Despite all the considerable advances Portland and the region have
made in facilitating bicycling, concerns about the safety of bicycling
still loom large. Riding a bicycle should not require bravery. Yet, all
too often, that is the perception among cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
No person should have to be “brave” to ride a bicycle; unfortunately,
this is a sentiment commonly expressed to those who regularly ride
bicycles by those who do not. There are many cities in modern,
industrialized nations around the world with a high bicycle mode split.
They have achieved these high levels of bicycle use through adherence to
various cycling-promoting policies and practices. But, one thing they
share in common is they have substantially removed the element of fear
associated with bicycling in an urban environment. They have created
transportation systems in which bicycling is often the most logical,
enjoyable and attainable choice for trips of a certain length for a wide
swath—if not the majority—of their populace. For residents of these
cities, concern about personal safety associated with bicycling is
rarely a consideration, and certainly not to the levels we experience
here. In these “fearless” cities septuagenarians are able to ride
alongside seven-year-olds safely, comfortably, and with confidence
throughout the breadth of the cities.
Making bicycling a more widespread and mainstream means of
transportation in Portland will require substantially addressing
concerns about personal safety.
Describing the four general categories of
transportation cyclists in Portland and their differing needs best
precedes a discussion of bikeway treatments. For lack of better
terminology, Portlanders can be placed into one of the four following
groups based on their relationship to bicycle transportation:
“The Strong and the Fearless,” “The Enthused and the Confident,” “The
Interested but Concerned.” The fourth group are non-riders, called the
“No Way No How” group.
Survey after survey and poll after poll has found
again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles
is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle. They are
generally not afraid of other cyclists, or pedestrians, or of injuring
themselves in a bicycle-only crash. When they say they are “afraid” it
is a fear of people driving automobiles. This has been documented and
reported in transportation literature from studies, surveys and
conversations across the US, Canada, and Europe.
This expression of fear is also something that has
been heard hundreds, if not thousands of times by city staff in
conversations with Portland residents. Any staff person involved with
bicycle projects from Portland’s Office of Transportation, PortlandParks
and Recreation, Metro, and ODOT has repeatedly heard expression of this
fear. Staff and employees of local bicycle organizations, clubs and
bicycle-oriented businesses have also regularly heard Portland citizens
express that their interest in riding a bicycle is countered by fear for
This fear can be understood experientially. There
is a qualitative difference between riding a bicycle on a bikeway like
SE Lincoln-Harrison—with little traffic, slow speeds, and frequent
cyclists--as compared to one like N Willamette with narrow bicycle
lanes, narrow travel lanes and high volumes of fast-moving traffic.
There is also an easily understood qualitative difference between these
bikeways and roadways like N Lombard, or SE Division, or West Burnside,
as is there a difference between them and the motor-vehicle-free
There is a continuum of cyclists, and of attitudes
about cycling among the citizens of Portland. Some will tolerate West
Burnside, others are comfortable on Willamette, more prefer
Lincoln-Harrison, and many truly feel at ease only on a trail like the
Springwater. Others will not ride anywhere in the City of Portland, or
elsewhere. This continuum is defined, in part, by individual comfort
level on different types of bikeways.
The “Strong and the Fearless” comprise perhaps
2,000 or fewer cyclists in Portland, representing fewer than 0.5% of the
population. These are the people who will ride in Portland regardless
of roadway conditions. They are ‘bicyclists;’ riding is a strong part of
their identity and they are generally undeterred by roadway
conditions—though likely few are courageous enough to venture too far up
West Burnside into the West Hills.
The “Enthused and Confident” are those who have
been attracted to cycling in Portland by the significant advances the
city has made developing its bikeway network and supporting
infrastructure over the past 16 years. They are comfortable sharing the
roadway with automotive traffic, but they prefer to do so operating on
their own facilities. They are attracted to riding in Portland because
there are streets that have been redesigned to make them work well for
bicycling. They appreciate bicycle lanes and bicycle boulevards.
This enthused and confident demographic of cyclists
are the primary reason why bicycle commuting doubled between 1990 and
2000 (U.S. Census) and why measured bicycle trips on Portland’s four
main bicycle-friendly bridges across the Willamette River saw more than a
300% increase in daily bicycle trips between the early 1990’s and 2006.
There are perhaps now more than 22,000 of this group riding their
bicycles regularly in the city. An educated guess would be that this
22,000 represents 60% of the ‘enthused and confident’ demographic of
Portland citizens. These are the citizens who are and could be attracted
to regular riding by continuing to address the barriers on which
Portland has focused for the past 15 years: shorter trip distances,
better bicycle facilities, better end-of-trip facilities. This
demographic comprises perhaps 40,000 Portland citizens, or 7% of the
A much larger demographic, representing the vast
majority of Portland’s citizens, are the “interested but concerned.”
These residents are curious about bicycling. They are hearing messages
from a wide variety of sources about how easy it is to ride a bicycle in
Portland, about how bicycling is booming in the city, about “bicycle
culture” in Portland, about Portland being a “bicycle-friendly” city,
and about the need for people to lead more active lives. They like
riding a bicycle, remembering back to their youths, or to the ride they
took last summer on the Springwater, or in the BridgePedal, or at Sun
River, and they would like to ride more. But, they are afraid to ride.
They don’t like the cars speeding down their streets. They get nervous
thinking about what would happen to them on a bicycle when a driver runs
a red light, or guns their cars around them, or passes too closely and
too fast. Very few of these people regularly ride bicycles—perhaps 2,000
who will ride through their neighborhoods to the local park or coffee
shop, but who will not venture out onto the arterials to the major
commercial and employment destinations they frequent. There are probably
300,000 in this group, representing 60% of the city’s population. They
would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and
less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and
paths without any cars at all.
Perhaps one-third of the city’s population falls
into the last category of ‘cyclist.’ This is the “no way, no how” group
that is currently not interested in bicycling at all, for reasons of
topography, inability, or simply a complete and utter lack of interest.
The separation between these four broad groups is
not generally as clear-cut as described here. There is likely quite a
bit of blurring between the “enthused,” the “interested,” and those not
at all interested, but this has proven to be a reasonable way to
understand the city’s existing and potential cyclists.
In The Netherlands and Germany, 50% of all trips made by people 75 and
older is either by walking or bicycling. In The Netherlands, 25% of all
trips made by such septuagenarians are by bicycle.
This typology is for using the bicycle for transportation, only. People
in all these groups—especially the “interested but concerned” group—may
bicycle for recreation. This categorization addresses only their
willingness to use a bicycle as a main means of transportation.