“Going Dutch:” What Portland Can Learn from the World’s Cycling Capitol

It’s been something of a trend lately for Portland bike enthusiasts to travel to the Mecca of bicycling—the Netherlands—and come back full of energy and ideas for improving the bikeability and livability of our city. For the past three summers, Portland State University’s civil engineering program has offered a class exploring the Dutch civil infrastructure, and it’s hard not to be impressed by what they’ve built there. It turns out that when an entire country is three meters below sea level, its people develop quite the knack for civil engineering (as well as a particular sensitivity to rising sea levels!) that manifests in any number of cool ways.

Though there are a few examples of Dutch innovations that have found their way into Portland’s bicycle infrastructure, the process of importing this knowledge and adapting it to fit our city’s specific challenges is very much ongoing. To that end, the upstart Portland chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation will be hosting an event at Velocult at 6:00 PM this evening entitled “Going Dutch.” Jesse Boudart, the event’s organizer, describes the event as follows:

The goal is to examine existing places and envision their future in a gallery style. Furthermore, we vet the places’ opportunities, engineering considerations, and why we haven’t already created them. Portland has created unique spaces which have become widely recognized across America: Waterfront Park, Eastbank Esplanade, and an extensive bike network, to name a few. But, what’s next? How can we use the Dutch’s best practices and improve upon what the Dutch have already done?

Having been invited to contribute a poster to the event, I spent a decent chunk of time reliving memories and reviewing photos.  Though I was initially determined to find the perfect Portland location for some excruciatingly engineered red -asphalt bike roundabout or a gnarly 12-phase bike signal, with two years of hindsight I think my favorite place to bicycle in all of Holland was downtown Delft. The town square in the center of the old city (shown below) was a particularly magical urban place—a former parking lot, it’s now exclusively the domain of people on bikes and on foot, used for all sorts of events and gatherings and a source of civic pride.

This used to be a parking lot. (Photo by Kirk Paulsen)

This used to be a parking lot. (Photo by Kirk Paulsen)

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Portland did the same thing at about the same time, repurposing the block bounded by Yamhill, Morrison, Broadway, and Sixth, from a parking garage to a “living room.” But unlike its counterpart in Delft, the streets around Pioneer Square remain open and friendly to the automobile, and the bikability and livability of downtown suffers as a result. Whereas Delft’s downtown makes frequent use of retractable bollards to allow only transit, delivery, or emergency vehicles on many streets, and employs vegetation and public art to calm traffic on others, Portland remains giddily MUTCD-compliant with lane markings and smooth, wide roadways that just dare drivers to do their best Ricky Bobby impersonations.

Luckily, there seems to be a growing realization that we need to rethink our downtown road design, and I’d posit that Yamhill and Morrison Streets are a fantastic place to start. Close these roads to private vehicles, and you’ve got yourself a world class cycle track couplet at minimal cost with minimal difficulty.

Since Yamhill and Morrison are already transit-centric, they’re of limited utility to private vehicles and the two parking garages that take access to the stretch between Naito and I-405 can easily be accommodated with a bit of clever engineering. The small amount of vehicular traffic that currently uses these streets can be absorbed by the more auto-centric parallel streets. Deliveries can be accommodated using bollards that can be retracted for trucks overnight and setting aside space for delivery trucks on intersecting streets (or, ideally, converting as much delivery traffic as possible to bikes!). The cut-outs that are currently used for parking or loading are perfect spots for bike share docks. Further, connections to the newly bike-friendly Morrison Bridge—particularly westbound—could be made with little expense and add a ton of utility. A few sculptures and a few plants in strategic locations would make the car-free nature of the streets self-enforcing while making them two of downtown’s most beautiful roadways.

Though we remain America’s best city for bicycling, Portland has stagnated something fierce at a time when many other cities are recognizing the value of bike-friendliness, and making bold moves in support of biking and walking. With a promising new transportation director, a renewed vision by the BTA, and funding for downtown infrastructure potentially in the pipeline, there seems to be evidence that we’re awakening from our recent slumber. I hope that the “Going Dutch” event will add some energy and ideas to the conversation, and help raise the bar as our next wave of bike infrastructure is planned and built.

GoingDutchEvent

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