“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.


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

  1. In your transportation impact analyses for private development, I would be encouraged to see even one location where you have managed to convince your client to have a car free street. The Nines Hotel is one particular location that might struggle without some sort of vehicular access from SW Morrison. Clever engineering is required, but what’s more important is the will to build it and pay for the construction.

    • Yep, the political will is definitely “the rub.” That’s what I was getting at–the engineering necessary here is actually pretty simple, but it’s much harder to overcome the notion that any and all private vehicles need access to every street in a redundant grid. The Nines would of course be a problematic location, and there are several others you could point to, but these are all solvable problems. If the Nines can’t be convinced to go car-free, would it reduce the integrity of the street too much to mark that one block with sharrows, add traffic calming, and prohibit through traffic (there are no conflicts on the block west of Broadway)?

      For any reasonably bold piece of bike infrastructure one might envision, politics, backlash, and funding will always be at issue. These are the problems we’ll have to solve to hit our modal split goals and remain tops in America for cycling.

      • Given that the block The Nines is on is between 5th and 6th, allowing cars to drive that block would either mean a) allowing cars to drive between 4th and 5th as well, or b) permitting cars travelling south on 5th to turn right (across the transit mall) onto Morrison.

        Simply GETTING to the Nines’ parking valet requires turning onto Morrison from 4th (or earlier).

        You could also reverse the direction of car traffic, but you would run into similar issues–either two blocks need to be opened (or kept open) to car traffic, or turns across the transit mall would need to be permitted.

        • These are definitely legitimate issues/concerns that have been raised and would have to be ironed out, but aren’t impossible to address. In fact, it can be easily argued that these issues are necessary to overcome if we are EVER going to achieve a 25% bicycle mode split as the people of our city have agreed upon. It’s one thing to set ambitious goals, but if we don’t act aggressively to fulfill them then it is only as good as an empty promise.

          That being said, it would be wonderful to work with The Nines to come up with a solution in regards to their short-term valet parking area. Out of curiosity, the short-term valet area appears to only be a temporary parking zone – but where are the cars then relocated to after their occupants enter the hotel and enjoy their few days living directly in Portland’s highly walkable and extremely transit friendly section of town? It doesn’t appear that there is any parking entrance anywhere on the block that The Nines is located.

          Similarly, I have to wonder how the short term residents of The Nines choose to travel around when they are visiting. Do they enjoy leaving their car behind for some of their trips (possibly not even knowing they chose to do so) when they walk out of the front door to enjoy downtown? Do they easily jump on the MAX train that is conveniently located directly outside? Would they partake in a bike ride if a bikeshare station were located alongside a beautiful cycle track directly out front of the hotel where the short-term car valet zone is currently located? Could the hotel then use the bikeshare station to promote the ‘vacation’ aspect of their customers’ stay by providing a simple 24 hour pass to entice a new set of customers? I know a lot of these questions are open ended and don’t have black and white answers associated with them – but at the very least this article is good to get us thinking about OUR public spaces, and how we can best utilize them to reach OUR ambitious goals.

          The best thing for the City to do is to under promise and over deliver – right now we have made a promise to reach a 25% bike mode split, will we deliver? I certainly hope so. Discussions like these can only help.

          • Seems like the Nines could just move their valet station over to Alder; problem solved; they might need to remodel their Alder street facade to make it look like more of a grand entrance, but that would at least be one very potential solution.

            All in all, this is exactly the sort of question we need to be asking if we want to increase bicycle mode share in Portland: How can we build the infrastructure, especially downtown but also all over the city, to accommodate a quarter of our travel by bike? The current facilities, while extensive and quite good, won’t cut it…

  2. Can I ask a question here: Why do we need to close access to all sides of a block at the same time. I see a huge value in just closing one street for a block. Sure, its not utopia, but it would make a huge difference without as much political will needed and could be done easier.

    Perhaps I’m thinking about it wrong? Incremental change is the easiest way to go

    • I think you’re getting at what might be a logical expectation for what this might ultimately look like in the end if we pursue it (and we should!).

      Say you were to preserve access to the parking garages and the Nines (opening two blocks to vehicles to do so for the Nines as Scotty describes above), but close down the blocks where those conflicts don’t exist. Already, you’ve greatly reduced the utility of these streets to cut-through traffic. Install some sharrows and traffic calming of the blocks that remain open to vehicles, and you’ve reduced it further. Maybe there’s a snowball effect here now–the increased attractiveness of the corridor to bikes makes it less attractive to cars, and you’ve got a mix of Woonerf and cycle track that is comfortable for all riders.

      The best part about this is that it could be done pretty cheaply. It would be better to manage accesses so that the whole stretch was closed to private vehicles, of course, but that would entail significant cost to rework accesses (as well as the associated political heartburn). Simply eliminating car access to the blocks that currently provide nothing more than an unneeded through-route would start the snowball for nothing more than the cost of some bollards, some paint, and some signs.

  3. I doubt it will ever happen, but it sounds awesome. I feel awkward about bicycling on Yamhill/Morrison since they only have a single lane, so I’m blocking any cars behind me. And with the stop signs, they’re really not suitable for much traffic.

  4. Portland has a fantastic bike network, on the bridges, on the east side, and on a few MUPs around town. Downtown is terrible, and is deterring many riders. You aren’t going to get timid, concerned riders commuting if they have to share lanes with cars and trucks, or squeezed between fast traffic and opening car doors. Downtown needs one good north south route, and 2-3 good east-west routes. Converting the auto lanes on Morrison/Yamhill to bike/delivery only would be huge. This corridor is well connected to the Morrison Bridge path, and just a few blocks north of the Hawthorne Bridge route. I would like to see the city experiment with this, and if it succeeds, do the same with the bus mall.

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