I have big dreams for a bikey future in Portland. Two dreams, actually.
One is the vision that Portland will live up to our recent designation as a Platinum city—that we can become a placid biketopia, where it's so normal, safe, and easy to ride a bike that nobody considers it anything special or strange to hop in the saddle for any trip.
The other is a more raucous vision of innovation, variety, and adrenaline.
Vision number one may sound familiar. Such communities already exist, and Portland is working to follow their lead. Bike advocates often wax enthusiastic about bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where your grandmother doesn't think twice about cruising everywhere on a bike and separated bike-only highways abound.
These bike cities (and their bikey suburbs) are great role models for Portland. Like us, they had been overrun by cars for decades. Starting in the 1970s, a conscious new direction was undertaken on all levels to build up transit and bikeways, to make cities walkable, and to choose not to drive.
We are also looking to New World cities like Melbourne and Bogotá. These cities, built for cars, are connecting communities with "ciclovía" street closure events like Sunday parkways, building bikeways, and creating business-lined arcades and plazas without cars. Bogotá even has a proper car-free day once a year, when cars are barred from the central city.
Portland is already forging ahead in this direction. Innovative new infrastructure, advocacy, and laws have been successfully whittling away at an old system that discourages or even penalizes cycling. Every new mile of bikeways produces more riders and an unequalled return on investment. Enforcement is starting to become more balanced. And I've been noticing daily improvements in the skills and awareness of cyclists on our streets, and the drivers who encounter us.
Sooner than we think, if we play our cards right, nobody will be able to remember that it was ever difficult to ride a bike in Portland.
But we're not nearly there yet. Even in über-bikey inner Southeast, where the biggest infrastructure investments have produced a critical mass of everyday cyclists and a template for the "bikification" of the rest of the city, we still lack good ways to cross many major streets. Cyclists and drivers must share narrow roads without necessarily having the skills, knowledge, or patience to do so safely.
Even though many people long to escape their cars, Portland is still a car city. The situation is dangerous, noxious, inequitable, and just plain stressful. The body count, the road rage, the air quality, the inactivity—we've taken this all for granted for a long time. It's still hard to be bold enough to say that we need to find, and quickly, less traumatic ways to organize our mobility.
Advocacy groups, the city, businesses, and institutions of citizen involvement like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance have all been working hard to realize this dream, in fits and starts, for at least a decade.
Meanwhile, the bike community has been on fire.
My ideal bikey future contains the often-outrageous explosion of grassroots, community-powered creativity that's come with the growth of our bicycle culture, which arose out of adversity and is expanding like wildfire, spinning off more and more improbable iterations. The results have been awesome and varied, as this month's Pedalpalooza festival amply demonstrates.
How to describe the bike community? It's constantly emerging, often divided, but always encouraging of new riders and new innovations. It spans the wild and woolly bike funnists, the earnest activists promoting doughnuts as an alternative fuel, the gearheads, the amateur traffic engineers, the families loading their kids into sleek Dutch cargo bikes, and so much more.
Most of all, the bike community is the ordinary people in the middle of life, compelled to start biking—by finances, health, or conscience—rediscovering the joys of riding, being active, and doing something concrete, unambivalent, and with immediate results for themselves, the community, and the world.
I can't actually envision anything better than all this, but every day some new twist comes along to blow my mind.
Many of us are just trying to live out the placid dream of utility cycling right now, and it says a lot about our city that this is possible. But just as often, we want something more. We're angry, or passionate, or just have a really geeky idea. We've set our sights in 100 directions at once, and there's always a willing cadre of cyclists ready to ride all night in pursuit of a glorious or geeky vision.
This second, more wild and unpredictable vision of bike culture is my favorite. I would rather live in Portland with all its flaws and conflicts than in any European bike city where riding a bike is just a way to get to the destination. In my ideal bikey city, this kind of utility approach to cycling would be a no-brainer—but biking would still be the destination in itself.
Elly Blue is the coordinator of the Towards Carfree Cities Conference being held in Portland this June (carfreeportland.org).