A Tale of Two [Bicycling] Cities

Over the past 15 years Portland has been very successful in building its bikeway network, installing bicycle parking, and running promotional programs in support of bicycling. The results have been dramatic as increasing bicycle use has correlated nicely with the growth of the network and has demonstrated the success of the “build it and they will come”
approach. However, a comparison of 1990 and 2000 US Census data shows that bicycling in Portland is really a tale of two cities. In the inner city, in an approximately 4 mile radius from the Burnside Bridge, bicycle commuting in 2000 increased dramatically compared to what it was in 1990. But beyond that 4-mile radius bicycle commute rates have remained essentially flat over those 10 years.

I believe the primary reason for this has to do with the shorter trip distances in this inner ring to the City’s main employment centers. But, I suspect there are other reasons that have to do with differences in the structure of the roadway network and the transportation system. In inner NE, SE, N, and NW the roads are in a grid network. Cyclists of different levels can choose whether to ride an arterial street with a bicycle lane, or a quieter local street (whether it’s been developed as a bicycle boulevard or not), or even on one of the newer off-street paths that have proved so popular. In outer Portland the grid is not so fine-grained. The only through streets tend to be arterials, and these outer arterials have more lanes, higher traffic volumes and higher speeds than those in the inner city. While they are also striped with bicycle lanes, the bicycle lanes tend to be narrower than what we’d like to see on roads with such volumes and speeds, because that was all that would fit. This creates a riding environment in outer Portland that, while fine for an experienced rider who doesn’t mind the traffic, is not very inviting to newer cyclists.

The question this poses then is where and how do we focus our limited resources in the City to increase bicycling rates? While bicycle use in the inner city has more than tripled over the past decade, there is still immense room for progress. Given the short trip distances and maturity of the network, the inner city is ripe for continuing dramatic increases in bicycle use with continuing refinement of the network and promotion. On the other hand, there is much we could do to promote bicycling in outer Portland. One effort could focus on decreasing bicycling trip distances by emphasizing the bike-light rail link (for example, by providing better bicycle access and parking at existing and planned light rail stations).

Answering this question of where and how to focus, and developing (and funding) the strategies in support of those answers will help define how and where bicycling continues to develop in Portland.

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