DESPITE PORTLAND'S bike pride, one statistic isn't mentioned nearly enough: According to the US Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey, only 6.1 percent of Portlanders ride bicycles as their primary method of commuting. [We actually mention this statistic a lot in this issue, as Erik would know if he'd bothered to read anyone else's contribution. -Eds.]
That's crazy, right? Despite all of Portland's bike funding, bike advocacy, bike lanes, bike boxes, bike racks, bike traffic lights, bike shops, bike boulevards, bike festivals, bike porn, and—god help me, I'm actually going to type this stupid word—sharrows, the vast majority of Portlanders, 93.9 percent, don't regularly bike to work. And the number gets even lower when you zoom out: In the greater Portland metro area, only 2.3 percent of residents consistently commute by bike.
To be fair, Portland's percentages are higher than every other major American city. But while our numbers are holding steady, other cities are raising theirs, finding more bike commuters and working harder to integrate bikes into city life. If Portland wants to keep its bike-friendly reputation, more than 6.1 percent of its residents need to feel like cycling is a safe, sensible way to get around.
In theory, I should be cycling all the damn time: I'm 34 and all of my joints still bend (ladies), I live in a central Southeast neighborhood that's infested with sharrows, and my downtown office has a room set aside exclusively for bike storage and covert handjobs. Hell, I even have a bike—a Jamis hybrid I bought a few years back, in an ambitious moment of deciding to actually back up my belief that bikes are better than cars, both for cities and the people who live in them.
Yet I've ridden my bike exactly twice in Portland, which perhaps indicates I'm not yet convinced cycling is the safest, most sensible way to get around. Like a lot of commuting Portlanders, I still walk, take the bus, and sometimes drive to work—and I'm guessing my reasons for doing so are shared by other bike-curious (but hesitant) commuters.
• CYCLISTS CAN BE DICKS. "Not all cyclists!" Yes, I know. Drivers can be dicks, too! But even in a city where bikes are familiar, the relationship between Portland's drivers and cyclists isn't always a healthy one. Unlike in traffic—where drivers can be relatively sure what other drivers are going to do, because, you know, drivers' licenses—it can be hard to predict what a cyclist will do. Would I be an unpredictable dick? Perish the thought. But when I'm on my bike, you know who I don't need driving behind me? Somebody who's used to dealing with unpredictable dicks.
• THE GRINNING VISAGE OF DEATH. Everyone I know who commutes by bike has been hit by a car at least once. Everyone. At least once. (None of them have died! Yet!) Maybe my dumb friends suck at riding bikes, or maybe Portland's obsequious driving mentality is a coverup for something more sinister. Regardless, the fact that bike-car collisions are that common? Not a confidence booster.
• ROAD RULES. The most convincing argument against cycling in Portland? Driving in Portland. It wasn't until I drove here that I realized how invisible many of the city's cyclists unwittingly are—and how many helmetless, lightless cyclists there are who're happy to hand over responsibility for their lives to strangers behind 3,500 pounds of glass and metal. Until Portlanders get better at both seeing and being seen, cycling in the city—particularly at night—is going to feel dangerous.
• TALL BIKES. As Thoreau wrote, "The further I distance myself from those who ride tall bikes, the richer the life I lead."
Here's the thing: All of those reasons that make riding a bike alongside cars seem like a terrible idea? They're fixable. (Except for tall bikes. We're just stuck with those.) And for the most part, they'll fix themselves—if Portland can get a higher percentage of its residents cycling.
For years, Portland has bent over backward for a vocal but tiny segment of the population, making cycling as integrated into the city as can reasonably be expected. But the final step in making Portland a bike-friendly city in practice and not just name is a step that's up to us. Once those of us in the 93.9 percent start riding to work regularly and safely, the city will have a higher percentage of Portlanders—both on bikes and in cars—who know, first-hand, what it's like to share the road.
In other words, the very things keeping whiny little babies like me from commuting by bike? They're the things that will get better once more of us start to ride.
Shit. Apparently I just talked myself into riding my bike to work tomorrow.