan figure that unfortunately dominated headlines when the 2030 Bike Plan passed two years ago. Not only is using that figure in this context highly misleading, but they actually explain it incorrectly. The City did not, as The O’s editorial writers proclaim, budget $600 million in order to achieve a 25% bike mode split. That amount is the estimated cost of all the projects listed in the 2030 Bike Plan.
And as master plans go, the Bike Plan’s $600 million wish list of projects pales in comparison to the $1,719 million ($1.7 Billion) Freight Master Plan (but don’t expect to see the local media fret over that number any time soon).
It’s also hypocritical for The Oregonian to call budgets into question when they are unabashedly beating the drum for the controversial and expensive Columbia River Crossing project — a project that falls apart under scrutiny and has already cost taxpayers well over $100 million in planning.
As for the 25% bike mode split: It’s possible to get there for a fraction of $600 million. After all, things like removing publicly subsidized parking for private vehicles to create more space for bicycling and doing road diets (re-configuring lanes on streets that have more lanes than capacity warrants) cost nothing. But, according to The O, that type of stuff isn’t possible:
Part of the challenge lies in the urban retrofit. It doesn’t always work.
The reason it “doesn’t always work” has far less to do with engineering problems and much more to do with a lack of willingness for local leaders to be bold and break free of the auto-dominated status quo that continues to govern how we design our streets (yes, even in Portland).
“Everything from bridge bike lanes to the construction of more than 30 miles of bicycle boulevards is pricey, while extensive planning is required for summertime experiments such as Sunday Parkways in which families experience carefree biking on carless neighborhood streets.”
To call bicycle boulevards “pricey” is a bit of a stretch. Even for the top-of-the-line model, they’re only about $250,000 per mile. But the more important point is that, relative to other transportation investments (like streetcars at $15 million per mile), they are a bargain. Not to mention that bicycles do almost zero damage to the roads and require a pittance in annual maintenance and operations costs.
And what’s with referring to Sunday Parkways as an “experiment”? Sunday Parkways is an institution in Portland. The experiment is over. And it was successful. Part of the reason it has succeeded is precisely because of all the “extensive planning” PBOT puts into it. In addition, a recent study showed that the health benefits alone outweigh the costs.
And then, in the end of the piece, The Oregonian makes it crystal clear why they were motivated to write this editorial:
… While the new figures show a 4 percent rise in bicycle crossings via the Broadway, Steel, Burnside and Hawthorne bridges — with bikes accounting for a whopping 15 percent of all bridge traffic in Portland — it is not unreasonable to worry about the price of our next bike-building steps in this cash-strapped time.
So, according to The Oregonian, because budgets are tight, we should worry about the one mode, bicycling, that stretches our dollars further than any other, helps the local economy, reduces health care costs, creates a lasting and valuable brand identity for our city, and much more.
The Oregonian then suggests some “comparatively inexpensive” things that would have “major benefits.” Their ideas? Painting bike lanes through intersections, adding more signs, and fixing “poor street conditions.” I feel safer already.
“But most of all,” they write, we should do more to get bikes off main streets…
But most of all, a 2011 alliance report suggests, mapping out the best bike routes that keep cyclists away from cars will have the most benefit to the most riders and encourage the most bicyclists.
Backstreet solutions like neighborhood greenways have their place; but they are not a substitute for making real improvements to bike access on our business corridors and main streets.
This is a strange piece of editorial writing. The Oregonian seems to understand bicycling is amazing and has helped our city in many ways, yet we shouldn’t spend any real money on it and we should keep bikes on the backstreets where they won’t get in the way.
I’m not sure what’s more dangerous: When the media clearly doesn’t get it and blasts bicycling out of anger and ignorance, or — as seems to be the case with The Oregonian — positions themselves as supportive, yet only when it requires no difficult decisions or changes to the status quo.
Read the full editorial here. And as always, I’d love to know your thoughts…