Portland Finally Has the Resources to Become an Elite Bike City. But More Money Means Different Problems.

We’re the dog that caught the car.

The best way to summarize this moment in Portland's history as a city of bikes might actually be with an automotive metaphor: We're the dog that caught the car.

For 25 years, we built bike infrastructure with the civic equivalent of spare change. In 2010, one of Mayor Sam Adams' favorite talking points was that the city's entire biking network had cost about as much as a single mile of urban freeway.

It was true. Paint is cheap.

In fact, you could say it was Portland's poverty, or at least our cheapskate culture, that made us one of the country's best cities for biking in the first place. For most of the past 100 years, Portland was too broke to build freeways or subways or even off-street bike paths, like other U.S. cities did. So in the '90s, we decided to do the cheapest thing imaginable and just add stripes to streets as they were being repaved. We called them "bike lanes."

Portland discovered that when bike infrastructure goes right on the main streets instead of winding along rivers or behind fences, it becomes practical, and people use it.

That's how Portland found its way to the 2000s. Bike-commuting rates quadrupled to 6 percent of our workforce over several years. (In most major cities, it's about 1 percent.) Portland soared to a wonky sort of fame on the backs of a few thousand 20-somethings who were just trying to get to their dishwashing gigs.

Now it's 2018, and the kitchen staff all had to move to Gresham. Unlike in the aughts, when Portland's rapid biking growth was the biggest reason it could add 15,000 jobs but zero new auto commutes, half of this decade's new jobs have added another car to the streets.

Biking rates are mostly unchanged since 2009, in part because we stopped improving our bike network for a few years after the recession.

It's been bad. But here's a smidge of silver lining: The Beemer drivers who live in the dishwashers' old houses came in with a ton of money. And they mostly seem to like bikes, too.

In 2016, Portland voters approved the nation's largest local-option gas tax, dedicated not to widening streets but to keeping them paved and filling in their bike-walk networks. In 2017, the state passed a big transportation bill with strong local support, and Portland's City Council jacked up transportation fees on big new homes. Another $600 million from existing property taxes, Mayor Ted Wheeler's "Build Portland" proposal, would also go, in part, to street work.

What's more, all the new car trips may be clogging our roads, but they sure do use a lot of gasoline—further good news for transportation budgets.

It adds up to a Portland Transportation Bureau that's swimming in cash. The bureau added 53 new major projects to its to-do list this year, up from six in 2015. In the "active transportation" division alone—that's biking and walking—Portland's operating budget is up 71 percent since 2015, to $5.2 million.

Just as importantly, Portland's leaders are under great pressure to deliver. Our economy will choke on its own traffic unless we can quickly make biking and its collaborator, mass transit, relevant to more people.

After decades of dreaming about what they'd do if only they had the money, Portland's bike visionaries finally got their wish.

Now they've got new problems.

Build first-rate protected bikeways on a handful of streets, or mediocre ones everywhere? Make nice areas awesome, or make crappy areas decent? Move fast and break things, or stick with the talk therapy locally known as "public process"? Reduce auto capacity, or keep every passing lane in place?

Bike believers like me obviously have our preferences. Here's my own take on what Portland needs right now.

1. For God's sake, give East Portland a network.

The simplest, least controversial sort of bikeway is a "neighborhood greenway," a low-traffic side street that gets speed bumps and signalized crossings. A lattice of such streets east of I-205 had been scheduled for completion in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018…and now 2019. The changes will harm nobody and cost nearly nothing. They've gone unbuilt.

In its defense, Portland has now paired this network with a few protected bike lane plans for Northeast Halsey and Weidler streets, separating bike and car traffic with curbs, posts and parking rather than mere paint. New crossings of I-205 near the kick-ass Gateway Green bike park are now promised, too.

No more excuses, Portland. The city needs these yesterday.

2. Do downtown nice.

Portland has spent five years sitting on $10 million for better walking, biking and transit in the central city. Biking has huge potential there, simply because getting there by car is so annoying—but anyone who's tried to bike west from the Hawthorne Bridge knows today's streets aren't nearly good enough to get normal people pedaling.

We've spent a generation making bike lanes that are "good enough" and promising to do better someday. Someday is now. Portlanders should use this money to show ourselves how at least one or two truly great protected bike lanes can look and feel. There's no better way to build political support for more investment everywhere.

3. Draw straight lines for a change.

Portland's so-called "20s Bikeway," finished last year, jogs back and forth between 26th, 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th and 32nd avenues. Why? In part because, on one block after another, city leaders refused to argue that a few parking spaces are less important to the future of Portland's business districts than freeing businesses from dependence on parking spaces.

Portland is about to choose between a ramrod-straight neighborhood greenway on Northeast 7th Avenue and a hilly detour on Northeast 9th. The only downside of 7th is that new traffic barriers would force more people to drive on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard or 15th instead. But there's no question which option would do more to reduce auto use in neighborhoods where people definitely don't need to drive everywhere.

4. It's the economy, stupid.

For some reason, a lot of Portland's economic elites have failed to see the reality that when we reallocate a little road space to make it safer, faster, more pleasant and more intuitive for people to escape auto dependence, it saves everyone money.

Car ownership per person in Multnomah County is down 5 percent since 2007. If we still owned and drove cars at the rates we did then, we'd have to spend $127 million of the local economy on motor vehicles every year. Instead, we get to spend all that on other stuff we want more.

That's a story all cheapskates can love, no matter how rich they've become.

Michael Andersen is a Portland staff writer for the national advocacy group PeopleForBikes. He worked as news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016.

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