Among its many qualities, Portland, Oregon is well-known for its bicycle friendly culture. Whenever my travels take me through the city I set aside some time to seek out and observe key elements that contribute to that success. Yesterday, with several hours before our Amtrak train was scheduled to depart Portland’s Union Station, Marion and I decided to take a walk down Broadway in search of the city’s secrets to bicycling success.
Last week, before departing Vermont, I’d read about a new concept being tested in downtown Portland. I was anxious to see them first hand. Cycle Tracks are bike lanes that are separated from motorized traffic by a lane of on-street parking and a marked buffer zone. Unlike other traffic separation schemes that isolate bike lanes within the greenbelt, Cycle Tracks cannot be mistaken for sidewalks. As a result, Cycle Tracks separate bicyclists from motorized traffic without incurring the intersection/driveway hazards that are so common with other types of off-street lanes (such as vehicles blocking bike lanes as they approach an intersection).
To facilitate left turns from the Cycle Track, green painted left-turn pads allow cyclists a space in which they are clear of thru-bike traffic. Cyclists wait on the pad for a break in motorized traffic before completing the left turn onto the cross street. The space for the pads is made possible by the width of the parking/buffer lane that runs between the Cycle Track and the other vehicle travel lanes.
Cyclists that I spoke with while in Portland tell me that it’s too early to tell how successful Cycle Tracks will be, but at first glance they seem like another step in the right direction.
Bike Boxes – Portland’s New Green Space
On some of the streets where bike lanes have been installed in the more traditional manner – between on-street parking and motorized travel lanes – painted green zones at the signalized intersections allow cyclists to proceed ahead of motorists through the intersection after a light change. When the light is red, motorists must stop behind the bike box and are not allowed to turn right-on-red at these intersections (while cyclists are).
Bicycle Activated Traffic Signals
At some of the city’s intersections bike-specific sensors have been placed in the roadway and marked with a symbol on the street. A cyclist can position oneself over the symbol to activate the signal.
Bike Specific Signage
In addition to traffic management schemes and pavement markings to improve the safety and efficiency of bicycle traffic, the City of Portland has installed a variety of signs for purposes such as of alerting motorists to the presence of bicyclists, directing cyclists through intersections, or estimating travel times by bike to various destinations.
Bike parking was visible everywhere we walked in downtown Portland. Whether it be on-street spaces that have been dedicated to bikes, off-street racks along the sidewalks, or posts for locking up at the public transit stops, it was clear that bicycling is encouraged and occupies a prominent place in the Portland transportation network.
Enforcement – Bicyclists Included
Beyond the physical infrastructure that the city has invested in, one of the most noticeable aspects of the downtown Portland biking scene was the behavior of the cyclists themselves. Marion picked it up right away and we began watching every cyclist who passed us by. At lunch we took a seat next to an intersection on the Portland State University campus. Admittedly, it was midday on a Sunday and the volume of cyclists was not the same as one might find on a weekday during the school year, but bicyclists were still commonplace. Of all the riders we observed (including those we saw during the hours we walked) only one, yes, only one cyclist rolled through a red light. It was impressive. We saw cyclists stopping at stop signs, riding predictably in the travel lanes, signaling at intersections, etc. Wow! How have they accomplished that?
We stopped by a downtown bike shop, the Bike Gallery, a few blocks west of Broadway. I asked one of the staff at the store how the city has achieved such noticeably responsible behavior among its bicyclists.
“Enforcement,” he replied.
Gus told us that cyclists in Portland are given respect as a vehicle while at the same time they are held to the same standards as motorists when it comes to traffic laws.
“You run a light here and you’re going to get a $280 ticket,” he told us, “The same as a motorist.”
The police, he explained, do not hesitate to ticket cyclists for illegal behavior in Portland. He compared it with efforts in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, where police would periodically enforce the law when it comes to cyclists (a week of targeting a particular intersection, for instance), or in most communities where cyclists are rarely cited. In Portland, by contrast, a cyclist can expect a ticket for improper action at any time, just as the motorist can. If that’s the secret, I can say without hesitation that the impact is immediately apparent on Portland city streets.
Bicycling in Portland is Fun!
Pioneer Square is a well-used public space in the heart of Portland’s downtown. Upon our Sunday morning arrival in the city, we stopped at the park to pick up bicycling specific maps of the city. (There are several good ones produced by the Portland Bureau of Transportation.) Stepping out of the light rail car (free within the downtown), we were greeted by many laughing cyclists as they completed a race (of sorts) aboard “big wheel” tricycles on the square. Given the bicycle friendly culture we observed in Portland, adults in spandex and helmets shrieking with laughter on the trikes at the center of downtown seemed like something that could easily take place on any give day.
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