Bike Master Plan Strategy, Broad or Deep?

November 5, 2009

There are at least three different ideas for how to sequence the build-out of the next phase of Portland’s bicycle network:

  1. The plan Steering Committee (full disclosure – I am a member of the Steering Committee) has suggested a focus on first implementing a large expansion to the City’s Bicycle Boulevard network. These are low-traffic neighborhood streets where cars are infrequent and travel more slowly than on major streets. These boulevards are assisted with crossing treatments at major arterials.
  2. Supporters of the North Portland Greenway and Sullivan’s Gulch trails testified at the last hearing that off-street trails should be a higher priority.
  3. And most recently, the urban design folks at Crandall Arambula have suggested that a network of protected bikeways (aka cycle tracks for those of you familiar with the European examples) connecting key centers around the City are likely to lead to the highest rates of cycling. And they insist that these bikeways must enjoy physical separation (i.e., concrete), not just painted boundaries.

All three ideas are targeting the “interested but concerned” demographic of potential cyclists, which comprises as much as 60% of the population.

But the strategies are radically different. Bicycle Boulevards are dramatically less expensive to build, so for the same amount of dollars we could get potentially hundreds of miles of bicycle boulevard, one major trail or perhaps several tens of miles of protected bikeways on the street system.

The reality is that we will almost certainly do some of each, based on grabbing opportunities to leverage funding that may only be available for certain categories of projects.

But to the extent that we have funds for the network that are not linked to a specific facility type, are we better off building boulevards that could reach many cyclists, or separated facilities that would provide an experience that might be perceived as more comfortable on a limited set of corridors? Where should our emphasis be to attract the largest pool of potential new riders?

The Planning Commission will make its recommendation on November 10th, so weigh in now! You are welcome to discuss the issue here, and written comments are being accepted through November 8th at the PBOT site for the plan.



  1. […] Commissioner in Portland, Oregon « Thinking Big Thoughts: Bikes and Land Use Bike Master Plan Strategy, Broad or Deep? » Coming Up on November 10th. November 5, 2009 Official […]

  2. Chris,
    While we agree with PDOT that bicycling opportunities should be expanded through the use of bike boulevards,especially to under-served areas in East Portland, this facility doesn’t increase bicycle ridership significantly above a 10% mode split, but merely increases accessibility of those already riding. It is disingenuous for a transportation department to suggest that a 25% mode split is viable using bike boulevards when all existing transportation modeling data (ITE Manual)does not support this policy. In reality the only facility that can demonstrate a mode split above 10% is a protected bikeway (cycle track). As the Commission goes forward with your deliberations keep in mind that yes we could fund hundreds of miles of bike boulevards and frankly we should build all of these over time. The question is what should our priorities be for bicycle facility investment be over the short term? Leverage our limited dollars on targeted high-value protected bikeway improvements that expand ridership significantly or simply parse out money on easy-to-implement but ineffectual bike boulevards? At roughly $1 mil.per mile (PDOT estimate) protected bikeways are a good buy when measured against 10’s of million dollars LRT or streetcars cost per mile (which we all support building). We should elevate the conversation to one in which we deliberate what the costs are along with discussion of the benefits- ridership, economic development and land use strategies. Thanks.

  3. Chris, thanks for providing another forum for this discussion.

    As the Bicycle Plan for 2030 recognizes, we need all three types of facilities, and our plan calls for all three in a network that will be dense, low-stress and cohesive. The main issue that we have to address in the short-term is how to implement the network in a strategic manner that gets as many people bicycling as quickly and as often as possible (otherwise known as “mode split”).

    Our initial emphasis on bicycle boulevards reflects several realities: limited funding in the immediate future, limited public support for increased funding and limited business support for the type of whole-scale changes required of the public right-of-way to implement cycle tracks. We emphasize bicycle boulevards because they respond to a number of requirements of a bikeway network. First, they offer comfortable riding conditions to a wide spectrum of Portland residents. Second, because their per-mile cost is approximately 1/10 or less that of cycle tracks (and perhaps 1/30 the cost of the remaining path projects in Portland) we can affordably build a cohesive network that places a high-quality boulevard within 5 blocks of 80% of Portlanders. Third, because we can build many miles of them, they also create a cohesive network.

    Their downside is that they do not provide immediate access to commercial main streets.

    Our strategy is based on building ridership. This is base on an analysis that what has gotten us to this point–where we have the support we currently have–is that we now have many more people riding than we had in 1996 when we adopted the first Bicycle Master Plan. To advance to the next level of required funding and support we’ll need even more people experiencing bicycle transportation first-hand.

    We also know that boulevards work. In the inner east neighborhoods where we have the most boulevards and most boulevard-like conditions for riding we already have between 25-30% of people identifying the bicycle as their primary or secondary means of transportation to work. Academic research conducted by Portland State University reinforces their popularity with Portlanders.

    Of course, our plan also allows for flexibility. Support for bicycle transportation has grown tremendously in the past 15 years, and especially rapidly in the past five years. Should conditions continue to evolve to the point that public support for cycle tracks is strong and funding levels increase, then we can increase and expand our current efforts on commercial main streets and trail corridors.

    The policies, network, bikeway types and programs drescribed in the Bicycle Plan for 2030 will all be necessary to achieve our vision of making bicycling a pillar of Porltand’s transportation system and achieving a greater than 25% mode split. No one facility type will achieve that. This next step in that evolution–with its focus on bicycle boulevards–is intended to build ridership city wide, and in so doing, build city-wide support for bicycling.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bikeportland: Portland Transportation thinker Chris Smith asks whether the Bike Master Plan should go “broad or deep” http://bit.ly/4a8nx2

  5. Portland is not Copenhagen nor Amsterdam. It’s not flat and we have a long-established urban and suburban sprawl (mostly) dependent on cars. Our bicycle plan is not going to look like theirs. I don’t think we yet know what ours SHOULD look like. This is one vital goal that seems to be left out of the 2030 plan. While there may not be the political or public support for something drastic in the near term, the plan should at least provide for the creation and testing of models for how we solve this problem – putting bikes on main streets instead of back streets – differently than Copenhagen and Amsterdam, learning from their experience but applying it to our real-world conditions. In the next five years the plan should arrive at conclusions for how to go the next step. The remaining fifteen can be spent implementing. Twenty years is too long to focus only on bike boulevards. Bike boulevards are a nice way to generate interest in cycling (I use and enjoy them myself), but as soon as people get on bikes they want to go somewhere – this requires access to the same destinations motorists now have. Yet, the cars are not going to magically go away. Even if Portlanders all ride bikes, the suburbanites in their cars (me, when I’m not on my bike) will still clog the streets when they come to work, shop, and recreate. Making room for bikes on main streets will require taking space from cars, which means cars will have to be channeled somewhere else while still allowing the people inside them to get where they want to go. There is plenty of space to work with – Hawthorne, for example, has six lanes dedicated to cars (four for driving, two for parking) and none for cycling. Reallocating this space, even temporarily, only costs paint as the largely successful Broadway cycletrack demonstrates. The challenge is not allocating space to cycles – it’s figuring out what to do with the cars. If all the plan did was to solve this problem it would be a success. Without this goal, to some extent the plan continues to cement the perception that it is OK to subjugate the cyclist to the back streets while motorists still reign mighty elsewhere.

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