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Guest Post: Portland rocked my two wheels

Posted by on December 9th, 2019 at 2:23 pm

(Photos: Amy Morfas)

Note: We can get pretty cynical around here. So when former deputy director of Bicycle Colorado Amy Morfas wanted to share her thoughts about biking in Portland, I thought it might provide a healthy dose of perspective. – Jonathan

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There seemed to be no resentment of my presence, just a mutual understanding that people get priority.

When I visit urban areas, I tend to view them through a different lens than a typical visitor might, mainly due to my years of working as a bicycle advocate. Seeing a city through the eyes of a pedestrian or person who rides is very different than buzzing around town in a rental car or an Uber. When you’re walking or riding, you’re within the environment and not just passing through, encased and separate from your surroundings.

I recently had the pleasure of house-sitting in Portland for three weeks. While there, I explored the city as well as the beautiful surrounding areas. What a treat!

For 25 years, I have lived in Boulder, Colorado, a city known as one of the most bicycle-friendly in the country. Until recently, I’d served for almost 10 years as deputy director of Bicycle Colorado, the state’s bicycle advocacy group headquartered in Denver. I also lived in Germany for three years, so I’m pretty familiar with what it takes to make a community work for people, not just cars.

While Boulder has a great network of multi-use paths throughout town, riding in a standard bike lane can be dangerous as drivers tend to often be aggressive and distracted. Denver has only a few networked off-road paths, so most transportation riding there is done in tandem with cars, with the same issues. It’s not ideal.

My initial impressions of Portland were as a pedestrian and I was impressed from the start. I’m a casual runner and had brought my running gear with me, partially to explore the northeast neighborhood I was staying in.

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I was immediately blown away by how courteous the drivers were. It was a dramatic difference from what I’ve experienced in Colorado.

While running down a residential side street, I’d come up to larger street where the cross traffic had neither stop signs nor crosswalks. Regardless, the approaching traffic would just stop. Pretty much every time. And not only would they stop, they’d do it about 10 yards back from the intersection, so it was done in a totally non-threatening way. There seemed to be no resentment of my presence, just a mutual understanding that people get priority. In Colorado, sadly, the rhetoric is often that if you’re not in a car, you’re ‘in the way.’

I also got to bike around. I spent most of my time in the central, touristy (wealthier) parts of town, and even for someone who didn’t really know their way around, the city was welcoming.

I’d heard about the “big” infrastructure downtown and headed that way first. It totally delivered. Tilikum Crossing, a bridge that opened in 2015 and accommodates mass transit (both bus and light rail), bicyclists and pedestrians only (no private vehicles), is one of the most impressive pieces of infrastructure I’ve seen in the U.S. After riding across the bridge, I went to check out the Portland Aerial Tram and took it up to the Oregon Health and Science University, which has little to no parking for cars. It’s a shining example of a simple yet innovative way to move people en masse in a high-density area. I also rode from Steel Bridge along the famous Eastbank Esplanade down to the Springwater Trail into the Sellwood neighborhood. It’s such a safe and efficient way to get around without needing to pick up the car keys.

While the bigger, ambitious projects (deservedly) stand out, it was the little things that truly made a difference from the perspective of a visiting cyclist. The clear and thorough signage everywhere made navigating super easy and kept me on track. It seemed like there were bike lanes (many of them protected) and bike signals everywhere. Bump-outs were common to slow traffic down, which already seemed to be traveling noticeably slower (i.e., at the speed limit) compared to drivers in Colorado.

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Many of the residential areas also feature greenways; low-traffic, low-speed streets for stress-free riding, making it safe for the ‘8-80’ crowd to enjoy. Portland does a great job of keeping cyclists off heavily trafficked streets with viable, efficient alternatives that minimize conflicts with drivers.

The author riding in California.

Is Portland perfect? No. But it is an example of what can be done in U.S. cities to provide efficient alternatives to the dependency on single occupancy vehicles we’ve formed. After spending 10 years working in Denver, it’s shocking to see how much Denver is lagging behind in becoming a bicycle-friendly city. And unlike Portland, Denver doesn’t have the expensive bridge infrastructure to contend with. And we have sunshine! Things could happen so quickly in Colorado’s capital if only there was the political will to make it happen. I remain optimistic that it will happen, but the time to act is now.

Downtown Denver Partnership, downtown’s economic vitality member group, has been taking elected officials and city planners on Urban Exploration tours to Copenhagen to show them what can be possible when cities prioritize people over cars. While I’m all for aiming high, a city as advanced as Copenhagen can sometimes seem out of reach. I wonder if similar trips to Portland could be made? It would truly eliminate any ‘yeah, but we can’t do that here’ excuses.

Kudos to Portland’s past and present city planners, elected officials, The Street Trust and other local advocacy groups for all the work they’ve done to make Portland so bicycle-friendly and provide people with real, efficient alternatives for getting around town. I can’t wait to go back.

Until recently, Amy served as Deputy Director of Bicycle Colorado, the state’s leading bicycle advocacy group. She lives and rides her bikes in Boulder, Colorado for transportation and recreation and remains committed to and passionate about people-first communities.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Glenn Fee
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Glenn Fee

Thank you for sharing. I’m generally pretty critical of our bicycle infrastructure here, but we’re pretty fortunate compared to many U.S. cities. I lived in Denver 17 years, and biked extensively around the Front Range. When I return now for visits (after 8 plus years in Portland), I’m terrified as a pedestrian and cyclist in a city that’s purportedly among the ten best in the country. There are far too many four-lane roads cutting with traffic moving at high speeds through dense areas, and drivers – as Amy eluded to – consider pedestrians and cyclists a nuisance. It’s even worse where I grew up, in Cincinnati. This does not mean, however, that we don’t have a ton of work to do. We do, and for so many reasons – safety, climate change, and simply for quality of life. I’m heading to Europe in June, and I suspect I’ll be able to write the exact piece that Amy did, but in reverse. While Portland is a great U.S. cycling city, we’re not a great cycling city globally, and that’s what we need to strive to be.

bikeninja
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bikeninja

I have only been to Denver’s airport and ridden through it on a train. But if it is as much worse than Portland as the author says I am terrified to ever actually go there.

ed
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ed

I chuckled when I read this as I’m something of broken record when I read tales from some in bikeportland of how horrible it is here for bikes now, and how great other places are. My first thought is “you need to get out more”. I lived in Boulder 20 years as a cyclist. Other US places may read like they have better cycling than here, but an in the saddle experience quickly resolves that. Portlanders read spec about ambitious bike infrastructure in NYC for instance, then bemoan how far we’ve fallen etc. New Yorkers love bike lanes because it gives them a place to double park their cars. Cops there are virtually at war with cyclists. A half hour ride in almost any other US city will have you feeling MUCH better about our imperfect infrastructure!

Now true; compared to much of Europe we ARE horrid as the best here compares with the worst there. But in comparison to other US cities Portlanders take for granted what’s been done here to date, even if not yet what we all want to see.

mark smith
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mark smith

The Denver Metro is great for the brave and not so great for anyone else. Sure, there are trails but in reality, if people saw a real bike town, Denver is ok. People die every summer on bikes.

pruss2ny
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pruss2ny

“Every corner in Oregon is a crosswalk unless otherwise marked a prohibited. This is the law. ”

it is the law…not arguing…but its unnecessarily lazy.
It also happens to be the law in NYC, but good luck finding an intersection in manhattan that doesn’t have either a traffic control device or a marked crosswalk.

joe adamski
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joe adamski

It’s not that Portland is so great, it’s that Portland sucks less than other places.
Build more separated facilities. Lets get npGreenway built.

X
Guest
X

Thanks again for another perspective. I’m going to go on being privately grateful for the things that stand out, that would fit in anywhere, like the East Side esplanade.

I’m also going to go on asking for more diverters and better pavement on greenways. Neighborhoods should be set up so that there’s no Waze through them, and cross town bus lines should be set up to rock, with restricted lanes, automatic car launching bollards and signal priority giving them a green they can roll through at 10+ mph. Why does a bus ever come up against a red octogon? Why does a bus ever need to grovel across bloody NE Prescott? That’s BS, Portland.

Amy
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Amy

Thanks, John. Yes, a friend mentioned to me that is the law there, but the degree to which the law was acknowledged and followed (sadly) blew me away.

Paul H
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Paul H

It’s been 25 years since I lived in Denver, and I was only there for five years, but I did get the sense that a lot of people there drive with chips on their shoulders. Make space for a car merging onto I-25? Ha! Find your own space! We have people like that in Portland (see: rolling coal), but it feels like a much smaller minority.

Jim Labbe
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Jim Labbe

This is a great piece. I have been reflecting on how many positive interactions I have with drivers in Portland relative to the few bad ones.It really looks to me as though there’s a critical mass of drivers in Portland now who have enough experience being pedestrians or cyclists that they drive with empathy, regularly yield to more vulnerable users, and understand that more bikers and pedestrians make our streets safer as well as critical to climate smart cities. The culture of safer, more complete streets is progressing; we need the infrastructure and programs to take us to the next level.

GlowBoy
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GlowBoy

About 10 years ago I worked with a guy for a while who had just moved from Denver to the Beaverton area. He thought Portland was terrible for biking: “where are all the bike paths?” He moved back after a year or two. I think he was happier with what Denver had to offer, FWIW. Of course this was 10 years ago … but then again, this has been the decade of stagnation.

Shimran George
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Shimran George

One thing I have been grateful about has been the alignment and support we get from the city to increase modeshare to allow for all types of non-automotive transport and at least have people reduce their car usage. We aren’t actively fighting PBOT all the time; bike project and rose lane projects seem to be moving forward with gusto. We have bike advisory committees, and a lot of PBOT employees I met ride bikes themselves and seem to have a good sense of urban planning–they don’t seem like your typical bureaucrats (although I imagine there are some). I don’t know if any other city in the United States has this level of alignment and forward thinking. We’re getting two non-automotive bridges–what other cities so willingly build these, at least knowing that they are not built to carry any degree of car traffic? We definitely have that to be thankful.

With that knowledge though I often have high expectations of a higher quality bike street and its in the implementation that I feel PBOT falls short. Some bike streets don’t go far enough in my estimation to providing real meaningful “low-stress” bikeways and often time feel more symbolic than anything–just throw some paint, maybe a few speed humps, and call it a day. Some bike streets intersect with major thoroughfares that provide the opposite of a “low-stress” experience.

For example, at 29th and Belmont there is no signal crossing there. There is simply a cross-bike striping, which apparently has no legal protection to allow a cyclist the right of way. Why put it in if it is effectively useless? These cross bikes are implemented across the city, yet it’s function is a Potemkin bike infrastrucutre. I can also point out at 16th/Morrison one has to gun it across three lanes of traffic.

I’m all for trying out new ideas but some (like the bike rotary on Milwaukie) are plain silly and provide more confusion than they solve. I think if you stuck to bread and butter ideas of keeping the tarmac smooth, traffic diverted off the street, and signaled intersections, you’d have a more inviting and appropos “low-stress” bikeway. It might be a more meaningful commitment to bikes/scooters, etc. and one that’d I’d welcome.

Of course this costs money, but it was my understanding that building bike infrastructure is vastly cheaper that building for cars.

mark smith
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mark smith

Portland would seem like an amazing ride after dealing with the nuttiness of Denver.

Fred
Guest
Fred

I ride my bike in Portland every day – for commuting, work, shopping, and also recreation. When I meet someone driving a car or truck and have an unpleasant interaction, I try to think about the story the driver is telling himself (or herself, but usually himself) about why I’m cycling. If the driver’s story is about how I am out there pleasuring myself on a bike, then he is more likely to be pissed off at me for getting in his way, esp if he’s working or on the way to work. So it’s really important that drivers hear stories about cycling for reasons *OTHER* than just recreation, though of course that’s a legitimate use of the road in itself.

A few years ago, during one of Portland’s snow-and-ice episodes (winter arrived for 4-5 days and no one is ever prepared for it), someone in my house needed medication. The roads were largely impassable, so I ran, with crampons on my running shoes, to the pharmacy and back. The sidewalks weren’t shoveled, of course, so I had to run on the side of the road, which had been nominally plowed, and practically every driver tried to honk me off the road for having the audacity to run there! I was carrying a bag from the pharmacy, yet those drivers must have thought was I running for fun in the snow (and it was fun but that was not the point).

Let’s promote stories of cycling (and running) for serious purposes, so every driver assumes the other person has a right to the road also.

David Guettler
Guest
David Guettler

Thanks, Amy! I’ve lived here for 25 years and have been lucky enough to reap the rewards of the expensive infrastructure put in place in the 1970s and ’80s. I also just got back from spending a few days in Boulder and Denver where my daughter and I explored by bike. We (and you) are lucky to have the infrastructure we have as opposed to so many cities that want it but are struggling to deal with the costs associated. Thank you to all the past city officials, current bike advocates like The Street Trust, and bike riders who take advantage of what we have.

Jed
Guest
Jed

a little late to the conversation here but I’ve lived in Portland for about a year now and went back to Denver for a work thing in September, brought my bike. Rode to the work thing daily through downtown and was so disappointed in the city I used to think was bike friendly. Wide streets, zero traffic control, anarchy in the streets compared to Portland commute hour. On top of that, the proposed routes out of town both the Cherry Creek direction and the Golden/Boulder direction are well utilized but not different than the Springwater. IMO Portland is doing much better than
Denver, or Boulder in addressing real commuting concerns. Boulder probably wins when it comes to exercisers doing their thing.