Portlanders love cars.
That's not the city's reputation. Conventional wisdom says Portland seeks to discourage the motor vehicle—with road diets, replacing highways with MAX trains, and turning city streets into bike avenues.
It's somewhat of a façade.
This month, the city saw its 41st death in traffic in 2019—more than in all of last year. That's just one symptom of a city hooked on driving.
Carbon emissions from transportation in this city have risen 8 percent since 1990, even though the city has pledged to cut them by 80 percent. And the percentage of bicycle commuters has dropped—from 7.2 percent in 2014 to 5.3 percent last year.
Portland drivers are like smokers with a pack-a-day habit promising they're going to quit really, really soon.
"We don't live in bicycling utopia," says Jonathan Maus, editor of BikePortland.org. "Anyone who comes here from Europe just laughs."
But the city has a chance to break the habit. That opportunity? The personal electric vehicle. Lately, the machines have undergone rapid technological advances: in batteries, which allow them to go farther, and in motors, which means the pedal assistance matches up with the natural pedaling of the rider.
Suddenly, e-bikes, e-scooters and other battery-powered transport offer means to get around the city without breaking a sweat.
"It makes it possible to replace a whole lot more vehicle trips with bike trips," says Jeff Allen, executive director of the Portland-based electric vehicle trade group Forth.
That's because riders can take an e-bike much farther than a conventional bicycle, without discomfort. The e-bike is a democratizing force: It makes cycling possible for the elderly, riders who aren't in peak physical shape, and parents transporting small children.
"In a survey that we did, many people using e-bikes were doing typical trips up to 9 miles," says John MacArthur, a Portland State University researcher on cyclists.
The average trip in the Portland area is 5 miles—a distance many people can travel comfortably on an e-bike. MacArthur calculates that if 15 percent of the area's trips were on e-bikes, Portland would reduce its carbon emissions by 11 percent.
But for that change to happen, Portland must act more aggressively to get people out of cars and onto e-bikes and scooters—what are known, in industry parlance, as "micro-mobility devices."
The steps city and state officials can take don't have to be radical. Here are six changes—some simple, some massive—the city and state could make, as others have before, to ease the transition away from the automobile and help make e-bikes Portland's next ride.
1. Flood the streets with e-bikes.
Cycling is often seen as a vegetable-eating chore. But people who try e-bikes like them.
"I've never seen anyone get on an e-bike and say, 'This is horrible,'" says Tom Breedlove, who is organizing an exposition for electric bicycles called Ebike PDExpo. "This really changes the transportation paradigm."
One problem: Most Portlanders haven't encountered an e-bike. There's not a single e-bike available in Portland as part of a short-term rental fleet.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation instead decided to wait on debuting e-bike rentals until they could be integrated into the city's bike-sharing network, Biketown. The city is seeking a single contractor to oversee e-bikes in the Biketown system.
Micro-mobility industry experts say that was a mistake. Instead, they argue, the city should let private rental companies compete in a free market—like e-scooter companies do.
Austin, Texas, currently has 2,000 e-bikes available for rent, while Portland has none.
William Henderson, CEO of Ride Report, which works to provide cities with micro-mobility data for policymaking, says Portland City Hall has been cautious about e-bikes and scooters because the scofflaw behavior of Uber left officials leery of tech companies invading the market.
"We don't have electric bikes at all," says Henderson. "The city needs to figure out how to move as quickly as possible on an opportunity like this."
PBOT says it shares that goal—but stands by its current approach.
"We want this service to be around for a long time, and we think an exclusive contractual arrangement has the best chance to ensure the most number of Portlanders access to a high-quality, reliable service," says bureau spokesman Dylan Rivera.
2. Make e-bikes more affordable.
The biggest downside of an e-bike? The price: $2,000 to $5,000.
So Portland needs to find a way to make them available to people on a budget. That means pulling them into a rental network—like Biketown or other vendors—or subsidizing their purchase.
"Making them part of our micro-mobility fleets—that is the big thing we recommend," says Jonnie Ling, director of programs and enterprise for the nonprofit Community Cycling Center.
Another option: bringing down the price of an e-bike for private ownership. Think rebates, like the ones that already exist for electric cars.
The number of electric bicycles sold in the U.S. is roughly the same as the number of electric car purchases—but incentives mostly apply to the cars. Some places are catching on: As part of a clean air initiative, California has approved $1,000 vouchers for e-bikes for anyone who turns in an old car.
"In some countries, like the Netherlands, if you have a flexible health savings plan, you can use that money to pay for a bicycle, just like you'd use it to buy a pair of eyeglasses," says Forth's Allen, arguing that if Oregon adopted that approach, it could increase the number of e-bikes sold.
3. Make e-bikes a seamless part of public transportation.
In Pittsburgh, public transit riders can use their ticket to hop on a bike-share bike at no extra charge.
That bonus solves a big problem for bus and train systems: transporting passengers the "last mile" from transit stops to their homes.
"That should be seamless," says PSU's MacArthur. "More people would be using transit if they had first-mile and last-mile transportation."
TriMet says it's not currently exploring the idea. But a year ago, the agency added a way to unlock rental bikes through the TriMet app if the rider had a Biketown account. "TriMet has already started the journey toward expanding how we help people move through the region," says spokeswoman Tia York.
4. For that to work, the region needs to build faster, more reliable public transit.
In June, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly introduced the most dramatic proposal in Portland transit in a decade: dedicate miles of traffic lanes and parking spaces as bus-only routes ("Paint the Town Red," WW, June 12, 2019). She calls it the Rose Lane Project, because the bus-only lanes would be painted red.
Traffic congestion costs TriMet, the regional transportation authority, millions each year. Getting buses to move faster would mean they'd be more reliable and more frequent and attract more riders.
TriMet is now tweeting love poems about the red-painted lanes: "Rose lanes are red/They let buses through/We're pretty excited/And hope you are too." They are certainly the cheapest radical way to provide quicker public transportation.
5. Build bike avenues.
The city's planning documents count on reaching a point where 25 percent of commuters go to work by bike.
That won't happen until doing it feels safe. Surveys show concerns about auto traffic discourage people from cycling.
"Those fears are broadly fair," says Jillian Detweiler, executive director of the Street Trust, which advocates for all forms of "active" transportation, meaning any method that doesn't include cars.
Detweiler says she's concerned about safety, and it "is going to be limiting" for e-bike riders, too.
Portland set the standard for American cities in 2015, when then-transportation director Leah Treat called for protected bike lanes on all major streets. But progress stalled.
A 2014 PSU study of five cities found that cycling increased 72 percent along streets where protected bike lanes were installed. Portland has just 10.5 miles of protected bike lanes. Another 30 are already funded and will be completed within five years.
Other cities have pushed ahead. Cambridge, Mass., recently passed an ordinance requiring protected bike lanes on every street that undergoes renovation. New York City has significantly expanded protected bike lanes in the past decade and pledged to add 30 miles per year. But model cities with at least a quarter of their populations riding bicycles are international. Bremen, Germany, where a quarter of all trips are by bike, has 418 miles of separated bike paths.
PBOT says it recognizes the challenge.
"As population increases, and the roads become more congested, and gas prices rise," Rivera says, "bicycling will increasingly be seen as a better option than driving for the short trips that comprise the bulk of people's travel."
The bureau wants to do even more, he adds: "It also entails creating safer conditions on streets by getting people to drive slower, making intersections safer with bicycle signals and bicycle intervals, reconfiguring roads to add bike lanes and reduce car lanes, and lowering speed limits around the city and reducing right turns on red."
6. Remove cars from downtown streets.
This is the radical part. But everything else leads to this.
And it's already being done elsewhere: In Paris, a socialist mayor decommissioned a highway and has instituted car-free days on the Champs-Élysées. Barcelona is moving toward a similar ban on many of its streets.
A challenger to Mayor Ted Wheeler, Sarah Iannarone, doesn't call for getting rid of cars, but she does call for limiting them in certain parts of the city.
In releasing her Green New Deal proposal, she called for e-bike incentives for low-income communities and "'zero emission zones' in critical areas citywide, including pedestrian streets, transit corridors and town centers, around parks and schools, and the central city."
"With a climate crisis looming," she says, "we need to implement stopgap solutions ASAP to reduce as many miles traveled by single occupancy vehicles as quickly and safely as possible."
Wheeler says he supports a similar concept "to make parts of our central city carbon-free by the year 2035." His office is looking to London, Madrid and Brussels as models for low-car streets.
E-bikes allow dreaming on that scale.
"I don't think building a bike path out to East Portland, for example, is going to change people's habits if they have to pedal 5 miles to get downtown," says Henderson. "The e-bike can really change that. There's a transformative power with these technologies."