On the evening of June 20th 13,000 people gathered on West Burnside in downtown Portland to bicycle in various stages of undress. I was not there. One reason: I was in Indianapolis where “We don’t do that kind of thing, thank you.”
Although Portland State University professor Carl Abbott has written that Portland and river cities in the Midwest (such as Indianapolis) are much alike in their urban cultures, there are significant differences, and one of them is evident in the infrastructure, public attitudes, and personal practices related to bicycling. At least, this is true about Portland in comparison with Indianapolis, two cities I know very well.
I could feel the difference while cycling south on North Pennsylvania toward Washington Street in downtown Indy, which would be a lot like cycling along any of the streets around Pioneer Square in downtown Portland. Since neither city has been able to put bike lanes on all of these streets, cyclists have to mix, with considerable wariness, with multi-laned motorized traffic. What I realized on my Indianapolis ride is that in this city, when compared with Portland, there are more lanes of traffic, the blocks are longer, the cars are going faster, drivers are quicker on the horn, and the pavement itself is rougher (multi-layers of filled up winter potholes).
Most important, I was all alone. Nary another cyclist on the entire three miles across Washington Street and down Virginia Avenue to Fountain Square. In Portland, on Broadway from Irvington across the bridge to downtown, on Fourth Avenue from Jefferson through China Town, even on Everett or Glisan in the Pearl, I never ride alone: bike messengers darting through traffic disdainful of convention or personal safety, young women in short skirts and heels riding to the office on fixies, all kinds of riders disguised in cutoffs and riding old bikes adapted for city use, and a few hard core, “bugs in the teeth” roadies like me. It is not that “there is safety in numbers,” but rather that the presence of so many on two wheels means that everyone–cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists–has had to include the presence of bicyclists in the mix of factors that determine how they occupy space–whether that space be streets, sidewalks, or crosswalks.
The difference is evident in certain street systems marked with bike lanes for what could be considered “through traffic for bicycles.” In Portland, one of my most frequent routes (which I probably ride on the average of twice a week) is south on Vancouver Avenue and North on Williams. Even at 6:00 o’clock on a winter morning, I have bicycling company on the route. In Indianapolis, a similar pair of linked one-way streets with bike lanes is New York going east and Michigan for the return westward. In my current visit to Indianapolis, I have had no opportunity to bicycle this route, but I have driven it several times. So far, I have seen two cyclists, both on New York on a hot summer afternoon: a hard riding man on a hot pink fixie with high mud flap, riding the right direction, and a kid in jeans and no helmet puttering along on a junker, riding the wrong way.
My contacts in Indianapolis, including long-time cycling advocate Tom Healy, have been telling me that the city is seriously engaged in upgrading everything having to do with cycling in this, my midwestern river city. And I believe him. An especially important example is the way that no longer used tracks of the Monon Railroad are being converted into an urban multi-use trail, stretching from Massachusetts Avenue (a spot with some of the ambiance of Portland’s Pearl), to Broad Ripple Village (think Hawthorne), to Nora (John’s Landing), to Carmel (Gresham on steroids), and on to Westfield, a quieter place like Portland’s neighboring town of Sandy. Although Portland’s Springwater Trail is an equally fine trail, the one in Indianapolis (like Seattle’s Burke-Gilman) actually goes places that many people want to go to. And some of its more recent additions, including bridges and tunnels on its more northerly sections, sparkle because they are both useful and beautiful.
As one who revels in the bicycling culture, I rejoice in the way that cycling is moving forward in Indianapolis, the city that for more than thirty years was my home and the place where I became a cyclist. Even more, however, I look forward to getting back to Portland-Vancouver, the place where my bicycles and I really belong (and I’ll be wearing my clothes, thank you).
Note: Images were imported from stories that are linked in this column.