Suppose you were running a city, and you had the option to spend 5 percent of your transportation budget on transportation projects that would support 25 percent of all trips made. That’s an incredibly cost-efficient expenditure; in fact, it’s the most efficient use of transportation dollars there is. Surely, if you decided to make this investment, you’d be hailed as a wise and careful steward of scarce tax dollars.
Well, maybe. That would be the truth of the matter, but as they say, the first casualty of war is the truth, and as the Portland City Council prepared to adopt a new 20-year Bicycle Master Plan this month, a battle for the hearts and minds of Portland’s citizens erupted in the local media. The first target in that battle? The truth, caught in the crosshairs of the Oregonian, a Portland-based newspaper, and the self-designated standard-bearer for maintaining the transportation status quo. Instead of applauding the city for proposing to allocate 5 percent of the transportation budget to projects that would provide infrastructure for 25 percent of all trips, the paper made a misleading apples-to-oranges comparison of 20 years of bicycle spending ($613 million) with one year of all transportation spending ($630 million). Framed that way, the impression created was that the cost of the city’s new Bicycle Plan would be equivalent to 97 percent of the city’s entire transportation budget. “Can the city afford it?” the headline asked.
The meme that emerged on the eve of the city council’s vote was familiar to every cyclist who’s read the comments section of internet news stories about cyclists: Out-of-touch bureaucrats would be throwing the hard-earned dollars of the tax-paying motorists of Portland—you know, “the grownups with jobs and lives” —at pet projects that benefited nobody except a few politically-favored freeloading scofflaws. Of course, the meme was nonsense but it did stir the passions of those drivers who self-identify as the put-upon victims of cyclists.
Noting that “they want to make bicycling more attractive than driving for all trips of three miles or less,” one critic concluded “Nothing they do is going to make that happen for most people.” And he was absolutely right—and absolutely disingenuous as well. The goal of the Plan wasn’t to get everybody riding a bike, it was to increase the mode share of bicycling to 25 percent of all trips. That’s not going to happen all by itself. Based on research it has conducted, the city believes that bicycle ridership has maxed out—in fact, the numbers dropped slightly last year. Everybody who is willing to ride a bike using the currently available infrastructure is already doing so.
To accomplish its goal of increasing ridership, the city has to do more to make cycling a viable option for those people who would like to ride, but don’t. The city’s research has shown that when it comes to cycling, Portland’s population breaks down into four distinct categories:
“The strong and fearless”: < .5 percent of Portland’s population
“The enthused and confident”: 7 percent of Portland’s population
“The interested but concerned”: 60 percent of Portland’s population
“No way no how”: 33 percent of Portland’s population
According to this research, 7 percent of Portlanders are currently willing to ride in Portland—and this number closely matches the number of Portlanders who do ride. Another 33 percent of Portland residents will, for a variety of reasons, not ride a bike—“no way no how.” That leaves 60 percent of the population that would ride a bike if they felt safe. If Portland is going to increase ridership, it is going to have to make cycling appeal to this “interested but concerned” group—and it’s no secret what needs to be done. We already know how the great world-class cycling cities of northern Europe got this group on bikes: they made cycling safe for everybody, from young children to grandmothers. They did it with infrastructure.
Interestingly, it is exactly this point that pro-cycling critics say Portland has missed. According toGeorge Crandall and Don Arambula, by focusing on “painted lines” instead of the separate infrastructure that the world-class cycling cities have built, Portland can only achieve 10 percent mode share, at best. Portland’s projected 25 percent mode share cannot be achieved, they argue, without building the kind of infrastructure that will make the “interested but concerned” segment of the population feel safe while riding. Crandall and Arambula argue that the Portland Bicycle Plan was developed primarily by the “strong and fearless” segment of riders, primarily to serve their needs, and therefore it cannot and will not meet the needs of the “interested but concerned” segment of the population that Portland needs to attract in order to increase ridership.
Arguing from the other end of the critical spectrum, the Oregonian issued an editorial that simultaneously professed support for adopting the Bicycle Plan, while advocating that the money necessary to implement the Plan should not be spent. Yes, the paper was saying, let’s adopt a new Bicycle Master Plan that will place us at the forefront of American cycling, but let’s not actually do anything more than pay lip service to the Plan. Instead, let’s keep the status quo—even though we know that the status quo is the least efficient use of tax dollars, and even though we know that the status quo does nothing to address formidable issues of livability, sustainability, and health facing us today.
So much for leadership.
There was leadership where it counted, however—on the Portland City Council, which recognizes that the bicycle plan is not just a pro forma exercise, but an essential element in helping the city meet its planning goals. Basically a Bicycle Master Plan is a long-term guideline that lets cities decide how and where to include bicycling as one of many modes of moving people. Planning documents do not mandate that projects conform to the plan, but they do serve as a set of suggestions that will remind city decision-makers of what the development goals of the city are, and how a particular project fits—or doesn’t fit—within those goals. This function gives some continuity and coherence to city decision-making.
Portland adopted its first Bicycle Plan in 1973. Although the 1973 plan was slow to take effect, its implementation became more pronounced once the city developed a citizen’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, and a Bicycle Program within the city’s Transportation Bureau. Portland’s second Bicycle Plan was adopted in 1996; by then, the city had already developed 185 miles of bicycle infrastructure, and had been dubbed by Bicycling (in 1995) as America’s “most bicycle-friendly city.” The 1996 Bicycle Plan called for an additional 445 miles to be built over the course of 20 years, for a total of 630 miles of bicycle infrastructure.
Fourteen years later, with roughly half of those 630 miles built, the goalpost was moved. Now, the city proposes to expand the bicycle network beyond the 630 miles in the 1996 plan, to a total of 962 miles by 2030—which would mean adding roughly 662 miles of bike infrastructure over the next 20 years. Note that this is not the quantum leap it appears to be; with only six years left before the 1996 Bicycle Plan expired, the city had yet to build over half of the planned infrastructure. In reality, with its 2030 Bicycle Plan, Portland is really only proposing to build an additional 332 miles (beyond what was already planned) over the next 20 years. Rather than the “ambitious…shoot for the stars ” plan the city has been flattering itself about, the 2030 Bicycle Plan actually only proposes a very modest increase in bicycle infrastructure beyond what Portland approved in 1996.
Now, for those 2030 Bicycle Plan defenders who think that analysis is not displaying the requisite degree of self-congratulatory fervor, consider this: a few days before Portland adopted its 2030 Bicycle Plan, the Fort Worth City Council approved its own new Bicycle Plan that proposes to increase its current network of bicycle infrastructure from its current 103 miles to 925 miles. Put another way, Fort Worth proposes to build one and a quarter miles of infrastructure for every mile Portland proposes to build—and in the end, Fort Worth will have nearly pulled even with Portland.
And Fort Worth isn’t the only city contending with Portland. Long Beach, California, launched its own bid to be “America’s most bicycle-friendly city” last year, when it unveiled a sculpture at city hall proclaiming that status. Now even Long Beach officials admit that the proclamation is premature, and they haven’t yet proposed building 1,000 miles of infrastructure, so they’re really going to need to up their game if they intend to beat Fort Worth…. Uh, I mean Portland.
(Some context: Long Beach has only 1/3 the area of Portland, and 1/6 the area of Fort Worth.)
Meanwhile, next door to Long Beach, in Los Angeles, things are getting interesting. Los Angeles has also been working on a new Bicycle Plan —and Angeleno cyclists have been so underwhelmed by the confusing details and timidity of the Plan that they’ve formed their own citizen’s committee, and will be presenting their own Bicycle Plan as an alternative to the official draft Bicycle Plan. Their recommendation: a “Backbone Bikeway Network ” connecting all parts of the city. The downside of this alternative proposal is the same downside Crandall Arambula identified in the Portland Plan—it was designed by and for the “strong and fearless” segment of the population, and because it relies on “painted lines” infrastructure, will not make the “interested but concerned” segment of the population feel safe enough to try riding.
This race to the top is exactly what’s needed. As an ever-growing number of cities vie with Portland for the crown as “America’s most bicycle-friendly city,” Portland will be forced to stop resting on its laurels and begin competing for the title in earnest, or risk losing its cherished crown. This can only bode well for the future of cycling. Let the competition begin.
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Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.