“AMERICA! The land ruled by the car! We invented it!”
So howled a lady as I was walking towards Clever Cycles in Portland. Indeed, I thought to myself as I hurried past.
That’s exactly what I’m here to investigate. Getting here wasn’t easy. As I didn’t wish to rent a car, the journey was a four and a half hour coach from Seattle. I shared a Greyhound with convicts, fellow travellers and a large number of fat people.
It’s not a mode of transport I’d recommend and indeed it’s easy to see why most Americans who can, avoid it.
Portland itself rose from the dull highway, cranes and large billboards were the first thing to greet me. Not quite the artisan-esque, bicycle friendly mecca I had envisioned.
In downtown however, the first signs of cycle friendly infrastructure appeared. A huge bike lane had been forged out of what was previously a two lane road. It was a pleasure to ride in, but there were no signs of any physical separation from drivers. Also, much like in London, at key parts of the route, it seemed to disappear.
Reaching Clever Cycles, I had the pleasure of meeting Martina. A bike shop owner originally from Germany, who was kind enough to respond to my barrage of questions about cycling culture in Portland.
She told me to visit Velocult, Portland’s equivalent of Look Mum No Hands, read up on the ZooBombing craze and look out for the great number of cyclists using cargo bikes to transport their kids to school.
Before my trip, I’d bought myself a waterproof jacket from Zalando. Fortunately, I had no use for it, as the skies were completely clear. The perfect day to spot cyclists.
To do my bike spotting and to experience Portland by bike, Martina lent me a Dutch bike and I cycled back towards downtown, over Hawthorne Bridge.
At the end of a bridge is one of Portland’s bike counters. Around 20% of vehicles that cross over the bridge are cyclists. According to 2012 statistics from USA today, 6% of journeys to work in Portland are made by bike. That number has been steadily increasing.
In London meanwhile, according to TfL statistics from 2010, 36% of traffic over Blackfriars Bridge were cyclists. According to 2007 Census figures, 4% of Londoners now use their bicycle as their main way to get to work. If the figure is narrowed down to those based in inner London, then it rises to 7.2%. That figure is now probably even higher.
It seems that both cities won’t jump in to the magical 10%+ figures unless they step up their cycling provision.
Portland already has plans to do this and a cycle hire style scheme is scheduled to launch in the summer.
A sign that Portland takes cycling seriously, can be found on a road that had been closed for road works. Despite it being closed to cars, provision was still made to allow bicycles to pass. This stands in stark contrast over London’s way of dealing with road works which essentially involves “flipping the bird”, as the Americans would say, to cyclists.
Despite the fact that cars in America are enormous, I found riding around central Portland a pleasant experience. It felt safe and drivers were courteous. There were plenty of great little cafes to stop at and I’d easily recommend the experience to others.
I wasn’t blown away, until I started riding along one of Portland’s greenways. The Springwater Corridor Trail follows the river, out of the city. It’s amazing how fast you go from central Portland, to a beautiful rural environment. The route was packed with cyclists. From hardcore racers to this couple, riding their tandem and playing jazz music on a small radio.
This is where Portland really won out for me. It’s always been a shame that London has allowed developers to build up to the Thames river, thus preventing a consistent public path. You could see how an urban corridor like this, that ran along the Thames, would be a huge win for Londoners.
After travelling a couple of miles along the Springwater Corridor, I turned the bike around and headed back towards Clever Cycles. I consulted the bike map and decided upon a route that used bike lanes.
Unfortunately, the definition of “bike lane” once again proved wildly inconsistent. Here a bike lane was a bike with an arrow painted on to a road. In reality, this meant I was sharing a tight space with cars and it was a little unnerving. I found myself being squeezed in to parked cars and having to take an assertive position. Once again, the kind of conditions that favour confident cyclists but leave out those who feel unsafe.
Back at Clever Cycles, Martina told me she wanted to a “bike shop owner” exchange with a London bike shop. I was also interested to hear that things could have worked out very differently for Portland, had they decided back in the 70s to build huge inner city highways that blight so many other American cities.
It’s exciting to watch Portland develop and to see who will win the race to double figures for the percentage of journey’s completed by bike. I’ll leave you with this video from the famous “Portlandia” series.
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.