For many, Portland is a haven of green-friendly urban planning. It recently topped Popular Science's list of the Greenest Cities in the United States. A big part of that is bikes. Portland is widely considered the most bicycle-friendly city in North America, so much so that bikes are on display throughout the Portland airport. Worldwide, it's seen as only second to Amsterdam. We speak with two local Portland transportation activists. [includes rush transcript]
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For many, Portland is a haven of green-friendly urban planning. It recently topped Popular Science’s list of the greenest cities in the United States. A big part of that is bikes. Portland is widely considered the most bicycle-friendly city in North America, so much so that bikes are on display throughout the Portland airport. Worldwide, it’s seen as only second to Amsterdam.
I’m joined now by two local transportation activists. Elly Blue is the coordinator of the Towards Carfree Cities conference taking place in Portland this June. She is also a contributing writer to bikeportland.org. Scott Bricker is also with us, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, or BTA, a nonprofit membership group working to promote bicycling and improve bicycling conditions in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about how Portland is so bike-friendly. What does it do?
Portland has a history of being bicycle-friendly, and it actually — it really goes back to Oregon in the 1970s, when they passed a bicycle bill, which required that all new bicycle — all facilities would be built with bicycle and pedestrian accommodations. And in the ’90s, Earl Blumenauer, who was a city councilor at the time, is now a congressman, worked to get a bicycle program that at the time had four staff members, and they worked to just get bicycle facilities on the streets.
The city has a 170 miles of bike lanes, but it also has a number of low-traffic streets that are good for the whole family, bicycle boulevards and paths. So we have a great infrastructure here, and it’s growing. And then, more recently, we’ve been working on the community, so promoting bicycling, bicycle websites and blogs, a lot of fun activities.
I want to play an excerpt from a short video by StreetFilms featuring city officials and activists. It’s called Portland: Celebrating America’s Most Livable City. The clip begins with the Portland Mayor Tom Potter.
MAYOR TOM POTTER:
In fact, when people come here, or businesses, it’s always one of the things they talk about, is how many choices they have with transportation. And, of course, we encourage people to get out of their cars and ride public transportation, use some of our several hundred miles of bike lanes and our light rail and streetcars. You know, we have — we give people a lot of options, and I think it pays off in the long run, because it not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but it just makes it a lot nicer getting around.
Portland has a long tradition of being a progressive community, especially in the areas of transportation. We’re number-one-rated for bicycling, walking. We work really hard to be a multimodal system that allows not only cars and buses, and we’ve brought streetcars back and like light rail, but also human-powered transportation, like bikes and walking.
I think that a lot of that is a very deliberate result following from the Downtown Plan of the 1970s, where we, unlike a lot of US cities, decided to really maintain the downtown, not let it decay. So we have a great environment here for pedestrians, for cyclists, for transit. It’s an easy place to get around without a car.
There is no better investment that the city has made than in bicycle infrastructure and promotion. It has been an incredible bang for the buck.
We have seen the average vehicle miles traveled per person dropping from about twenty-three miles per person in the early ’90s to about nineteen today. That’s totally in contradiction to the national trend. Almost every other region in the country has had an increase in vehicle miles traveled, and so the roads are full of people driving farther and farther all the time.
If you look at our transit ridership, we rank in our population twenty-fifth in the nation. And yet, in terms of transit use, we rank number twelve. Many more of our citizens are utilizing our transit as a way to get around. We’re one of the few places in the nation that has our transit use growing faster than auto use and faster than our population.
That video by StreetFilms. Elly Blue, talk about the conference that’s coming up in June.
A lot of the bike activists in Portland are working together to organize the Towards Carfree Cities conference. It’s an international conference. It’s the first time it’s appeared in North America, maybe the first time America has been ready for the car-free movement. But that’s — we’re bringing in Gil Penalosa, who’s one of the founders of the Ciclovia movement. It’s a movement to close streets to cars and let people walk on them and bike on them every Sunday throughout neighborhoods, connect neighborhoods, connect green spaces.
And where does that happen?
That happens all over the world. It started in Bogotá, and now they’re having them in Brussels, all over the US. We’re having our first one in Portland on June 20th, which is the week after — June 22nd, which is the week after the conference.
The city is closed to car traffic?
Unfortunately, no, but six miles of streets in North Portland are closed to car traffic. And one of the great things about the bike movement is that we — you know, bikes are one of the great ways to get around without cars in cities that are built for cars. So that’s why we’re — the bike movement is hosting this conference.
And what other issues are going to be addressed?
We’re going to be talking about safety. We’re going to be talking about greenways. We’re going to be talking about how to get families on bicycles. We’re going to be talking about public health, global warming, oil politics.
What other cities do you feel are bike-friendly in this country?
In this country, Portland is the best. I think any city could be, though, with a measure of infrastructure and the active citizenry.
Scott Bricker, can you explain the commissioner system in Portland?
Yes. So, in Portland we have the mayor, and we have four commissioners. And actually Commissioner Sam Adams is in charge of the Transportation Department, and he has been a very strong supporter of cycling and helping us push — one of the movements we’re working on is bicycle boulevards, which are low-traffic bicycling streets, and it’s basically converting low-traffic streets into optimized streets for bicycles. And so, from a political standpoint, he’s found that there’s been a lot of support with the neighborhoods. And then — and so, as the commissioner, he’s been able to push a lot of that discussion forward.
Well, Scott Bricker and Elly Blue, I want to thank you for joining us. Did you cycle in here today?
It was a wonderful early-morning chilly bike ride.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks for being here.