Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Biking in Portland (and thoughts on what makes it such an urban mecca)

Dateline: 11:48 am February 10, 2010 Filed under:

It had been seven years since I last visited Portland, Oregon, and fully ten since my original visit. I was very excited to see what had changed since 2003 in this bastion/laboratory of urbanity, and frankly I needed inspiration. It was time to return, and this time by bike.

I actually arrived by train, the 7:30 Amtrak Cascades from Seattle. I highly recommend it for those traveling between Portland and Seattle, although there was a bit of a delay as out train had to wait for a BNSF freight train to pass – Amtrak must find a way to stop playing second fiddle to the freight carriers if we are to be serious about passenger rail in this country.

I arrived at Union Station in the Pearl District and walked to the Inn at Northrup Station, a hotel (I highly recommend it) that opened in 2001 just in time for the new streetcar service to begin. At 21st and Northrup, the streetcar platform is right out the door.

Inspired by Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes (a writer for The Oregonian) and David Byrne’s new Bicycle Diaries, I headed a couple blocks over to 21st Avenue Bicycles and was fitted with a Townie 3-speed bicycle and an all-important official city bicycle map.

The mayor of my fair city, R.T. Rybak, likes to brag that Minneapolis is second only to Portland in the percent of residents who commute by bicycle. Considering our harsh winters, that is quite remarkable. But I had to see what all the fuss in Portland was about. What I found was Portland is in the lead for good reason, and worthy of emulating.

It was a very pleasant winter’s day, partly cloudy and close to 50 degrees as I rolled downhill towards the Pearl District and over to the Burnside Bridge, perhaps the most viable bicycle crossing of the Willamette River. The road appears to have been reduced from six lanes to five in order to accomodate a curbside bike lane in each direction. This is good for bikes, but with three eastbound lanes and just two westbound, the road must feel oddly asymmetrical to drivers.

At the east end of the bridge I carried my bike down the steps and headed down the Eastbank Esplanade. This appeared to be a more recent version of the paths that were built on the west side of the Willamette when the Harbor Drive freeway was wisely removed in the 1970s. The esplanade revealed fetching views of the river and downtown skyline across it.

I headed east along Hawthorne, which is basically a divided highway coming off the bridge heading east from downtown. A bike path along the sidewalk soon transitions to a curb lane, and most impressively, where a right lane begins for an off-ramp to McLoughlin Boulevard, there is a sign instructing cars taking that off-ramp to yield to bikes going straight ahead. As well, a section of the bike lane itself is painted green to alert drivers. As a cautious midwesterner I thoroughly checked my shoulder, but was impressed at the esteem granted to me and my trusty Townie.

Another block to the east at 7th Avenue there is a “bike box,” which an area of green painted pavement at the intersection for bikes to stop at the red light. The key is that cars must stop short of the bike box and they cannot turn right on a red. This emphasizes that bikes indeed share and have equal rights to this road – bike boxes are common in the Netherlands and Denmark, but are virtually unheard of in the US, so far….

Onward east through the wonderful Ladd’s Addition, an old Portland neighborhood that varies from the city’s grid with diagonal streets, four rose gardens and a central circle. I headed east along the Harrison Street bike boulevard and then back up to Hawthorne, a major commercial street with a wonderful array of shops and restaurants. I grabbed a Bananamisu waffle (banana and Nutella) at the Waffle Window along 36th Avenue just off Hawthorne. As I sat at a picnic table enjoying my waffle, I watched a music video being filmed across the street. Between the waffle window, music video and overall parade of people strolling by, I thought to myself, zoning and bikes and trains make for great urbanism in Portland, but it is the people that truly activate it.

On the way back to downtown I followed another “bike boulevard” along Ankeny Street. Bike boulevards seem to be quiet residential streets that run parallel to major roadways (in this case, Ankeny is one block south of Burnside). I guess the idea is to have bikes close to the action without needing to provide a lane on the commercial street, a sensible notion as there is only so much space in the right of way. As well, at the intersection of 20th Avenue, cars in both directions on Ankeny must turn right, whereas there is a small break in the cross-street center curb to allow bikes to go straight. This makes these bike boulevards good commuter routes with very little through traffic by cars.

I headed back across the Willamette and rode around the Pearl District. This may be the most parsed urban space in the country. It deserves the attention – Pearl District is spot-on.

Let’s start with the basics – the public realm. Sidewalks are wide enough, and streets are lined with trees. Buildings relate well to the streets, with plenty of windows and both retail and residential doors directly off the sidewalk to activate the street. Even the garage doors I saw (yes, Portlanders do drive!) that, due to building design consdierations had to be on the front of units, were recessed slightly in the building facades and didn’t detract from the pedestrian environment.

The grid is maintained and in fact emphasized, as some streets were added where none previously existed as development occurred. In fact, these are some of the nicest “streets;” tree-lined passageways with benches that allow pedestrian traffic through.

Historical industrial uses are honored but new land uses rule. Along 13th Avenue, for example, loading docks remain but the city clearly invested in repaving the street with concrete and providing on-street parking and both stairway and ADA access to the loading docks, which are now sidewalks and restaurant patios. The job was not left to the private market alone, although obviously it responded, as a Safeway grocery store is one of many uses now lining 13th.

Open space is also clearly a priority. Jamison Square is a well-known gathering place, and in the few minutes I spent there, I saw dozens of people, from single people to groups to families. One family arrived on a Dutch-style cargo bike. Jamison Square is the beloved front yard of the Pearl District.

Lastly, there is the streetcar. Starting in 2001, it connected downtown through the Pearl District and up to the 23rd Avenue “Nob Hill” area, before circling back on itself to downtown. Today it connects to the South Waterfront (with more planned), and it really does a great job of serving the community along its route and spurring development. And it is popular – people are riding it.

I stood on the corner of Lovejoy and 11th, where the streetcar makes a turn right under the famous “Go By Streetcar” sign. Anyone hoping to call themselves an urbanist must have a picture of the street. It’s like a picture of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge – a true landmark, a beacon. Still, I felt a bit silly standing there waiting to photograph a train and a building (this is how I spend my vacation!?)….

When I returned my bike, the dude at the bike shop explained his theory of why bike ridership is so high in Portland – a high unemployment rate and lots of brewpubs. I think he was inferring that those who are unemployed have to sell their car and ride a bike as a cheaper alternative. I’m not sure what he meant by the brewpub comment – either a lot of his friends got a DWI and lost their drivers license, or he feels biking home from the bar is a better alternative to driving. I can’t help but wonder if the unemployment rate is higher than the national rate in part because Portland is simply such a popular destination that people simply show up for the city and not necessarily for a job – and as a result push the rate higher than if Portland were just an average urban place.

On the topic of biking, I read editorial in the Willamette Week that talked about the ambitious 2030 bike plan for the city being underfunded. $600 million surely is a lot of money, but keep in mind that is over 20 years, and what would that comparable cost be to move the same numbers of people around by car or even transit?

So why do people ride their bikes and take transit in such high numbers in Portland? Come to think of it, everywhere I went people were walking. And why does the city simply look so damn good? My first speculation is that the city made good urbanism a priority. They paid attention to detail as far as design of streets, buildings and transportation. And obviously they put a variety of funding mechanisms towards these efforts. In my opinion, the payoff is immense, if not only financially but functionally. After all that planning, financing and effort, when you plug people in to the equation, going about their everyday life, quite simply it works. Portland deserves its reputation as an urban laboratory and mecca. It is a wonderful urban place.

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