This past weekend my wife and I visited Portland, Oregon for a weekend break, partially with the intention of experiencing for myself why it is often considered the best cycling city in the US. Coincidentally, a new study was published this week and Portland now ranks third behind Minneapolis and San Francisco in terms of big cities, and much further when considering smaller towns and cities. What did I find out in two (and a bit) days, read on...
Firstly, the time taken to drive southbound on the I5 through Seattle bordered on ridiculous and was stop and go for approximately 3 hours either side of Seattle. If this is normal I'm not sure how people do that every day. Thoughts came to mind of this being a perfect example of the need for people to live where they work, and if that isn't possible due to affordability, the need for much better transit.
Anyway, we stayed around 23rd Avenue and NW Irving Street, a great little neighbourhood at a proper scale, two lanes, parking, all-way stops or marked crosswalks, lots of activity on the street at night, street tree's all lit up. My thinking was that every street should be like this, it just had a really good vibe to it.
The following day we rented bicycles from a nearby store (21st Avenue Bicycles) and went for a little tour around the city with the intention of experiencing their bike infrastructure first hand. We left the bike shop and turned left down the first street marked for bikes, Johnson Street. This street was reasonably quiet but also relatively narrow when riding with two cars passing each other, it was also peppered with Stop Signs slowing progress.
We turned right on 9th Ave and the turned left on Couch St, another identified bike route. I would politely call this a less desirable area of the City and we got to experience some interesting arguments from some locals. This brought us down to the multi-use path by the Willamette River and the Saturday Market under Burnside Bridge. With more biking to do we just browsed and carried on with our ride.
We decided to explore the other side of the river and crossed the Steel Bridge and headed towards the bike lanes on Multnomah, before you get there there is a signalised intersection with what appeared to be bike detection and diagonal movements.
Just north of this intersection things move over to one side near the transit exchange where there is a two-way painted bike lane.
Up on Multnomah, the bike lanes are somewhat protected by the wide painted buffer and planters.
And there are left turn boxes for cyclists to make safer left turns without the need to weave across traffic.
We headed back over the river to check out some other bike lanes and found the green painted bike lane on Oak Street, while not segregated, the green paint definitely makes you feel like its your own space and not for drivers. The only issue with this is that it essentially dumps your out on Burnside and 10th, a confusing intersection to negotiate on bike, at least when you don't know the area well.
We ended up continuing up Burnside which was not a good cycling route and turning onto 14th which had a bike lane, before heading back to the bike shop to return the bikes, overall, maybe with better knowledge of the City I would learn the good routes and workarounds. We headed back for an enjoyable walk up and down 23rd Avenue.
On Sunday, we walked downtown to explore on foot, tramlines are a frequent sight and while not elevated and separated from traffic like SkyTrain, they do seem effective, relatively easy to figure out routing and hold a lot of people. Most streets downtown are quite narrow from building to building with street trees and reasonably wide sidewalks and just a few traffic lanes, they are generally nice places to be.
I found some more bike lanes with signage for right turning drivers to yield to cylists.
On Monday, I wanted to see a bit of the Oregon coast, so headed for the famous Cannon Beach, home of Haystack Rock that achieved fame in the 'Goonies' movie. A fantastic beach, even if the sunny weather of Portland had been replaced by clouds!
And finally heading home, I noticed Seattle's variable speed limit signs which slow you down approaching congested conditions, thankfully, other than passing through the centre of Seattle, traffic northbound on the I5 wasn't too bad.
One last shot, heading home into the sunset...
During our time there, we experienced only a small fraction of what Portland has to offer, my mind was not blown away by the cycling facilities. Perhaps when expectations are raised you inevitably leave disappointed. I feel, and I could be wrong, like Portland was perhaps the first to embrace cyclists and hence establish the reputation of the best cycling city but has now been caught up. Vancouver, BC is one of those cities and in some places has surpassed what I witnessed in Portland.
Whilst cycling I was immediately aware of greater respect from drivers, it felt like drivers were very aware of us as we were riding and I never felt threatened at any point giving credence to the safety in numbers arguments. Or maybe, again I had the expectation that cycling was safer there so was less concerned.
Another thing that came to mind and very much goes against current urban planning principles is the presence of many, many one-way streets and a highway through the City. It seems like the one-way streets often allowed space for the bike lanes. I didn't do any driving in the city to realise the frustration of the one-way system or witness the highway at peak times determine the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of it all.
Mention goes out to Escape from New York Pizza, maybe it was just the hunger from sitting in traffic for so long, but on the night we arrived, this little places was just around the corner and the pizza was fantastic! Another mention goes to 23 Hoyt and their greeter who couldn't be more Portland if he tried, but he was awesome!
So after a few days I leave a little wiser. I have a trip to San Francisco coming up next month so look forward to seeing what that great City has to offer.