When it comes to talk of sustainability in urban planning, transportation and development, , shows up near the top of a lot of lists. In the world of bicycle advocacy and cycling subculture, the city takes on an almost mythical status. It's land of bike lanes and cutely themed social rides for any occasion, a place where the drivers don’t harass you just for having two wheels.
Two friends of mine, Russ and Laura of the blog Path Less Pedaled—after selling their belongings and setting off from Long Beach to tour America by bicycle for a full year—decided to settle into Portland for a little while following their journey. They invited my wife and me to stay there for a week, and we couldn’t resist the opportunity. I had to see the City of Roses for myself, and to experience how it stacked up against the perception of Portland I had from the Internet (and episodes of the kooky new Independent Film Channel show Portlandia).
As I hinted at in my previous , we also wanted to take the opportunity to finally travel by sleeping car on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. Yeah, it was a lot slower than flying, but a lot more relaxed and pretty comparable in time to driving. And, instead of stressing about the act of driving or being probed by the TSA, we could get drinks in the parlour car, watch a movie in the screening room, read a book or just stare out the windows, which is perhaps my favorite thing to do on the train.
Rail is also considerably more energy efficient than flying or driving, and able to offer more comfort and amenities than inter-city bus service. For the bicycle tourist, one of the obvious advantages to rail is a nominal fee for boxing a bike as luggage, compared to the $100 fees for bringing a bike on most airlines.
Portland may be given the rare distinction of being a platinum-rated, bicycling-friendly city, but if we only put half as much effort into bicycling initiatives as Portland, I think Santa Monica would be the cycling envy of the nation. I enjoyed my week riding around the City of Roses, but it also fluctuated between, rain, drizzle, gray skies, drizzle, drizzle, rain, pouring rain, gray skies and a few hours of sunshine one day during my stay. Clearly Santa Monica has some natural advantages.
In Portland, every cyclist is prepared at a moment's notice to throw on head-to-toe rain shells over layers of insulation, to adapt to weather that fluctuates all day. Just getting out the door and ready to ride a bike is a process in Portland, and yet ridership there dwarfs that of other American cities. Given how much more ideal our city scale and weather are for bicycling, it was kind of embarrassing how far ahead of Santa Monica they are up there in the Northwest. Despite the weather, they even seemed to have more cafés and local businesses with sidewalk dining than we do.
There are many facets to accomplishing this feat of high bicycle ridership, but from my experience in Portland, the difference in riding there came down to a few main ingredients.
First is connectivity of bike lanes, which are actually continuous to form the backbone of the bike network. Also, there's a willingness to experiment and go beyond minimum standards for bike lane design, especially to address intersection conflicts.
Second is a network of low-traffic-volume neighborhood streets incorporating sharrows, roundabouts, diverters and other tools to calm and reduce automobile traffic flow. Both these secondary and primary bike routes were populated with helpful way finding. Both pavement marking and signage make it clear as day how to get to major destinations and connect to other bike routes, even to a total newcomer, despite numerous “squiggles” on the secondary routes hopping around to the most low-traffic-volume streets.
The third major thing is bike parking. As I emphasized in my earlier , this seemingly simple issue should not be understated. In this regard, I think Portland has set the gold standard for U.S. cities. In fact, I have never been anywhere, including a few cities I visited in France, that made bike parking as easy and available as Portland does.
If you go to most local businesses in Santa Monica or elsewhere in L.A. County, it's surprising to find bike parking at all, and not surprising if the bike parking that does exist is poorly designed, poorly placed or lacking signage (usually all three). In Portland, however, if a business is without bike parking, it is an outrage, because the expectation of bike parking is so high.
As such, it’s not surprising that requests to replace car parking with bike parking are outpacing the city’s ability to install the on-street bike racks, known as bike corrals. You heard that correctly: Businesses are actually requesting to replace some on-street car parking spaces with bike racks. Many businesses were skeptical when this idea was a pilot project, but when it became clear that business at sites with bike corrals were booming, and that it wasn't at businesses without them, suddenly everyone wanted in. It’s pretty simple math that space for 10 bikes in the space of a single car is going to generate higher turnover and business traffic than using the space for one car at a time.
Portland is far from the ideal for urban bicycling, but it stands heads and shoulders above other cities in the United States I’ve lived in or visited. When it comes to bike parking especially, the city has really nailed it, making cyclists feel welcome at local businesses. There are a lot of other great sustainability-minded things happening in Portland as well, like their public transit system, transit-oriented development practices and bioswales popping up all over town.
I’d like to visit again sometime and explore a little further by bike. Maybe next time I’ll try to find a week with more than a few hours of sunlight. I never appreciated Santa Monica's sun quite like I did after seeing Portland's gray skies.