Peak Oil News: It's all about THE BIKE

Monday, September 26, 2005

It's all about THE BIKE

A curious spokehead searches out why our Rose City is the most bike-friendly big city in the U.S.

By Jeff Mapes

I'm like a teenage girl rummaging through her closet looking for the right top. Do I wear my spandex and enjoy the rush of pure speed on my feather-light Cannondale road bike? Or do I go in casual wear on my staid but comfortable Bridgestone hybrid, the one I usually ride to work?

Nope. Instead, I settle on a T-shirt, REI hiking shorts and my Trek mountain bike. The sucker eats potholes for breakfast and is the most fun to take on a sunny Saturday jaunt to the Multnomah County Bike Fair.

I've been doing this sort of thing the past several months, trying to understand why I see so many more bicyclists on the streets -- and so many more streets that have bike lanes and other welcoming accommodations for me.

So here I am, joining riders streaming into Southeast Portland's Colonel Summers Park, leaving car-mageddon behind.

In this Fellini-on-wheels world, the eye-catching stars are the guys on ludicrously tall bikes made of two frames welded together. Or the Belligerantes in their red cycle club jackets, with beers in hand and cheerful swagger. This biker gang rides customized versions of that favorite baby boomer bike: the Schwinn Sting-Ray.

Under an arch made of old bicycle rims, a carnival midway has sprung up. At one booth, I buy a smoothie. But part of the deal is that I ride the stationary bike that powers the blender that makes the drink.

On the main stage -- really, just a roped-off section of asphalt -- word is circulating that the Sprockettes are getting ready to perform. I'm not exactly sure what they do, but I overhear one awestruck fan give a detailed description.

"They're like a mini-bike dance team," he tells a friend. "I met them at a party last night. They're really cool."

OK, you might see all this as a little weird. But no more so than the Southern California custom car cultists of the '60s. They were really just experimental artists exploring how the car was remaking not just cities but . . . just about all of American life.

Now, 40 years later, a new culture is taking root around the country with its own artists, followers and experimentalists. It's still small, relatively speaking, but it has thrived in Portland like no other big city in America.

In a little over a decade, the city has tripled the mileage of bikeways, turned the city's bridges from scary obstacles -- riding on wet wooden boards on the Broadway Bridge was not fun, I can assure you -- into scenic pedaling thoroughfares and dramatically expanded the mileage of off-street paths.

Tri-Met opened buses and trains to bikes, and even the suburbs are becoming more bike friendly. Just look at that soaring bike-and-pedestrian bridge tucked within the new I-5 and 217 interchange that links Tigard and Lake Oswego.

And in both Portland and the suburbs, there's a new pot of federal money to help kids find safe ways to bicycle and walk to schools.

It's still not enough for Portland. Not even close.

Rookie City Commissioner Sam Adams, who recently took over the transportation department, has harnessed the fervor of bike activists by announcing he wants to "Go Platinum."

What's that mean? Well, Portland is already the only big city to get a "gold" award for bicycling friendliness from the League of American Bicyclists. Now Adams wants to win the platinum award, which the league says no city in the U.S. so far deserves.

"We have this great infrastructure here for bicycling," Adams says, "but we need to take it to the next level. We've got to get more people on bikes. . . . Do you know the cost of a single occupancy vehicle on the road, just in terms of congestion?"

Politicians can say this kind of thing in Portland.

The city is a magnet for adults who play outside and creative twentysomethings who can't afford a car or are willing to forgo one for the muscle-toning simplicity of the bicycle. Portland's compact street grid system -- particularly in the flats of the east side -- is naturally conducive to riding.

Add in $3-a-gallon gas, clogged roads, the global warming debate, the obesity epidemic and a dash of Lance Armstrong mania -- and this may be the breakout moment for the bicycle.

Or so you hear if you make the rounds of Portland's Bike Nation.

"It's like Paris early in the 20th century when all the great writers and artists are there," says Jonathan Maus, who writes the blog "What we have here is this great bike culture, all these people riffing off of each other."

Well, there's no glimpses of Hemingway at Les Deus Magots. But it is a sight.

Mesomorphs in skintight jerseys on shiny road bikes zoom along downtown streets and quiet country roads. Sedate commuters in business clothes calmly ride upright on solid city bikes outfitted with fenders, lights and saddlebags. Younger riders clad in Portland grunge whip along on battered bikes they handle as deftly as beloved steeds.

It all has made for a complex traffic stew, in a society trained by innumerable car ads to expect the Open Road. Motorists -- still the vast majority, of course -- complain about bikers who blow through stop signs. And some of them grumble about why the roads they pay for through the gas tax are not theirs alone.

Bicyclists are just as passionate about their right to the road -- one popular T-shirt at the bike fair even lists the section of the legal code allowing them to take a full lane when necessary. And bicyclists, who have some pretty interesting internal debates themselves about traffic laws, face that gnawing fear they may fall prey to an inattentive or dangerous driver.

Expect this buzz over bikes to continue. This is a movement that isn't going away. That's one thing I became sure of after another one of my missions, this time on a dark March night.

I drove -- yes, I am multi-modal -- to the grand old Melody Ballroom, where I sat among the 500 diners and watched the venerable rhythms of the political fund-raiser. The speeches carried a common theme: we have arrived, we have power, we count. It could have been at an Irish-American dinner in the 1920s. Or a civil-rights event in the '60s. Or a gay-rights banquet in the '80s.

This, however, is the annual fundraiser for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, one of the most powerful local bike lobbies in the country. To get an idea of its clout, you didn't need to look further than the honchos at the head table.

There is the new mayor Tom Potter. His recumbent bike was part of his campaign image and the former police chief rode in Critical Mass, a leaderless monthly gathering that tests the tempers of cops.

There is Earl Blumenauer, the Congressman whose plastic bicycle pin is now as much a part of his personal style as his bow tie. His oratory is rewarded not with huzzahs, but the ringing of bicycle bells handed out at the door. To the applause of ringing bike bells, he brags about the 164 members who have joined his Congressional Bike Caucus.

There is builder John Russell, former chairman of the Portland Development Commission. He's there with his checkbook, tossing a couple thousand around on auction items and pledges. He and local architect Greg Baldwin wrote a slick booklet listing their 12 axioms for how the region should grow. No. 7: "Raise dramatically our expectations for the bicycle system . . . Portland, the nation's number one bicycle city, needs to aspire to be more like Amsterdam."

That, for the uninitiated, is in the country where 28 percent of all trips are by bicycle and planners are on the lookout for clever ideas to discourage driving.

OK, then, this bike thing is not just guys building mutant bikes and Schwinn Sting-Ray clubs.

The BTA now has a $530,000 annual budget and 10 full-time staffers. It was formed just 15 years ago by bicyclists who weren't feeling much love on Portland streets. Once they organized, though, they learned to wield their one powerful tool: the Oregon Bicycle Bill.

This 1971 law was authored by a conservative Southern Oregon Republican, Don Stathos, who grumbled that something was wrong when his grandchildren couldn't safely ride to school.

It required that bicycle and pedestrian facilities be included in road projects and that at least 1 percent of the highway fund go for this purpose. The law did produce some cool projects -- look at Eugene's trail network along the Willamette River -- and some stuff that was pretty god-awful, like the sensory assault that is the I-205 bike lane. A lot of times, though, road builders wriggled out of the law.

Rex Burkholder, a BTA founder who eventually became a Metro councilor, said the alliance looked for a splashy test case to restore the law's teeth.

They found it in the new arena being built by the Trail Blazers. The city was refusing to install bike lanes in the new road system being built around the Rose Garden. The BTA sued and won.

Blumenauer, then a city commissioner in charge of transportation, wasn't happy with the lawsuit at first. But he became a powerful convert to the bicycle cause.

In 1993, he recruited Mia Birk, who had been working at a D.C. nonprofit on sustainable transportation in Third World countries, to run the city's bicycle program. In her six years at the city, the network of bikeways climbed from 65 miles to more than 200 miles.

Birk and her allies created several "bike boulevards" where bicyclists could cruise along residential streets but vehicle traffic was restricted. They made the bridges bike-friendly, to the point of closing one problematical vehicle ramp to the Hawthorne Bridge. And they took advantage of new federal money for alternative transportation to build the foot- and bike-only Eastside Esplanade and the Springwater Corridor.

"We tried to light a fire around biking as a mainstream form of transportation," recalls Birk, now a consultant who develops bike and pedestrian projects around the country. "We went to service clubs, churches, neighborhood associations, anyone who would listen. . . . I'd have 90 percent of the room staring at me, like, 'Are you from the moon?' But in every group there would be a few who would come up and say they were interested. We'd get them on an e-mail list, and pretty soon we could get a crowd at City Hall."

You're going to keep seeing encouragement to bicycle.

The city plans to install about 350 signs along bikeways listing travel time and distances to key destinations, hoping to show it's a pretty zippy way to go. On Northwest 19th Avenue, the city is putting down big pavement markings -- called "sharrows" -- on a stretch where it is too narrow for vehicle and bike lanes. The idea is that cars and bikes will now share one of the lanes.

Of course, some think this may all be a Portland pipe dream. The Cascade Policy Institute's John Charles, a longtime critic of city transportation policy, doubts bicycling will ever amount to much.

"If 25 percent of the population wanted to ride now, they could do it," he says. "There's nothing stopping them. . . . It's just not practical for most people."

He's certainly right that 25 percent aren't riding. Nobody has good numbers on just how many daily trips are by bicycle in the city, but the best guess is somewhere below 5 percent.

Birk says she isn't sure how high ridership can climb. "It's like an experiment we're in," she says. "We're trying to see what we can do without major restrictions on automobiles and $6-a-gallon gas."

On the streets, we're still in a gray zone. I find more friendly motorists than ever on my way to work. But even my most liberal of friends -- if they're nonbikers -- complain about the antics of bicyclists. I'm tired of hearing myself give the speech that not all bicyclists are the same and what about all the motorists who speed, etc., etc., etc.

I was reminded of all of this when I rode along with Critical Mass.

After Potter rode, the police have been friendlier. But they also keep a pretty heavy hand on things. The last time I had this much of a police escort was in a presidential motorcade.

At any rate, all the contradictions of bicycling came into play when we circled the roundabout at RiverPlace. Music blared from a loudspeaker hauled by one bike trailer as our colorful, if ragtag, display paraded along.

And then, several well-dressed diners at the sidewalk tables, their wineglasses glinting in the evening sun, began to applaud. It was one of those sweet only-in-Portland moments.

Then we rounded the corner and threaded our way among the cars stacked up in front of the RiverPlace Hotel. Guests were wrestling with their luggage and getting car keys from valets. Nobody said anything, but you could see the irritation in their eyes as they suddenly froze in place and waited for the Mass to ride on by.


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