Appeared in first edition of Treadlie, December 2010
Despite mounting evidence that reduced car travel could provide a panacea for many ailments of modern life, it seems the message is too-rarely translating to action.
Last month (October) cyclists were given an armoury of ammunition to fire at recalcitrant governments by visiting Roger Geller, bicycle co-ordinator for the City of Portland, Oregon.
Once a typical, car-focused American city, the state capital has transformed itself by building the most comprehensive bikeway network in the USA.
As a result, the number of residents who consider cycling to be either their main or second means of transport is up to 18%. – higher in some areas.
Build it and they will come
Geller believes the key to Portland’s success has been extending the 10 kilometers of bike paths that existed in 1980 to a 500-kilometer network that criss-crosses the city today; paths range from lines painted on roads to separated ‘Copenhagen-style’ tracks with their own stop signals.
“We started with the easiest roads first – those wide enough to create bike lanes without it impacting other traffic – and we’ve slowly tackled harder and harder streets as we won more political momentum,” Geller explains.
Bike paths are signposted with direction, distance and approximate riding time, addressing the misconception that cycling is slow.
Portland’s building code says all new buildings must have long- and short-term bike parking and developers are given incentives to include showers and lockers.
Bikes can be carried on buses, light rail and trams.
Geller is quick to point out that while engineering is a key ingredient, other ‘Es’ of cycling are also vital: Encouragement, Education, Enforcement and Evaluation.
Good for the City
“We had a lot of complaints at the start,” Geller admits, and quotes: “ ‘Why are you wasting my taxes? – no-one is using the bike paths’ – but our data shows they are being used and the usage is growing.”
A major bonus for the city are statistics that show, in a city of many bridges, it is the bike traffic that is expanding, while car numbers stay the same.
“This means our bridges are still operating as well today for cars as they did 20 years ago – that’s huge for a growing city trying to manage transportation.”
Good for Health
Poor diet and lack of exercise is the second leading cause of avoidable disease in America.
“For the first time in history, our children are destined to have shorter life expectancies than their parents, and we have to do fix that,” Geller says.
A goal adopted by Portland city fathers is to get people out of cars and walking.
Quoting Danish statistics, Geller believes cyclists save between 25 cents and $1 on health costs for every kilometer they ride.
“This has huge ramifications for employers, who often pay health cover in US – plus fewer sick days,” Geller adds.
Safety-wise, Portland’s figures are encouraging, with the number of cycling incidents and injuries holding steady despite more cyclists.
“Cyclists today are four times safer than they were 10 years ago,” Geller cites.
Helmets are compulsory for riders under 16, but surveys have found more than 80% of all riders wear helmets – up from about 45% in the 1990s.
Good for Business
Winning support for bicycle road space became easier since businesses recognised riders as valuable customers.
Portland residents drive about 6.5 kilometres a day less than the national average – together saving US$1.2 billion a year on transport.
“We buy less gas and fewer car parts, and don’t replace cars as quickly,” Geller explains.
Of that US$1.2B, about $800 million is spent locally instead.
“People who ride bikes have more money in their pockets,” he says. “Businesses are noticing that and are asking for on-street parking to be removed and replaced with corrals for more bikes.
“There are currently 51 in city and 11 in the works, and 65 more have been requested,” Geller says.
“In a very barren economic time in US, inner Portland is doing quite well.”
New ventures have also sprung up to meet the new demand, such as a bike-friendly guest house, a community cycling centre and at least two boutique bike manufacturers.
An amazing 4000 cycling events are held in Portland annually, from pub crawls, mystery rides and heritage tree tours through to major events such as Peddlepalooza, Bridgepedal (20,000 participants) and the famous World Naked Bike Ride, which attracted 11,000 riders in 2010.
“There are a lot of ‘bike funnists’ in Portland,” explains Geller.
While more families and children are taking to bikes – and Portland-built cargo bikes are seeing more businesses use bikes – a challenge identified by the Community Cycling Center is encouraging cycling in Hispanic and other ethnic communities, many of whom live in outer suburbs where the bike network is weakest.
Now that the pro-bike lobby has some momentum, future plans include tripling the amount of bike lanes to 1500km, and making life harder for motorists by reducing their share of roads.
“Originally our policy aimed to make bicycling an integral part of transport.
“Now it is to make cycling more attractive than driving for trips of 3 miles [5km] or less.”
After surveying Portland residents on their attitude to cycling, city planners have identified four groups:
- The Strong and Fearless, who will ride whatever the weather and even without bike lanes – about 1% of the population.
- The Enthused and accomplished, who will only ride on bike lanes. This 18% are the ones the new Portland network has won over.
- About 30% are ‘No Way, No How’ and will never cycle, whatever you do or say.
- About 50% are Interested but concerned and want to ride but are terrified of bike lanes and traffic.
“This last group is who we’re now focused on,” Geller says.
To reach them, he believes the city needs a network to the standard set by Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
“They’ve created conditions where it doesn’t feel any less safe or comfortable to be on bikes as it does getting in a car. When people are able to look at just the advantages – the cost, the enjoyment, the speed – then they will use bikes.”
PORTLAND – Key Facts:
- Portland has a population of 580,000 people and covers 380 square km.
- The average distance per bike ride is 5km and the average speed is 16 kph
- About 4000 bicycle events are held in Portland each year
- If Portland rebuilt its bike network from scratch today, it would cost $60 million – roughly equivalent to buying 1.6km of urban freeway.
- Portland spends 0.7% of its capital money on bike infrastructure but Geller warns that you get what you pay for – currently spending is at about $2 per capita, but he would like to see it increased to $18 or $10 million more a year.
- Metrofiets, which makes cargo bikes to order, has crafted a bike for a local brewery that stores two beer kegs under an inlaid wooden bar, and boasts pizza rack and sound system.
- Two thirds off all trips are now made by car in Portland. About 50% are trips of 5km or less.
How Does Australia Rate?
Geller said he was particularly impressed with the level of investment and the quality of the facilities being built in Sydney.
“They have clearly recognized the importance of separation from automotive traffic and that is reflected in their designs. Their challenge will be to make sure the facilities are well-connected and that people in the outlying areas are able to access the central city.”
Melbourne reminded Geller of Portland.
“I took several long rides and walks throughout city and surrounding areas and found I was able to be in either some type of bicycle lane, traffic-calmed street or off-street pathway almost constantly. The network seemed comprehensive and well-connected – at least in the areas where I rode. I also thought Melbourne was making good progress in improving the quality of their facilities by developing buffered bicycle lanes and were looking comprehensively at improving routes in the CBD.”
While in Australia Geller met MPs and councillors in NSW and Victoria, as well as VicRoads.
“I thought there was a high level of interest among all with whom I met and they were clearly open to learning what they could from me.
“As the Lord Mayor of Melbourne said at the Bike Futures 2010 conference, he hasn’t run into any mayors who are saying that they want more automobile traffic in their central cities.”