It took a bit longer than expected, but Portland’s lofty ‘2030 Bike Master Plan‘ goal of attaining 25% of traffic trips taken by bicycle has finally been reached. After years of stagnation at the 6% mark, a critical mass of galvanized citizens compelling complacent politicians has created a perfect storm. Portland finally has seen a steady annual increase in the number of its denizens confidently pedaling a bicycle to work, to school, and to shop.
Most Portland advocates have historically yearned to make their city into the cycling mecca that Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and other cities like Hamburg already are. Ironically, there used to be widespread concern that scarce funding for better bikeways and a lack of political will would eventually stunt Portland while New York, Chicago, and even Los Angeles moved forward with greater ambitions.
How did Portland finally pull it off? From all accounts, there was no silver bullet. Many credit the adoption of stronger language by cycling advocates. Others marvel at the revolutionary new infrastructure planners were able to install. For years, debates about whether separated bike ways or vehicular cycling was the best method of promoting the cause preoccupied bike advocates. Ultimately, it seems a diversity of tactics all played positive roles in achieving the end game.
Asked for comment on why Portland finally hit the mark, local writer and poet Meg Brennan broke it down, “Not everyone has the same needs. Some people feel safe in a bike lane, some feel safer on a traffic-calmed bike boulevards or Greenways or whatever they’re calling them now. Seeing commercials on prime time TV was a huge step, but then seeing ads in the Superbowl produced by People for Bikes was huge. Suburban sports fans probably snickered at first, but it really was a watershed moment – suddenly it’s not all SUVs and supermodels. Now you’ve got this mainstream recognition that bikes are as American as Bud Light Lime-A-Rita™ and President Chelsea Clinton.”
86,038 Hawthorne bridge riders today? Kinda on the low side. Courtesy: BikePortland.
Other sources confirmed a radical shift in language as the genesis of the cultural change. “The New York Times used to use the word ‘accident’ to refer to a person killed by a the driver of a car“, said one bike affianado who asked to remain anonymous, “Even cops stopped using that cringe-worthy term decades ago. Calling it what it is, ‘traffic violence’ finally caused the right shift in our thinking. People remembered that streets are for people – that it’s the cars that ruined this place we used to hang out in. Once we started really understanding that cars are inefficient, last-century urban tech, only then things started seriously changing.”
Others point to financial benefit as the most logical reason for cycling as urban transport. Said perennial activist and long-distance cycle-tourer Jess Hadden, “I could spend a few bucks to ride the MAX Pink line, but it’s totally free to ride my bike down the Powell Boulevard cycle track. I’m practically making money by riding with all the health benefits I’m affording myself and my community. Seriously, where’s MY tax break?”
There was a time when local mainstream media was almost hostile to cycling, divisively framing the discussion as being bikes vs. cars prior to the now commonly understood cars vs. people paradigm. While not totally unlike other historical struggles, shifts in popular thought allowed cycling to be considered an issue of social justice. This undeniably played a role in Portland’s victory.
As it’s now widely understood, the truest ‘zero carbon vehicle’ is the bicycle. After Superstorm Tyrell caused the first complete evacuation of Manhattan and over $35 Billion dollars in damage, there were few who still denied the role cars play in our ongoing climate crisis.
Like the defeat of the Mt. Hood Freeway in 1970’s Portland, another defining moment for bicycle victory was the death of the Columbia River Crossing freeway expansion, and the removal of the Marquam bridge and the I-5 freeway that choked the Willamette riverfront for decades. After transforming Harbor Drive highway on the river’s west side into popular Tom McCall waterfront park decades prior, a coalition of community organizers and livable street nonprofits effectively lobbied city hall, METRO, and ODOT to remove the ghastly grey I-5 freeway for good.
In its place, Portlanders on foot and bikes enjoy an East Riverfront for People full of park spaces and restored wetlands, as well as the world famous Jane Jacobs Community Food Forest. Said longtime Portland musician and cyclist Halley Weaver, “I can pedal my harp down to JJCFF and make more money busking there than I ever could slaving away at my old day job years ago. Making good places to bike to in the inner Eastside forced the city to make better streets to bike on.”
While driving a car is still legally allowed on the streets of Portland, automobiles are effectively relegated to only the busiest thoroughfares. The social stigma of single passenger motorized driving seems to truly have become as unpopular as smoking cigarettes; a few still partake, but it’s an addiction they likely won’t bring up on a first date.
It’s impossible to say how much higher Portland’s bike mode share will continue climbing. As early as 2012, the number of people driving a car to reach downtown was already under 50%, effectively making automobiles the real ‘alternative transportation‘ mode. Who knows, maybe in another decade bikes will become the majority Preferred Mode. If recent past proves precedent for the future, then the sky’s the limit.
See you in the streets.
Once considered radical new infrastructure, Nick Falbo’s 2014 intersection design is now standard at busy downtown intersections.