One afternoon in early June, I could see with my own eyes that there are lots of cyclists in Portland, my hometown and favorite city. The bridges were up so that the Navy’s tall ships could come to town for the city’s annual Rose Festival. The flow of traffic had been stopped for a while when I reached the Broadway Bridge, one of the two Willamette River crossings favored by cyclists. It was hard to count, but my estimate was that there may have been 100 of us, and the after work rush hour was still an hour away.
Steve Duin, a columnist for The Oregonian newspaper, although not a cyclist himself, pays attention to the density of cyclists in this city. On June 27, he stationed himself at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge, another crossing favored by cyclists, to count how many of us two-wheel it across. Between 6:45 and 8:45 a.m., 1,247 bicyclists rode past him on their way to classroom and office in downtown Portland. Three years ago, he had counted slightly more than 1,000, a 20% increase in three years.
During a portion of the period, while he also tried to count other modes of crossing, his “official scorecard” recorded 488 bicyclists, 130 pedestrians, 36 TriMet buses, and “1,503 slaves to fossil fuels.” Motorized traffic, Duin reports, “came to a dead-tired stop at least a dozen times between 7:45 and 8:30, while cyclists “came roaring off that hill. . .They sailed across the bridge at their own pace, looking as if there was something waiting for them that mattered—in an office, coffee shop or summer school classroom—on the other side.”
Duin acknowledges that “like anyone married to his car” he is “unnerved by the cyclists who slip in and out of my (many) blind spots and annoyed by the rogues who don’t abide by the rules of the road.” As an aggressive cyclist on Portland’s streets and bridges, I share his annoyance. Rogue cyclists endanger people on bicycles as much—perhaps more—than they do motorists.
I am grateful for Duin’s further statement: “But I have finally made my peace with the understanding that cyclists are part of the solution to the city’s traffic woes, not part of the problem.” Just imagine the congestion on the Hawthorne Bridge if the 1,247 cyclists were to become that many more motorists trying to cross the Willamette!
One of the reasons why Portland is such a good city for cycling is that public policy and the transportation-related budgets develop routes and facilities that really work for bicycles. The bike lanes on high-traffic streets actually help cyclists, and provisions on several bridges are reasonably convenient and accessible.
The most dramatic example of public policy is the Portland-Milwaukie light-rail bridge the construction of which has just begun. The first new bridge across the Willamette in four decades, it will cost $134 million and will be used by trains, buses, streetcars, pedestrians, and bicyclists—but not by other motor vehicles.
As a sometime motorist, I readily acknowledge that public policy needs to improve roads and infrastructure of cars and trucks. The traffic gluts on the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River near my home continue to worsen, and a new bridge or set of bridges has to come.
Among American cities, Portland leads the way by its commitment to developing a mixture of modes for getting from one place to another. When other cities follow this example, the nation will be taking an important step in reducing our dependence upon imported oil.
Note: Steve Duin’s column generated more than 100 comments, some of which are highly critical of elements in his statement. His final paragraph speaks of a future “in which we are not whining about predatory gas prices or mumbling incoherently about drilling for oil off the Oregon coast. If I stare wistfully after them, it is only because I envy the speed with which they leave me and my calculator behind.” First two images are by Keith Watkins; images about the light-rail bridge are taken from the article in “The Oregonian” by Joseph Rose. Graphic by Dan Aguayo; rendering of the bridge by Scott McAuliffe.