I recently spent a couple of days in Portland, Oregon, a city I’ve known peripherally for years as a Seattle resident. I’ve always sort of seen Portland as Seattle’s younger, slightly hipper brother to the south, with better beer but sadly lacking in salt water. But having spent a gloriously sunny summer-like morning tooling around the City of Roses on a borrowed single-speed, I’m here to tell you that, when it comes to bike transportation, Portland unequivocally kicks Seattle’s ass.
Bike boulevards and “neighborhood greenways”
I took off the other day from a friend’s house in northeast Portland with a couple of hours to kill. Just two blocks south I pulled onto Going Street, a fairly typical, wide residential street lined with trees and mostly-older homes. Going has been transformed into one of the city’s new “neighborhood greenways.” The speed limit has been conspicuously lowered to 20 m.p.h., there are speed bumps on every block and “sharrow” symbols are placed out in the middle of the pavement. At intersections with main arterials, there are concrete blocks that allow bikes to pass through but prevent cars from crossing. The overall effect is to make life more inviting for bikes and pedestrians and to nudge drivers onto the more car-friendly arterials.
The result? A wonderfully comfortable, pleasant cycling experience that gets you where you need to go quickly and with minimal interference from auto traffic. (Check out this video from the Portland DOT.)
Continuing on my way, I hit Vancouver Avenue, a one-way, two-lane arterial with nicely marked, wider-than-normal bike lane along the right side, allowing me to ride in the bike lane while staying outside the dreaded “door zone” of the adjacent parked cars.
I turned left and cruised south toward the Willamette River. Coming up on the Rose Garden, Portland’s sports arena, the route started getting tricky, with odd turns that made me start to wonder, “Which way now?”
But the bike engineering got very creative, using green painted pathways, sharrows and obvious wayfaring signage to lead me smoothly through the confusing tangle of roads, right to my destination: the Eastbank Esplanade.
Rollin’ on the River
What a pleasure this riverside pathway was to ride! It’s got the usual welter that you see on any urban multiuser pathway; cyclists, rollerbladers, runners and families with kids in strollers or teetering on tiny bikes with training wheels. And, as usual, some folks on foot stroll heedlessly around, paying little attention to what’s going on around them while some cyclists ride faster than is safe with all the pedestrians around. But everybody was having a good time, enjoying the trees, the river and just being out in the warm sun.
This path, too, is well-designed, very bike friendly, and the signage is superb. One section was closed for repairs, and I was detoured out into an adjacent street. But even then, the signs were clear and every time I began to wonder if I was still on the right route, another sign appeared to guide me on.
The Eastbank Esplanade empties out onto the Springwater Trail, which seems to be a fairly standard asphalt-paved rail-to-trail pathway along the river. I rode this for just a couple of miles before I ran out of time and had to turn back, but it runs on another 20 miles or so, to the town of Boring, Oregon (really).
Overall, a great outing and a good introduction to what Portland is doing to earn its reputation as the most bike-friendly city in the US.
Meanwhile, back in the Emerald City …
Things in Seattle have gotten a noticeable boost since I was last here. Riding recently after a couple of years in Europe, I noticed more green boxes and more separated lanes. The work done on Dexter Avenue, perhaps the city’s most-travelled bike commuting route, has made that a much more pleasant ride – especially placing bus stops on raised medians, allowing the bike lanes to continue uninterrupted behind the bus shelters. I also noticed the bike lanes on Stone Way that were supposed to have been removed a few years ago are still in place. Having a bike commuter for mayor may have played a part in all that.
But as I pointed out in this radio report a few years back, Portland got a 10-year lead on Seattle in taking bicycles seriously as a means of green transportation (One example: I’ve yet to see the on-street bike parking corrals that’ve become common in Portland).
So while Seattle has made progress, Stumptown still sets the standard for bike infrastructure in America.
Of course, even Portland’s got a long way to go before we get to this …