No Turning Back: A City Club Report on Bicycle Transportation in Portland

Background Reading


The executive summary for this report reads as follows:

Study: Bike lanes matter less than light, speed in reducing severity of crash injuries

Study: Bike lanes matter less than light, speed in reducing severity of crash injuries

Portland is a city where people travel by car, public transit, walking and bicycling.  All of these transportation modes are viable ways for residents to get around, and each is here to stay.  Charged with examining the current and future role of bicycles in Portland, your committee has determined, after a year-long study, that bicycling has become a fundamental component of a balanced transportation systemThe city should plan for and encourage the continued growth of bicycling as a transportation mode in ways that optimize choice and efficiency, enhance opportunity and equity, address public perceptions and attitudes, and, especially, promote safety for all transportation modes.

Your committee believes bicycling is an affordable and efficient means of transportation that is essential to continued growth in the local economy and overall quality of life for Portland residents.

In short, your committee finds that the right question is no longer “Should we promote bicycle use?” It is: “How should we structure our transportation system to optimize choice, efficiency and safety for all modes of transportation, including bicycling?”

The primary challenge facing the City of Portland is logistical, integrating bicycling into multi-modal transportation in a way that is affordable, efficient and safe.  A secondary challenge is tactical, relating to identifying stakeholders fairly and accurately, communicating the rationale and impact of proposed transportation projects to them, and providing appropriate avenues for input and feedback.

While Portland has made measurable progress in expanding bicycle ridership and improving bicycle and pedestrian safety, perception trails reality.  Your committee heard repeated examples of poor stakeholder identification and engagement for bicycle planning projects, as well as poor communication of those projects’ timelines and impacts.  This lack of due diligence has made some projects needlessly controversial or vulnerable to delay and cost overruns.

The dozen members of your committee met at least once per week from May 2012 through May 2013, interviewing various stakeholders and experts, including Portland Mayors Sam Adams and Charlie Hales, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Portland Business Alliance Vice President Bernie Bottomly, TriMet strategic planner Eric Hesse, and cycling advocate and former city bicycling coordinator Mia Birk, as well as academic researchers, neighborhood representatives and community leaders, and many other interested parties.

Your committee concludes that there is little organized opposition to bicycle use in Portland.  However, there is latent, but pervasive, uneasiness among some residents that expanding bicycling opportunities will come at the expense of other modes of transportation.  There is also widespread fear among many motorists of traffic collisions with bicycles.  Active opposition to bicycling emerges primarily on a case-by-case or anecdotal basis.  Today’s reality stands in sharp contrast to the skeptical attitude toward bicycle use many Portland residents held just two decades ago, as well as to antagonism between bicycles and automobiles frequently portrayed in local media coverage of bicycle-related policies and proposals.

Portland2030 Bike Plan:  Identified Benefits of Bicycling

  • Safer streets
  • Reduces the causes of global climate change and promotes a healthy environment
  • Limits the costs related to health care and obesity
  • Equity and access to affordable transportation options
  • Provides a viable transportation option
  • Creates fun, vibrant and livable neighborhoods
  • Supports Portland’s local economy

A range of witnesses and available research pointed to bicycling’s positive benefits in promoting health, neighborhood livability, environmental quality, pedestrian safety and local economic expansion.  When controversy arises over a project involving public investment in bicycling infrastructure, it is most often associated with a frustration over process and the details of how bicycle use affects other modes of transportation in a given area, or how spending on bicycle infrastructure rates against other perceived spending needs in the neighborhood.

Stakeholders vary widely in their priorities and vision for the future of transportation in Portland and balancing these interests is a major challenge facing the city.  Although commonly portrayed as such, however, transportation is not a zero-sum game.

Improving bicycle infrastructure does not make the city “anti-car,” any more than committing resources to mass transit or automotive infrastructure makes the city “anti-bike.”  Your committee concludes that increased bicycle ridership is an important element to a more prosperous, healthier, and happier Portland populace with increased economic and social mobility.

But how we get from here to there is very important.

To that end, your committee makes these recommendations:

  • Portland should establish specific criteria to determine the best way to incorporate bicycling into its overall strategic plan for transportation, and identify projects and priorities that promote bicycle use as a viable transportation alternative.  All transportation planning should become multi-modal planning.  Poor communication between different transportation planning teams and stakeholder groups has produced ongoing safety concerns and multiple conflict points throughout the city which future planning will need to address.  Additionally, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) should actively seek out reliable bicycle ridership data through an expansion of the use of automated bicycle counters, such as the one currently installed on the Hawthorne Bridge.
  • Bicycle infrastructure investments should move from opportunistic to strategic, and emphasize connectivity and safety.  These may include turning low-traffic streets that parallel major thoroughfares into “bicycle boulevards,” limiting some on-street parking, especially close to intersections where sightlines are impeded, and creating additional bicycle-friendly routes between neighborhoods, similar in design and function to the Springwater Corridor and the I-205 bike/pedestrian path. This may include eliminating some bicycle lanes on high-congestion streets and designing safer options that incentivize alternative bicycle routes and reduce direct interaction with motor vehicles.  Neighborhood-to-neighborhood connections should be prioritized.
  • As bicycling is further integrated into Portland’s comprehensive transportation system, education and enforcement regarding traffic laws should improve.  PBOT, the Portland Police Bureau, community organizations and other stakeholders should support a thorough bicycle safety and education program in schools, as well as develop ways to incentivize safe bicycle use and observance of traffic laws by all road users.  Increased police patrolling of areas heavily trafficked by bicycle riders is recommended, as is a review of current traffic laws and enforcement strategies.  The State of Oregon should include more detailed information on bicycle laws, signage, etc., in the Oregon Drivers Manual and in DMV tests.  Your committee also recommends the mandatory distribution of bicycle registration forms and associated educational materials about bicycle registration at the point of retail sale for new and used bicycles.

Your committee recommends a three-part funding strategy for bicycle transportation:

  1. The State of Oregon should enact a 4% excise tax on new bicycle sales.  Revenue generated by this program is to be used specifically for the production and distribution of bicycle safety materials, bicycle safety programs at schools and community centers, and the purchase and installation of additional automated bicycle counters.
  1. Portland should continue to pursue strategic funding for bicycle infrastructure from outside sources, so long as it promotes the overall safety of bicycling, as well as the criteria laid out in PBOT’s Bicycle Strategic Implementation Plan.
    1. Projects should provide a measurable improvement on transportation safety and access.
    2. Separated bicycle routes (cycletracks, paths, bike boulevards) should be prioritized over shared routes between bicycles and automobiles traveling at higher speeds or higher volume.
    3. Fixing unsafe gaps and conflict points in the existing bicycle network should be made a priority.
  1. If Portland develops either a transportation services general obligation bond, or a Street Maintenance Fee, it should include a specific allocation for bicycle projects commensurate with the city’s stated goals for bicycle ridership.

PBOT’s volunteer Bicycle Advisory Committee should expand to include representatives from various communities of color, youth-advocate organizations, and neighborhood organizations, as well as the Portland Business Alliance, the Portland Freight Committee, Portland Public Schools, and other relevant stakeholders.  As part of its monthly review of bicycle policies and projects, this standing committee has an opportunity to provide valuable community oversight and stakeholder communication that is currently not utilized to its full potential.  In general, there needs to be better communication and regular monthly meetings between the Bicycle, Freight, and other committees, and with relevant neighborhood representatives.

While even the most vocal bicycle advocates in Portland concede that the stated goal of bicycle use accounting for 25% of all trips under three miles by 2030 is extremely ambitious, there are real and measurable health, economic, social and environmental gains associated with expanded bicycle use, whatever that percentage turns out to be.  By implementing these recommendations, your committee believes the city will increase its ability to meet its objectives in these areas, creating a safer, more efficient multi-modal transportation system that all Portlanders can benefit from and enjoy.

Recommendations of the Minority

Two members of your committee have elected to write a Minority Report, following disagreement on whether Portland should license bicycle riders and require mandatory registration of bicycles.  The minority recommends that Portland should adopt a bicycle user license fee to be earmarked for bicycle infrastructure, measurement, education, bicycle registration, and enforcement. A summary of the issue and reasons your committee disagrees with the Minority Report can be found at the end of this report.

The majority of your committee concludes that the mandatory licensing of bicyclists is unenforceable, unnecessary, and punitive, and that the costs would outweigh the benefits.