All posts by Todd Roll

Bikeable Bend

It sure is. Bendians (Bendites? Benders? Bendies? Bendos?) People from Bend, Oregon have one more thing to brag about besides skiing, rock climbing, Deschutes brewery, exquisite views of the cascade peaks, high mountain lakes, a lot more sun and a lot less rain than Portland- a great bike path network. We went over for the weekend and the weather was cool, crisp and fragrant with the spicy smell of woodsmoke. Meanwhile on the west side of the mountains the rain fell in dense sheets.

On previous trips I had noted the multitudes of mountain bikes and road bikes alike, all gleefully riding on magnificent paths often separated from the road by a lushly landscaped median. This trip we brought our own city bikes, intent on experiencing the paths for ourselves.

I’m happy, very happy to report we hardly had to ride on a bike pathless or laneless road the entire time. Even the main road right in front of our hotel, which was a mile outside of downtown in the big box store and mini-mall zone had a bike lane. The desk attendant hesitated only a moment when asked how to ride up the Deschutes river, (which I knew you could do at some point for several miles). Although her directions didn’t work out, we still had a lovely time getting lost, and she got points for not staring at us for asking what is, in most small towns in America, a flabbergastingly stupid thing, biking being strictly for children and those too poor or witless to buy a car.

Even in Portland, it’s not uncommon for a fat, luxurious bike lane to suddenly disappear, casting the hapless cyclist into the teeth of his deadly steel neighbors. Naturally it was the same in Bend, but less so than Portland which is one of only three platinum level bicycle friendly communities in the country! Like Portland, bike lanes ended without warning, but invariably once we turned the corner, hurray, there’s another bike lane!

Bend is full of traffic circles. Rich, retired Californian emigres plus tiny cowboy town equals instantaneous and massive town planning, emulating Europe on the scale of the reconstruction of Dresden after WWII. The result is a well thought out master planned town complete with a mall built around an old lumber mill and a river famous for its fly-fishing and world-class rapids meandering through downtown.

City planners didn’t forget bicycles when they put in these alternatives to intersections. As the bike lane approaches the traffic circle, it merges onto the sidewalk and the cyclist proceeds around the circle until choosing their direction, whereupon the path reappears. This kind of thought and, more importantly, expense is awfully impressive and almost unheard of. Combine this infrastructure with the restaurants, parks and brewpubs in town and great riding outside of town and you have bicycle nirvana. Good for you Bend!

Portland Bicycle Counts 2008

Very exciting stuff! The numbers are out and, yet again, a lot more people are riding bikes in Portland than ever before. Some highlights:

• Compared to 2007, overall bicycle use in Portland increased 28%.
• Bicycles represent 13% of all vehicles on the four bicycle friendly Willamette River bridges.
• Bicycle traffic in Portland has nearly tripled since 2001.
• Bicycle counts conducted in March 2008 were approximately half those of the summer, but are
nearly identical to the summer counts recorded in 2002.

The people are speaking and city government is listening; people want it to be easier to get around by bike and the city is providing programs and infrastructure to match.

It’s really stirring to stand in any one of the highest traffic spots and watch the swirl of bikes zip past, each one carrying someone with, if not a smile, at least the look of satisfaction which comes from getting some fresh air, exercise and moving yourself somewhere without the use of an engine.

This, along with the knowledge that the more people who ride, the more will join, gives me spasms of joy. This town is increasingly bicycle crazy. Have we hit critical mass? I think that’s an arguable point, double digit increases for the last 4 years is awfully impressive but can it continue, or even increase? Maybe, either way it’s very exciting to watch and wonder.

In other news, I saw an article in today’s Oregonian about redeveloping inner city strip malls into mixed use retail and residential communities. The article claims the combination of the large flat lots on main arterial streets on public transportation and the preexisting utilities make older strip malls, which at a certain age need to be redeveloped anyway, the perfect place to accomodate the more than 1 million people expected to move to Portland over the next twenty years.
Their placement on public transport routes would allow developers to put in less parking and more shops and apartments and bring in more residents, many of whom would surely ride bicycles! I myself have been watching a set of apartments being built on top of a row of elegant older shops with brick facades, a strip mall is just the next logical step.

Toughest of the Tough

Hats off to my lady, the lovely Lota the commuter.

Yesterday morning the wind was howling, the rain driving and yet despite my repeated offers to drive her to work, she persevered and rode her bike to work. I sent her an encouraging note to find once she had gotten to the office, changed into dry clothes and finally logged into the computer. Here’s what she wrote back:

“I was definitely the toughest of the tough today!
It was one of the stormiest rides I’ve ever done – wind gusts that almost pushed me over, car spray, leaves flying, rain coming in sideways and head-on. It was intense. So much so, that I was laughing out loud at one point when I almost had to walk the bike up and over the broadway bridge because the wind against me was so strong.
It was kind of fun…. kind of.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is bike commuting at its most challenging, and I salute all the hardy souls who pull it off even on days like that.

It makes me realize that no matter how much we love our bicycles and are committed to riding as much as possible, there is still a place for public transportation and the shelter they provide!

I noticed in the paper yesterday Trimet bus ridership is up 8.8% this September over last. It warms my heart to see people moving to public transportation. There are so many advantages to getting people on the bus. First, full buses help offset the cost of running buses. The more people that ride, the less money Trimet loses, which takes away the argument anti-public transport people make that it just eats up ridiculous sums to haul the homeless around. And Trimet might take a break from the constant fare increases.

Also, the more people that ride the more people will be willing to ride. Have you ever been on a bus with nothing but scary teens and scary crazy people? (I have nothing against the mentally ill, it’s just solving that problem lies outside the scope of my comments). Does that make you want to ride the bus? Probably not. However, as more “normal” people (at least not possibly carrying a weapon or all their belongings in a trashbag) ride, the bus will begin to police itself, the scary teens will be less likely to act scary and you’ll be less likely to be assaulted by someone who hasn’t bathed in weeks arguing with their dead uncle.

My theory is that public transport actually helps the biking movement. Once people make the decision to get out of their cars and ride the bus they realize two things; 1 The bus is not that fast. It stops every couple blocks, takes time to load and unload people and it doesn’t go directly where you’re going. 2 If you’re willing to take the bus instead of the car, why not ride a bike? It’s a lot faster than the bus, makes no stops for passengers, doesn’t cost almost $2, goes when you want and goes straight to where you want. Once you overcome the obstacles of equipment, fear of getting run over, and not knowing how to get where you’re going, it’s the obvious alternative to driving.

Unless it’s raining, in which case it’s just the toughest of the tough out there.

Bicycles Everywhere

Everyone comes out to ride Portland's bridges once a year.

Everyone comes out to ride Portland's bridges once a year.

It has been an interesting year a watershed in fact. Oil prices rising, the housing crisis deepening and widening, eventually overtaking the nation’s and the world’s banking system, talk of the country’s aging infrastructure collapsing. As unfortunate as these developments are for many individuals and families throughout the nation and the world, I can’t help but think how good it will ultimately be for our communities.

For a long time now, as I watch football on tv and therefore commercials for big trucks, I’ve wondered (usually out loud) when the big three are going to wake up and realize they’re betting very heavily on the wrong horse. I knew the era of everyone buying trucks would end sooner or later and to my utter amazement it came to pass over one week in May. As gas prices approached, and quickly broke through the $4 mark, US auto companies changed their tune on a dime, crowing on Monday about the F150 being the world’s most popular vehicle to announcing on Friday they were radically cutting back on truck manufacturing and turning to small cars; of course, this move was going to take them several years and hundreds of millions of dollars. Better late than never, except that it looks like it might actually be too late for them, with GM possibly running out of cash in a year. Time will tell, serves them right. Of course the Japanese were feeding at the same trough, but only enough to get some of the sweet, fat profits. Their real bread and butter is the small energy-efficient cars Ford and GM now have to spend years figuring out how to build.

As a fan of city density, public transportation, walkable cities and bicycles, its hard not to gloat and rejoice, so I give in and do it anyway. On that week in May I made a conscious effort to mark this turning point in history and the myriad of changes it will bring.

Sure enough, news came just in time for summer here in Portland, and our already red hot bike environment got hotter. There are just so many issues and events in Portland, I just can’t name them all here, however that is the point of this column, to bring issues up and maybe have a little to say about them.

Pedalpalooza fired people up with its dozens of bike-oriented events, then the International Car Free conference came to town. It was capped off by the first Sunday Parkways event in North America: a 6 mile neighborhood loop was closed to vehicles, allowing people to ride, walk, skate and skip car-free. It’s modeled after Bogota Columbia where they close several streets to cars once a month. It was a smashing success, the street was jammed with happy crowds of people, from couples and families with kids to older people, all not driving. I could feel the excitement, everyone wanted to know when it was going to happen again. It was at that moment I knew Portland had a chance to really increase its active biking population.

It all depends on getting people to feel comfortable riding around the city amongst the cars and trucks. Portland has made great strides in that direction and I am thrilled to be able to be here to help it move forward in the future.