Sunday, July 20, 2008
The Oregonian Staff
|Portland…bike capital of America|
Weird road-rage incidents involving motorists and cyclists have dominated the local news lately, but they’re just signs of the bigger story: Bicycling has grown into a vital part of the region’s transportation system.
The recent run-up in gas prices has only accelerated the decadelong growth in cycling sparked in large part by Portland’s decision in the early 1990s to build a bikeway network.
The big increase in cycling — which has made interaction with cyclists a daily occurrence for most motorists in Portland — could be just the beginning.
Seizing on the current wave of interest in “green transportation,” local and regional officials are pushing major bikeway projects they hope could drive another big increase in cycling.
They hope that creating a dense network of bike and pedestrian trails in the region and low-traffic “bike boulevards” on city streets will provide alternatives to driving while also reducing some of the bike-car conflicts that have frustrated motorists and cyclists.
“There’s a fundamental shift going on,” said Metro President David Bragdon. For the first time, all levels of government are showing interest in what he calls nonmotorized transportation.
Nowhere is that shift more visible than in Portland, where a survey last year found that 6 percent of residents usually travel by bicycle. Officials expect this year’s numbers to be even higher.
Commissioner Sam Adams, who was elected mayor in May with the political support of cycling advocates, is pushing a major street maintenance package that would include $24 million to nearly quadruple the city’s network of bike boulevards.
The boulevards are largely residential streets that use diverters, signage and other treatments aimed at providing good through routes for cyclists while discouraging all but local motorized traffic.
Adams says the boulevards are needed.
“Cars are afraid of hitting bikes, bikers are afraid of getting hit by cars, and there are more bikes than ever sharing the road,” he said. “This system we have in place here is not adequate to meet the needs of all the right-of-way users.”
Adams is trying to pitch his plan as a benefit to drivers by shifting much of the bike traffic off major arterials.
Meanwhile, Bragdon has formed a committee that will give him a list of priority trail projects the Portland region could move on quickly if money comes from new state and federal transportation proposals. Congress will begin work next year on reauthorizing the federal transportation program, a once every four- or five-year effort that sets the nation’s transportation priorities. Bicycling advocates have more sway in that effort than ever before.
Sen. James Oberstar, D-Minn., an avid cyclist who says he wants to convert the “hydrocarbon economy to the carbohydrate economy,” now chairs the House Transportation Committee. And the bill will go through a House subcommittee chaired by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who represents bike-friendly Eugene and says he is the only former bike mechanic in Congress. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is the first major presidential candidate to promote cycling in his policy platform, and bike industry leaders recently hosted a fundraiser for him.
Meanwhile, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is working on his own package for the 2009 Legislature to create what he calls the “greenest transportation system in the country.”
Though trails are more expensive than on-street bikeways, advocates say they can act as highways for bicycles, providing car-free routes that are particularly attractive to less-experienced riders. They are also important in the suburbs, which tend not to have dense street-grid systems as in Portland, where cyclists can get to their destinations on quieter roads.
Bragdon said the committee is looking at trails that serve recreational and commuting needs. For example, he’d like to pave the Springwater Corridor Trail beyond Gresham — taking users to the foot of the Cascades. Another proposal to build a trail from the Gateway District through Sullivan’s Gulch could funnel thousands of bike and pedestrian commuters downtown, he said. And he noted that the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District sent a $100 million bond measure to the November ballot that includes money for trails for both recreation and transportation.
The money to accomplish any of this is uncertain, particularly as there are big transportation shortfalls at all levels of government and voters are wary of ideas like raising the gas tax when they already pay so much at the pump.
Adams said he knows his road maintenance proposal will be a hard sell with voters already feeling pinched by high gas prices. He said he will receive results this week of a new poll gauging voter interest in the road maintenance package, which would cost $464 million and be financed by a fee added to water and sewer bills. Homeowners would pay $4.54 a month, and businesses would pay based on their size and vehicle trips they generate.
Adams has already sidelined the package once after opponents threatened to refer it to the May ballot. Even if he doesn’t go ahead with the full package, Adams said, he will still push to build additional bike boulevards — many of which can be done at a minimal cost.
While cycling advocates and their allies in government are looking for more money for bikeways, they’re also working to improve relations out on the street.
Scott Bricker, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, said the road-rage incidents that receive so much media attention are rare and run counter to the “high level of respect” he sees from motorists when he’s out bicycling around town.
Still, his group has launched an “eye to eye” campaign aimed at encouraging motorists and cyclists to be more courteous and to obey the law.
Most do. The disquiet among cyclists and motorists belies the fact that Portland’s streets have become safer over the past decade. Greg Raisman, a traffic safety specialist for the city, said overall traffic deaths have dropped from 59 in 1996 to 29 in 2007, and traffic-related injuries have dropped as well.
During that time, the city has done a lot to slow traffic speeds, including expanding the use of photo radar and red-light cameras, and installing more speed bumps. The city, which put in its first speed bump in 1991, now has 1,050 of them, according to Will Stevens, the traffic-calming manager for Portland’s Office of Transportation.
Police also regularly conduct stings at intersections to catch both motorists and cyclists who run red lights and stop signs, which Raisman said are high on the list of crash causes.
Tom Vanderbilt, author of the upcoming book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us,” said people fall into predictable habits on the road and find it hard to accept a changing mix of users.
“We’re having to make so many decisions at such speed,” he said, “there is a lot of room for stereotyping and habit formation just to prevent us from being overwhelmed.”
Adams, who will become mayor in January, said part of his job will be continuing to jawbone Portlanders to drive and ride more courteously.
“Sorry, it’s trite but true: Share the fricking road, people,” he said. “And when it’s hot out, understand that everyone is a little irritable.”
Jeff Mapes is the author of the upcoming book “Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities,” to be published next year by Oregon State University Press.
Jeff Mapes: 503-221-8209; email@example.com