By Mykle Hansen
Good morning! It’s 8:15 am on Vancouver Avenue in Portland, Oregon: bicycle rush hour. I’m swimming in a stream of bike traffic: passing careful moms in yellow safety vests towing their twins in Burley trailers, and being passed by spandexed road-captains on titanium sprinters shaving seconds off their personal best commute times. I follow two stylish hipsters on restored Japanese ten-speeds (nice!), and wave as I pass a front yard full of tall-bikes and choppers. Riding with other bikes is the norm here, not the exception. The adjacent car traffic, while rushed and stinky, is mostly polite and attentive. Bike gospel is spreading like wildfire, bike traffic is up 400 per cent in ten years and growing by dozens daily – and yet, the number of car-bike collisions in Portland has remained about flat. Drivers here, God bless ’em, have started seeing cyclists. The more we ride, the safer riding gets.
I zoom downhill to the Hawthorne Bridge – recently widened to accommodate bike traffic – where SHIFT, Portland’s bike-fun-advocacy group, is serving free breakfast to bike commuters. Because we ride, we get free coffee and donuts on a somewhat random schedule. The Shifties are festive but somewhat bleary-eyed – we’re in the second week of Pedalpalooza, Portland’s annual bike-fun festival, and it appears some of us have been celebrating a bit too hard. I ask one Shiftie what’s on the Pedalpalooza menu today, and she rolls her eyes – what isn’t? Let’s see: there’s a gelato ride, a taco ride, a bike-in movie in the park, rumours of a bicycle dance party in a traffic circle somewhere... just ride your bike and you’ll find something, is the advice I get. Just follow the pack of laughing cyclists.
Biking in Portland is a social thing – you run into people you know all over town, maybe take a detour with them so you can talk a bit. There’s a plethora of bike clubs and regular monthly fun-rides. Biking gets you out of glass boxes and puts you into the world – we all know that – and in Portland the world is smooth, flat and smells like fresh rain. It is also full of front-yard gardens and old wooden houses, street art, bridges, waterways, and nice people who’ll talk to you.
Fast forward: It’s 2 pm and I’m folding up my laptop at the Stumptown coffee shop, favourite hangout of messengers and bike hipsters. The speed limit downtown is only 15 miles per hour and riding on sidewalks is forbidden. So, even though riding is not really difficult, doing so downtown scares a lot of recreational cyclists and has become home to a harder-core element. A twice-weekly noontime ride takes off from Pioneer Square, sometimes climbing the west hills, sometimes taking off down one of Portland’s many bike paths, trails, or boulevards. But me, I head home for lunch, crossing the river on the three-year-old Steel Bridge bike/pedestrian path, then using Portland’s first dedicated bicycle crosswalk to connect from the eastside bike/pedestrian esplanade to the new Northeast Portland bike boulevards.
Biking in Portland is feeling that the city cares about you. Every time I take off in a new direction, I find some lovely new piece of bike path, some bridge, some stripe, some new signage, some connection that didn’t exist before. It’s like an Easter-egg hunt for short-cuts and rights-of-way. Portland’s city planners have been working hard to make biking easy. Since 1991 they’ve added 200 miles of urban bike paths, and – surprise! – ridership has grown proportionally. And when you notice that the icon painted on the pavement to mark the bike lane is a bicyclist wearing a scarf and holding a martini in one hand, you know these lanes were paved with love.
Fast forward: It’s almost midnight, and my wife and I, slightly tipsy, are party-hopping on the newly constructed Springwater Corridor, riding from a fancy animation-industry soirée downtown to a bike-freak wedding reception in deepest Southeast. The Springwater is a bicycle expressway. It runs south from downtown along the undeveloped East riverbank, connecting the outlying neighbourhoods of Milwaukee and Sellwood to the growing bike network. It’s quiet, scenic, newly paved, straight, flat, empty, and green. Its visibility is excellent, its river views are scenic, pedestrians are all but nonexistent, and it takes us exactly where we want to go. It’s perfect – it puts other bike paths to shame.
This is a glimpse of the dream we’ve been fighting for: a city that plans for bicycles as normal transportation, cyclists as first-class citizens of the road, deserving of space, planning, understanding, and funding. Until recently, cyclists have fought for crumbs – white stripes of paint, curb cuts, and rights of way on multi-million dollar roads designed for cars. In 1971, the state of Oregon mandated that a whopping 1% of all federal highway funds be spent on trails for non-motorized transport, and cyclists had to file lawsuits to even get that money spent. But today our City Hall considers “bike appeal” and alternative transit crucial to our city’s future as a dense and thriving urban center. Bicyclists have found their voice in local politics and have their hands on the levers of change.
We cross through the new Oaks Park bike path to Milwaukee Boulevard and locate the wedding reception: right behind the giant pile of bikes. The cyclists inside are having more fun than anyone else, as usual. The dance floor is booming while the groom, in a loosened tuxedo shirt, karaokes to 80s synth hits. Minibikes circle the dance floor like sheepdogs, herding us back to the music, making us dance all night.
Biking in Portland is like being gay in San Francisco: it’s just normal. There’s still more to be done, many problems to be solved: incomplete routes, bad traffic design, careless drivers, theft, even bike congestion on the bridges during rush hour. I could complain ... I should complain, because complaining is part of the political process and it has gotten us a lot. But I just can’t. I feel too much bike pride, too much mushy love for Portland, the City That Works.
Oh my God, it’s 5 am! We’re biking home with a tired, happy pack of wedding guests. What we hoped might be the setting moon is in fact the rising sun. I’m too old for this: this afternoon my head will honk like a car horn. But right now I’m in love with this road, these people, this city. Bike Fun is the secret weapon of our pedal revolution. It keeps me inspired to get involved with the organizations, the city meetings, the clubs and parties, and with the beautiful people who are making this all happen. Biking in Portland, you feel like you could change the world.