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Riding out of a recession: Bicycle commuters can power economy

The Oregonian: Riding out of a recession: Bicycle commuters can power the economy

Published: Wednesday, August 24, 2011

By Neil H. Simon

We know Portland's 324 miles of bikeways contribute to a great quality of life and that the city's position as the U.S. leader in bike commuters per capita is a boon for public health and traffic congestion.

But a new report on one of the world's leading bike commuting cities shows that the same trails and lanes created for enjoyment create significant employment, too.

Copenhagen, Denmark, where half the city commutes to work by bicycle, recently released a study showing those riders are responsible for a $247 million economic impact.

More than 300 businesses and 650 full-time jobs stem from the city's culture of riding to work, the city report found.

The cold, Nordic port city has a lot in common with the Portland area: greenspaces, Intel and a lot of rainy days. Each city is the hub for a roughly 2 million-person metro area (though Copenhagen claims 1.1 million urban dwellers, about double that of Portland).

Cities across the world should follow Portland and Copenhagen's lead and adopt progressive urban planning and bike-friendly transportation policies, not just to lessen the environmental impact of cars, but as part of a wider strategy to climb out of recession and increase the economic impact of sustainable commuting policies.

That a city with a rainy clime is a leader on riding to work proves again how the medium-size Rose City functions with world-class pride and ambition, which is why we should all be surprised that the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030 is not more ambitious in its aim to get people out of their cars. The plan as drafted calls for at least one-fourth of all trips to be made by bicycling within 20 years. An estimated 6 to 7 percent of Portlanders bike commute now.

When Copenhagen, with much more frigid riding conditions than Portland's several months of the year, can boast a 50 percent bike commute rate in 2010, Portland should surely expect to do at least that well and far sooner than 2030.

For a city with such a legacy of leadership on smart transportation policy, amid a recession demanding more creative governing, cycling improvements seem a natural policy fit for Portland and should be one for many other communities that crave the livability that has become a hallmark of the Portland metro area.

More public information campaigns on riding designed in tandem with healthy living efforts and infrastructure projects -- including bike traffic lights, cycle-by trash cans or even footrests at major intersections like those the Danes are experimenting with -- would create jobs now, and the expanded bike culture that would follow would create more jobs in the future.

Nobody is naive enough to think we can pedal our way out of our unemployment challenges, but Portland sits at a reputational crossroads. Are we home to economies that some point to as always the first to go soft and the last to recover, or are we the urban planners' ideal whose dedication to livable communities and smart growth has made us the envy of our peers? With decisive policy action we can make the latter reputation stick.

Copenhagen's 2011 cycling report showed bike commuting saved $80 million in health care costs, but with 36,000 cyclists clocked on the roads one day in September last year, bike-accident prevention becomes a full-time community effort.

With the expansion of bike lanes in width and distance in Copenhagen last year, bike-related accidents dropped 64 percent, from 252 in 1996 to 92 in 2010.

A side benefit beyond the economic development, the report found, is that cyclists prove to be a pretty civic-minded bunch. Just as a police officer who walks the beat may have a more intimate understanding of his neighborhood's safety, cyclists notice more on their regular commute than the typical driver. Last year alone, the Danish capital received 1,016 online tips from cyclists reporting specific needs for improved city services.

Considering there is always room for more civic engagement in Portland, expanding bike commuting would be one more way for the city to live up to its good government reputation.

Should Portland compete to be the world's most bike-friendly city, it may just find that what is good for bikes and businesses also helps the city's bottom line.

Neil H. Simon is a Portland native currently serving in a diplomatic position in Copenhagen. He has been car-free for six years.