Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bike-Only Boulevards: This Would Be Portland's Idea...

In Seattle, late February marks the unofficial start of biking season, because let's be honest, everyone except the most hardcore bike commuters and Critical Mass-types among us has pretty much had their bike sadly rusting away in storage since late October.

So in honor of this, I dusted off my 15-year-old Trek hybrid bike, which had been sitting in my apartment's front doorway almost unused since I moved here in...gulp....September! I'm a terrible cyclist - terrible, terrible, terrible. Bicycling used to be a big part of my life, the one type of exercise I never wanted to quit, the way I discovered new neighborhoods anywhere I went. Hell, a 60-mile ride around Lake Washington was a "training ride" at one point for me not so long ago. I promise to redeem myself this year by doing two things:

1) Train for and do STP, the annual 10,000 rider-strong race from Seattle to Portland. I did STP two years and absolutely loved it!!! There's free food and drinks every 20 miles (a drop in the bucket compared to the 200 miles between the two cities), and my favorite part about it - getting tranced out on my iPod the whole f*cking way there. Wouldn't do it any other way :-)

2) I will devote more space on Green My Fleet to bike-related issues, like bike infrastructure, bike sharing, upcoming rides and events, and bicycle cultures from around the world.

Riding through one of my favorite cities in the entire world - Valencia, Spain
In deference to ultimatum #2, I found a pretty interesting trend that's emerging among the more left-leaning green circles of - where else ?- Portland, Oregon: bike-only boulevards. What's that, you ask? A street where only bikes are allowed - in America??? Impossible. It has to be the psychotic dream of some deranged  hipster twat with chronic anomie and gauged ears! (see below in case you missed the latest episode of Portlandia):

You'd be wrong in thinking that bike-only boulevards are doomed to be an idea of the loony fringe, however. Portland happens to the be the US city with the largest bicycle mode share of 7% (planner-speak for the proportionate ways we get from point A to point B), but it pales compared to bike-friendly cities internationally. European cities take the cake on bicycle population - some 30-35% of all trips are made by bike in most Dutch cities, as well as many cities in France, Germany, and Scandinavia. That most US cities, including Seattle (2% bike mode share), fall way behind Portland is an indictment of our unsustainable transportation system in general.

Portland achieved the success it did by allocating more bike infrastructure - bike lanes, sharrows, bike racks on buses and light rail trains - than any other American city for many years. Portland pioneered the neighborhood bicycle boulevard and the traffic-separated bicycle track that were a first in the US, though hardly elsewhere. A large portion of Portland's large biking population is due not only to its relatively flat geography and outdoorsy culture, but also its 15 neighborhood bicycle boulevards, where traffic is calmed to the point where cyclists almost begin to take precedence over cars.

Recently installed traffic-separated bike track on Manhattan's 9th Avenue, photo courtesy of Seth Holladay of http://www.nycbikemaps.com

Recently, though, Portland's bicycle hegemony may be slipping. Portland was bested by Minneapolis as the most bike-friendly city in America by Bicycle Magazine this past spring. New York City has laid 250 miles of bike lanes in the past three years alone under the partnership between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Meanwhile, bike-sharing systems are sprouting up like weeds across the US, from Washington DC to Denver, San Francisco, and Miami, and Portland is nowhere to be found on this important trend.

Bike-only boulevards represent one of the great bits of uncharted territory for bike infrastructure that Portland and other cities are now looking to tap into. How exactly do you make the transition to a street completely dedicated to bikes? This is something no city in the US can match, and only the densest parts of Amsterdam have any experience with. One of the most important ways to encourage more people to hop on their bikes is to eliminate the threat of riding in traffic, a danger that deters an estimated 60% of "would-be cyclists", that is, people who say they would like to ride their bikes as their primary mode of transport but choose not to.

So by this measure, all of the previous bike infrastructure we've ever experimented with doesn't even come close to meeting people's needs. Bike lanes are often narrow, rarely continuous, and provide zero safety if cars are speeding just inches away from you at 40 miles an hour or more. Most streets lack the space for a dedicated bicycle track, so this option does little for us. Bike paths built on railroad spurs, like Seattle's Burke Gilman, are fun recreational spaces but impractical as commuting paths because they are difficult to integrate with the street network and can only be built where there was once a railroad. Sharrows don't even pretend to give you any space as a cyclist - rather than allocating any street width for bikes, they just paint a bicycle on the asphalt to "warn cars" that bikes might be nearby. Big help that is...

There's already a great deal of evidence in support of bike-only boulevards. The city of Bogota, Colombia, regularly sees almost two million people use its 100-mile plus system of bicycle boulevards that are closed on Sundays as part of its Ciclovia (Spanish for "bike-highway"). Los Angeles copied the event with its own CicLAvia series and likewise saw a huge increase in people out on their bikes. Why? Because the bike-only boulevards remove car traffic and finally make people feel safe being on their bikes.

As cities grapple with how to become more sustainable, we're set with some very big goals to achieve. San Francisco aims to have 20% of its residents moving by bike in just ten years, by 2020. Portland is aiming even higher, 25% bicyclists by the same year. It might just take something otherwise considered radical to hit targets like these. The San Francisco Bike Coalition is lobbying the city's Board of Supervisors to install 27 miles of bike-only boulevards that connect the most important commercial and transit hubs. I can only suspect a proposal like this would cost far less than what the city has spent so far on who knows how many bike lanes.

The bike-only boulevard trend is even spreading to cities as ass-backwards as Seattle. A "neighborhood greenway", borrowing Portland's granola terminology, is planned for the NE 45th St. corridor in Wallingford.

Will these bike-only boulevards work as truly functional transit arteries, and not just a fun Sunday recreational pastime? If the two boulevards installed in London recently are any indication, we needn't worry about that. Bicycle traffic went up 70% in less than a year since installation, which speaks volumes about the difference good infrastructure makes in our transportation choices.

In case you needed any more motivation to be on the look out for bike superhighways, check out this statistic:

According to a report from the Political Economy Research Institute, a think tank based out of the federal Department of Transportation, construction on bike and pedestrian infrastructure creates TWICE the number of jobs per dollar spent than road construction. Take that, Tea Party assholes!

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