Portland is once again received major national press coverage for being bike-friendly. A ‘Cover Story’ (front page, below-the-fold) in yesterday’s edition of USA Today — the paper with the second largest circulation in America — gave major props to Portland as a place where “bikes rule the road.” The story has also been picked up in smaller papers nationwide. On USAToday.com, the story was accompanied by a video that features the head of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) Rob Sadowsky and Portland State University researcher Jennifer Dill.
The framing of the story is that Portland is on the leading edge of a push across the country to “rethink… the automobile”. This story comes just a day after The Economist magazine proclaimed, “A cycling renaissance is taking place in America.” While this coverage is exciting, it comes with pitfalls we should be aware of.
Here’s the lede from the USA Today…
America spent 50 years and billions of dollars after World War II redesigning itself so that cars could move people across this vast country more quickly.
Now, with many cities in gridlock, one-third of the population obese and climate change forcing innovators to look beyond the internal combustion engine, cities are beginning to rethink that push toward the automobile.
Perhaps no place has thought about it more than Portland,
The story mentions our great success with getting kids to bike to school, how the demographics of bicycling is changing, our progress on bike boulevards/neighborhood greenways, and it highlights that, while obviously there are some haters (on both sides of the windshield), the majority of road users here in Portland tend to get along just fine.
And, given all the talk about the economy, here’s one my favorite parts:
All of this has helped Portland’s economy, too, fostering a growing concentration of bicycle builders, manufacturers and retailers that have brought jobs, and young workers, to town.
The story also captured an interesting theme I’ve been noticing here in Portland: Among our politicians, academics, advocates, and city employees, there’s a clear aversion into being perceived as “anti-car”. Fearful of that label and the pushback that can come with it, leaders here work hard to avoid the “war on cars.” While I’m critical at times of how we’re not more forceful and bold in moving forward with bicycling, the PR message that Portland is simply “creating options” to car travel — and not being blatantly anti-car — will probably help move us forward (with less divisiveness) in the long run. Here’s the last article’s conclusion:
In the end, planners in Portland aren’t trying to force people out of their cars, says Jennifer Dill, director of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium at Portland State University. Their goal is to give people choices.
“In many cities you have no choice — you have to drive to work,” she says. “Here, you have a choice. What we’ve found is that given an array of choices — driving, taking the bus, biking or walking — a lot of people will choose other options than driving.
While I think the headline is a bit over-the-top (I wish it was true!), and I’m concerned at how this type of ‘Portland is bike utopia!’ coverage exacerbates our underlying complacency problem, the article is well-written and includes important aspects about what’s happening in Portland. The story will do a lot to inspire other cities to follow suit and it provides a well-deserved validation to local advocates and bureaucrats that we are headed in the right direction.
But there’s a caveat: Portland has enjoyed this type of press coverage for many years now. I think there’s a real danger that it’s much more difficult to create a sense of urgency among elected officials and the public at large to improve bicycling if the narrative is always that “bikes rule the road” or “we’re #1!” or “Portland is bike utopia.” We currently suffer from a gap between the myth and the reality of the quality of our bikeway network. This gap manifests itself in stories like the infamous Oregonian article declaring that our transportation budget’s “Road to ruin” is due to spending on bike lanes and a recent blog post on Red County entitled, The City of Portland’s bloated bicycle budget edges out essential services.
Celebrating success is good. But given the bicycling plateau we’re on and Portland’s glaring gaps to easy and convenient bicycling for everyone ages 8-80, I strongly believe we need a lot more pushing and lot less patting on the back.
Watch the video below: