May 5, 2012

Portland's Transformation

by Peter Herreid

Portland wasn’t born a bicycle-friendly city; it had to earn its platinum rating from the League of American Bicyclists. A variety of actions dating back to the 1970s laid the groundwork for advocates to transform Portland into a bicycle-friendly city in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1970s, Portland chose to remove the Harbor Drive freeway along the west bank of the Willamette and create the much more inviting Waterfront Park. Portland also chose to redirect funds from the creation of a freeway that would have run through the southeast section of the city towards investment in light rail. An urban growth boundary was adopted in order to contain urban sprawl and focus growth inward onto Portland’s traditional street grid, leading to a more compact and bikeable urban area. 


Portland’s transformation is chronicled by Jeff Mapes, Oregonian journalist and Portland bike commuter, in Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities (Chapter 5: Portland Built It and They Came). This very readable book serves as a great text on the modern bike advocacy movement in the U.S. 

Former Portland Bicycle Coordinator Mia Birk offers a personal account of Portland’s transformation during the 1990s in her book, Joyride. She tells of the bureaucratic obstacles overcome through passion and persistence, along with the political backing of key players, such as U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (then city transportation commissioner). Bike advocates, planners, and anyone wanting to make their city into a bicycle city would gain from reading this book. Mia has since become a principle at Alta Planning + Design, a bikeway planning firm, and an adjunct professor at Portland State University’s Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation. She co-chaired the steering committee for Portland’s Bicycle Plan for 2030.  
Portland is now the leader of the big city bicycling pack, but Midwestern cities, such as Madison, Minneapolis, and the up-and-coming Chicago, are aiming to out bike-friendly Portland. Let the charm fest continue! 
This wraps up our daily dispatches from Portland. We’re looking forward to visiting Madison’s West Coast cousin again! 

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