Photo courtesy frankh via flickr and Creative Commons license.
While the debate rages on about whether New York's bike lanes are working right or hardly working at all, out here on the west coast in Bike City, U.S.A. (aka Portland, Oregon) there's a different question to ponder as the New Year approaches. Portland has moved ahead with thousands of sharrows, miles of new bike paths and some friendly neighborhood greenways. Yet even though we'd like to take back the No. 1 bike town crown stolen from us by Minneapolis we aren't exactly galloping ahead in the innovation department. To really leap frog ahead of other bike-friendly cities, perhaps Portland needs a bolder move, like some bike-only boulevards. Car-centric advocates aren't going to like talk of turning over an East-West and a North-South city street (one set on both sides of the river, please) to strictly human-powered transport. Home and business owners along the routes will probably balk. It is bound to have some negative ramifications (such as tighter parking on the side streets that would intersect bike-only boulevards). It may even intensify the bad biking behavior (i.e. cycling too swiftly for conditions and abandoning common courtesy) that many people complain about in Portland, and that this blogger says is beginning to reach a tipping point.
We should do it anyway, and here are three reasons why:
1) Neighborhood greenways are great...they are just not enough. Portland's traffic has outgrown its infrastructure, and Portland's Bureau of Transporation thinks the best way to get more people out of their cars and on bicycles is to make biking seem less scary. O.K., so far, so good. The city has 15 different "neighborhood greenways" (formerly called bike - but not bike-only - boulevards) where traffic calming measures (see the video below) and pretty painted sharrow flowers are supposed to do the trick. I'm all for neighborhood greenways, but it is not quite enough. The same people that were biking before are biking now, and all of my friends and neighbors that I have tried to coax out for rides are still saying they are nervous. Those "interested, but concerned" cyclists (an estimated 60% of city residents) need a road where they feel like they don't have to battle cars.
2) Ciclovías have proven to be the best thing since sliced baguette. Bogotá, Columbia, originator of the Ciclovía, now has approximately two million people (cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, etc.) using the more than 100 kilometers of city streets closed to car traffic each Sunday. Every other city that has done some variation of the Bogotá original has seen people swarm to the streets. The reason ciclovías are popular is for the exact same reason that a human-powered boulevard would be - they make people feel safe enough to come out and use the streets.
3) We've got a big goal to achieve, why not try something wild and crazy? Current bicycle mode share in Portland is 7%. Yes, it's the best in the U.S. However, the goal for nine years from now (2020) is 25%. How do we nearly quadruple the number of people (and especially, women, children, and people of color) that ride bikes? We know interested but concerned prospective cyclists are out there. We need to show them, instead of just telling them. Cicolvias demonstrate the fun in walking and cycling. But then don't translate into increased walk-to-school and bike-to-work numbers the day after they are over, because of the safety issue. If we really want Safe Routes to School and lots of commuter cyclists, testing out a bike-only boulevard (with sidewalks dedicated to pedestrians, of course) is a way to make every day a ciclovía. Could it hurt to try?