Another outsider’s take: A British bike journalist on Portland

Posted by on July 30th, 2015 at 8:29 am

carlton reid

Carlton Reid in Grant Park in June.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Many BikePortland readers are familiar with the work of Carlton Reid, a leading writer for the U.K. news outlet BikeBiz. As of last month, Reid is familiar with Portland, too.

Reid stopped through town for a few days on a tour promoting his new popular history of early bicycling, Roads Were Not Built for Cars. As a side project, he also put together one of the most concisely accurate summaries I’ve seen of Portland and biking at this moment in our history.

Here’s a passage from the piece published today on BikeBiz:

Bike commuters may dominate in some bohemian enclaves but across the city they make up just six percent of the total. This is stellar by U.S. standards – ten times the norm, in fact – but in comparison with, say, Copenhagen, it’s not even in the same galaxy.

Stats can be misleading though. When riding around Portland it’s clear this is a city where, in certain areas, cycling is perfectly normal, not just for getting to work but for running errands or riding to a night out. Bars and shops have bike-corrals (rows of cycle parking hoops instead of car parking spaces) and the light rail system is geared up to take bikes. Portland’s six percent modal share has to be seen in context – in 1990 it was just 1 percent. Between 2000 and 2008 the civic authority’s proactive bicycle programme helped add the other five percent, and the city has held it at that level ever since. Ten percent of kids cycle to school, nine percentage points higher than the U.S. national average.

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Portland’s rich and diverse cycling cultures will easily maintain the existing modal share. The civic goal is to increase it to 25 percent within the next decade, and that’s a tough ask, even for a city that spawned Pedalpalooza, an annual 250-event from-the-street bike festival.

To increase cycling’s modal share it’s obvious that Portland’s car-use would have to be restricted, and hard infrastructure for cyclists would have to be built. Cycle use would then explode in Portland, profiting the city’s numerous bicycle businesses, making the city even more liveable, and not just for cyclists in gluten-free kilts.

It’s a nicely balanced piece that also describes our annoyingly but usefully fractured street grid as “staccato,” which I love. Check it out — and check out that book of Carlton’s, too, which has a tablet version with photos and video that pushes the boundaries of what a modern history book can and should be like.

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9watts
Guest
9watts

“To increase cycling’s modal share it’s obvious that Portland’s car-use would have to be restricted”

Hear, hear!
So how about it, Leah Treat, Steve Novick? Roger Geller already knows we need to but haven’t made this a priority. I think he needs direction from you two.

Thanks.

JV
Guest
JV

“gluten-free kilts.” Almost spit on my keyboard….yeah, this guy did in fact visit Portland with his eyes open. 🙂

The point, though, is subtle but well-made; not just a dig on bike dorks. Portland’s culture/policy/infrastructure serves the dedicated niches well; increasing modal share requires lowering real and perceived barriers for the “curious but apprehensive.”

Thanks for posting this.

Craig Harlow
Guest
Craig Harlow

Amen, JV, and that requires roadways that are **comfortable** for all ages to bicycle — not offering just statistical safety, but an enticing **feeling** of safety that will coax people who otherwise would rather remain unmaimed/unkilled.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Even so, “statistical safety” must exist and come first. I have a persistent fear/suspicion that the “feeling” cart gets put before the “statistical” horse many times.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

From a public health perspective, the “feeling” may well actually be more important than statistical safety if it gets a good number of people on bikes rather than driving.

Dan
Guest
Dan

And as we know, more cyclists = more cyclist safety (statistically).

9watts
Guest
9watts

We could also tackle this from the other side.
Pete pointed out here a few years back—I thought very wisely—that unnerving and unsafe are two different beasts.
The danger of being hurt while biking on Barbur is very low, but it isn’t much fun, and if you were prone to worrying you’d probably experience it as scary.

We could explore this distinction more, seek to educate people about the actual risks, etc.

http://bikeportland.org/2013/09/13/psu-traffic-engineer-adds-new-criticism-of-odots-barbur-analysis-93940#comment-4431072

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

Safety is measured more than one way.
The historical record for fatal bike crashes on Barbur is low, but mostly due to the small population of bike users.
The risk of fatal for pedestrians and cyclists is high due to vehicle speed and lack of separation.
Vision Zero focuses more on risk than history.

9watts
Guest
9watts

“Vision Zero focuses more on risk”

I think we’re saying more or less the same thing.

tedder
Guest

At his Velo Cult visit/speaking engagement, there were at least 3 kilts in the audience. He asked me “what’s up with the kilts?”. I pointed out that not only are they modern kilts but they were all the local kilts, not Utilikilts.

Carlton Reid
Guest

There were also quite a few at the Multnomah County Bike Fair. I suspect those ones were gluten-rich.

Clark in Vancouver
Guest
Clark in Vancouver

Not only was I pondering that probably all kilts are gluten-free (unless there’s gluten in wool) but also trying to imagine what vegan stripping would look like.

was carless
Guest
was carless

Wow, I had no idea.

Question: should I get a kilt?

Chris Anderson
Guest

Even my interested and concerned friends ask why they let cars on Clinton and other Greenways… the political will is much stronger than folks realize.

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/29/how-groningen-invented-a-cycling-template-for-cities-all-over-the-world

“Motorists woke up one mid-70s morning to find new one-way streets made direct crosstown journeys impossible by car. Forty years later Groningen boasts two-thirds of all trips made by bike … and the cleanest air of any big Dutch city.”

9watts
Guest
9watts

Spine. That is what we’re missing. Spine.

Dwaine Dibbly
Guest
Dwaine Dibbly

I was going to say “leadership”, but “spine” works, too.

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

We have the spine, but our “leadership” is working against it. http://bikeportland.org/2014/12/17/guerrilla-traffic-diverters-installed-removed-se-clinton-119980

9watts
Guest
9watts

You win. You are so right. Damn!

“When the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow.

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

We need another Earl B. in charge of PBOT. When he said ‘make it so’ on traffic calming and the people complained, staff didn’t get the complaints. Every complaint that went to the commissioner’s office died there, like hitting a brick wall. It was a fantastic time.

Paul
Guest
Paul

Gluten-free kilt? What the hell is that? Do I need one?

Alan 1.0
Guest
Alan 1.0

Depends on whether you have a sensitivity to skinny black denim jeans.

ethan
Guest
ethan

When I talked to the city about NE 15th Avenue bike lanes, I was told it was “not politically possible” and there “wasn’t enough demand.” Even though I see people riding their bikes in between large buses and parked cars, apparently there is not enough “demand” to make it safe for people to do so.

So, who will join me in DEMANDING safe bike infrastructure on NE 15th Avenue? I think hounding all of the people involved with City Hall and bike planning every single day until they realize the demand exists should work.

ethan
Guest
ethan

This was meant as a reply to Chris Anderson….

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

15th is a long street. You want to narrow that down a bit?

ethan
Guest
ethan

Yes, I would like to narrow it. I mean the entire stretch of NE 15th, between Lombard and Multnomah.

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

You do know that is a Neighborhood collector, Major Response route, and mostly residential? You would eliminate all parking to achieve bike lanes?
And what about the parts that only have parking on one side, where you would not achieve two bike lanes by removing parking (north of Prescott)?

was carless
Guest
was carless

How I envision the city’s response:

Well, how about a compromise? We could make a bike lane on the east side of the street between say Knott and Fremont, then a bike lane on the west side of the street between Alberta and Prescott.

To make up for the loss of on-street parking, we could compromise by removing the bike lane recently built on Williams.

Its a win-win for everyone!

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

15th and Williams are not comparable locations to park if you live on one of those streets. Williams also has much more commercial use.

mike owens
Guest
mike owens

Well, that was easy. One visit, one assessment and a simple plan:

restrict cars and build hard infrastructure.

Yup. It’s not rocket science.

Adam H.
Guest
Adam H.

I agree completely. We already have a great base of people riding and bike culture here. The next logical step is to create real safe spaces to ride and modal share will explode. It doesn’t take a genius to see this, but unfortunately, this is not currently a priority for our elected officials.

davemess
Guest
davemess

“Cycle use would then explode in Portland.”

And a guy who has visited here a few days knows this how?

Carlton Reid
Guest

How? Extrapolation.

davemess
Guest
davemess

I was just pointing out the use of the word “would” as opposed to “could”. Even though there is no real data to ever show this happening in a major city in the US (and yes US cities and culture are different than Europe).
I’ve harped on this before on here, so I won’t go into too much detail.
“Interested but concerned” is a group of people that yes includes some people who would honestly bike more if there was different/better infrastructure (or less cars), but it also includes a likely majority of people who like to use “it’s not safe” as an excuse not to bike, when in reality they really don’t have that much interest in biking. It’s an easy box to check on a survey to make you feel good about yourself, without having to sacrifice anything.

People even in a city that likes to identify as bike heavy still like the convenience of their cars. They like staying dry/warm in the winter, they like not having to wait an extra 10 minutes for the bus, they like being able to more easily haul their kids places further away than their tag along would comfortably go. And frankly many of them don’t know or can even begin to comprehend any other way.

To get a dramatic shift (like 25 percent) would taken something truly game changing (something like $12/gas). I just don’t think infrastructure improvements (or even less cars, though I do question if that is really possible at this point) will get us there.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

People like to get everything they want for free. We can’t grow our population and have everyone who wants to drive, drive. The city would be an absolute mess.

Clark in Vancouver
Guest
Clark in Vancouver

So true. Vancouver, BC discovered this awhile back and made a policy of encouraging other ways. There’s of course still people who believe that there would be enough space for more cars if we only got rid of the bike lanes and the buses and made more turning lanes, etc. but fortunately the city planners look at facts and reality.

was carless
Guest
was carless

Juding by what I saw posted on reddit today, the city’s traffic situation is already a mess:

https://www.reddit.com/r/Portland/comments/3f8ahb/i_think_ill_just_sleep_at_work/

davemess
Guest
davemess

Regardless that has little to do with a prediction that people a great percentage of people will automatically adopt cycling.
Frankly I think we’re more likely to see increases in public transportation share than bike share.

9watts
Guest
9watts

I hear you, davemess. But.

“People even in a city that likes to identify as bike heavy still like the convenience of their cars.”

This is both familiar and I think unhelpful-because-it-is-a-static-view. It is premised on the future being an extrapolation of the past, on gas prices poking along, on driving’s externalities still passed onto everyone else, on there being no real gas tax, on climate change remaining something we read about in the opinion pages of newspapers but which doesn’t affect us personally, on Vision Zero going nowhere.

I happen to think that all those assumptions are going to be viewed as anachronistic and foolish one of these days. And we who know better should (in my view) stop reifying people’s preferences as if that was all we needed to know about the future of transportation. One of these days people’s modal preferences won’t mean a damn thing. Cars won’t be convenient because we won’t be able to afford the fuel they need to go anywhere, because we woke up to the fact that driving is a major contributor to making life on our planet unlivable for us bipeds, because in light of these harsh insights human powered transport will reveal itself to be a very good substitute for most of our mobility needs. The transition is inevitable and the sooner we acknowledge this the easier it will be.

davemess
Guest
davemess

You forgot my last part:
“To get a dramatic shift (like 25 percent) would taken something truly game changing (something like $12/gas). ”

Where you and I clearly differ is that you think this type of event is going to come much more quickly than I do.

I agree it is not static, but I also think history has shown us how much the US likes its cars, and that cars are a top priority. They will find a way to make cars continue to happen, even while cleaning them up some with hybrids and better mpg’s.

9watts
Guest
9watts

Fair enough.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“…People even in a city that likes to identify as bike heavy still like the convenience of their cars. They like staying dry/warm in the winter, they like not having to wait an extra 10 minutes for the bus, they like being able to more easily haul their kids places further away than their tag along would comfortably go. …” davemess

Good, realistic points. The commute hours though, are where the crunch deciding in favor of motor vehicle use comes in. The only way that will change in favor of deciding in favor of biking, is if community design in our area were dramatically changed so as to bring home and work close enough together that biking between those two points became far more appealing and realistic.

Outside of commute hours where traffic is not heavy, driving is not a big deal. Raising gas prices can work as a means of turning some people away from driving, but most will be resigned to accommodating the increase as a dire essential required to maintain employment.

Portland may not be able to do it (that is, bring enough employment back to where people live to allow realistic commutes by bike of a far greater proportion of road users than exists today.). That city is already gridded out and built up.

Less developed cities surrounding Portland may have a much better opportunity to create home to work commute by bike communities…if there truly were, or could be encouraged by the ‘strong leadership’ some people pine wistfully over the supposed lack of…a true desire in our area for that type of community.

I think there’s a growing interest in my area out in Washington County, for more of such a community, but the interest seems still to be very small. Mostly, the type of planning that still seems to prevail, is of the ‘pack in the high density housing, supported by very modest bike and walk infrastructure(relative to that provided for motor vehicle use.) type.

Patrick
Guest
Patrick

You are absolutely right here. People who have a lot to do or do not want to make it to their destination drenched in sweat, soaked in rain or delayed/restricted by the bus prefer a car and for a good reason. Attempting to force them into doing something like that is not feasible plain and simple. Perhaps some surveys that would indirectly ask question to dig out other reasons beside “infrastructure not there” and “I don’t feel save” for not taking a bike somewhere would open some closed eyes.

9watts
Guest
9watts

“And a guy who has visited here a few days knows this how?”

Maybe because he’s also visited [many] other places and has paid particular attention to the way these two variables interact? Just a thought.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

No. No. You’re in America, where the “experts” are people that have lived here their whole life. They “know best”.

Clark in Vancouver
Guest
Clark in Vancouver

Both locals and outsiders have important perspectives and both should be welcomed and considered.

Carlton Reid
Guest

In the past couple of months – Davis, California; San Francisco; New York; Washington, D.C.; London, UK; and Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Nice to get Reid’s perspective!

Seattle’s actively addressing whittling down auto traffic. Portland really needs to get going on this. We simply can’t accommodate the cars of the people projected to keep flocking here. And that’s not being anti-car: that’s just a fact–so all my civil engineering friends tell me. 🙂

https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/seattle-driving-downtown-cut-cars-traffic

(from the article)
“We’re geographically constrained in terms of auto capacity we can add to the network. If we’re going to continue to grow, we need to use our streets more efficiently,” Kubly explains.”

“Right now solo driving represents about 31 percent of downtown commuting. That’s equivalent to a little over 70,000 solo drivers.

“Broadly speaking, we can handle about 70,000 people commuting by automobile,” says Kubly. “If we’re going to keep the city moving it’s going to necessitate investing in transit, investing in bike infrastructure…”

Adam H.
Guest
Adam H.

Seattle’s actively addressing whittling down auto traffic

By building an outrageously expensive underground highway? At least we were able to stop the CRC…

Eric Leifsdad
Guest
Eric Leifsdad

Do we have a non-profit pushing for a connected network of greenways? Maybe just greener grass, but from here it looks like they are playing Portland’s game better than we are. http://seattlegreenways.org/

soren
Guest
soren
rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Hi Adam. Did you read the article?
The plan…

“..is going to require getting people a lot more people out of single occupancy vehicles.”

“We’re geographically constrained in terms of auto capacity we can add to the network. If we’re going to continue to grow, we need to use our streets more efficiently,” Kubly explains.

“A big piece of the plan’s transportation strategy is to continue shifting people’s mode share choices away from solo driving and toward carpooling, biking, walking, transit and car-share, especially in the downtown core.”

“SDOT is in the early stages of designing a center-city protected bike lane network that will expand on the existing 2nd Avenue protected bike lane.”

paikiala
Guest
paikiala

Most of these same things can be said about Portland.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

I think the difference is that they at least have a transportation bill ready to put before the voters in fall.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Levy.

Pat Franz
Guest
Pat Franz

I think if we built a long enough (5 miles?) proper cycling facility that went someplace it would blow people’s minds how much use it would get after a year or so.

Clark in Vancouver
Guest
Clark in Vancouver

It’s very important for cycle routes to connect with each other. One task that advocates can do is identify all the gaps in the network and push for them to be filled.

Mossby Pomegranate
Guest
Mossby Pomegranate

If only we could keep the homeless camps and bike chop shops off it.

Matt
Guest
Matt

“profiting the city’s numerous bicycle businesses”…. with all the bike shops and bike related companies in town it seems to me that there should be a Portland bike industry coalition created with the purpose of lobbying City Hall and getting candidates elected who will work to get things done. There are millions of dollars and hundreds (thousands?) of jobs in Portland that revolve directly around bicycling and they would be profiting more if more people were on bikes. They need to get organized.

greg byshenk
Guest
greg byshenk

“To increase cycling’s modal share it’s obvious that Portland’s car-use would have to be restricted, and hard infrastructure for cyclists would have to be built.”

As he is non-local (and indeed, non-American), I can’t really fault Reid for this, but it seems hugely optimistic — or at least insufficient.

I didn’t really grasp, until I actually lived here, how spread out and (UGB notwithstanding) sprawling Portland is. And, unfortunately, I don’t see any strong movement for changing this.

This is important, because, as is true even in places like the Netherlands, bicycle use drops off significantly with increased distance. Yes, some people will happily bicycle 10 or even 25 kilometers, but most will not; and bicycle use generally starts to drop after about 5k. What this means for Portland is that the number of people willing to bicycle from east of 82nd even into downtown (let alone further SW, or Beaverton or Hillsboro — or from far NE, NW, or SW) is quite limited.

Which is to say that, if bicycle use is to increase significantly, the distance that people need to travel must decrease. In other words, more people must be able to live closer, which will necessarily mean “changes to the character”

greg byshenk
Guest
greg byshenk

“To increase cycling’s modal share it’s obvious that Portland’s car-use would have to be restricted, and hard infrastructure for cyclists would have to be built.”

As he is non-local (and indeed, non-American), I can’t really fault Reid for this, but it seems hugely optimistic — or at least insufficient.

I didn’t really grasp, until I actually lived here, how spread out and (UGB notwithstanding) sprawling Portland is. And, unfortunately, I don’t see any strong movement for changing this.

This is important, because, as is true even in places like the Netherlands, bicycle use drops off significantly with increased distance. Yes, some people will happily bicycle 10 or even 25 kilometers, but most will not; and bicycle use generally starts to drop after about 5k. What this means for Portland is that the number of people willing to bicycle from east of 82nd even into downtown (let alone further SW, or Beaverton or Hillsboro — or from far NE, NW, or SW) is quite limited.

Which is to say that, if bicycle use is to increase significantly, the distance that people need to travel must decrease. In other words, more people must be able to live closer, which will necessarily mean “changes to the character” of Portland neighborhoods: less detached single-family houses; more rowhouses and apartments.

People talk about Copenhagen because it has made changes quickly. But Copenhagen, with a population only slightly less than Portland, has an area of less than one-quarter (city) or one-sixth (metro) that of Portland. Anyone who has been there is aware that Copenhagen is very urban — and the same is true of other cities that have begun to make large strides in better transportation (London, Paris, Berlin, NYC, Chicago).

In addition to decent facilities, increased bicycle use will require that distances be seen as “bikeable”. This is something that, so far as I can see, even the Portland bicycling community is not fully behind.

oregon111
Guest
oregon111

bikes are a nitch, nothing more — most bikey city — at 6% ridership – for the last 20 years

cars are going electric, motor scooters are ‘cool’,
bikes are on the way out,
and bikey people who have stupid face tatoos will soon be unemployed

oregon111
Guest
oregon111

when I was in my 20s, I used to ride my bike around – a lot…
then I had ‘close calls’ — I decided I did not want to be cripled,
then I got older – pedaling got to be hard work,
then I saw these militant – anti car terrorists – and I decided to be anit bike activist

but I still occasionally take my mtn bike to the trails just for fun

are
Guest

thanks for sharing