How to ride a bike in Portland

You got this!
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

(Note to BikePortlanders: This post is for your friends. Please pass it along to them if you want.)

Gas prices suck. Gas sucks. Driving sucks.

But biking rules!

If you’re reading this, you’re bike-curious at the minimum (or at least the person who shared it with you thinks you are). So, if you want to drive less and bike more, just go for it! Biking is easy and fun and all you do is hop on and go. You’ll figure it out and it gets easier with each turn of the pedals.

If you still want a bit more advice, keep reading…

Greenways are Gold
You know you’re on a greenway if…

Did you know there’s a massive network of streets citywide made just for bike users? The city calls them “neighborhood greenways” but all you have to know is that bike riding is preferred and prioritized on them. It’s easy to know if you’re on one because you’ll see one of those bike symbols with an arrow on top of it (a.k.a. “sharrows” or shared-lane markings). While many bike riders have serious quibbles with some greenways in terms of how they aren’t as pleasant as they should be, I think overall they’re not so bad and have become an absolutely essential tool for getting around town.

If I ever find myself in a far-flung neighborhood I’m not familiar with, I just follow the sharrow markings in the general direction I need to go. That way I’m guaranteed to have safer crossings, calmer conditions, and even helpful little green signs that point my way home. Try it!

No Need to Beg

Another secret is that most intersections in Portland that are on a bike route (especially greenways) have special sensors in the pavement that will trigger a green light when you roll up. That means you do not need to awkwardly shuffle over to a “beg button” on the sidewalk to get a “WALK” signal. Unfortunately it can be tricky to know exactly where to stand to trigger the light. The city has marked many intersections with where you should put your front wheel. If you don’t see a marking, look for a circular line in the pavement and place your wheel along the outside of it to trigger the light.

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Biketown as Plan B

If you’re worried about getting stranded with a flat tire or some other mechanical malady, whip out your phone and find the nearest Biketown station (those orange(ish) bikes parked all over town). If there’s one nearby, just lock up your ailing bike and zip home on one of the Biketown e-bikes. Biketown can also be great if you’re in between bikes, or your main bike is getting serviced at a shop, or if you just don’t trust your old dusty rig to be safe and roadworthy. Biketown can save you a lot of hassle when you need it and the new bikes and technology that runs them is way more reliable than it used to be. (Similar advice goes for TriMet if you’re down with using transit.)

Use Sidewalks

Despite what you might have heard, sidewalk riding is legal in Portland except for a relatively small section of downtown (bounded by SW Jefferson, Front Avenue, NW Hoyt and 13th). I’m a big fan of sidewalks because they are often the safest place to ride (especially when I’m with little ones) and they allow me to window-shop and see cool stuff I might otherwise miss when I’m on the street.

This piece of advice comes with a huge caveat: In some respects, bikes are to sidewalks like cars are to greenways. That is, if you ride on the sidewalk you do so as a guest and you must always defer to people on foot. That means slow way down if people are present and always be able to stop quickly in event of someone stepping out of a business.

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Bus Lanes FTW
Your red carpet.

Portland has installed several “Bus Only” lanes around town in recent years. They are often painted red. Since car drivers tend to stay out of them and since they take up such precious real estate on key, busy streets (like the MLK/Grand couplet), I tend to use them a lot when I’m biking. I think the city has remained intentionally vague about whether or not bikes are legally allowed to use them because they know the safety risk between a bicycle rider and a professional bus operator is very small.

Bike Theft: Don’t Believe the Hype

I think most people are way too afraid of bike theft (and thieves in general) in Portland. Respect bike theft, but don’t let it stop you from riding. In my experience if you use a high-quality lock (no cable locks!) and park in a well-lit, visible location with foot traffic, your bike will be fine. You also don’t want to leave stuff on your bike that can be easily swiped (like panniers or lights). I’ve locked all types of bikes (even really expensive ones) up at all types of locations for years and haven’t had one stolen. The two bikes I’ve had stolen in Portland were both left unlocked (one downtown, one in my backyard)

Wool is Cool (and Warm)

You’ll be a lot more comfortable if you dress smartly. That means avoid cotton and layer-up with wool or some other type of high-tech fabric to stay warm. I wear a base layer on top and bottom for all but a few warm months in Portland, and that extra barrier is my secret weapon against cold and wet weather! Wool is also great because if it gets wet, you’ll still retain warmth. Remember you want to stay warm, not necessarily dry, if you get caught in a downpour.

Embrace This Place

You’re lucky to live in one of the best cycling cities on the planet, so you might as well plug into it! Folks around here lead all manner of fun social rides year-round and there’s a club/ride/team/group for everyone. Follow us on social media (@BikePortland on IG, Twitter and Facebook) and allow us to be your community concierge.

I hope these tips are helpful. I look forward to seeing you out on the streets.

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dwk
dwk
5 months ago

***Comment deleted. We are all aware that there are people living in tents and encampments all over town – including on some paths. We have covered this issue several times in the past. Please stop hijacking every post with this issue. Thanks. — Jonathan***

Chris I
Chris I
5 months ago
Reply to  dwk

This isn’t just political; this is critical information for new cyclists. Someone is going to plug in bike directions and get routed by Google onto the I-205 or Springwater paths. They may not be prepared for the things they will encounter.

Frank Perillo
Frank Perillo
5 months ago
Reply to  dwk

***comment deleted***

PdxPhoenix
PdxPhoenix
5 months ago
Reply to  Frank Perillo

I moved to Portland in early 90s… I am appalled by what has happened to the Springwater & I205 MUPs (& the various others). However, fortunately, I’ve not had anyone harass me on my bike (save for those 2 delightful gentlemen driving their cars-er, I suppose, 3 if you want to count the cop, too). Most concerning was the “camp” along Springwater with the sign announcing it as a “Gun Club”; and the other with a “No Trespassing” sign, irony is just lost on some, I guess.

Steven Smith
Steven Smith
5 months ago
Reply to  dwk

I’ve ridden Springwater from the Willamette to 136th twice in the last couple of weeks. Very few people still camping out there and no problems with anybody at all.

Chris I
Chris I
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Smith

Maybe someone can start a website so those of us that only casually ride the Springwater will know if it is safe on a given day.

dwk
dwk
5 months ago
Reply to  dwk

I did not hijack this, you printed my comment!!
We are also well aware that you don’t give a crap about homeless people.
You must enjoy riding by them in their tents,,you do nothing to advocate for anything better for them.
The elephant in the room that you wont talk about…It has a HUGE effect on cycling and you do and say NOTHING.
What a joke of a bicycle advocate.
The comment got 13 likes before you pulled it, so your readership agrees with me.

Kalen
Kalen
5 months ago
Reply to  dwk

He also deleted another persons post below yours highlighting a critical safety issue. I wonder if it’s pressure from homeless “advocates” not wanting any negative press?

Seth Alford
Seth Alford
5 months ago
Reply to  dwk

I was curious about what dwk wrote, so I went to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. They have a snapshot which captured dwk’s undeleted comment. See https://web.archive.org/web/20220311192250/https://bikeportland.org/2022/03/11/how-to-ride-a-bike-in-portland-350040

I think that an article for introducing bicycling to new potential riders needs to cover the homeless-camps-on-MUPS issue which dwk brought up, if for no other reason than Google may suggest riding a blocked MUP. I also agree with dwk that this issue is a deterrent to bicycling in the Portland area.

Maybe it’s not an appropriate topic to bring up in every post, but it is appropriate with this one.

soren
soren
5 months ago

Another secret is that most intersections in Portland that are on a bike route (especially greenways) have special sensors in the pavement that will trigger a green light when you roll up.

Another secret is that many of these don’t work for modern less tank-like bikes.
And another secret is that it’s legal to run the red light after you have waited an arbitrary period of time. (My arbitrary period of time is the first safe gap in traffic, always.)

Kudos for including sidewalk riding, Jonathan. In much of Portland sidewalks function as de facto protected bike lanes for people who are not “experienced cyclists with X years of all year bike riding”.

Watts
Watts
5 months ago
Reply to  soren

In much of Portland sidewalks function as de facto protected bike lanes.

This is true, often to the detriment of pedestrians. It all rolls downhill.

soren
soren
5 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I often ride sidewalks along SE 82nd on my way to Winco* and can assure you there is absolutely no such conflict.

*Employee-owned unlike Krogers-Fred Meyers, Albertsons-Safeway, New Treasons, or Whole Paycheck. Also, not a bourgeosie “coop” that mostly caters to the top 20%.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  soren

After moving to NC, WINCO and Powells Books are what I miss most.

Watts
Watts
5 months ago
Reply to  soren

I believe you are courteous. I wish that were true for the other yahoos who think sidewalk riding at speed is appropriate on much lesser streets than 82nd.

hamiramani
hamiramani
5 months ago

Great suggestions, Jonathan. I, too, love wearing base layers and do so from about October-ish until it warms up. It should be noted that there are thinner base layers that are good for warm days with cool nights.

Thanks for putting this together.

Charley
Charley
5 months ago
Reply to  hamiramani

Long sleeve wool or synthetic for the win!!!

Brian
Brian
5 months ago

I always thought a “take a newbie riding” kinda day would be a good idea. Pre-covid I offered to lead fellow teachers to school to make it less scary, and I got a couple of people to do so. It was a great experience; they got a lesson in safe riding and I got a riding partner for a couple days.

Charley
Charley
5 months ago

Great! I figured this kind of thing out gradually over the years, when I moved here (2007). One thing that has advanced since then: the Google Maps Cycling setting is super helpful for suggesting the kinds of routes you mention (like Greenways).

PDXTrailie
PDXTrailie
5 months ago

I always have gloves with me, even in summer. Cool nights + wind = cold hands.

Matt
Matt
5 months ago
Reply to  PDXTrailie

I always wear gloves, no matter the weather (thicker gloves in colder weather, though). That’s because they’re protective gear in the event that you crash and put a hand down on the asphalt.

J_R
J_R
5 months ago

Your positivity about the bicycling environment should have included suggestions to tour the MUPs that feature such delightful collections of living accommodations for the currently-struggling model citizens who have been downtrodden by the petroleum-automobile-industrial complex. The loss of major sections of the bicycle infrastructure and the inability of anyone in power, including your favorite commissioner, to deal with the problem is far greater than the “hijacking of every post.” I doubt that this will even get approved by the moderator.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago

What I enjoyed about bicycling in Portland was all the topiary in front of people’s homes, like the pig on 143rd north of Halsey and the peacock on the 205 path.

donel a courtney
donel a courtney
5 months ago

This was cute and helpful. I really do also want to grind my teeth about the MUP’s but its been accomplished already.

I have another gripe that I’m going to frame as a suggestion. I would appreciate a perspective on this blog that explicitly comes from a place of lower socio-economic background–saying “you too can ride bikes”.

For example, let’s try to imagine someone who lives in an apartment complex and has just moved from Phoenix, AZ to SE 100 and something-teenth avenue in Portland. This person has always driven a car in Arizona but moved to Portland in part because of the alternative culture and is too scared but secretly wants to get into the biking thing.

However all the white faces and bike rides with people in unfashionable funny outfits going around to their favorite bougie spots doesn’t really appeal.

What we could be done for someone like this to encourage them to join the ranks?

I haven’t studied this deeply but maybe some guest contributors who are of that background? Maybe an article about ways to get around East Portland by bike?

Maybe since it seems there is such a link these days between all these non-profits in terms of staffing and perspective and goals, try to link the biking non-profits with the BIPOC non-profits? Get them to think about the issue specifically from that angle and publicize their work?

Perhaps I’ve missed it but i’ve looked at BikeLoud and Street Trust and I see stuff for downtown, wonky technical stuff, stuff for “gender non-conforming” rides and tweets by Sarah Iannarone, but with all due respect to Sarah Iannarone, she’s about as white as they come.

I don’t see anything that would appeal to someone East of the 205 who isn’t all that left wing in orientation. Despite what many white people in Portland think, many BIPOC/East Portland people aren’t all that turned on by left wing lingo, and social/economic perspectives, even if they are supposedly “voting against their interest” (which they usually are not). You can see this in the fact that all areas East of the 205 voted against Sarah who represented that side of things.

I say this as a half BIPOC gay guy who has lived by the 205 most of his life.

soren
soren
5 months ago

I have another gripe that I’m going to frame as a suggestion. I would appreciate a perspective on this blog that explicitly comes from a place of lower socio-economic background–saying “you too can ride bikes”.

Donel, Thank you for posting this in this mostly-white wonky-exclusionary space.

IMO, the dominance of “cycling activism” by mostly white upper-income “liberals” in this town is rooted in anti-poor bias and/or racism. This dynamic is one of the main reasons I avoid active transportation activism.

DW
DW
5 months ago

How did an article discussing the beauty and ease of bicycling and accessibility turn into a heated debate surrounding the plight of Portland. please stay on the subject and I realize during these times that it’s easy to go to the negative side of things but let’s focus on how amazing biking is and how more doing it is a good thing. Maybe another article or for more effective use of your digital wind write your elected officials.

Mark Remy
Mark Remy
5 months ago

Re bikes in BUS ONLY lanes: Haven’t I read elsewhere on this site (in a reader comment? a forums discussion?) that bikes in bus lanes are definitely not allowed and in fact will infuriate bus drivers?

Mark Remy
Mark Remy
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Remy

e.g., This is from another Bike Portland article, albeit from November 2020:

“The new (often colored red) Bus Only lanes on MLK/Grand are meant only for bus operators. No bike riders allowed. Same with the red lanes on SW Main and 1st entering downtown: stay out of them (at least in that situation there’s an adjacent bike lane).”

https://bikeportland.org/2020/11/12/bat-lrt-fat-buses-bikes-freight-a-guide-to-portlands-new-traffic-lanes-322678

EP
EP
5 months ago

This is interesting timing as we just got a new-to-us e-cargo bike and it’s changing the way I view biking around town. With the e-assist, I no longer avoid hills at all cost, so I can take some detours to take more scenic routes. For example; I was headed east from MLK, and instead of just following Tillamook through the clusterF that is Hollywood, I went up 18th to Klickitat, then up THE BIG HILL at 33rd with no problem, then cruised Alameda ridge over to the golf course, and back to Tillamook. A mile longer, and some hills thrown in, but less stress, and more fun!

It’s great seeing the city through new eyes, in this case the ebike has provided that opportunity.