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Portland's Bicycle Brilliance

And what Vancouver can learn to create a self-propelled culture.

Christine McLaren 4 Aug

Christine McLaren is a reporter for The Tyee.

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Rolling with the Cirque du Cycling parade. Bike Portland.

[Editor's note: Each of us views a city through a distinctly personal lens. Tyee reporter Christine McLaren visited Portland recently and found it superior to her home base of Vancouver, B.C. by three criteria that matter most to her. Yesterday: Is the city welcoming to young creative people? Today: Is it bicycle friendly? Tomorrow: Is it dealing effectively with homelessness?]

The June sun softens the street into gummy asphalt. My toes slip and slide inside my battered Converse Allstars as I lean forward onto Mississippi Avenue, sweating and squinting. A pack of cyclists in spandex zooms toward me. The crowd lining the road cheers. I'm startled. Why all the excitement? After all, this isn't the Tour de France I've happened upon. Just another community bike race.

Oh, right. I'm visiting Portland, Oregon, the bike capital of America.

Cirque-du-Cycling, as the event is named, is hosted by the local business association, and the reason is pretty simple: there are 80 per cent more bikers in the city of Portland than one decade ago.

After the race, at the VIP party, a grey haired man with geeky, black rimmed glasses laughs with the other guests. It's Sam Adams, I'm told, the mayor of Portland. Adams is well dressed, slightly tanned, with a bit of a belly and a plastic beer cup in hand to explain it. I glance down and catch a glimpse of his pant legs, rolled slightly at the ankle; he's fresh off his bike.

Later, Adams will stand in front of a mix of people -- some of them kids, some of them in suits, some of them tattooed and wearing garters -- and, with plastic cup still in hand, pants still rolled, the mayor will shout: "What a Portland event!"

And I'll think to myself: What does Portland know that Vancouver hasn't yet quite learned?

Why is it that, while a city like Portland has bridges backlogged with bike traffic-jams, Vancouver remains choked in car traffic, and I, nearly alone on my bike route to work? A mere 2,700 cyclists trickle into Vancouver's downtown every day, while over 9,000 daily cross over Portland's bridges.

My first guess is that the Lower Mainland's sprawling pattern of development may be the problem. After all, Portland has some of the strictest land-use laws in North America, and in the late 1970s established an urban-growth boundary restricting their outward creep.

But in reality, almost half of all Vancouver residents commute less than five kilometres to work and more than 80 per cent commute less than 10 kilometres, relatively short distances ideal for cycling, according to the City of Vancouver. Yet in 2007, over 60 per cent of all trips made in Vancouver were made by car, while bike transportation remained at three per cent, even in the downtown core. That's as low as over a decade earlier. Some neighbourhoods in Portland boast up to 30 per cent of people claiming the bike as their primary or secondary mode of transportation.

Vancouver has all the makings for a world class bike city very similar to Portland: temperate, if rainy, climate; active, outdoorsy citizens; and a strong environmentalist movement. But according to Mia Birk, former Bicycle Program Coordinator for the City of Portland, and current principle of Alta Planning and Design, America's leading firm specializing in bicycle and pedestrian planning, just having the right conditions doesn't insure a self-propelled culture.

"There's a myth that Portland is just a place where everybody bikes, that's just how it is," Mia tells me. "The same myth exists for Copenhagen and Amsterdam and all the bike friendly cities of the world. 'That's how it is, people just bike'. And that's not correct, the truth is that we made this city what it is today."

Suing for bike lanes

Oregon, much like B.C., has long had a reputation for progressive thinkers and policy makers. Even back in 1971, the state passed a law that required cities and counties in Oregon to spend a minimum of one per cent of transportation funding on bicycle and pedestrian projects. The law also demanded that every roadway built included both bike and pedestrian facilities.

This law was largely ignored until the early '90s, when Portland's then newly-formed Bicycle Transportation Alliance, now an organization with over 5000 members, sued the City of Portland because the Department of Transportation refused to include bike lanes in the construction of two major new roads. They won, and the court ruled that the city must comply with the 1971 law on every roadway project.

With that decision still in mind in 1996, the city of Portland rolled out its Bicycle Master Plan, the plan that would lay the groundwork for bicycle infrastructure in the city for the next decade. Input from the bike community was taken into consideration and the plan, based on that input, laid out a comprehensive network of bike lanes along major arterials.

"At the time the feeling was, 'We need to be visible, we need to be on the major streets, those are the places that get us where we want to go,'" says Birk.

So in six years the city laid down over 165 miles of bike lanes throughout the city, opening Portland's major streets in a way they had never been open to cyclists before. Then they kept building more.

Vancouver's wrong turn?

It was around the same time that Vancouver developed its own Bicycle Master Plan, but with a dramatically different approach.

As opposed to making un-bike-able streets bike-able, Vancouver took their semi-bike-able streets and made them more bike-able. And they did a tremendous job. City planners in Portland happily admit that they are stealing designs from streets like the Adanac and Slocan bike routes in Vancouver; smaller neighborhood streets known as bike boulevards that are further traffic calmed to give bikes fast tracked throughways from one neighborhood to another quickly and safely.

Unfortunately, however, for the majority of bikers, their target destination does not lie on the calmed 10th Avenue, or Cypress Streets. Yet in planning, Vancouver failed to provide them a comprehensive network of bike lanes, or any other on-street facilities to get them off of those boulevards to where they need to go. Of our 300 kilometres of bikeways, only about 50 kilometres of them are actual painted lanes, leaving the rest of the city for cyclists to fend for themselves against cars.

As a result, Vancouver's city bike plan is tailored to a demographic restricted to the bravest of the brave, people Portland planners now call the "Strong and Fearless".

This, City of Portland bicycle co-ordinator Roger Geller argues, is exactly the wrong approach.

Four cycling personalities

In the early 2000s, Geller sat in his office in the Portland department of transportation thinking hard about the demographic of bikers in the city. He developed a theory, later backed up by research at the Portland State University, that broke them into four separate groups.

On one end sits No Way No How, the one third of the population who has no interest in biking whatsoever. Maybe they'll take a ride on a weekend through the park, but even in the best of conditions they probably won't bike on a regular basis. They just don't want to.

Then you have the Enthused and Confident, not quite kamakazis, but close. These are the roughly seven per cent of people who will bike in the city where it's relatively safe, relatively comfortable, if not a little unnerving for the average person.

Above them, on the extreme end of the spectrum sit the Strong and Fearless, perched on their bikes in the pouring rain, in the middle of the street, ready to go. They represent almost nothing, maybe one per cent of the city's population, the bike couriers and other kamakazis who will bike anywhere, anytime, now matter how dangerous or poor the conditions.

And everyone else? They're the Interested but Concerned, the other 60 some-odd per cent of the population with a rational fear of cycling in the city. They like the idea of cycling, they know it's good for their health, and for the environment, but they only want to do it if it's as safe and comfortable as their ride in a car or bus. And these are the people that American cities, Portland and Vancouver included, need to aim their bike infrastructure at, Geller argues.

"They're the people in the Netherlands who are riding," says Geller.

What would Vancouver need to appeal to these people? I asked.

"Better infrastructure," says Geller. "So the network is more complete. Most of our network is on street. It takes you where you need to go. Paths are wonderful, but they've got to be integrated with a good on-street network."

Admittedly, he also says bike lanes aren't enough for most of this group. Further separation, like buffered bike lanes, or separate cycle tracks (like the three glorious blocks of the Carrall Street Greenway Vancouverites are taunted by) are ideal, but a bike lane is a start.

Tinkering for the timid

Ultimately the concept is what really matters: More than 60 per cent of people who inhabit our cities are damn scared of cars, and if you want to get them on their bikes, you need to put as much space between them and traffic as possible.

Downtown Vancouver, for example, is a nightmare, even for the Enthused and Confident. A cyclist trying to cross town, say, east to west on a marked bike lane has one choice: Dunsmuir Street. This means that, essentially, if a cyclists needs to cross downtown on the south side, he has two choices: go eight blocks out of his way, or take the plunge and share a lane with angry, honking drivers.

It's true that Vancouver's own master plan includes more lanes in the future. Yet when Vancouver city council voted this summer to double spending on cycling infrastructure (to $3.4 million), the money was not allotted to fast-track filling out of the network. Instead, already well-used bike boulevards will receive new crossing signals and lower speed-limit signs. The only additions to on-street infrastructure planned for the money will create bike connections between 2010 Olympic venues. Great if you want to go watch speed-skating once in the two weeks the Olympics will be here, but not so brilliant if you need a litre of milk from the grocery store now.

The fact that the Interested but Concerned are now the driving force behind Portland's new and improved Platinum Bicycle Master Plan may have a lot to do with their explosion of bike culture through various demographics. Every person I saw lining the street of the Cirque-du-Cycling, for instance, was at the forefront of the minds of Portland's city planners; not just those in the race.

Their new plan includes increasing the number of planned bikeways in Portland from 650 to 926 miles, and emphasizing the construction of "low-stress" bikeways as the top way to create a more attractive atmosphere for bikers in Portland. Their streets boast bike lanes, bright green bike boxes to make intersections safer for bikers, and downtown traffic lights timed to the speed of the average cyclist, not the average car.

Even further than that, Portland contracted companies like Alta Planning to blitz neighbourhoods and give out any information residents need to make them more comfortable on their bikes, conducting guided bike trips, and information sessions. The city is removing car lanes in favor of bike lanes, in some cases leaving one lane for cars to share, and a lane on each side for bikers. They're taking out car parking spots in favor of centralized bike parking. (When was the last time you locked your bike to a real bike rack in Vancouver?)

Creating a pro-cycling cycle

What Portland's bike-oriented planners are trying to create and reinforce is a feedback cycle. The safer and easier it is to be a biker, the more people are willing to do it. "If you build it they will come," says Geller. And once they do, the system feeds itself. The more people bike, the safer it is. In the city of Portland, as numbers of daily cyclists increased five-fold, crash statistics remained flat, and fatalities decreased from 41 to 15 per year.

Meanwhile, British Columbia has vowed to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. For there to be any chance of that dream coming true, the city will have to get a lot of cars off of the roads of the province's main cities.

It takes time, that's for sure, and Vancouver is slowly chipping away. But as I cruise my way home from the Cirque-du-Cycling, pedaling over the wide neck of bikeway across Portland's Hawthorne Bridge, I am struck by how unusual it feels to be this comfortable and relaxed while riding urban streets. As a cyclist visitor in this city, I sense I've been granted ownership and equity in the road system that, after all, is there to get everyone where they want to go.

Wouldn't it be great to feel that way on the streets back home, in Vancouver?

Tomorrow, last in this series: Why Portland is making big gains against homelessness.  [Tyee]

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