Friday, June 13, 2008

Thinking Outside the Bike Box

It seems like everyone and their brother is riding a bike these days. It's the right time of year, and then there's the price of gas. So people are parking their guzzler and pulling that old mountain bike out of the garage.

Well, not really. There is a steady upward trend in bike riding in Portland and that trend usually accelerates this time of year. I am hearing from friends who have started riding their bikes to work or for errands. But I'm also now sitting at a coffee house on east Burnside listening to a steady stream of automobile traffic. It's the same as it ever was.

A survey last year found that 60 percent of Portland residents said they wanted to commute by bike, but didn't because they are afraid of getting crushed by an SUV or a garbage truck. If this survey is accurate, that means that if urban cycling was suddenly as risk-free as driving, about 20 percent of our fellow citizens would start biking more often; the other 40 percent would find some other excuse or procrastinate. Even so, adding 20 percent of Stumptown's population to the bike lanes would quintuple the level of riding that exists now.

Actually, cycling in the central part of Portland is pretty safe. Yes, a lot of bicyclists have been killed in accidents in the past couple of years, but many of them were practicing unprotected pedaling. No lights, no light clothing, no helmets. An emergency room nurse recently told me that helmetless riders account for 80 percent of all bike fatalities. People who don't blow through stoplights, pay attention to cars and make sure they are visible to drivers can bike safely in town.

In addition, most major thoroughfares inside of 82nd have bike lines and/or have relatively slow traffic. The inner eastside boasts a network of “bike boulevards” that allow cyclists to ride unimpeded on low traffic side streets like Clinton and Ankeny.

It could be better. It could be a lot better. The outer eastside, and anyplace south of Sellwood, (how, exactly, does one bike to Milwaukie?) remain bike hostile.

Here are three things that could make the biking life far better:

1.Dig tunnels under the major streets that cross bike boulevards. This was done in Eugene years ago on its bike path through the southern part of town. It makes the bike path almost a freeway. If digging a tunnel is not feasible, install a traffic light.
2.Get serious about bikes on MAX. With a bike and the MAX line, you can get to almost anywhere in the Metro area. But can you get your bike on MAX? The cars can hold about six bikes, and don't try that at rush hour. Tri-Met needs to order new cars, or additions to cars, that accommodate up to 20 bikes. There's no way Portland can reach its ridership goals if the mass transit complement is deficient.
3.Bike freeways. I'm sure creative engineering can carve out enough space for a big bike freeway along I-84, the Sunset Highway, or the MAX lines that run in these directions. For future lines, build in the bike freeway component. Look at it as a better use of public transit dollars. Currently, the older MAX lines carry about two percent of rush hour commuters. And the MAX is maxed out. It's impossible to add more cars. A bike line, if built wide enough, may never get maxed out.

I ride a bike almost everywhere in town. If I didn't have to go to lumber yards and home improvement stores for various projects around and in my house, I would hardly ever get into my ramshackle old van. I've been biking most of my life, even the four years I lived in Los Angeles (so okay, I lived in Venice, which has a wonderful long bike path up and down the beach). I bike for a lot of reasons: I'm cheap. I gain humongous amounts of pounds if I don't get on my bike. My butt looks good and I want to keep it that way. I can get to almost anywhere near where I live in less time than I can by car. And mostly because it's fun and makes me feel like a kid whenever I soar down a street.

But to get those reluctant and squeamish citizens on their bikes, we ultimately need to separate bike and auto traffic. Not by means of a painted line, but with physical barriers. That's how it's done in Amsterdam, the world's number one bike city.

In Portland, currently about 5 percent of all commutes are made by bike, and yet bike infrastructure—bike lanes, signage, those new boxes at stoplights, etc.--amounts to just one percent of total government spending on transportation. If bicycling received the same ratio of public dollars per user that light rail does, we might see elevated , covered bike freeways crisscrossing the city. And I say, why not?

This would benefit more than just the bike newbies. Those of us who have biked in heavy traffic would appreciate the added speed that an unencumbered bikeway offers. It's aggravating to be getting up to speed and then have to stop at a light or a stop sign every few blocks, which happens on bike boulevards, while on the main streets, the stoplights are all calibrated for automobile traffic. The only long bike paths useful for commuting in the city are the those on each side of the Willamette River from Sellwood and John's Landing. There's also the Springwater Corridor from Gresham, but there needs to be some police presence along that route as there are parts of it that look like scenes from Mad Max.

Gresham is 12 miles from downtown and most of those miles are pretty flat. With a central bike freeway, you could make a door-to-door trip in about 45 minutes, which is the same amount of time that Tri-Met's web site says it takes to get from Gresham to Pioneer Square.

Pie in the sky? Hey, the real pie in the sky is the notion that hundreds of millions of people can burn a finite amount of fossil fuels for personal transportation and entertainment. And now we have more people in the world eating that pie.

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