I had a whirlwind day in Portland, Ore., on Friday, beginning with chirpy morning TV, then a chat with Mayor Sam Adams (who is fantastically engaged and forward-thinking on transportation), followed by a talk, then a panel discussion, then a bike to and from dinner with Jeff Mapes (Pedaling Revolution), planner and soon-to-be author Mia Birk, and Greg Raisman, with the city’s Bureau of Transportation (check out his more comprehensive tour of Portland cycling facilities here).

I made an offhand remark during the talk that when I first began researching Traffic, I would talk to U.S. transpo people about things I had seen there, and I would get a standard refrain: Well, that might work in the Netherlands, but it would never work in the United States. But in the last year or so, I now feel like I’m hearing a new version of that: Well, that might work in Portland, but it would never work in the U.S. Maybe down the road, there will be one last city, holding out, saying, well that might work in Las Vegas, but it would never work here.

In any case, Portland really does have the feel of some kind of transportation theme park — or a multi-modal mecca — with its aerial and city trams, its expanding light rail, its real-time transit tracking iPhone apps, and its impressive 8% — yes, 8% — cycling mode share (with zero fatalities last year). I saw a parking enforcement officer on two wheels, and an item in the local city magazine noted that banks offer special bike financing. The morning I left, the city was kicking off its new Green Line, part of a strategy to reduce the percentage of students commuting to Portland State University — from 1996 to 2009, the share of students driving alone to school has dropped from 44% to 25%.

It was quite striking to be out on a beautiful late summer Friday night and see cyclists everywhere, from neighborhood streets to busier arterials to the “floating bridge” along the river, with “bike corrals” jammed outside of local businesses and half the pedestrians seeming to clutch a helmet. I quickly had to adjust my New York City mentality, and I tried, with Mapes and company, not to violate signals. Given that I was suffering from an insomnia-and-jet-lagged kind of fugue state, I should have at this point been exhausted, but the whole effect was exhilarating. Here’s a short photo tour — via iPhone, hence the quality.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 at 5:25 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Portland!”

  1. Jack Says:

    I’m so sick and tired of hearing Americans offering the excuse “but we’re not Europe” when discussing transportation options. Options are a matter of choice and should not be predetermined by addictions.

  2. Greg Raisman Says:

    It was fun showing you Portland, Tom. One thing you may have noticed is that Portland is decidedly not on Mars. We’re quite a normal city.

    I hear the “can’t work here” stuff all the time, too. Here’s a little bike history to put it in perspective.

    We take annual bike counts. Here’s the 2008 report: You’ll see that on a typical summer day, we counted 16,700 cyclists going over our four main bridges into downtown every day (peaked over 18,000).

    Well, our first bike count that I’m aware of was taken in 1974. It was an 8-hour count. There were 15 (!) bicycles counted in that 8-hour, heart of the day period.

    We started at the same place that most every other American city starts at. It’s been through a series of discreet, achievable, and balanced measures that our city has slowly (and at times very quickly) changed.

    “Community” is one area where Portland does seem to be in a bubble. There’s something really special happening here where people are doing this strange thing: getting to know each other and having fun together.

    I hope you can come back in June some time to see what Portland bike culture/community is all about. We have a 2.5 week bike festival with a huge series of free, grass-roots events. Here’s last year’s calendar

    Thanks again for making some time to hang out in Portland.

    Greg Raisman
    Community and School Traffic Safety Partnership
    Portland Bureau of Transportation

  3. Patrick Says:

    As I Portlander, I am very pleased that you got to see what we are up to. However, you only saw the city core. The outer areas of Portland are still horrid American sprawl. It is good that we are trying, but need to do better.

    Slight correction to your article: “…zero fatalities last year” implies that there have been none since then. In fact, three cyclist have died in 2009 ( ). You are right in the sense that there were no fatalities in 2008.

  4. Elly Says:

    Glad you had a good time in Portland. By the way, the bike corral you saw is in fact the 1.0 version — the current design is far more functional, and our transportation department is installing them at a great rate. When the idea was first announced there was a lot of resistance, but now that everyone’s seen these in action there is a long waiting list. One impatient business owner started a petition to ask the city to install on-street bike parking faster.

  5. doug Says:

    I live in Seattle and I love taking the Amtrak Cascades with my bike to Portland. Even more, I love riding my bike around Portland. Not only is the infrastructure delightful, there are almost no hills! Unlike Seattle which is a series of mountains thrusted out of the Puget Sound.

    I would move to Portland, except for the fact that the job market is horrible.

  6. Peter Smith Says:

    that one bike corral is ugly, but i’ll take it.

  7. John Says:

    This comment by Greg couldn’t be less correct: “We started at the same place that most every other American city starts at.” Portland, as the whitest ‘big city’ in the US never had the sort of white flight that made for empty city cores that basically ever other city in the US has to some degree. Oregon’s land use planning laws combined with some visionary leadership in the 1970’s allowed Portland to develop without the level of sprawl other cities experienced. Finally, the recession of the 80’s that affected Portland and Oregon much worse than other places lead to depressed housing prices, which, when combined with the California recession in the 1990’s and the growth of high tech in Portland lead to much faster than normal population growth and an abundance of a highly educated workforce, which rapidly has filled and gentrified inner city neighborhoods. I guess you could call it a perfect storm, which has lead to the type of population (white, educated, relatively affluent) and landuse (short trip distances, restrictive zoning, urban growth boundaries) that encourage bike use. Which has been great. As for the 8% mode share – maybe during the highest usage inthe summer, but trust me, it normally is probably aroun 5%, and half that in the winter. The amount of hype coming from Portland is just that, hype. Oh, there are lots to crow about, and really great and innovative things too, but it’s all been painted with so much glossy sheen that only those of us in the know really know the truth. And of course, if Portland truly had both the size and actually problems that large cities like NYC, LA and Houston have, the ‘solutions’ that seem to have worked so well here, would fall pretty much flat on their face. But you won’t get any of that by talking to the city boosters like Raisman or Mapes!

  8. Bruce Wright Says:

    I’ve stated calling transportation facilities like those found in Copenhagen and Portland as “mature transportation systems.” The term is especially applicable in Europe where their systems have developed over a long period of time. During that time they have discovered the importance of not relying on one or two modes of transportation as we have in most of the U.S. Bicycles, buses, electric trams, trains, and yes cars, all have their place.

    The term implies that what we have in the U.S. is an “immature transportation system” that is still developing and has yet to reach that “mature” stage. In a subtle way it then becomes more difficult to defend that immaturity.

  9. Jeff Mapes Says:

    John is certainly entitled to his opinion, if I can just figure out exactly what it is. He seems to feel that Portland had a “perfect storm” that led to a lot of cyclists but not as many as the city claims, and that there is a lot of hype coming from Portland (but if you notice, he doesn’t exactly say what that “hype” is). And then he says that the solutions tried here would “fall pretty flat on their face” in cities like New York, L.A. and Houston. But then, John adds, people like me won’t tell you that because we’re “Portland boosters.”

    Well okay. It’s funny that of the three other cities mentioned, NYC is trying to follow Portland’s lead in building a complete bikeway network that seeks to cover as much as the city as possible. Some of the treatments are similar to what you see in Portland (such as bike lanes on arterials and good connections to the bridges). Not everyone in New York is happy about this, but I haven’t see the improvements fall flat on their face. What I’ve seen from my visits to New York is that it has improved the riding experience there.

    John has a point that the 8 percent bike mode share found in a city auditor report might be too high. The survey is taken in an excellent riding month, August (although I wouldn’t be surprised if ridership is even higher in September, when the weather is a bit cooler, students are back in school, people are back from vacation, etc.). The Census Bureau such reported in the American Community Survey that the mode share is 6 percent (6.4 percent if you take out stay-at-home workers), and there is some legitimate criticism that survey made understate ridership. Even if you take John’s “trust me” comment that it is 5 percent and half that in the winter, I still find this a pretty remarkable level of ridership given how marginalized the bike once was as a transportation vehicle in America.

  10. Graham Hill Says:

    I live in Boulder, and just got back from a week long trip to Portland just to blog, take pictures and soak in more bike culture. I feel in addition to getting to short trips in and around Portland, the recreation and the respect for bikes is really high. Yes, you can have places that seem to have no interest in bike rights, but Portland has more I think than Boulder does. You guys know the US is trying to look like you and they should! If I didn’t live and enjoy Boulder and their great biking, I would be enjoying Portland! Keep up the spinning!

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
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Royal Automobile Club
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Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Metropolis and Mobile Life
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ISL Engineering
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New York State Association of
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