Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Biking the Greenways of Portland

Portland has a reputation that precedes it and much of it centers on the bicycle culture that has sprung up in the city. On my last trip there, I left my car in Seattle, hopped on BoltBus, borrowed a bike (Thanks Alexa!), and put that reputation to the test along with a group of about 30 other community advocates from the Seattle area. We were all there on a study trip to learn more about the neighborhood greenways ("Next Generation Bike Boulevards") that have started to crisscross the neighborhoods.

If you've never heard of a neighborhood greenway, the basic idea is to create a neighborhood street that brings back the type of activities that have disappeared because of cars having absolute priority on all streets. On a neighborhood greenway, priority is given to pedestrians, bikes, and neighbors instead of cars. The basic formula is relatively simple:
  1. You start with a residential street that already has a low traffic volume.
  2. You add improvements to the street that keeps residential traffic at residential speeds andlets bicycles move along the street without having to stop every block or two. 
  3. You make the streetscape more appealing for those who live along the path.
  4. You add cost effective improvements at major arterial crossings to create a safe place to cross busy streets.
The end result is a street where people of all ages and abilities can get on their bike, perhaps for the first time or perhaps the first time in years, and feel safe. The roads remain open to cars but because of the changes, cars move slower, more safely, and make less noise. These have been highlighted as success stories in Portland and we wanted to see what it was all about. 

After the break, a look at neighborhood greenways, as well as a couple photos from Pine State Biscuits (a great brunch place) and Salt and Straw (a tasty ice cream shop right nearby).

Portland really does have a fantastic climate for biking. Much of the city is flat which makes biking a breeze and the city has been very aggressive in building out their bike infrastructure. In many ways, it's a much purer and cohesive vision for a bike network than what we have in Seattle. The system is organized into a hierarchy of  multi-use trails, arterials, and neighborhood greenways. Each level is distinct from the other and after a day or two, the system becomes extremely legible and easy to use: The symbols for each levels are clear and unique and the signs are actually helpful in figuring out where to go. It also helps that Portland is
based on a regular grid with few interruptions from hills (at least on the east side of the river).

Compared with my last trips here, biking actually felt easier than when I had the car. A car kept me downtown and in the pearl district, but this time I covered 45 miles in the neighborhoods on the east side of the river. That's a huge difference. It was great and the network really is something to be admired. Even in areas where there would normally be a gap in the network, the city has put effort into bridging that gap. For example, in the picture above in order to complete the waterfront path, they built a floating path where they had no shoreline.

Once you get off the multi-use trails that are set aside specifically for bikes and pedestrians, you get to the arterials. Not all arterials have bike lanes, but the picture below is the baseline for the main arterials. This bike lane below runs almost downtown with a slight downhill grade. If you were biking to work, it would literally be effortless. In the photo above we have a bike lane on an arterial that heads to a bridge, along with a green painted lane. This paint is to show areas where cars and bikes need to watch out for each other.

Once on the residential streets and on the neighborhood greenways, the scene changed. There were fewer cars and fewer hardcore cyclists. Instead, we saw more families and pedestrians. Kids on bike in the street was something that we saw a lot of and cargo bikes are an increasingly popular way to move your kids and groceries around without a car, much like elsewhere in the world.

Bikes, kids, and pedestrians. Biking on the greenways was a real pleasure, too. The stop signs are turned outward so bicycles can keep a steady pace and not stop every block. The arterials were easy to cross, thanks to refuge islands that break the trip up into two crossing movements (You cross half way to an island in the middle and then cross the second half when it is safe). Traffic seemed like it was always a couple blocks away and the signage was pretty good. In Portland, "sharrows" (the bike with chevrons painting on the road) are only used on these types of low stress streets, which made it easy to follow because they aren't used on any of the major arterials that I saw.

However, the absolute best thing on the neighborhood greenways was the "topper". These are metal cut outs that "top" the street signs and show where a neighborhood greenway is. It is clear, distinct, and visually appealing. One of the big challenges that comes with building greenways is how to differentiate it from all of the other roads in a city. Once you know about the route, it can be easy enough but discovering the route in the first place is not straight forward. These toppers are a great and fun way to mark the route while adding a little extra color to the street.

One final note on biking in Portland before we get to some good food: See all those bikes parked in the street below? This is another thing that has become very popular in Portland. It's called a bike corral and the people from the Portland Bureau of Transportation told us that businesses have been requesting these all over the city. When this is full, the 18 bikes parked there represents between 7 and 16 cars worth of people who would be parked here instead (calculated looking at auto occupancy rates, which varies between 1.1 people per car and 2.6 people per car on average). That, in turn, means between 5 and 14 more spots open in the neighborhood for people who decide to drive instead of walk. 

Finally, what this place is all about: Biscuits and Fried Chicken. This is The Chatfield, which is chicken, bacon, and apply butter on a biscuit, and just below that is the Meat, Egg & Cheese. Both were pretty excellent everyone I was with was in love with it. The service is pretty basic (no waitstaff here!), but the chicken was juicy and delicious.

Of course, on a hot day the thing that goes great with a nice brunch is some ice-cream. Just a block away is Salt & Straw, which has been earning rave reviews. They make some great flavors and a couple... interesting ones. Most are the type of flavors you would expect from a trendy ice cream shop, then there was the one that involved fish sauce caramel that was created by a chef from Boke Bowl. I wasn't too much of a fan of that one, but the almond brittle with salted ganache was good.

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