What’s the Right Frame to Advance our Cycling Goals?

Last week I had the chance to vicariously experience the Community Streetcar Coalition meeting as new PBOT Director Tom Miller was tweeting the highlights.

The local reaction included a lot of frustration from bike advocates, including tweets like these:

If Obama truly “got it” he’d put way more $$ into mode w/ strongest ROI in cities… bicycling. But bike politics are toxic so they lose.

Why are streetcar politics strong? B/c rich ppl & developers <3 them. Political power for bikes lies in branding as glamorous. If that's true, it's a difficult situation. I want bicycling (and transit) to be accessible more than glamorous. Exactly. The same politics that are good for highways are good for streetcar. That's why I'm wary.


As somebody who spends time promoting both streetcars and cycling (and is on record saying I’d put the next $1 towards cycling if there were no other constraints), let me say first that I don’t think glamour is going to be our trump card for cycling :-)

It’s pretty clear to me that we won’t achieve the goals of the Portland Bicycle Master Plan unless several things happen:

  1. A significant Federal funding category is created for cycling – a lot of our local spending decisions are driven by maximizing return on Federal match.
  2. Public opinion becomes a lot more favorable towards cycling and cyclists.
  3. Local movers and shakers really get the benefits of cycling.

So what are some of the tools we can use to frame the discussion to move us in this direction? I don’t claim to have the definitive answer, but it’s pretty clear to me that we have to move beyond a general sense of modal superiority (or entitlement as an underserved minority), and we have to work on our negatives (but that’s a topic for another post). Here are some thoughts on some specific directions to think about:

  • Placemaking – places designed around streetcars and bikes are great places. Places designed primarily for auto access are crappy places. Compare Alberta Street (originally built along a streetcar line and now a very popular bike district) with Beaverton Hillsdale Highway – nobody’s complaining that the street fair on BV Highway is out of control…
  • Cycling is healthy. The cost of health care will continue to be a BIG DEAL for a long time. This should be a primary theme in promoting cycling for folks of all ages.
  • Cycling is cost effective. This comparison is really interesting. In an era where we have to tighten our belts on all kinds of government spending, the ROI on our transportation investments needs to get some intense scrutiny and that can only be a good thing for bikes.

And I wouldn’t rule out leveraging electric bikes. I think as prices come down, e-bikes are going to be much more accessible, and as fuel prices drive people toward electric vehicles, e-bikes have the potential to become the affordable electric vehicle for a lot of trips…

Finally, let’s remember to keep our eye on the numbers. In New York, the incredible Janette Sadik-Khan has in part been successful in driving rapid change by focusing on the data.



19 responses to “What’s the Right Frame to Advance our Cycling Goals?”

  1. Portland has a strong cycling community, but if we want to increase the numbers, we need more separated facilities. The cyclists out there now are ambitious and sometimes fearless. Most don’t mind sharing a 4ft shoulder (“bike lane”) with 40mph car traffic. If we want to encourage the rest of the populous to join in, we will need routes that make them feel safer. ODOT and the city need to dedicate more money to cycling infrastructure. As fuel costs rise, we will be sending more and more money out of our region, and our economy will suffer. Every citizen pays for the majority of local road costs, through property taxes, and bikes create negligible wear and tear compared to cars and trucks. Bike infrastructure is the financially prudent option.

    Of course, there will always be members of society that won’t ride, due to health problems (ironically), and choice of commute distance. The decades of subsidizing SOV transportation need to end, we can’t afford it in the future.

  2. Chris, maybe my definition of “glamor” is broader than yours, but I would define your “placemaking” argument as an aspect of glamor. Maybe the more precise phrase for my concept of “glamor” is “associated with rich people.”

    I don’t have nearly your experience on this stuff, but it’s hard for me to think of any major policy changes that have not been driven by the interests of the richer 1/3 or so of the population. Especially at the local level.

    That said, “bikeways cut your taxes and your hospital bills” would be a non-glamorous way to tap the interests of rich people. So I take your point.

    Also, just because streetcars share one of the major political advantages of highways — being associated with rich people — doesn’t make them evil in the ways that highways can be. It just makes them powerful in the ways that highways can be.

  3. Of course, Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway lies along the original routing of the Red Electric “westside” line… OTOH that was an interurban, not a streetcar.

    WRT rich people, I suspect that one reason Portland’s cycling infrastructure is as good as it is, is because the activity is enjoyed by yuppies. Were most bikers DFHs and poor folk riding second-hand Schwinns with bald tires, rather than the well-to-do sporting designer bikes that cost more than a good used car, we wouldn’t have bike boulevards and cycle tracks–the city’s bike lanes would like within an ill-defined gap between the edge of the pavement and the furthest extent of the passenger-side mirror on the largest SUV that happens to come past.

  4. So it’s SUVs and streetcars for the gentry, and bikes and buses for the proletariat? That’s not what I intend for the Portland Plan to result in.

    My hope is that one of our next streetcar lines will be in outer SE Portland where it can help make great places in some of our lower-income neighborhoods – and make a more bike-friendly area in the process. And I hope the axis of bike-streetcar that I’m working for will be an antidote to the paradigm above.

    (And before anyone takes me up for dumping on buses, I’m not – they have a large essential role in the transit system – they just don’t do a lot for place-making.)

  5. My hope is that one of our next streetcar lines will be in outer SE Portland where it can help make great places in some of our lower-income neighborhoods

    I think that’d be great. Should really have come before running a streetcar line to Lake Oswego of all places… But devil’s advocate says that if it succeeds, rents will go up and it won’t be enjoyed by the proletariats for very long. Heck, “SUVs and streetcars for the gentry, and bikes and buses for the proletariat”? Looks like the score is 1-2 so far!

  6. Its worth recalling that Streetcar was born in the Central City Plan of the ’80’s which had a ton of public participation. It was supported by every neighborhood association along the proposed line, and was funded in large part with an LIDs from property owners. It’s success in attracting riders, enhancing livability of older neighborhoods, and attracting private investment (usually by rich people in capitalist economies), led to the proposed extension to the east side.
    There is nothing like success.
    Bike advocates need to get out of the “reactive” mode where their comments blend with the reactionary auto apologists, and go “proactive” with a Central City bike proposal of their own. Start with the 7th Avenue Bridge over Sullivan’s Gulch which could be a lynch pin for a bicycle/pedestrian loop thru the Central Eastside, over the new light rail bridge to PSU and so on. Don’t wait on and live by the City’s Bike Plan, but go beyond it with a vision rooted “in the street;” create a wave, and policy and investment…public and private will follow.
    Streetcar should be the model.

  7. Class and status must absolutely be factored into the framing puzzle. In 1900, bikes were first-class transportation; by 1910 even though in absolute numbers bike use hadn’t declined much, they were already well on the way to being framed as second-class transport in image. To most people today (those who don’t already bike), bikes represent the effete choice of the leisure class and the enforced choice of the downwardly mobile and already down-trodden.

    They will need framing as a rational choice for the notional middle class.

  8. That’s the interesting thing about Portland. Cyclists are either considered second class if they look poor, or elitist “Lance wannabes” if they have nice equipment.

  9. Re: Placemaking

    Great places are designed around people not streetcars. You’re falling under the same logic that plagues suburbia, they’re designed around cars.

    I’d argue building nice parks is more of an effective neighborhood builder and incentive for development to occur. That’s designing for the general criteria of people

    And even so, I’d get even more pragmatic. Clean and safe streets free of graffiti, litter, and crime are always going to be barriers from all people enjoying urbanism. Again, that whole designing for people. We need cities to appeal to all types of people, old and young.

    Who cares about bikes and streetcars if a city cannot fulfill the basic needs of felling comfortable?

    Once urbanism becomes exclusive, it is limiting its opportunities. Portland can only have so many hipster, strip clubs, coffee shops, and pubs before it reaches saturation and gets tired.

    Whether cyclists want to admit it or not, they have a serious image problem. Marketing and will need to involve being regulated to some degree.

    It’s silly that one can hop around their bikes without a helmet these days. Let’s start there and not have these lingering questions why bicycling is viewed as the red-headed step child, even in Portland. Plenty of Portlanders dislike bicyclists, and it’s going to start with realizing bikes simply cannot operate on every single street. It’s unsafe for bicyclists and inconvenient for cars.

    And I leave you with this to prove my point:


  10. A farcical spoof show based on out-of-town views of a subset of Portlanders notwithstanding, I’m fascinated by your statement “It’s unsafe for bicyclists and inconvenient for cars.”

    Why is it unsafe for bicyclists? Aside from roads consisting of mud, gravel, or exceptionally steep grades, most paved roads in Portland are perfectly safe for bicyclists, were it not for mixing with cars, of course.

    So you’ve framed the argument perfectly: It’s a serious issue of safety for one group, while merely an issue of perceived “convenience” for another group.

    And yet you seem to be siding with the “convenience” side of the argument rather than the “safety” side of the argument?

    Herein lies the tension.

  11. @Bob R:

    You’re reading between the lines here. It is unsafe for bicyclists to be mixed in dangerous flowing traffic and it is inconvenient for cars to be behind a bike going well below the speed limit. There are some streets that are not practical for bicyclists to be on streets with autos.

    Safety is not an issue for cars — they will be on the winning end of that exchange.

    For instance, take W. Burnside going towards the hills. It has four lanes of very heavy traffic uphill and no bike lane. Is it safe for a bicycle to do that during rush hour? Is it convenient for cars to be stuck behind a bicycle going 20 mph slower than the posted speed? That’s my point in a nutshell.

    It’s not hard for some bicyclists to go down a parallel street if there’s no acceptable bike lane. Mixed traffic in downtown is fine by me as speeds are slower and the lights are timed at 11 mph — something all bikes can handle.

    There is not tension in my post. I bike, ride transit, drive a car and walk. Of all the modes of advocacy, I tend to the pedestrian, so I’ll admit my bias. Full disclosure.

    My comments are one of practicality and safety.

    Why is it our state does not allow people to smoke inside a bar but allows those over 16 to bike around with no helmet on using a fairly dangerous mode of transportation?

    Since when is Porlandia based on out-of-town views on Portland? Sure, it’s an exaggeration of a subset of people in Portland, but the point of view is all internal.

    The guy on the cover of this website looks like the biker in the Portlandia movie. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up!


  12. “Of course, there will always be members of society that won’t ride, due to health problems (ironically), and choice of commute distance.”

    There are both upside benefits and downside risks to cycling. As long as the relevant parts of your body are functioning it can have health benefits. But it is sort of like a chain. You only have to have one knee go bad—or even a wrist—and you have problems. On a bicycle you are very vulnerable, even if there is no collision with anything else. Furthermore, bones that are injured can take decades to become arthritic; but eventually they do. So even if you have appeared to heal from bone fractures there may be trouble in the future.

    Running–or even doing a brisk walk—on a treadmill for 20-30 minutes a day would have equivalent health benefits with less risk.

    I suppose advances in medicine, bicycle technology and safety measures will mitigate some of this. OTOH people are know for generally pushing themselves to their limits.

  13. For instance, take W. Burnside going towards the hills. It has four lanes of very heavy traffic uphill and no bike lane. […] It’s not hard for some bicyclists to go down a parallel street if there’s no acceptable bike lane.

    What is the parallel street for W. Burnside going up into the hills?

    We seem to be arguing both sides of the same coin: It is unsafe for bicyclists to mix with lots of fast-moving auto traffic. As to cause-and-effect and who should shoulder what responsibilities, we seem to differ.

    Can we at least agree that’s why we should be spending more on upgraded separate-from-traffic bicycle facilities, especially where there are no convenient parallel routes?

    Since when is Porlandia based on out-of-town views on Portland?

    I really don’t want the conversation to sidetrack from advancing our cycling goals, and I happen to watch Portlandia regularly (I’ll be watching this evening’s episode on the DVR shortly, in fact), but it’s not exactly overflowing with local influence:

    Created by:
    Fred Armisen (Primarily raised/lives/works in NYC)
    Carrie Brownstein (Seattle/Washington, moved to Portland about 10 years ago)

    Written by:
    (Fred Armisen)
    (Carrie Brownstein)
    Jonathan Krisel (Brooklyn, NY)
    Allison Silverman (Gainesville, FL, Yale, NYC)

    Executive producer:
    Lorne Michaels (Toronto, NYC)

    (Jonathan Krisel)
    Andrew Singer (???, Burbank, NYC)

    So of the six different top-billed people responsible for content, only one is (recently) from Portland.

    That’s why I say it’s based on out-of-town views. Personally, I think it’s great to see things from another perspective, but Portlandia is hardly representative of all Portland subcultures, including all the different kinds of people who like to bike around town.

    The show is, however, often very representative of the genre known as the 1-joke-SNL-sketch-that-just-won’t-end. :-)

  14. Ultimately someone wanting to take Burnside should take Flanders. It’s .3 miles longer in total starting at the West end of I-405. Decently long but good enough to keep you safe. Look, I’ll supply you with my own personal bike and you can take a death-defying trip up Burnside during rush hour if you’re so adamant that bikes need to be (and can actually operate) on every single street in Portland. Prove me wrong. I’ll even buy you a beer at the end (if you make it out alive). I’ll buy you two beers if you can get up W. Burnside w/o creating massive congestion behind you.

    As far as dollars go, I like separate from traffic bike facilities that are truly separated from streets. Eastbank Esplanade and Springwater trail are GREAT investments. I support them 100%. Turning a well functioning street that already has cars into an all bike, no car street…uh no thanks.

    Another great example I saw was MLK during rush hour. Seriously, there’s a quieter and safer street parallel to MLK!

    The problem I am having is that by telling the bike community “no” on some streets — it’s a perceived attack on bikes when it’s not. It’s about safety and mobility for other modes of traffic. The advancement of one mode of transportation should not come at the impediment of another when there are reasonable options available.

    Re: Portlandia

    I mis interpreted your point about out-of-town views. I took it as what an out-of-town person views Portland to be in their minds and not where the cast is from location wise.

    It doesn’t matter where the actors are from, they have Portlandia characters spot on, with hyperbole of course. The bike guy is well done, minus the whistle.

  15. (Tonight’s Portlandia seemed to hit the local mark better than previously… A mayor enthused about bringing major-league [insert sports genre here] to town, and my partner and I are totally the people who stake out elaborate areas at large gatherings, although we arrive early, don’t displace other patrons, and don’t leave during the show, so are hopefully slightly less annoying than the Portlandia characters.)

    But, back to the topic…

    We’re just going to have to agree to disagree, I guess. Flanders does not go up “into the hills”, merely to the hills, ending at 24th Pl.

    (Incidentally, the (fictitious?) corner of 24th and Burnside was featured in tonight’s Portlandia.)

    Flanders also does not cross I-405. The mayor (then-commissioner) was vilified from various quarters a few years ago for proposing a Flanders bike boulevard with overpass over I-405.

    The advancement of one mode of transportation should not come at the impediment of another when there are reasonable options available.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement and yet we reach different conclusions. Some would argue that the “reasonable option” is a bit a traffic calming and additional bicycle infrastructure, rather than the prohibition of bicycles on a major commercial arterial which ought to be open to the public.

    Why do the operators of ton+ vehicles get such precedence over lightweight self-powered vehicles?

    Can’t we all move along?

  16. Bob R:

    I am just speaking of Burnside from NW 16th to NW 23rd.

    We can get along but the right concessions need to be made. Modes of transportation have a knack for going against the grain with these grandiose projects. 16 lanes of cars across the Columbia for *only* 4 billion…Slow streetcar “transit” option from Lake Oswego…600 million dollar bike plan in Portland (during a terrible recession no less)…

    The insane ineptitude of our civic leaders is astounding.

    We need to get back to the basics. We need to highlight actual mobility projects. If it’s not about mobility then scrap the plan.

    “I agree wholeheartedly with your statement and yet we reach different conclusions. Some would argue that the “reasonable option” is a bit a traffic calming and additional bicycle infrastructure”

    I don’t disagree that Burnside needs a good retrofit for better mobility and safety, but the speed limit is still 25 MPH going uphill. I actually approve of closing some left hand turns along the route. Sucks for cars wanting to turn, but it’s for the betterment of the flow of traffic.

    You’re ignoring the existing conditions of the street already and *assuming* things can be fixed about it to make bikes work on it in the future. The fact remains a bike won’t be able to do 25mph uphill with about 100 feet of elevation change from NW 16th to 23rd.

    Again, anyone is willing to prove me wrong that they can seamlessly ride this route in rush hour without causing congestion behind them.

    “Why do the operators of ton+ vehicles get such precedence over lightweight self-powered vehicles?”

    There’s many roads in Portland where certain trucks are NOT allowed over a certain weight, and there’s actual truck routes. I don’t hear them up in arms or arguing we need to tear out residential street trees for expansion of roads to accommodate them. You’re playing the victim here.

    That doesn’t mean that I want to kick bikes to the curb, I want to see this mode gain more traction in Portland. But not at the expense of cars and most certainly, not at the expense of taxpayers and general mobility.

    Part of accomplishing this is acknowledgement from the bike community that there are pros and cons to bicycling in town, and more regulation of bikes legitimizes the mode. Just like there are pros and cons to driving a car in town. I like cars but I don’t want the city to bulldoze buildings and put up parking lots for my utmost convenience of my two-ton four-wheeled friend.

  17. A visit to Amsterdam and/or Copenhagen will do it. Its so normal, comfortable and enjoyable there to ride a bike. I dont think anyone in the Netherlands owns a bicycle helmet.

    I will never forget riding a bike in Amsterdam on almost car-free streets along the tree-lined canals with the late afternoon sun on the picturesque historic buildings. About the only sounds were those of church bells.

    Cycling in the Netherlands in the 1950s

    As ambitious as it may be you have to strive for this level.

Leave a Reply

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