Bicycling in Downtown Portland: How to Make it Better?

For over a decade, bicycle planners have been grappling with various concepts for how to make it easier to bicycle downtown. It is a consistent complaint of potential cyclists throughout the region that downtown is a frightening place for cyclists. A recent Bicycle Transportation Alliance member survey revealed dozens of suggestions, some contradicting each other, some unlikely. I propose that we need a comprehensive look at bicycling in downtown.

Yes we have Waterfront Park and the Eastbank. What a great loop! Soon we will have bicycle lanes on Naito Parkway. We have bicycle lanes on much of SW Jefferson and SW Broadway, and a piece of SW 3rd. The question of bicycle lanes on other streets is a big one. The traditional location of a bicycle lane, in between the right-most travel lane and the on-street parking (as on SW Broadway), may not make the most sense given that there are parking garage driveways on so many blocks, a high level of on-street parking turnover, and heavy right-turn movements every other block. It makes sense on SW Broadway because it has enough of an uphill grade to create a speed differential with cars. But on 2nd, 3rd, 4th? The left side has the same issues. Placing the bicycle lane in between the middle lanes may work, but is contrary to current practice and may be confusing.

Many say we don’t need bicycle lanes at all in downtown; bicyclists should just share the lane. Confident cyclists know that traffic signals are timed at 12 mph or so, such that you can bicycle in the middle of a traffic lane (“take the lane”) and hit all the signals. Personally I prefer to bike in the middle lane on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, avoiding the conflicts with right and left turning vehicles. But “taking the lane” only works well for very confident cyclists, not the new cyclists we are trying to attract. Bicycle lanes would also allow bicyclists to bypass traffic in congested conditions, a very attractive proposition signaling that bicycling is a better way to navigate downtown.

Another emerging concept is that of a “shared lane marking,” or a bicycle stencil placed in a travel lane to indicate that bicyclists and motorists are to share the lane. At least this would let motorists know we belong. But a) it’s not a standard marking yet (nationally or in Oregon), and so would need to be accompanied by a lot of education and outreach to help people understand its meaning, and b) which lane to put it in? Cyclists seem to distribute themselves evenly between all three lanes on 2nd, 3rd, 4th, even Broadway. Shared lane markings in all three lanes?

What about the bus mall? The new bus mall will have a continuous travel lane that cyclists can share; how well will that work? What about the east-west streets? Connections and routes in Old Town & the Pearl? How to connect it all together to form a cohesive network?

These questions are not easy to answer, and will require a collaborative approach between the City, the downtown business community, and cyclists, among others. The potential payoff is huge. Already there are almost 9000 daily bicycling trips over the downtown bridges, with many hundreds of additional trips from neighborhoods west. These trips have translated into improved health, and have had positive impacts on available downtown auto parking and traffic. Tourists visiting Portland seek opportunities to rent bicycles and enjoy the City by bicycle. The challenge is on: how do we make downtown Portland more bicycle-friendly so that we attract new daily bicycle riders?

26 responses to “Bicycling in Downtown Portland: How to Make it Better?”

  1. Mia, I think you raise some good questions. When traveling east or north (downhill or level) I ‘take the lane’ very comfortably.

    But when going uphill (south or west) I can’t keep up with traffic unless I’m willing to arrive at my destination dripping in sweat (I know, I need to get into better shape – but I suspect a lot of folks fall in my category). The bike lane on Broadway is great for going south at a slower pace. But not enough of Jefferson has a lane. I think it is critical to get one westbound street (all the way to 18th please) with a continuous bike lane.

    Also, my daughter now occassionally commutes by bike to St. Mary’s downtown, and I would love it if somebody (BTA, are you listening) ran a clinic on cycling skills for downtown riding.

  2. Mia –

    I would be afraid that marking specific lanes as “shared” would make it appear other lanes are off-limits. I think marking shared lanes ought to be to inform drivers of the expectation that they need to modify their expectations and behavior. On Hawthorne that would make sense. Downtown it is largely irrelevant unless, as Chris points out, you are trying to go uphill and can’t keep up with traffic.

    I think clinics on cycling skills for downtown is a great idea. Perhaps some family rides through downtown where the families took the lane would also be a good idea. Critical Mass for families? The more “confident riders” we create the easier it is to be a confident rider.

    I think the most important thing to do downtown is to put up signs that tell drivers and bicyclist that if you are riding a bike, you are expected to be in the street and in the lane. I think we ought to eliminate the exemption for police and others to ride on the sidewalk. Their using the street would go a long way toward modeling the expectations for others. Drivers need to expect to share the road. That includes expecting sometimes being caught behind a slow rider when going uphill.

    We ought to do trainings with police and enlist their help in educating bicyclists about their rights and responsibilities. We ought to have mandatory classes on safe and legal biking for bicyclists who are given tickets for violating traffic laws. People who ride in the bike lane the wrong way down a one way street are doing so partially out of ignorance. A ticket and a lecture by a cop might change that behavior, but there are probably a lot of other things they don’t know either.

  3. I think the new through-auto-lane on the transit mall would be an excellent place to try the idea of marking lanes to indicate bicycles and autos are to share.

    Many drivers already know the transit mall is “different” when it comes to autos… most lanes are bus only, and the auto lane is not currently a through-routed lane.

    Parking and pullouts will be limited along the new through-lane, so the usual problems of dooring and cars pulling in and out without looking for bicycles will be naturally reduced.

    Because the transit mall is a place for transit and, most importantly, pedestrians, with wide sidewalks and many urban street furnishings, having an uncluttered non-pedestrian zone for bicycles makes sense.

    Because the single auto lane is not meant as an expressway, and because the through-routing of the lane is new, drivers will (hopefully) be less irritated to be operating behind bicycle traffic.

    For a painted smbol in the road, how about TWO bicycles (side by side) _over_ a single auto. This would give a spatial relationship to the symbol that shows that bicycles can be anywhere in the lane, and that multiple bicycles are to be expected.

    – Bob R.

  4. Hmm. Personally, I think that marking individual lanes as car/bike lanes might be confusing or counter-productive. If bicycles are to be accepted as a general participant in downtown traffic, then marking particular lanes as car/bike lanes — aside from not being a readily recognizable symbol — would probably signify to some that the other lanes AREN’T for sharing with bikes.

    My feeling is that for the confident bicycle commuters, things right now are pretty much fine. So the main accommodations that need to be made are for the kid / novice / leisure / out of shape crowd. I think that the “leisure” element is the key here, because they are likely to be one of the larger group of users, and because they have specific requirements that the other groups do not. Namely: even if you have an entire lane set aside exclusively for you, there’s nothing particularly leisurly or enjoyable about bicycling along with cars and especially busses belching hydrocarbons in the lane next to you.

    Therefore, I think we ought to concentrate on finding ways to introduce exclusive bicycle/pedestrian corridors downtown, on non-arterial streets. The park blocks (particularly once they are linked up) would be an ideal north/south corridor, since are beautiful and barely used by automobiles anyways. East/west corridors are a bit of a tougher nut to crack, though.

  5. Nathan, I would not count on the park blocks becoming continguous anytime that I’ll still be pedalling :-)

    But, the idea of taking the streets adjoining the park blocks and slowing them down so they’re more attractive to bikes sharing with cars is interesting.

    I still think we need a complete bike lane going west though.

  6. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was a “novice” cyclist, and I can say that shared lanes or a cycling lane between lanes of traffic would not have helped me feel comfortable. It’s still true for me that in the four-and-a-half mile ride to the central library, the most challenging part of the route is those eight blocks between 2nd and 10th.

    I have to agree with Nathan that carless corridors are pretty much the only suggestion here that would make things more comfortable for a novice rider.

    or, it sounds like most of the trouble with installing bike lanes has to do with cars parking. How about we just say you can’t park inside the fareless square? That’d fix it, right?

  7. Let me offer some suggestions about cycling in downtown Portland.

    Rule #1: DO NOT EVER ride down 4th, 5th, or 6th. You should probably avoid Broadway. Naito is suicide.

    Park, 10th/11th (for the west part), and waterfront park are the ways to go N-S. Most of the E-W streets aren’t too bad, actually.

    To get to NW portland, follow the max line to PGE park, then by the Civic Apartment demolition site and cross Burnside on 20th next to Hollywood and Blockbuster.

    Nice and simple, and pretty safe. Keep you guys out of trouble! I always see bicyclists riding around on all the suicide streets, and just have to wonder – WHY?!

    As always, we need a bike parking garage – preferably 2 – in downtown: one south of Big Pink, and the other at PSU.

  8. Actually, the auto travel lane on the new bus mall would be an excellent idea – since the lane is only projected on having what, a few hundred cars/hour at most anyways – people will drive fairly slow because of all the busses and light rail just a few feet away. This would be a good place to just designate the entire 1.5 mile lane as ‘mixed traffic’ and actually get some decent use out of it.

  9. I gotta agree that some type of educational course for riding downtown would be helpful. My first experience taking a lane was for a class in a critical mass-type environment, ever since which i have felt comfortable and confident doing so and knowing when to do so. besides hopefully other bikers would learn not to go violate traffic laws then
    Making the redone transit mall mixed for bikes and cars is a great idea too, between 5/6, 10/11, and the waterfront that’s a good number of n/s streets. i wish there was a way to do bike-only routes but downtown that could be hard.
    bike parking garages would be nice too!

  10. Fascinating conversation. Thanks folks.

    To take off on Nathan’s idea… why not simply eliminate auto traffic on the narrow streets adjoining the park blocks? They’re basically impossible to navigate as it is.

    They could be the primary pedestrian/bicycle/skateboard/segway corridor through downtown…

    I’m sure there are issues that haven’t occurred to me right now, but it seems a reasonable solution.

    (And Chris, yeah, they won’t be connected for a long time to come, but if we make it a ped/bike zone all the way thru, then we start down that path.)

  11. As a long-time bike commuter in Portland, Seattle, Washington, DC and other cities, I’d have to say that my biggest request would be better bike parking alternatives.

  12. I love my daily commute from NE 39th to downtown… but it involves FREQUENT near death experiences on Broadway, with cars turning through and into the bike lane. I can’t imagine what it would be like without that bike lane.

    Coming south on llth from the Pearl involves riding on the left to avoid death by trolley track and being constantly wary of death by sudden opening of doors.

    I’m too tired and it’s too hot to bike home in the evening… I put my bike on the Max and am very happy to be able to do that.

    Biking is mixed bag…. exciting, great exercise… but not for the faint of heart, and I’m not sure what to do about that except wait for Peak Oil to make it too expensive for folks to operate their cars.

    Portland really is a great city to bike in compared to others… but biking is never going to be “mellow” or “easy” as long as we share the roads with 3000 pound hunks of steel driven by half awake commuters.

    I’d like to see exclusive bike lanes downtown though… it’s a nice fantasy. There could be 2 north south corridors and 2 east west corridors, painted and labeled to a fare-thee-well: Bikes Only.

    That would tell the world that we appreciated the bicyclists.

  13. I like Kari’s idea of having a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle/skateboard/segway corridor through downtown. I’ve been a pretty dedicated bicyclist in the past but last couple of years due to my job being farther out I’ve been trucking it, and like Joni Mitchell have looked at both sides now, and I know the irritation and inconvenience that a car driver feels when they have to “share” the road with a bicyclist. With my past life as a bicyclist, I never felt completely safe either, not that I do in my car either but not as bad as when I was just bicycling.
    I think bicycles and cars are like cats and dogs, yeah under certain conditions they can coexist but its easier to find methods to give them their own room. I think alot of car drivers would be for a large pedestrian/bicycle/skateboard/segway corridor if they knew it would absorb most of the bicycle traffic and reduce their chances of having to compete with or accidentally injure a bicyclist.
    The chances of it happening though are another thing.

  14. I take the lane when riding downtown, but appreciate the lane up Bway as well.
    The suggestion that the new through lane on the Transit Mall be for all vehicles…bikes, cars, skateboards…makes very good sense to me. The key for mixing modes is getting speeds down; and it should have pretty low speeds by design.
    This appears to be the defacto situation along the E/W MAX tracks with no signage or design effort.
    And yes, let’s get the bike cops and big strong mountain bikers off the sidewalks downtown and in the streets.
    Lenny Anderson

  15. Why, under certain circumstances, shouldn’t it be OK for cyclisits to use the sidewalks? Like most of the rest of the world (Asia, Europe)? Cycling on sidewalks is actually legal under Portland city ordinance in the S. Park Blocks and Lawnsdale (sp?) square downtown.

    Sorry gang – but I think for the most part you represent a cycle elite that is out of touch with mainstream reality. There is a huge potential group of middle aged adult cyclists who are NEVER going to be comfortable cycling on the road in heavy traffic downtown. You may view it as irrational, but that is the way it is. A lot of what I am hearing on this site has been from a PC point of view that espouses the philsophy: “they will ride in traffic or they will not ride! We need to become more flexible in our outlook.

    Some wider city sidewalks, like the current Transit Mall, could accomodate bikes with a few urban furnishings moves. Other areas have the potential for shared sidewalk/bike facilities instead of bike lanes. Why is this a taboo topic? It works great in the rest of the world.

  16. Sidewalk cycling is dangerous! When cars pull up to an intersection, they’re watching for pedestrians coming off the sidewalks at pedestrian speeds, not cyclists riding down at 20 mph! I am a heavy cyclist and a very bike- and pedestrian-friendly driver (on the occasions when I borrow a car to drive somewhere). But even I have had a few (well, two) incidents of people speeding down the sidewalk where I came closer to hitting them than I was comfortable with!

    Cycling on crowded sidewalks is also dangerous to pedestrians…

    P.S. You’re right about the S. Park Blocks, but wrong about Lownsdale Square (check Portland City Code 16.70.320.E)

  17. My primary interest is getting more people out riding, and it is very clear that although confident cyclists can get around downtown, newer cyclists & those with kids will not ride in downtown unless we come up with a solution.

    Cycling clinics are a good idea. The idea of designating part of the sidewalk has some merit, although will be politically unpopular and certainly we would need to design it to protect pedestrians. Probably not a likely option for a built downtown; better option for a new suburb. Striping bike lanes or adding shared lane markings could work; perhaps a demonstration project or two would help. Yes if we mark some lanes or some streets it may create an impression that other streets are off limits, but that is the case citywide; we designate the routes that work the best but anyone who wants to use any other street is allowed. In any case the design would likely be quite unorthodox and would need to be monitored very carefully.

    The interesting thing in reading through all the comments is how diverse the opinions are. That reflects how complicated this issue is, and the reason why we haven’t come up with a solution to date.

  18. Mia and others,

    Sorry, but one way I think we are missing the boat is in thinking that bike lanes and a safe cycling class will give “novice” cyclists the confidence to ride on traffic congested downtown streets. For decades – I thought so too. It will work for some, but in the last few years I’ve had direct interactions with a representative group of middle-aged adult riders that are NEVER going to feel good about riding in downtown traffic. These people will put their bike on their car and drive 20 blocks to the greenway so they can ride a mile without cars. However irrational (and I think they are irrational) they think being on the roadway with cars is terribly unsafe.

    The point isn’t for us to judge them, the point is to get more people riding. I have seen 80 year old grandmothers riding in Europe and Japan – and where they ride is on the sidewalk. This is what works for a broad, untapped demographic of casual adult cyclists.

    While Portland’s downtown couldn’t be easily retrofit to accomodate bikes on sidewalks everywhere, it could be done on selected streets and routes. Transit Mall, Park Blocks, rebuilt Burnside, etc. I find the taboo placed on any and all discussion of this regretable. I think it has as much or more to do with PC thinking by cyclists themselves (“we are vehicles, we demand the road! we reject being trivialized on sidewalks!) as it does other political factors.

  19. I am with the crowd that would like to see cyclists in the road, and not the sidewalk. However, I agree with Rick that if the only way we can get people biking is to get them on the sidewalk, I think we need to accept that and I think we should look at
    1) how riding at low speeds could be made safer (when coming to intersections). This could include signage and more education for cars, or even traffic engineering like building devices which try to force cars to stop before the crosswalk (small speedbumps?)
    2) what will it take to eventually get those people on the road?

    I really like the idea mentioned here about no on street parking in fairless zone. I think that could potentially help increase public transit usage, and make roads safer for cyclists. Note however, that if all those parked cars dissapear, the roads will appear wider and visibility will increase for cars, which will tend to make them drive faster. Note also that all those people parking their cars will become royally pissed off, at least before they discover the joy of walking and cycling.

    Another couple things to decrease auto trips in downtown would be
    1) for the city/state to somehow make car drivers pay the real cost of cars and
    2) implement a London-style tax on cars in downtown (and I wouldn’t mind seeing the increased tax on SUVs which are largely unnecessary in downtown).

  20. There’s a law against riding on the sidewalks?

    My 8 year old son is breaking the law?

    I should make him ride in the street?

    That’s crazy.

    People should be encouraged to ride at reasonable speeds on the sidewalks. It’s the only place that chldren are safe, and the only place that many adults will feel safe.

    Sometimes it’s the only place I feel safe.

    Has anyone ever actually gotten a ticket for riding on the sidewalks? (Particularly outside of downtown?)

    Are there any statistics on pedestrian bike collisions? Is that an actual problem, or just an imaginary one?

  21. “There’s a law against riding on the sidewalks?”

    Only in downtown. Elsewhere it is legal.

    “It will work for some, but in the last few years I’ve had direct interactions with a representative group of middle-aged adult riders that are NEVER going to feel good about riding in downtown traffic. These people will put their bike on their car and drive 20 blocks to the greenway so they can ride a mile without cars. However irrational (and I think they are irrational) they think being on the roadway with cars is terribly unsafe.”

    I don’t think you will get the people who drive 20 blocks to the Greenway to ride their bikes in traffic or on the sidewalk. They are recreational riders and they have no interest in using their bike for transportation.

    We need to focus on the people who do want to ride for transportation and breaking down the barriers for them. One of those barriers is having traffic passing in the same lane where the lane isn’t really wide enough. Once people take the lane in slow downtown traffic, they quickly realize it is actually safer than sharing a lane with cars.

    The next step – a much harder step – is to take the lane on heavily traveled streets where the speeds are higher. We need to figure out ways to give people permission to do that and have drivers expect it.

    I ride down Hawthorne often, but once the bike lane ends at 11th it becomes extremely uncomfortable and not worth the anxiety to go more than a block or two. There isn’t really room for a car and bike. I think if we took the lane in those situations some of the opposition to bike lanes would disappear in a hurry with people seeing tham as a way to get bikes out of traffic. But I am not going to risk my life doing it.

  22. In places where you are allowed to ride on the sidewalk (which is most everywhere, see below for exceptions), state law (ORS 814.410) provides that a person commits the offense of “unsafe operation of a bicycle on a sidewalk” if the person:

    Suddenly leaves the curb or other place of safety and moves into the path of a vehicle, causing an immediate hazard.
    Fails to give an audible warning before passing a pedestrian while riding on the sidewalk.
    Fails to yield to all pedestrians on the sidewalk.
    Rides carelessly or in a manner that endangers others or endangers property.
    Rides at a speed greater than an ordinary walk when approaching or entering a crosswalk, driveway, curb cut or pedestrian ramp if a motor vehicle is approaching.

    I copied the above info from Swanson, Thomas & Coon’s Bike Law webpages (

    And below is the language in the Portland City Code about bikes on sidewalks. There are very few sidewalks where riding bikes is not allowed, mostly it’s prohibited in downtown Portland.

    It states the boundaries of the specific part of downtown where bikes are not allowed to be ridden on the sidewalk: basically the area bounded by and including SW Jefferson, Front Avenue, NW Hoyt and 13th Avenue, with some listed exceptions. It’s copied from the City Code online:

    (Also, you can find info for other cities at:

    “16.70.320 Operating Rules.

    “(Amended by Ord. No. 165594, July 8, 1992.) No person may:

    “A. Leave a bicycle so that it obstructs vehicle or pedestrian traffic on a roadway, sidewalk, driveway, handicap access ramp, building entrance, or so that it prevents operation of a parking meter or newspaper rack;

    “B. Leave a bicycle secured to a fire hydrant or to a police or fire call box;

    “C. Leave a bicycle on private property without consent of the owner or legal tenant. Consent is implied on private commercial property;

    “D. Leave a bicycle on a street or other public property for more than 72 hours; or

    “E. Ride a bicycle on a sidewalk, unless avoiding a traffic hazard in the immediate area, within the area bounded by and including SW Jefferson, Front Avenue, NW Hoyt and 13th Avenue, except:

    “1. On sidewalks designated as bike lanes or paths;

    “2. On the ramps or approaches to any Willamette River Bridge; or

    “3. In the area bounded by the west property line of SW Ninth Avenue, the east property line of SW Park Avenue, the north property line of SW Jefferson and the south property line of SW Salmon Street.

    “4. For police or special officers operating a bicycle in the course and scope of their duties; or

    “5. For employees of the Association for Portland Progress and companies providing security services operating a bicycle in the course and scope of their duties. These employees must have in possession an identification card issued by the Chief of Police certifying the rider has completed a training course in the use of a bicycle for security patrol.”

  23. Mixing Bikes, Cars, and Pedestrians is always a bad idea. That’s why it’s illegal to drive a bicycle on the sidewalk in Fareless Square. Period.

    Pedestrian safety is the most important issue in a busy downtown. Let’s tell the truth here….when was the last time you rode on a sidwalk at the legal speed….2 miles per hour?

    Adding more cars to the new transit mall is another bad idea. Put the nicest person behind the wheel of a car or the handlebars of a bike and you have instant “me first…you last”. Anyone who thinks motorists will abide by traffic rules and speed limits is naive or in denial. There should be NO motor vehicles but buses allowed on the transit mall. London has the right idea…charge people a fee to drive in downtown.

    Read the book, “Suburban Nation…The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream” for a well thought out argument to ban motor vehicles from the city center.

  24. If you’re too afraid to ride your bike somewhere like downtown, you should have enough sense to get off your bike and walk it. Driving cars and bikes is not a right it’s a privilege. We must all keep in mind that walking is the only right we have.

    There is never a good reason to be selfish and ride your bike illegally on a sidewalk where it is forbiden like in Fareless Square.

    If you can’t or won’t follow the law please don’t make it harder for the rest of us to bike safely and please don’t give the rest of us a bad name. To the woman who has an 8 year old son riding a bike…Yes..if you allow him to ride on the sidewalk in Fareless you are breaking the law. Every child is special but none are above the law. Teach your child respect for bicycle safety.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *