Saturday, August 11, 2007

Portland's next step: a contrarian view

It's lonely at the top, I guess. There isn't a lot of debate about which big US city is the bikey-est. Having lived in Portland for a year now, I have to agree that this city has gotten a lot of things right, from a cycler's point of view. There is a sense that Portland is not quite sure what to do next, though. Should we keep fighting for funds and rights of way to build bike paths? Should we keep striping bike lanes, or make them wider, or take them out? Should we bark up a new tree, and shift toward more Euro/Davis,CA ideas like bike boulevards (of which we have a few already)? Should we go more radical (Keep Portland weird!) and shoot for the moon with covered bike expressways or fleets of public bikes?

Although I think whatever comes out of the PDX bikebrain will probably be great (and miles better than anything I could come up with), I have a contrarian view, and this is my blog. I think that at some point--maybe now--the focus needs to shift a skosh away from infrastructure and toward actually getting "butts on bikes," as the Portland Tribune so eloquently put it.

Portland's problem is sort of unprecedented in this country. How do you get even more people to ride once you've skimmed all the cream? The problem is best summed up I think in the range of bicycle attitudes in Portland. Those who actually ride fall into either the "Strong and fearless" (<0.5%)or "Enthused and confident" (7%). The balance of Portlanders are either "Interested but concerned" (60%) or not the least bit interested (33%). I've been taught that given a planning problem (like convincing 2/3rds of the population to try riding a bicycle more/at all) there are usually 3 ways to come at it. We can change the built environment, change the rules of the game, or change people's attitudes. I'm not at all qualified to make this statement: Portland is focusing an awful lot on changing the built environment. I say we take up Plans B and C and start working on those attitudes. After all, the difference between "Interested but concerned" and "Enthused and confident" is maybe 10% education/experience and 90% attitude, especially in this town.

So, what would a Master Plan look like if it backgrounded infrastructure? Here's my short list:

1) Educate: Find ways to teach people the basics of riding in traffic and using their bikes. Close a street or two and have some fun neighborhood classes. Also, remind people that bicycling isn't any more dangerous than driving, probably less so.

2) Socialize bike commuting: Hire some clever people to make it easy to link up bike commuters going the same direction. The first commute is probably the hardest, and a little positive peer pressure probably helps when the rain starts!

3) Get serious about incentives: What's 250 days of new bike commuting worth to the city? How about a free commuter bike setup, paid off by 250 days of using it. What's a trip to school or the grocery store worth? 50 trips? Surely some free ice cream, anyway. If we could get kids nagging their parents to ride, we might get somewhere!

4) Get bike shops involved: could we fund an employee at each shop dedicated to utility cycling (not that all shops need it)? Or, help pay for ads? I love the River City Bicycles ads. Bike shops benefit from new riders, too.

5) Rethink rules and enforcement: Cars are huge, dangerous objects, and driving them should be a solemn, rule-bound duty. Bikes, not so much. I would push for stop signs as yields for bikes, for instance. Anything that doesn't seriously impact safety and reminds people that bikes aren't cars, they're easier and more fun. I might go for legalizing side by side riding, too. It might make new cyclers feel safer near traffic.

I think back to my own start with utility cycling 4 years ago. I lived in a town (Missoula, Montana) with good bicycling infrastructure and had a bike. My own move from "Interested but concerned" to "Enthused and confident" was mostly an attitude shift. Once I made the decision to venture out there, I found things weren't actually so hard and scary after all. With a little bit of instruction, I was a pro! My grandfather used to say most of success is just showing up. I wonder if we focus too much on what new cyclers will find when they get there and too little on getting them to show up.


Anonymous Michael R said...

Get the butts on!

Perhaps a bike buddy program where you get a dedicated ride along pal for the first week to get you over the starting jitters.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

In terms of the social thing. An enterprising rider here in Toronto started up a 'Bikefriday' program, to encourage group commuting along several routes on the last friday of the month.

Sadly, I'm still the only group commuter on my own route in the suburbs of the city, but some of the Toronto rides even get local politicians.


2:00 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Thanks, Andrew, I hadn't come across that one. Hope you get some company!

9:06 PM  
Blogger Kent Peterson said...

First off, Whoo Hoo, Joe's posting again. Second, were you at the same conference Gordon and Louise were last week? Those numbers sound very familiar. Anyhow, yeah, I think the thing is to think in terms of one-on-one conversations, "What can I do to help you ride?" Our best Bike Buddy successes are when we get people paired with a rider they can relate to. A 50 year old woman who rides is often a more inspirational mentor than a 25 year old cat 2 racer. Nothing against the racer, but their cycling might not have as much in common with the newer rider.

I'm thinking more lately about open-source and propagating memes. Yeah we still build cathedrals, but the real action is in the bazaar.

11:44 AM  

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