A London Cyclist in Portland

A cyclist passes over a bridge in Portland

“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.

Bike lane Portland

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.

Bike next to car in Portland

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.

Hawthorne bridge bike counter

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.

Bicycle provision on a closed road with roadworks in Portland

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.

cyclists-on-greenway

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.

bike-path

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.

11 Responses to A London Cyclist in Portland

  1. idavid 21/02/2013 at 8:18 pm #

    The pictured “bike with an arrow painted on to a road” is in fact a “sharrow” which is shorthand for “Share the Road”. This seductive slogan, though derided by Britain’s cyclerati who prefer to segregate, helps promote mutual respect between cyclists and drivers and has been widely adopted across the USA and several other countries.

    Given that the recent debate on road safety has highlighted the need for all road users to treat each other as equal citizens, cyclists should remember that them ‘n’ us tribalism keeps cycling out of the mainstream, inflames a hostile press and deters much needed political support.

  2. adventure! 22/02/2013 at 6:26 am #

    Thanks for coming to Portland! Next time warn us, and I might have bought you a beer. (And next time take Amtrak, our rail service, between Seattle and Portland. It would have been a much more enjoyable ride.)

    One thing to note: The bike maps of Portland show “bike routes” of various types. Some bike lanes, some bike paths, some shared-use streets. Each one is marked by a different color. So these bike routes are not always “bike lanes”, but the map key clearly notes that.

    • Andreas 23/02/2013 at 4:14 am #

      Lesson learnt! Shall send you guys a message next time I’m around! We’re now taking the Amtrak to San Diego so we’ve learnt from that mistake!

  3. John Rawlins 22/02/2013 at 8:15 am #

    I lived briefly in Portland in the early 1980s. Funnily enough, I can’t remember that there were many, or even any, cyclists on the road. However, I do remember that Portland was about the only American city with a decent and popular bus service. I think that the success of cycling in Portland today must have something to do with the fact that many people were getting around without cars in the 70s and 80s – so making the migration to biking much easier.

  4. Tom 22/02/2013 at 6:52 pm #

    I’m a Portlander who rides 365. LC has been a very useful site for me, keep up the good work Andreas …. my son went to UEL 2 years ago and brought his bike over to London (and of course his front wheel was stolen) …the tips would have been useful to him, had he known about LC.

    Portland is a weird city and the above poster is correct that in the 70′s & 80′s there just wasn’t much interest , but now …wow, we sure have it .

    Too bad you couldn’t have continued on the SpringWater MUP along the river out to Oaks Park and turned inland to the long ride out to Boring …it runs through Johnson-Tideman wildlife refuge (lots of critters to see and avoid) and past Cartlandia …a food cart/truck refuge that is only 30 feet off the path and has lots of good food, cheap.

    Warn us next time you come and we’ll give you more great tips.

    TOM

    • Andreas 23/02/2013 at 4:16 am #

      Thanks Tom and I’m pleased you are enjoying London Cyclist and finding the content useful. I aim to please!

      I would have loved to have cycled more, but time was limited and.. I’m sad to say I’m turning in to a total bike snob! I miss my own bike and thought the Dutch bike was good, I’d have loved to have had my bike with me!

      • Tom 23/02/2013 at 2:31 pm #

        I’m rather surprised that you didn’t hook up with Jonathon Maus, editor of

        http://bikeportland.org/

        if I knew you were coming, would have loaned you my spare Randonee Touring bike – 59cm

  5. Shawn Gossman 23/02/2013 at 6:19 pm #

    I guess I will have to put Portland on my list of cities to visit for cycling :D The photo of the paved bike path won me over! Great blog!

  6. townmouse 24/02/2013 at 6:35 pm #

    someone needs to break it to the Americans that either the French or the Germans invented the car…

  7. Henry Taylor 26/02/2013 at 8:51 am #

    Great article, much appreciated, but why don’t you link to your sources? As far as I’m aware, there is no 2007 Census data. The only two recent Census’s were 2011 and 2001? Could you link if possible? Keep up the good work though – love your blog!

  8. la bicicletera 13/03/2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Next time you find yourself on a road with sharrows, know that you are entitled to take the whole road! If you don’t have enough space or you are being scooted into the “door zone”, bike in the middle of the lane.

    Great blog! Let us know when you come to SF.

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