Thinking Big Thoughts: Bikes and Land Use

November 2, 2009

As we get ready to make our recommendation on the Bicycle Master Plan next week, I’ve been thinking about what we can do in the Portland Plan to advance the objectives of the “Bicycle Plan for 2030”. Here are some of the connections between land use and cycling that I’m thinking about.


One of the proposed themes for the Portland Plan is creating additional 20-minute neighborhoods (neighborhoods where you can walk to all your essential needs within 20 minutes) and strengthening the ones we have. This would have the effect of creating destinations for people to cycle to, meeting their needs more easily by bike. Cycle-zone analysis (PDF file) by PBOT identified land use as one of the barriers to cycling in some areas of the City. Which areas need the most help?


One of our strongest potential tools for creating 20-minute neighborhoods is Streetcar, but we also know that if we’re not very careful rails create a challenging environment for bikes. If we do this right we can create vibrant main streets where bikes and Streetcars co-exist in blissful urban harmony (as in Amsterdam above), but we’re going to have to pay attention to the details.


Do we need a stronger alignment between Metro’s regional and town centers and the bicycle plan? Should all of the centers be bicycle districts in the plan? Do these centers, where significant and busy arterials often come together, need special treatments (cycle tracks?) to make cyclist comfortable? (The Crandall/Arambula testimony appears to point in this direction.)



I’m sure you’ve seen all those pictures of Amsterdam and Copenhagen with parked bikes stacked on what appears to be every inch of available space. While this may appear cute to us, those cities consider it a serious nuisance. It’s time for us to plan NOW for where we’re going to put all our bikes when 20%+ of our trips are by bike. The good news is that we have a lot of space around town, we just keep cars in it right now. I’m hoping that as part of the Portland Plan we can look at all kinds of vehicle parking, cars and bikes, and figure out how to allocate that space to the best effect, whether it’s on-street, in a Fred Meyer parking lot, a downtown parking garage, or in residential buildings. The current recommendation to adjust the bike parking ratio in apartments and condos is only an interim step to what I think needs to be a much deeper exploration of how to manage this transition.


How do we make sure these benefits are distributed fairly around the City? How do we bring great cycling to outer East Portland where the street grid tends to fragment, or SW Portland where topography makes cycling challenging? Will we need targeted encouragement to different demographic groups to help create ethnic and income-level equity?

What else can the Portland Plan do for cycling? What’s the magic that goes beyond the on-street facilities that makes districts like Alberta, Mississippi and Clinton such great environments for bikes? Can we figure it out and replicate it in the Portland Plan? What do you think?



  1. For what it’s worth, a “20-minute” neighborhood is too spread out. In 20 minutes I can walk a mile. Are we really only planning for neighborhoods where those basic needs are up to a mile away? That seems more like suburbia to me. I suppose it’s a reachable goal, rather than an ambitious one. I think we should be aiming for more like a “10-minute” neighborhood. 100 years ago, there were small grocery stores spaced close enough in most residential neighborhoods, that you really had “5-minute” neighborhoods, which is what a non-auto city gives you.

  2. I agree — 5-10 minute neighborhoods would be more realistic. I have seen some data that points to most trips going within 1/4 mile of a transit stop being walk-to-transit, with traffic significantly dropping off even at 1/2 mile, and almost no foot traffic going farther than that. By bike, however, 3 miles in 10 minutes is hauling, but 2 miles in 10 minutes is a calm pace and our close-in neighborhoods are in good shape.

    I think because of this willingness to walk 5-10 minutes max, things like walkscore are notably overscoring some neighborhoods. maybe in the future we’ll have better tools to evaluate potential designs

  3. I think regional and town centers should definitely be considered bicycle districts – it makes sense to me to make a lot of hubs bike/pedestrian friendly, and then link those hubs with transit. It would be awesome if we had really well-maintained trails between the hubs too, but I don’t see those getting used as much, at least currently.

    Parking is a huge issue, and while the bike corrals in the street are a great solution for our current levels of cyclists, but clearly, as we increase, they aren’t going to be enough, not to mention, we want to be able to think about removing some on-street parking to put in separated paths and such – would be silly to have that barred by on-street bike corrals.

    I don’t know if on-street parking is a land-use issue, or a transportation issue, or if it is mixed, but especially in commercial areas, I think it should be considered whether on-street parking should be removed, in favor of better bike, ped and bus facilities.

    I think the idea of cycle tracks would actually work better in a lot of suburban areas than they would in some of inner Portland’s neighborhoods, but of course, you have to be willing to give up some road space for that, and re-think how the roads are laid out, in order to accommodate bikes turning and such.

    In general, I think just a lot of re-evaluation of how we lay out our roads, and how we could better accommodate different modes together would be good – for instance, designs like in Copenhagen where they have 2-3 lanes of car traffic, then a bus island, which separates the car traffic from the separated cycle track on the other side of the island, and then sidewalk after that – so that buses don’t have to cross the cycle track to pull over. Then pedestrians have to cross the cycle track to get to the bus island, but still that seems better and less dangerous to me than buses crossing the cycle paths (like on SW Madison going towards the Hawthorne bridge, that’s a disaster).

    I think zoning is huge, and just putting things people need to get to within short distances of where they live makes a huge difference. For instance, in inner NE or SE, the last two places I’ve lived, I can ride my bike to groceries, restaurants, hardware store, theaters, music stores, health care, etc all within about 15-20 minutes of where I live. Most of those trips are no more than a few minutes faster by car, which is a negligible difference to me.

  4. Doug is mostly right: planning for 20-minute neighborhoods is not an ambitious goal. It’s a mediocre goal. Portland should want better. If you don’t believe that we’re not doing enough to maintain our position as an innovator and exemplar, then see this post: http://bikeportland.org/2009/11/03/blumenauer-takes-a-ride-in-new-york-city/.

    Twenty-minute neighborhoods are sprawl. We should be planning density, where walking and biking and taking transit do not require effort or commitment but are the best — meaning the most convenient — option.

    I live downtown and bike to work because it’s the quickest and easiest option, taking only 5-8 minutes. Walking takes 10-12 minutes. Streetcar, 15-25. I have not once taken the streetcar to work. Not even in the rain.

    For people living in sprawl, 20-minute neighborhoods, etc., driving to the store or library or whatever could be much more appealing than walking. Traffic is less a problem in sprawling 20-minute suburbs than in urban areas, making it the most appealing option most of the time. Is that really what Portland wants to plan for?

  5. I think something that has not been mentioned as of yet within the 20-minute neighborhood idea is schools. Unless school districts pass school levies that will build new schools, it seems to me that schools are going to be at the 20-minute end of the planned neighborhood.

  6. […] We will sort through comments about different strategies for the system build out and consider recommendations for how the Portland Plan should build on and respond to this plan. […]

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