In 1994, two activists tried out a quixotic exercise in democratizing non-motorized transportation. They painted 10 junkyard bikes that they’d reconditioned mustard yellow and scattered them around downtown Portland, Oregon. Anyone could ride one. “Please return to a major street for others to reuse,” read instructions dangling behind each bike seat.
“Ownership is not the be-all and end-all,” Joe Keating, one of the founders, asserted to a radio interviewer around that time, “and hopefully the Yellow Bikes are a symbol of that.”
Across the continent, in Boston, I read about Portland’s Yellow Bikes back then. They captured my imagination. I pictured brightly colored clunkers perched on street curbs, leaning on storefronts, and scattered about ball fields, ready everywhere and anytime a Portlander wanted a healthy, pollution-free lift. I hoped that yellow bikes would someday be available to Bostonians.
They never were. But Stumptown, a nickname for Portland since the mid-19th century, has been gradually advancing as a model of public- and human-powered transit. Portland is arguably North America’s most bike-friendly metropolis (pedal connoisseurs debate which city is on top – Minneapolis, Seattle, and San Francisco are other contenders).
Yellow bikes gone, but legacy persists
The popularity of commuting and doing everyday chores by bike in Amsterdam and Copenhagen is well established. I visited both cities in 2015. What infrastructure for bikes! What crowds of riders taking advantage of it all! I supposed that all of the U.S. lagged far behind.
I recently flew to Portland and looked at its bike friendliness. I realized that we aren’t that far behind after all, at least not in Stumptown.
None of the Yellow Bikes remains on the Portland streets. The project’s leaders, tired of caring for their rusty fleet, abandoned the service. They had released more than 1,000 bikes in the project’s few years. Their experiment has inspired the more-sophisticated sharing programs that now rent out bikes in scores of American cities.
A cousin who had suggested that visit to Portland on day one led a tour around town. We saw first-hand some of the bicycle – and public transit – amenities that have stimulated and help secure the city’s deep-green reputation.
Starting on a leafy residential block in the northeast section, we rolled over several mid-street stencils, large white sharrows, the universal twin chevrons combined with a bicycle icon and indicating shared lanes. These aren’t the kinds of bike paths we Bostonians long have been familiar with.
They’re neighborhood greenways, tendrils in a dense network of residential streets favoring foot and bike traffic over the high-speed vehicles. Bikers may ride mid-lane. A speed limit of 20 MPH, speed bumps, and barriers every few blocks shunt cars onto cross streets and hold down the speed and density of motorized traffic. Kids on their way to school and adults on errands or heading for bigger bike arteries ride them.
Appealing to the 8-to-80 year-old demographic
The 77 miles of neighborhood greenways are a key element of Portland’s “8 to 80” goal, seeking to make biking transportation safe and convenient for every age, starting with elementary school students.
“The foundation is having a good network in place,” Roger Geller, the city’s bike coordinator said later in a phone interview.
Meagan Ramey, author of the Bikeabout, an online guide to auto-free travel, says that biking in Portland takes only about 10 percent of her brainpower, compared with 80 percent to ride around Boston. Greenways and dedicated bike paths, bike lanes protected with curbs or barriers, and good signage – they all combine to make pedaling simply “intuitive and safe, a relaxing experience.” She says that riding around Boston, “makes your heart go pitter-patter.” But not in the good sense.
Leah Treat’s heart might flutter as she reads Ramey’s praise for Portland’s streets. For the past three years Treat has headed Portland’s Bureau of Transportation. She brags that more than 7 percent of commuters in Portland ride a bike to work, a higher fraction than in any other large American city. “It’s continually going up,” she says, an important part of her goal to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.
Portland has many bike stores, as might be expected. Ramey says she likes to visit one she says is “not your traditional gear-head experience,” with a lounging area, clean restrooms, and an alluring “wall of accessory porn.”
And then there’s Splendid Bikes, a block off a dedicated bike path running along the Willamette. This shop specializes in electric cargo bicycles, bikes with wheel-barrow size tubs ample and sturdy enough to carry a couple of kids or several large grocery bags. Interbike, the country’s largest bicycle trade show, this year named this outlet, Splendid Cycles, the country’s “Best Urban Lifestyle Shop.”
Meanwhile, in China and Western Europe, the popularity and sales of electric bikes have exploded over the past decade. Though still uncommon in the U.S., electric-assist bikes, or “ebikes,” will be “transformative” for commuting, Treat says. They make riding easier, encouraging users to bike on longer trips, according to a recent study by a researcher at Portland State University. Joel Grover, the co-owner of Splendid Bikes, said ebikes fill “the healthiest niche in the bike industry today.” He sells most of his cargo carriers to “young urban professionals hoping not to buy a second car.”
A 1,700-foot suspension bridge … No cars, thank you
Eleven bridges knit together the two parts of Portland bisected by the Willamette. Over recent years, Portland and other branches of government have spent millions of dollars improving bicycle and pedestrian access for eight of these bridges – all but the those carrying freeways. A 2014 traffic study found that between 1992 and 2002, cycling trips on the five downtown bridges have more than quadrupled, to nearly 19,000 riders per day, accounting for 20 percent of cross-river traffic. Car trips increased only 14 percent during the same period.
In 2015, Portland’s transit authority unveiled a new tool for controlling traffic: Tilikum Crossing, a 1,700-foot suspension bridge, is the only major span in the U.S. for bikes, public transit vehicles, and pedestrians – but not cars.
Pedaling across the Willamette to an open-air food court downtown brings one to an easy lock-up for bicycles and a meal. We’d found a close-by bike corral, an on-street rack built where cars used to park. Portland has 140 of these small bike lots, with room for several thousand bikes. It’s planning more.
Private developers are taking notice. They see the value of bike parking and have begun investing. With room for 1,200 bikes, a parking lot in the Hassalo on Eighth complex has in its basement the largest cycle garage for bikes in the U.S. The $200 million, three-tower structure, across the river from downtown, offers residents and commuters valet parking, a locker room for showering after a sweaty ride, and a repair shop.
Like the cycle-friendly cities in Europe, Portland has clearly become a model. Could other U.S. cities match Portland and become equally bicycle-friendly? Portland’s bike coordinator of 22 years, Geller, says that for Portland it all happened incrementally. Until the 1990s, “Portland was like any other American city,” he recalls, devoted to transporting people in cars. His mantra for changing that has long been “build it and they will come,” the adage popularized by the movie “Field of Dreams.” The strategy has worked. Bike lanes and paths have enticed riders, who in turn became cheerleaders for more alternative forms of transportation.
And, while the free Yellow Bikes are long gone, two decades after that subversive transit experiment shut down, Portland just inaugurated Biketown, a modern bike-sharing system. Its fleet of 1,000 vehicles, stationed at 100 lots, are colored blaze orange.
It all brings to mind a quote from 2016 Nobel Laureate and legendary songwriter Bob Dylan: The times, they are a changin’. For sure.