Cheap and Easy

Gina and I just spent a few days in Portland, walking and bicycling around. It was her third, and my second, time, exploring what has come to be thought of as America’s cycling showcase by bicycle, having taken our own wheels up on Amtrak.

Last time, we, being from Los Angeles, were nearly overwhelmed by the ease of riding there. Especially as our last trip happened in 2010, before the growing clamor for safer bikeways pushed the city into adopting and then actually beginning to implement a (somewhat) comprehensive bike plan.

This time, we were able to cast a more critical eye upon it, and while we were still impressed, we developed a more nuanced perception.

For one thing, Portland is a very well-balanced city for mobility: it is as much a car city, and a walking city, and a transit city, as it is a bicycle city. There is no “war on cars” there, despite the rants of the rabid motorheads. Car traffic clogs the streets just as anywhere else, and huge parking garages abound.

But so do bike lanes, tram tracks, busways, and (usually) wide sidewalks. Every single bridge in this town cut in half by a wide, busy river (yes, there are “boatways” too, and freighters and barges ply the Willamette), every bridge that is not strictly a freeway bridge has both a bicycle facility and good sidewalks, and often tram tracks—plus, in the case of the iconic Steel Bridge, a busy heavy rail line. Most of the bridges are vintage structures, from the bad old days of car-only roadthink, but they have been retrofitted with bikeways to provide a balanced menu of transport modes available to residents and visitors. (Los Angeles is failing miserably in this regard.)

Busy downtown streets have dedicated bike lanes—wide, buffered, and often painted green—while less-pressured roads have the usual door-zone bike lanes, and the residential outskirts see lots of sharrows. There are some off-road bike paths and multi-use paths, following the riverbanks or winding through the lightly-developed outer reaches of development, but they are actually rare.

And there are bike racks and bike corrals everywhere—not just downtown, but wherever there is retail or commercial development. I found bike corrals out near the foot of Mt. Tabor in the east, and nearly every retail block has sidewalk bike racks, where there are nearly always lots of bikes parked. Bicycling is an important pillar of the city’s business activity. The one hundred bike corrals in place now are not enough; merchants are on a waiting list for more. In this, Los Angeles fails miserably as well, with so far two corrals, and numerous sidewalk racks actually having been removed from Larchmont Village recently.

There is also eminently usable wayfinding signage along most bike routes. Even a stranger can find the way home easily from anywhere within the metro.

What really impressed us was that Portland’s bicycle infrastructure has been incredibly cheap to install. Extensive Dutch-style facilities are rare there; it’s mostly paint and racks. But it’s intelligently thought out, and every facility connects to another facility, except for the few that peter out at the edges of development.

As Portland’s mayor noted a couple of years ago, the entire package at that time had been built for less than the cost of a mile of urban freeway (and Portland has, if anything, too many miles of freeway). The fact-checking site Politifact confirmed this, as you can read here.

And yet back home in Los Angeles, in a region that just spent one billion dollars to add a single lane along ten miles of the 405 freeway, we can’t seem to stripe bikeways that would allow the timid millions simply to ride their bikes to work or to shop, nor dare we install the bike corrals that would boost business citywide without wasting public or private money on expensive and inefficient car parking at $20,000 to $80,000 a space.

Portland is a good model for American cities that are seriously committed to making themselves happier, healthier, and more prosperous by allowing and encouraging bicycle travel. It’s cheap and easy to do it, so…come on, Los Angeles, let’s do it!

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