NOT TO BRAG or anything, but I'm a pretty good human litmus test for determining how bike-friendly a city is. I say this not because I'm an expert cyclist (WHAT EVEN ARE TOE CLIPS BUT TINY FOOT PRISONS), but precisely because I'm not.
When it comes to biking, I have needs: (1) terrain flat enough that I don't require special equipment just to get myself to work (sorry bike claws, I'm sticking with my sneaks!), (2) a bike-friendly attitude among drivers so that I don't have a panic attack when crossing intersections, (3) a bike-friendly attitude among fellow riders so as to not be slowpoke-shamed, and (4) plenty of dedicated bike lanes and accommodating streets so that I don't spend the 20 minutes it takes to get to my office in a state of unmitigated terror.
It's shocking, I know, but my previous attempts to become a bike commuter have all failed. Things are looking up, though!
After almost a year in Portland, I've finally started biking here, and I've found it to be the most delightful and efficient way of getting from my apartment in Southeast to the Mercury's offices downtown. With a wonderfully low-traffic route and a cavalry of fellow riders doing the same thing every morning, my commute actually subtracts stress from my day, something it never did anywhere else I've lived. And on bike-heavy routes, drivers here seem more accustomed to sharing the road. And sometimes wave at me? Like, regularly? Is this is a thing? I've never encountered it before, not even in Seattle, my excessively polite hometown, which of course fails the litmus test outright (giant hills everywhere = immediate disqualification).
Nowadays, my hybrid bike and I get waved at all the time. I wave back. How community minded! How civilized! Yes, I do know people who've gotten into bike crashes here. Yes, I am extra cautious and always wear a helmet. I admit I'm no fan of riding downtown, and there are plenty of regrettable holes in the bike network. But in comparison to the other places I've lived, bike commuting in Portland seems almost comically easy and encouraged.
So I was surprised to discover that in Bicycling magazine's 2014 roundup of the best cities for biking, Portland received a sharp downgrade from the previous year's first place to fourth—behind Chicago. Really?! Chicago is the reason I appreciate biking in Portland so, so much. Chicago is where I used to live. I love it and always will, and while its bike culture is robust (the sight of four red stars on a Chrome bag sets my heart aflutter), and it's pancake flat (thus meeting requirement #1), um, it's Chicago?
Have you been to Chicago? The traffic there is monstrous, and I've got a working theory that a Chicagoan's only safe space for setting aside their friendly Midwestern demeanor is behind the wheel, to the detriment of all cyclists and pedestrians sharing the road. Yes, one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's legacies (aside from laying off teachers and shuttering schools, fuck you, Rahm Emanuel) was his ambitious introduction of copious protected bike lanes to the city, and yes, those lanes make riding safer and more pleasant. But in terms of the conditions for novice bike commuters like me, Chicago left a lot to be desired.
In the two years I spent there getting my master's degree, I biked to school maybe twice, because dealing with all manner of potential doorings within the three high-traffic miles between my West Side neighborhood and the downtown Loop was always vaguely terrifying.
Within a week of getting my first bike in Portland, I went from shaky, confused bumbling to biking to work on sunny days and spotting herons from my bike on the Springwater. The best part of my day is now looking out at the Willamette while cruising across the Hawthorne Bridge, where I have a vantage point that doesn't exist inside a car.
Whatever Bicycling may say, Portland is America's best city for novice bike commuters, according to a survey of one novice bike commuter. It passes the test.
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