15 October 2008

Portlanders on Tour

Visitors From Portland, USA
Last week I had the pleasure of hosting 13 visitors from Portland, Oregan, USA. Foreign visitors are always lovely but this group were far from tourists.

All of them were here for a single purpose: to survey and study our bike culture with the aim of gaining knowledge and inspiration for Portland. It wasn't just any ragtag group of Portlanders. It was an impressive army of dedicated and eager Portlanders.
A city councilor.
The Director of Portland Parks and Recreation.
A county commissioner.
A senior advisor to the President of the Portland Metro Council.
A doctor.
A professor in urban planning.
The executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance - an advocacy group.
Portland's City Traffic Engineer.
An architect.
A bicycle advocate.
A manager of the planning, parks and trails development division.
A corporate giving manager for a sportswear company.
The owner of Portland's largest chain of bike shops.

Visitors From Portland, USA Visitors From Portland, USA
I find it amazing and impressive that such a group made the trip to Europe in order to exchange ideas and to find inspiration. Portlanders should be proud that they have such dedicated citizens working for a better bicycle future.

The group visited Amsterdam for a few days and spent a few days in Copenhagen. Both cities are inspiring to visit when studying bike culture and infrastructure. I have always felt, however, that Copenhagen can provide much more detailed inspiration in that the city's layout is more similar to American cities. In addition, the traffic culture here is more North American in its mindset. There is order on the bike lanes and little traffic anarchy and it has always struck me as a mentality that is more recognisable to North Americans or the Brits.

While in Copenhagen the group met with the city's Bicycle Department, the Transport Ministry and the Danish Cyclists' Federation. But not before we all went for an introductory bike ride just after they arrived. We rented bikes at Baisikeli, of course, where everyone got to choose they own style of bike. We did a huge tour of the major points of interest - regarding bike infrastructure - and while it's tricky leading 13 people on a bike ride, it was cosy and brilliant.

On the last full day of their visit I took them on another long ride to visit the outlying suburbs and to take the train with our bikes. I rode my Yahoo Purple Pedals bike this time and it took photos the whole way. You can see a slideshow of the ride from the bike's Flickr photostream here.

It was inspiring for me to meet such a great group of passionate individuals and to share experiences and knowledge with them.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, you will be astonished at the reaction to those pictures when they make it back to Portland. I can hear it already, "I'm glad they went and learned all that stuff, but where are their helmets?"

Portland is near the center of universe when it comes to the attitude that only idiots don't wear helmets.


melancholic optimist said...

The prevailing attitude in America is that helmets are absolutely necessary, but I think that there are a lot of people in Portland who will be happy to have so many city officials thinking so seriously about making Portland more bike-friendly (myself included). It's really exciting to me to think that, even though right now we are still way behind Europe in the bike usage and bike friendliness areas, we are at the beginning of what looks to be a big upswing, and the most exciting part is that as the Portland city government works to put infrastructure and education in place, it just means that more people are likely to ride their bikes.

Michael said...

One of the things to consider when talking about the helmet issue is that the drivers are completely different in the two places. In Denmark, every driver is also a cyclist. They understand what it's like to be on a bike and they show incredible deference and respect for cyclists.

In the days that we've been cycling in Copenhagen, not one single driver has honked at us or acted aggressively toward us.

In New York it's a daily occurrence that a driver yells at you "Get off the road." Or brushes you as they speed past.

With drivers like that in the US, it's no wonder people think they ought to wear helmets, cars are actively aggressive toward cyclists.
Hopefully by developing a stronger cycle culture, starting from a young age, US Americans can become cycling people and learn to drive in light of that, not in spite of it.

melancholic optimist said...

Yeah, I agree that there are a lot of factors in US cities that cause people's attitudes towards helmets to vary from those in European cities - sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.

I think the fact that bike culture in the US is largely focused around sport riding makes a big difference in this as well - if you ride 20-30mph in a head-down position, or you ride in the forest at high speed, you're more likely to smash your head into something than if you're going 8-10mph down the street in an upright position - plus there's just the conception that cycling (because it's a sport) comes with gear.

Whereas, in Copenhagen for instance, where cycling is viewed as just another means of transportation by just about everyone, the conception of what makes a cyclist is significantly different (or seems to be) - it's everyone potentially, not strictly guys in biking gear pumping hard and sweating profusely while performing daring athletic feats (which is changing here, but I think still quite a few people see it that way, which is part of why biking is intimidating to people - they feel like they have to go fast if they're going to do it).

I think your point is one of the best reasons that getting more people cycling makes things safer for everyone - because then people have experienced more forms of transportation and are more aware of how to look out for each other.

Something as simple as turn signals - when I use them biking in Portland, half the time people in cars look at me like I'm waving at them or something rather than acting as if they understand that I'm turning. Just simple things like that will make people safer, because it reduces the unexpected.

All in all though, whether people want to wear helmets or not, I'm just excited to see more infrastructure, more education, and hopefully a lot more people out riding.

brett said...

Yes, yes, we Portlanders ARE very pround that, unlike so many narrow minded Americans, our city officials are willing to recognize that there's a world outside our borders where maybe other people have come up with some ideas we can learn from. Now, if only we could do the same with government provided health care and higher education, like every other civilized country.

Portland officials made a similar trip to Amsterdam in 2005 and it's clear that that learning experience affected Portland city planning. However, most of our bike facilities still consist of painted lines -- smartly placed, of course, and combined with some other traffic calming measures along certain bike boulevards, but not the kind of separated tracks that make bicycling seem safe enough for most people, as we see in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. I hope this trip will encourage our officials to invest in separated lanes, bike oriented traffic signals and the rest of the infrastructure that makes biking safer and convenient enough to induce Portlanders to reduce car use.

Michael makes a good point about how important it is for drivers to also be bike riders and pedestrians. I know I was a much more aggressive and less attentive driver before I started biking in the city regularly. I now ride in some fear of drivers who drive like I used to! Just yesterday in Portland a car-head yelled at me because I rang my bell when he started to open his car door directly into my path while biking down the street.

I don't want to divert this topic to the helmet issue, which is discussed elsewhere, but I will say that the two friends I know who suffered serious head injuries were both veteran bike riders who fell when no cars were around, and weren't wearing helmets.
But I do agree with M.O. that the style of biking makes a huge difference in risk. I suffered a nasty fall riding my hybrid bike a couple years ago because I was zooming around a corner and slid on some gravel. Now that I ride an upright Dutch bike, I feel much more stable and have never (knock wood) come close to tipping over. I ride a bit slower but enjoy it much more.
Anyway, thanks to my city officials for their willingness to learn, to Mikael for hosting them, and to Copenhagen for providing a great model for us on this side of the pond. I hope the lessons will take hold here soon.

brett said...

PS so as not to leave a mistaken impression of Portland drivers, I should add that while I've dodged my share of oblivious, right hooking idiots, literally hardly a day goes by when a Portland driver doesn't yield to me on my bike at a a downtown intersection, allowing me to cross a street even though the car has the right of way. It's probably different in the outskirts and on faster roads, but in the central city, at least, I'm always smiling and waving and saluting bike friendly Portland drivers. I'm pretty sure most if not all of them are bike riders too.
Also, can you ask the Portland delegation to bring back some of those lovely stylish Copenhagen bike riders as well as Copenhagen infrastructure ideas?

Sean said...

I'm following up on a comment Michael made earlier about cycling in New York City, where I live as well.

Michael commented that in Copenhagen, drivers are also cyclists and there is mutual respect between groups. I visited Copenhagen a few years ago and found this to be true as well. In NYC, unfortunately, we have just about the opposite situation.

As Michael mentioned, NYC drivers can be quite aggressive. But, I think it's also fair to admit that NYC cyclists are generally quite un-Copenhagen too. Here it's actually unusual to see cyclists stop at red lights or yield to pedestrians in cross walks.

A few weeks back, off my bike, I was nearly mowed down by a cyclist at high speed, and last week, I was nearly mowed down by a cyclist at low speed. Both who thought their right to disregard a red light was greater than my right to legally cross the street. The slow rider was even fuming with anger that I "got in his way."

NYC cyclists need to do better. It's hard to reform the bad behavior of others when you're behaving badly yourself.

Zakkaliciousness said...

Hey, Rex, we'll just tell them that you were wearing a hitech, dapper helmet in that shot, made by NASA and Bell for astronauts.

Anonymous said...


Are you saying that bike helmets make drivers less aggressive? If not what good are they?

My guess is that if an enraged driver trys to run you over, the helmet is not going to do your internal organs any good. Probably not you head either if the car weighs more that a couple hundred pounds and is driving faster that 25 mph.

Michael said...

Anonymous - well no, actually - just that the most likely accident in NYC is opening doors into cyclists because the only place you can ride is in the door zone.

In those cases, helmets might feel (to many riders) like a way to prevent concussions, head injury, etc.

I'm not a helmet advocate, and no one in my household wears one regularly. All I said was "it's no wonder people think they ought to wear helmets" not that i think they actually should.

rex burkholder said...

Hey Michael!

I don't know who Anonymous is but it ain't me, although I don't wear a helmet when "city-biking" I do wear one when out "sporting". Just like I wouldn't wear a helmet kayaking the Willamette but wore one the whole time in the Grand Canyon.

But, away from helmets, the delegation from the Portland Region had a great time and learned a whole lot about integrating cycles into the urban framework. Copenhagen did have a more north american "feel" and the cyclists were less anarchic than the Dutch.

Just for everyone's clarification, this trip was a project of Metro, the Portland area's regional government (of which I am an elected councilor). The goal was to study how trails and cycling integrate into urban transportation but especially examining how to link people with nature as part of their travels. We quickly realized that trails needed urban cycle networks to be able to function and attract users or else they are fun but not very useful recreational facilities.

check out our work at oregonmetro.gov under "Connecting Green"

Rex Burkholder
Metro Councilor

PS Michael is a great host. And Tom's Cafe near the Strand is a great place to party.

Abhishek said...

I apologize for being crass but this is another inspirational post gone to the dogs due to a bicycle helmet discussion.

A bicycle helmet debate is worse than the fight between creationists and evolutionists!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Portland, Oregon check out this U.S. made long john!


Those Portland folk are taking your style over speed idea to heart.