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Illustration of a bicyclist

These Roads Were Made for Biking

With its innovative urban planning, Portland could become the model for a cleaner, healthier American city -- and bring cycling to the masses.

by Linda Baker

My hometown of Portland, Oregon, is widely regarded as the most bicycle-friendly city in the nation. Portland boasts an extensive network of bike lanes (170 miles) and bike paths (67 miles), and the number of cyclists here has tripled over the past decade. The diverse cycling culture includes daily commuters like my husband, who pedals 14 miles to and from work each day, and the Portland Zoobombers, an anarchist crowd known for barreling down the city's steep western hills at 35 miles per hour every Sunday evening.

Still, if Portland is to create a genuine bicycle society, one that significantly cuts down on car usage and pollution -- and pollution's effects, from asthma to global warming -- many more cyclists will need to enter the bike-commuting fold. "In the 1990s, the priority was getting bike lanes on major roads, but we've maxed out the diehards," says Mia Birk, who was Portland's bicycle program manager before she joined Alta Planning + Design, a transportation consulting firm. Now, she says, the city is entering the next phase: offering the novice cyclist a safer, more pleasurable riding experience.

Compared with Amsterdam, where 33 percent of all trips are made by bicycle, Portland has plenty of room for improvement; a mere 2 percent of trips here are made by bike, although ridership in some neighborhoods is much higher. Portland won't be truly bicycle friendly until parents feel comfortable letting their kids ride independently to school and to nearby stores and friends' houses, says Scott Bricker, policy director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the state's largest biking advocacy group. "Children are an indicator species, like salmon," he says.

I am a cycling novice. I am also the mother of an indicator species -- a son and daughter, ages 8 and 10, to be precise. So last winter I took out my bicycle, which spends far too much time languishing in our shed, and rode it around the city for a couple of weeks in order to take the pulse of Portland's streets and to learn how the nation's best bicycling city can get even better. Portland may turn out to be an indicator species too -- one that predicts how other American towns and cities might also become bicycling meccas.

On a cold and rainy morning in February, I ride through northeast Portland, about two miles from downtown. (To the fledgling cyclist, precipitation can be a strong deterrent, but at least it doesn't snow here.) My route takes me down Broadway, a major commercial corridor, but after a few blocks in the bike lane I decide I don't like cars zipping by at 30 miles an hour next to my elbow. The number of auto-related bike accidents and fatalities in Portland has remained constant over the past several years -- there were four fatalities in 2005 -- even as the number of riders has increased dramatically. Still, the majority of bike-car collisions occur on arterial streets, where high speeds and lots of traffic make for a nerve-jangling journey.

I cut through the backstreets of Irvington, an affluent neighborhood featuring colonial-revival mansions and stately Craftsman bungalows. Thirty blocks and several neighborhoods later, and after a little sidewalk riding to avoid dicey car encounters, I arrive at Boise-Eliot Elementary School. I stop to check out Walk + Bike to School Day, an event sponsored by the city's Safe Routes to School program.

Boise-Eliot is one of eight schools in a pilot project that aims to get kids out of the car and onto their feet or bikes. The program, which includes improvements in the biking and walking infrastructure -- more crosswalks, for example -- has a simple but compelling logic: As more kids walk and bike to school, there will be fewer school-bound cars on the road, making it safer for even more kids to walk and bike to school. Only 15 percent of Portland schoolkids get to school using their own two feet, down from about 60 percent 50 years ago. That statistic, sadly, reflects national trends. Most kids who live less than a mile from school are driven there by Mom or Dad. One awful irony: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all schoolchildren struck by automobiles while walking or biking to school are hit by the parents of fellow students.

When I arrive at Boise-Eliot, dozens of idling cars are spewing asthma-inducing emissions into the air. Parents often have to circle the school several times before they find a place to deposit their sedentary offspring.

Inside the gym, about 60 kids who biked or walked to school clamor to enter a raffle for tickets to a Trail Blazers basketball game, this morning's incentive. The turnout represents about one-fifth of the student body -- better than the citywide average, but small nonetheless. Change, as one Walk + Bike volunteer tells me, comes in baby steps.

Safe Routes to School is just one piece of Portland's strategy to increase cycling among the masses. Another is expansion of the city's 30-mile network of bike boulevards, residential streets that have limited access for cars. Stretching up to several miles, they're designed to be safer and more inviting for cyclists. Directional signs notate distances and ride times to important locations around the city. Traffic circles force cars to slow down at intersections. Where bike boulevards cross the city's main traffic thoroughfares, landscaped barriers prevent cars from turning off busy roadways onto quiet, bike-dominated streets: "Do Not Enter, Except Bicycles," reads a sign at the intersection of Clinton Street and 39th Avenue, one of the city's bustling arteries. As a result, I encounter only the occasional slow-moving car as I pedal down the boulevard, and dozens of cyclists share the road with me. My ride is peaceful and relaxing, especially since the bike routes are not too steep -- always a bonus in my book.

A few days later, though, I am wedged between two lanes of traffic in downtown Portland during the evening rush hour. The high-density mix of cars, buses, trucks, and converging rail lines is truly daunting. The light turns green, cars honk, and I wonder briefly how my children might fare in this situation. Then, moments later, I'm on the Hawthorne Bridge, cruising over the Willamette River toward the city's eastern residential neighborhoods, one of about 2,400 cyclists who make this trip every day. The wind is in my face, Mount Hood shimmers in the distance, and the water ripples below.

To improve biking conditions in the center city and on busy streets elsewhere, Portland launched a "share the road" campaign in January that aims to ameliorate social relations between car drivers and cyclists through public service announcements. At the same time, the city is encouraging downtown cycling by adding bike parking and by redrawing stop lines at traffic lights, creating bike-only zones that allow cyclists to pedal ahead to the front of the traffic queue. These "bicycle boxes" allow bike riders to make left turns from the center of the road and spare them the misery of waiting beside car tailpipes at red lights.

Plans are under way to expand the bike boulevard network into Portland's northern residential neighborhoods. And next fall the city will add another 12 schools to the Safe Routes to School program.

Living Green
Open Space

Hear related podcasts
Riding Across the Nation

Cycling in Portland can't be beat, but there are plenty of places to pedal around in other cities and towns. Check out these websites to find maps of designated bike routes in major metropolitan areas from coast to coast:

New York City
Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles
San Francisco

If your hometown isn't listed here, visit the League of American Cyclists' website.

More Living Green

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

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Linda Baker, a journalist based in Portland, Oregon, contributes regularly to the New York Times and She's looking forward to riding her bike to local bakeries this summer.

Illustration: Aaron Meshon

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council