Portland, Oregon’s Biking Program Sets Model for U.S. Cities

Excerpt of talk by Roger Geller, manager of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Bicycle Program, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

Bicycle commuting is growing around the country, nowhere more than in Portland, Oregon, which has the largest bike mode split of any major U.S. city. As of 2014, 7.2 percent of commuters in Portland were biking to work; in most cities it’s under 1 percent.
In November, the Portland City Council approved a plan to build just under 17 miles of protected bike paths throughout the downtown area. The plan includes the step of eliminating 1,000 parking spaces and more than 13 miles of car lanes.  The protected bike lanes are expected to attract even more city residents to leave their cars and hop on to bikes.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Bicycle Program Manager Roger Geller, who’s held that job for the past two decades, is deeply involved in transportation design, policy and planning. At a recent event sponsored by Bike Walk Connecticut, he spoke about the progress his city has made, how much more can be accomplished and the benefits of biking for the community and environment.  Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the talk and brings us these excerpts.

ROGER GELLER: So, we all talk about how increasing bicycling is going to benefit our communities. We talk about how it can help us manage transportation in the face of growing populations; how it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions; how it can improve our economies and improve our personal and public health. We talk about how bicycling can help create equitable outcomes by reducing the household burden of transportation. We always talk about the potential of bicycling to accomplish these things and more. We talk about the potential because few locales in North America have realized these benefits with sufficient breadth and depth to talk quantitatively about the reality of what bicycling can deliver.So I’m here tonight to tell you that Portland, Oregon, provides that measurable U.S. example of how bicycling delivers these benefits. In Portland, we have measured how bicycling provides an economic benefit. We’ve measured how bicycling limits automobile use and provides all the benefits that come with that. And I’m here to tell you how we did that, what we accomplished, how in retrospect we invested very little in doing that and how we’re going to be moving forward.

So I titled my presentation tonight, An American City, because Portland is an American city. What we’ve managed to do in Portland over the past 40 years, you can do in your city and at a much faster pace.

As an American city, Portland has always loved its automobiles. We didn’t have anything resembling a bikeway network. We didn’t have bicycling rates above 1 percent or fewer of the strong and fearless riders. Yet, we managed to change that curve. And it was largely the result of political leadership.

Earl Blumenauer, now a U.S. rep from Oregon’s Third District, was formerly a Portland city commissioner. Transportation was in his portfolio. In the 1970s and ’80s he understood the benefits of bicycling, and when, in the late 1980s he assumed his position in city government, he worked to adopt the progressive bicycle transportation policy to make bicycling a part of daily life in Portland. In subsequent years, he was followed by Sam Adams, our mayor, and by Steve Novick, who was a Portland commissioner. All of these political leaders understood the benefits of bicycling. They experienced it personally; they recognized that it provided benefits to the city. They all dedicated resources to developing bike infrastructure; they all provided political support for the inevitable trade-offs that come when you’re trying to carve space out of the roadway for bike infrastructure.

So, political leadership, I’ve come to realize, is absolutely critical when a jurisdiction is advancing bicycle transportation. So what do you do once you have political leadership? The most important thing and the thing that Portland has done, is to build a bikeway network. It’s rightfully a foundation of increasing bicycle use. It’s the growth in miles and quality of Portland’s bikeway network that’s led directly to our success in increasing bike use.

This is where we began, 40 years ago. We had about 31 miles of bikeways. We started slowly – we had 77 miles by 1990. We didn’t really pick up steam until the mid- to late-1990s. And we built mostly standard bicycle lanes. Over times, as we’ve learned more, we’ve improved the quality of our bikeways from standard lanes to buffered lanes to protected lanes. Those improvements didn’t come until much later and we’re still working on those. Most of our network is and remains conventional bike lanes. Thirty-eight years after that first slide, this is where we are today.

We’ve got a bike lane network of about 373 miles, and this is what comes with that bikeway network. This is a morning commute in Portland (applause). This is just a morning commute, this is just people going to work. This is daily, in Portland. What’s interesting about Portland is that, of course, rates are highest in the summer; rates are highest everywhere in the summer. And it drops off in the winter; we see that every year it drops off to 40 or 50 percent of what it is in the summer. But because bicycling has grown so much in Portland, our winter rates are higher than our summer rates were about eight years ago.

Political leadership being key, political leaders who want to advance bicycling need talking points. And this is the first talking point I want to leave with you: that more than 50 percent of Portland commuters live in areas where the average bike mode split is more than 10 percent. Even more interesting is where you have 30 percent of Portland commuters – that’s about 100,000 Portland commuters, not residents, who are just driving to work – and the bike mode split in that area is approaching 14 percent. It’s on a par with transit, and Portland has an excellent transit system.

So, in the heart of Portland, about 14 percent bike mode split, very good for America. It puts us on a par with a low-performing suburb of Amsterdam. It’s really good. I don’t want to belittle it, but I hope what you get from the way I’m presenting this is that we are not satisfied. We’re not at all satisfied. We have such great potential, as do all of our cities in the U.S., if we just invest. You get what you pay for; you get what you invest into, and we haven’t invested nearly enough.

For more information on Bike Portland, Portland Bureau of Transportation, visit portlandoregon.gov/transportation/34772.

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