FIVE EUROPEAN "bicycle ambassadors" wound up in a very foreign land last Thursday, October 1: a business luncheon at Beaverton City Hall. The location of the ambassadors' pro-bike presentations, as much as the content, highlighted how far the Portland metro area will have to go to become a truly green capital. Beaverton City Hall is built in a vast parking lot behind a strip mall on a four-lane highway.
Portland Mayor Sam Adams is not shy about proclaiming that Portland will become "the Copenhagen of America," aiming to be comparable to a city where 55 percent of residents commute by bike. With grant money, Metro hosted the five bike experts—one Danish, one French, one Belgian, and two from the Netherlands—last week, hoping their homelands could serve as models for the future urban planning of Portland and its suburbs.
Over lunch of organic greens with local huckleberry vinaigrette served on paper plates with a side of bottled water, the Amsterdam official described his city, where riding a bike is as common as eating a slice of bread and the government gives residents $1,000 every three years to purchase a new bike. While Portland has the highest bike commute rate of any large city in the United States ["We're #1! Not Good Enough!," News, Oct 1], the Rose City's 6.4 percent bike commute rate is paltry compared to Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Making Portland seriously bike-friendly would mean making major changes, say the European bike experts. While Portland talks up its bike friendliness, bike projects still make up a measly .7 percent of the city transportation budget. Copenhagen, for comparison, spends 25 percent of its transportation budget on bikes.
"Government acts too slowly," said Amsterdam traffic expert Hans Voerknecht, who said private business should be a major force behind getting people on bikes. Seventeen major companies in Amsterdam, including US-based Microsoft and IBM, signed a pact to reduce employee car travel by 10 percent by 2008. The businesses offered cash for employees to buy bikes and other incentives, finding that they saved money because biking employees took 10-12 percent less sick leave.
At the end of the luncheon, Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle asked Voerknecht what would happen to Amsterdam if people stopped riding bikes. "The city would come to a standstill. There would be no economy. Because of traffic, you could not get from point A to B," said Voerknecht.
Copenhagen traffic planner Niels Jensen recommends hooking Portlanders on alternative transportation while they're young. "Teach children how they can bike to school and, perhaps more importantly, start discussions with their parents," said Jensen.
Apart from Beaverton business lunches, Jensen was impressed with Portland's dynamic bike culture. In his city, says Jensen, biking is so normal that cyclists do not identify as a community. Bike-fun events like themed rides are unheard of. "The good thing is, in five or 10 years, many people will bike," says Jensen of Portland. "The bad thing is, that special culture will not exist anymore."