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October 31st, 2007 COREY PEIN | News Stories
 

Vicious Cycle

Portland is not so bike-friendly—But it could be. Here’s how.

     
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White-line Lane on Southwest Naito Parkway: A buffer between bikes and cars would add elbow room here.
IMAGE: BikePortland.org Jonathan Maus

Repeat something often enough and people will assume it’s true.

Portland is bike-friendly.

Portland is bike-friendly.

Portland is bike-friendly.

Year after year, Bicycling Magazine ranks Portland the best cycling city in the country. The League of American Bicyclists gives us a gold rating, and we may soon become the first big city to join Davis, Calif., in the coveted platinum category.

Virgin Vacations recently put Portland among the world’s “bike-friendly paradises.” Last year, the Austin American-Statesman noted, with some jealousy, that Portland “lives the dream of car-bicycle equality.”

Really? Tell that to Brett Jarolimek, the 31-year-old expert cyclist who died after colliding with a garbage truck on North Interstate Avenue on Oct. 22, or to Tracey Sparling, the 19-year-old student who was crushed by a cement truck at West Burnside Street less than two weeks earlier.

It’s been a bad year for Portland cyclists. Six have died in 2007. And while this is not necessarily a trend (over the past 15 years, bike fatalities have remained flat while ridership has increased), each new death offers a macabre reminder that despite our street cred as America’s most bike-friendly city, Portland is not even close to what it could be.

Being more bike-friendly than Albuquerque is one thing. Being on par with Amsterdam is another.

Indeed, an analysis shows our city’s bike infrastructure has been built in fits and starts, with serious concessions made to the car-centric status quo.

We’ve got a congressman, Democrat Earl Blumenauer, who founded the Congressional Bicycle Caucus, and helped get millions of dollars for streetcars, but compromised heavily when he secured passage of a paltry $20 monthly tax credit for bike commuters.

We’ve got City Commissioner Sam Adams, who is building a mayoral campaign around “Safe, Sound and Green Streets.” His proposal would still leave Portland spending far less of its transportation budget on bikes than Boulder, Colo.

And we’ve got a cyclists’ lobby that pursues a strategy of “incremental successes,” even as funding for new bicycle projects has declined.

Portland could actually become a cyclists’ utopia. And it should be if, after we’re done mourning the deaths of Jarolimek and Sparling, people get serious about making Portland a world-class bike city.

Former city bike planner Mia Birk likens bike programs to affirmative action. The cars already get the best of everything, sort of like rich white guys. Bike programs would be minorities in her analogy, getting increased and overdue access to common resources.

“You have to step back and say, this isn’t just about bicyclists,” she says. “It’s great that it benefits bicyclists, but it really improves safety for all of us.”

Here are 14 ways that Portland could really live the dream of bike equality.

1. SEPARATED BIKE LANES


Portland claims a “bikeway network” of nearly 300 miles—bigger than Copenhagen’s. That may be true, but our network is decidedly not better.

Well over half of Portland’s bike network consists of those striped bike lanes you see along the shoulder of the road. These lanes are a legacy of limited thinking about what makes for a bike-friendly city.

Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank, dismisses Portland’s bike lanes as “white lines on the pavement.”

That’s a fair description (see photo, bottom right).

What’s better than white stripes? Durning points to Copenhagen’s “bike tracks,” which are elevated from the street but lower than the sidewalk, and protected from car traffic by a buffer.

“Bicycle tracks don’t have to be that expensive—it’s just raised asphalt,” says Mark Lear, who’s directing the city’s Safe, Sound and Green Streets program.

The problem, engineers say, is that Portland has more intersections and driveways than European cities that employ bike tracks.

While creating separated lanes like Copenhagen’s may be difficult and costly, it shouldn’t be ruled out where it’s physically possible—especially on busier streets and intersections, where most accidents occur.

2. SLOW DOWN


Speed kills. Scott Bricker, executive director of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, has the stats: Pedestrians have a 90 percent chance of survival if hit by a car going 20 miles per hour. If the car is doing 40 mph, their odds drop to 1 in 10.

Many European cities limit speeds to 12 to 20 mph through residential neighborhoods. The city of Graz, Austria, lowered its speed limit to 18 mph and cut serious road casualties by a quarter, according to the British Medical Journal . The Brits found that where speed limits were lowered from 30 to 20 mph, child pedestrian and cyclist accidents dropped by two-thirds.

The benefits are clear. But to change Oregon’s 25 mph speed limit on a residential street, Portland needs approval from the state transportation department, which prefers to keep traffic moving briskly. Bricker calls that “screwy.”

Even so, putting speed limits under local control is not high on the bike lobby’s agenda. “It’s one of those really sticky political issues,” Bricker says.

No one said this would be easy.

3. BIKE BOULEVARDS


Changing the layout of streets can regulate traffic more effectively than changing the posted speed limit.

To that end, Portland planners are betting on “bike boulevards.” The idea is to redesign certain low-traffic streets so that bikes, not cars, dominate. With enough bike boulevards, cyclists can choose routes that avoid the busier and more dangerous arterials. What makes a bike boulevard? Signage and pavement markings designed to make motorists more cautious, as well as to signal the route to cyclists. The boulevards work best with traffic-calming measures like speed bumps, traffic circles and raised diverters that allow bikes, but not cars, to cut through.

Today, Portland has a scant 30 miles of bicycle boulevards. They vary in quality. Southeast Clinton and Lincoln streets represent the ideal of the form, where bikes often outnumber cars.

Unfortunately, the majority of the city’s bike boulevards incorporate no traffic calming, according to Portland’s bicycle coordinator, Roger Geller. So they’re more like suggestions: Bike here, but please consider taking your car somewhere else.

“We haven’t realized the potential of what a bike boulevard can be,” says Jonathan Maus, who edits bikeportland.org. “You’ve got to cross major streets that are pretty dangerous, and there’s no designated crossing.”

Portland’s Office of Transportation wants to create another 110 miles of bike boulevards, mostly on the east side, as part of a $485 million transportation package proposed by Commissioner Adams.

They probably won’t work if the city tries to do things on the cheap. Geller says it’s too soon to say whether new boulevards would incorporate the traffic-calming measures that make them most effective.

4. BETTER SIGNALS


Eighty percent of crashes happen at intersections, where crossing is especially tricky for cyclists. Portland’s traffic signals are aging. As the city replaces them, the needs of cyclists and pedestrians should take priority.

Certain kinds of signals are especially useful for cyclists trying to cross busy streets. Tucson, Ariz., uses a lot of so-called HAWK signals. With these, the traffic light stays dark until a cyclist (or pedestrian) presses a button. When they do, the red lights flash, so the cars stop and the people can pass.

Last year, Portland installed a $140,000 HAWK signal at East Burnside Street and 41st Avenue.

At the Broadway Bridge and the Eastbank Esplanade, the city has also experimented with bike-specific traffic signals, which are activated when a cyclist comes to a stop inside a magnetic loop. “It’s a solution that seems to be working for us,” says Portland traffic engineer Greg Raisman.

OK, then, let them work elsewhere as well.

5. GO BLUE


At 11 high-traffic Portland intersections, the bike lanes are colored solid blue, rather than demarcated by an ordinary white line, to make them more visible to motorists.

It really helps. After Portland engineers painted the blue lanes, they videotaped the traffic, and found that more cars yielded to bikes. A study of Denmark’s blue bike lanes found that they significantly decreased bicycle accidents. Montreal found the same thing.

Portland’s colored bike lanes could grow in a couple of different ways. The Germans use colored lanes as a wake-up call at key spots, like intersections and turn zones where cars need to cross a bike lane. The Belgians paint the whole lane.

Either way, this city could use more color. It’s not like we’re rationing paint.

6. TRUCK FIXES


Witnesses to Tracey Sparling’s death said she was in the cement truck driver’s blind spot. Installing convex rear-view mirrors can eliminate those blind spots.

The Brits now require mirrors like these on all new trucks. The European Union has gone further, requiring that all trucks be retrofitted with blind-spot mirrors—at an expected cost of $150 per vehicle—by 2009. An “under-run” protection bar, running low to the ground along the sides of a truck, would keep cyclists from getting dragged under the wheels.

7. BIKE BOXES


The blind-spot problem can also be mitigated at intersections by a “bike box,” which simply moves back the line where cars are supposed to stop by about five feet, creating a space next to the crosswalk where bicyclists can queue up at the traffic light.

The idea is to put bicyclists ahead of cars, where drivers can easily see them (and they’re not “sucking fumes,” as one cyclist puts it).

This is not a new idea, just a foreign one. Bike boxes are used extensively in Canada and Europe.

Today, there is one bike box in Portland, at Southeast 39th Avenue and Clinton Street. Geller, the city bike coordinator, has identified several intersections that could use bike boxes, including Southeast 39th Avenue and Lincoln Street, Southeast 21st Avenue at Ladd and Division streets, and Southeast Madison Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, near the Hawthorne Bridge.

The costs are negligible. Geller figures that design, labor and materials comes to $2,000 per intersection—probably less.

Last week, in response to public concern over the latest cycling fatalities, Commissioner Adams released a list of 14 intersections where bike boxes and blue lanes should be added.

8. NO RIGHT ON RED


For the bike boxes to really work, the city would have to prohibit right turns on red at certain intersections. Engineers say this would have to be done strategically to avoid screwing up the flow of traffic. And it would require a new city ordinance.

9. CLOSE SOME STREETS TO CARS


Every Sunday, Bogotá, Colombia, shuts down about 70 miles of its busiest streets to automobiles. They fill up with people instead. About one-seventh of the city comes out on bikes and on foot for the weekly ciclovía party. In 2006, New York City began limiting car traffic through Central Park.

Portland is just beginning to consider limited closures modeled on the ciclovía , says Linda Ginenthal, with the city’s transportation office.

“We’re not thinking about doing something like this on a business street, because it’s complicated,” Ginenthal says. “Also, we don’t want to do anything on a transit street…. We don’t want to hassle people to change their bus.”

The city would still want people to be able to drive to their homes. And most of Southwest Portland is out. “I don’t want to throw a monkey wrench into the complicated traffic situation they already have,” Ginenthal says.

So planners are willing to bring car-free days to Portland, as long as people can still get around by car. Figure that one out. Ginenthal says the scope of any car-free festivities depends on public demand. The ball’s in your court, people.

10. NEW TRAILS AND ROUTES


Portland has 71 miles of off-street bike paths, like the Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette River and the Springwater Corridor that cuts through Southeast Portland and runs to Boring.

More such paths are needed to build the unbroken bikeway network that makes cycling safe and convenient.

Where to begin? Planners and cycling advocates want to close a short gap between the Esplanade and the Corridor, and build a whole new path in Northeast Portland, that would connect the Esplanade to the I-205 path.

The BTA has a 40-project wish list, which can be found on their website at bta4bikes.org. First and foremost is the replacement of the “nearly uncrossable” Sellwood Bridge (see photo, page 29). The organization notes that the bridge is 3 miles from a safe alternative route.

11. HELMETS FOR GROWNUPS


Like most states, Oregon requires helmets for bike riders under 16 years old. Many U.S. cities, including Dallas and Seattle, mandate helmets for adults, too. Helmets are the law for everyone in British Columbia, Finland and even Australia, where nobody wants to look like a sissy.

Portland cyclists don’t want stricter helmet laws. Why strap on a helmet for a trip down the block? What’s next? Drivers wearing seatbelts?

“The love affair we have with European bike cities is great, but what worries me is people take the fact that none of them wear helmets [and think] it’s OK to not wear helmets,” says Maus. “It’s just not safe.”

In part, the bike community’s helmet-law aversion is a PR thing. Helmets imply that cycling is dangerous.

Helmet law opponents cite Australian studies that show the helmet law there discouraged people from cycling. But there is a broad body of research that shows helmets can prevent serious injury.

Don’t buy it? Try taking a helmetless head-first fall to the pavement, and refute it thus.

12. BUST BAD BIKERS


The stereotypical bad biker is an overgrown adolescent riding a brakeless bike, blowing through stop signs at night, with no lights, listening to an iPod, with an American Spirit in one hand and a can of Pabst in the other.

If you see this person, call

the cops.

Sure, it’s an exaggeration. But cyclists could do more to dispel the idea that a bicycle is a license to break the traffic laws.

“I have friends who say, ‘If you’re drunk, you should bike instead of driving.’ I think that’s definitely a prevailing sentiment,” says 23-year-old Reed College grad Lurline Sweet, who broke her collarbone in a bike crash this July on Southeast 2nd Avenue. (Sweet was sober. She just hit the train tracks wrong.)

“Certainly, from a PR perspective, it would help if cyclists stopped at red lights,” says the city’s Geller.

“We have to ride slower,” he adds. “That’s what we ask motorists to do.”

Brian Leber, a former Chicago bike messenger, is a salesman at the downtown Bike Gallery. In Chicago, Leber had to break the rules to make money. Here, fellow cyclists scream at him after he blows a stop sign.

“People like you give us a bad name!” they say.

Shame is surprisingly effective, with most people. For everyone else, there’s tickets. Of course, that applies to drivers, too.

13. DRIVERS’ ED


In the 113-page Oregon Driver Manual, only a page and a half applies to how to drive around bicyclists.

After meeting last week with officials from the state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division, Commissioner Adams said that section of the manual may get beefed up, and a Portland-specific section could be added to the drivers’ test. The DMV may also consider refresher tests for drivers, Adams said.

Good ideas, all.

14. RIDERS’ LICENSES


Bicycle licensing could have two benefits. It could improve safety by teaching cyclists how to behave on the road, and it could raise money for bike projects.

Some cycling advocates wouldn’t rule out licensing, if it funds a new trail or two. “Why should we be looking at bake sales when we represent 5 percent of the traffic and get 2 percent of the funding?” says Maus of bikeportland.org.

Commissioner Adams is dead-set against licensing. He says the administrative costs would outweigh the revenue.

That would depend on how the program was implemented.

But let’s say he’s right, and bicycle licensing doesn’t pencil out. Let’s even assume it would be really expensive. It might still be worthwhile, if it creates an opportunity to educate cyclists.

A municipal licensing program aimed at cyclists—as opposed to their bikes, which has failed in other cities—could provide that missing education. It could also mitigate the perception among motorists that cyclists get special privileges, even if they’re just sucking fumes.

Making all this happen will cost real money. There are many ways to raise it. San Francisco, for example, raised $56 million for its bike network with a half-cent sales tax.

What we should be asking is, how livable a city do we really want?

For the sake of livability, Portland made choices that seemed wild at the time—rejecting highways and encouraging urban density while others made a fast buck off of sprawl.

All that paid off. So could this.

Bicycles make cities more sane. They’re quiet. They burn no fuel. They’re slower and thus safer than motor vehicles. Most people can use them. They offer exercise. And they’re a bargain.

Mayor Tom Potter’s two-year Vision PDX process has cost $1.5 million, enough to more than double the city’s annual capital budget for bicycle projects.

Building the Aerial Tram cost $57 million. There’s your new bikeway network, and then some.

It costs about $25 million to take the streetcar a single mile. The same amount of money will buy 110 miles of new bicycle boulevards, per Adams’ proposal.

If Portlanders will raise their taxes for trains, why not bikes? Because cyclists haven’t asked for much. Next to the well-heeled rail fans, the bike lobby is a disorganized rabble.

“We know that bike boulevards and trails are good for property values,” says former city bike planner Birk, now of Alta Planning and Design, “but we haven’t been able to make the full tie into the business strategy.” The economic benefits of bikeways, as Geller notes, are more diffuse than those you see with, say, a streetcar line.

Diffuse doesn’t mean nonexistent.

Portland’s earlier investments in the bikeways network spurred a dramatic increase in ridership, which is why we’ve vacuumed up all those national accolades and, consequently, made a lot of people want to live here.

The best thing Portland could do to increase safety for the growing ranks of cyclists—not to mention everyone else on the roads—would be to have more cyclists around.

History shows that if we build it, they will bike.


Amsterdam spends nearly $40 per person on its bicycle infrastructure. Even with proposed spending increases, Portland will spend only $5 per capita. Boulder, Colo., spends 15 percent of its transportation budget on bicycle programs. Portland spends less than 2 percent.

The city of Portland figures bike boulevards cost $20,000 per mile, and up to $100,000 per mile if they include new traffic signals at intersections.

Portland contains more than 3,800 miles of roadway, measured by the lane, with 171 miles of bike lanes.

Portland’s bicycle fatality rate, as measured by the bike advocates at the Thunderhead Alliance, is slightly below the average compared with 50 large U.S. cities. Las Vegas is the most deadly city for cyclists. Milwaukee is the least deadly.

To comment on these and other bike safety proposals, contact Commissioner Sam Adams at commissionersam@ci.portland.or.us or Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller at Roger.Geller@pdxtrans.org.

Check the city's gettingaroundportland.org for bike route maps, parking and other resources. Bikeportland.org is a clearinghouse of information and discussion.

Check out the Thunderhead Alliance's 2007 benchmarking report to see how Portland stacks up to other American cities when it comes to accommodating cyclists and pedestrians.

 
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