As one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the country, Portland, Oregon is well-known for its love of two wheels. About 7 percent of residents commute to work by bike here, a number that's higher than any large U.S. city. But even a place where cycling’s engrained in the culture has room to improve—and that’s where advocate Yashar Vasef comes in.
As the chief fundraiser at Community Cycling Center, Vasef works to raise money and awareness for a local nonprofit that has expanded access to cycling for people of all backgrounds for 25 years. That means not only advocating for better infrastructure for current cyclists, but also making sure residents in neighborhoods outside of the urban core, like East Portland, are also included in the city’s safe, sustainable transportation plans.
A typical week for Vasef includes lots of trips on his own bike—a Trek hybrid (FX 7.2)—but he’s a true multimodal traveler. Using an innovative new city program, he’s got access to Portland’s streetcar, light rail, buses, bike share, and even car share on a single, $99-per-year pass. Because he’s a frequent user of everything Portland’s transportation system has to offer, he’s got some keen ideas for how to make it all work even better.
Monday, August 26
Shortly after moving here, for economic and environmental reasons, my partner Joanne and I decided to become a car-free household, tapping into Portland’s rich mobility options. Now I work at Community Cycling Center, which is a nonprofit bike shop, as well as programs around the city which support a diverse array of community members including immigrants and refugees. As an immigrant from Iran, and an advocate of the bicycle, the mission and work is near and dear to my heart!
As it does most days, Monday morning starts with an exact two-mile bike ride to my work in NE Portland, starting at my apartment in Nob Hill, also known as the Alphabet District. This neighborhood is one of the densest areas of the city, and one in five residents do not own a vehicle here. Yet, fewer than 10 percent commuting trips departing from here are on a bike, which is far lower than other inner-core neighborhoods that surpass 20 percent bike mode share, according to city data. Why is that?
My ride takes me on the NW Johnson “greenway,” a street prioritized for walking and biking, which unearths some of the reasons. Unfortunately, the greenway designation is currently a bit of a facade because the morning and evening peak hour introduces car traffic that exceeds the city’s accepted greenway daily auto volumes. I’ve had my fair share of close calls with distracted drivers!
Unlike other greenways in Portland, there are very few traffic calming and auto diversion features. As a member of the city’s Northwest in Motion Citizen Advisory Group, we are working to address this issue (among many) by exploring placing physical traffic diverters at multiple intersections on Johnson to force cut-through drivers away from this designated path for pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users. Once traffic diverters are installed, the street will become calmer overnight, creating a far more inviting space for the interested but concerned crowd.
Tuesday, August 27
Boy, it’s hot. Unbelievably hot. Portland summers are typically characterized by sunny days and temperatures in the 70s. Today’s high is 97.
On my way home, I stop to admire a one-block contraflow bike lane on the urban NW Marshall Street greenway. It’s probably the calmest portion of my entire ride home. There are a handful of contraflow bike lanes in Portland, but I’d like to see more of them. The car parking protects the cyclist from moving traffic, and parked drivers can easily see oncoming cyclists which reduces the chances of getting doored. I must say, parking compliance is also quite impressive here. I’ve seen a car parked in this bike lane just once!
When the city proposes such changes to a road, they are often met with strong opposition from some community members and businesses. This causes a painstakingly slow rollout process, which allows frustration to boil over. In the era of climate change, I wish the city was more assertive by asserting these changes first and then gathering feedback over the following months.
I have friends and work acquaintances who work in the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). They are amazing people, and I know they understand what is at stake. The bureau is also very delicate around gathering feedback from stakeholders, but this often delays projects significantly. And often, what was supposed to be a protected bike lane becomes a substandard painted bike lane. I recently read that all new proposed bike lanes at PBOT begin with a protected design and are only cut back when there is good reason. I hope this is the harbinger of a new era in Portland’s bicycle infrastructure. But still, it all progresses so slowly!
The international scientific community has made it clear that we need drastic change by 2030 or we will pay the consequences of climate inaction. When it comes to proposals that benefit modes other than single-occupied vehicles, I think the city needs to get aggressive. We all need to understand that sacrifices will need to be made.
Transportation emissions in Portland have gone up in the last few years, while other sectors have decreased. In fact, according to a recent report of the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, transportation emissions are “increasing dramatically” in Portland. We’re now at 8 percent above 1990 levels, yet our goal is to be 40 percent below those levels by 2030. Yikes. The time for this city, long reputed as a leader in alternative transportation, to get serious about dramatic shifts in transportation spending priorities is now. We are running out of time!
Wednesday, August 28
Another 97-degree forecast. Ugh! The temps have left me considering a multimodal day. I bike a half-mile to the train station, and take the air-conditioned MAX light rail across the historic Steel Bridge. One of the great features of public transit in Portland is that buses and trains accommodate cyclists.
One other observation is that during peak hour it’s very difficult to find an available bike rack, and the train is often overflowing with commuters! I’m hoping future train models can accommodate more bikes in a way that doesn’t disrupt other passengers. This appears to be a point of tension for some, and I hope it can be alleviated through new train models with improved design such as a designated bicycle area in the back (which could also maybe accommodate those on recumbent and other adaptive bicycles).
When temps get this hot, the light-rail trains also tend to slow down considerably as a precaution. I’m not sure what it would take to resolve this, but it can make a long commute that much more frustrating. TriMet recently announced that they are exploring the option of an underground route through downtown. I love this idea for a number of reasons, and early estimates show that it could reduce train commutes through downtown by 15 to 18 minutes! A current gripe is that the rail lines come to a screeching halt when they navigate downtown with several stations that are just three or fewer blocks apart.
Since most of the ride is downhill on the way home, I opt to stick with biking the whole way. My weapon of choice is a standard Trek hybrid (FX 7.2). I typically have at least one bike pannier to carry items like my laptop and clothes. On days like this, I keep a towel handy to wipe the sweat! While it is certainly a hot and sticky ride, it’s well worth it for the scenery from the Broadway Bridge. I feel spoiled every time I cross this bridge. The views are phenomenal!
Thursday, August 29
Today brings some relief from excessive temperatures. I decide to take the bus to work. While I get more fun out of cycling than any other mode of transportation, sometimes I’m in the mood to mix it up. And this is one of those days.
Portland has pretty solid bus infrastructure, with some notable shortcomings. Let’s start with the good. I can step out the door of my apartment building and walk a block to the line 77 bus stop. This bus will take me within a seven-minute walk to the Community Cycling Center offices. A lot of bus lines here have pretty versatile routes!
The 77 bus used to get hung up in some morning congestion on NW Everett (and way worse for evening commuters) as it approached the Steel Bridge. Just recently, the city installed a bus-only lane and travel times have dramatically improved on this stretch of Everett. More of this please!
With so many people moving to Portland in the last decade, congestion has rapidly worsened. This means buses are sitting in congestion, providing little incentive for drivers to consider public transit. The city is finally getting serious about installing bus-only lanes, and I only hope these projects don’t get caught up in bureaucratic backlog.
During my walk to work after hopping off the bus, I notice a car literally parked on the sidewalk. One frustrating thing is that parking enforcement is pretty nonexistent in Portland. I’ve seen all sorts of bizarre behavior. And maybe it’s not about the enforcement. A culture change and driver education campaigns which prioritize pedestrian rights would go a long way. For example, every intersection in Oregon is a legal crosswalk (marked or unmarked), but with so many transplants each year I have seen a lot of driver confusion around this. There are some great nonprofits like Oregon Walks who are tackling these issues and advocating on behalf of pedestrians.
I grab a Biketown bike share on my way home. There is a station across the street from my office, and I end my trip at a station just two blocks from my apartment. The cool thing about these bikes is that they are dockless, so I’m not required to end my trip at a station.
My route home includes a stretch on Broadway Street. I almost shiver writing the name. If I am going to get in a serious crash on my commute, I can almost guarantee it will be on Broadway. Earlier this summer, a woman was killed crossing this street at an intersection just a few blocks from our office. This is a street with up to four vehicle lanes in one direction (yes, I said four!), with an incredibly substandard, painted bike lane for conditions.
I once saw the aftermath of a cyclist who was right-hooked by a driver on Broadway just two blocks from work, and since then I ride as cautiously as possible on this street. The frustrating piece is that through the Central City in Motion project, the city is supposed to be bringing safety improvements including a protected bike lane, but it may be up to 5 or more years away, despite the fact that the city has already secured the project funds. I am hearing some businesses along the street are opposed to changes, which is really disappointing. I’m hoping the city can work with those businesses and we can implement the safety plan as soon as possible so we may prevent more deaths!
Friday, August 30
Through parking permit revenue, our neighborhood district offers something called the Transportation Wallet to residents at the cost of $99 per year as an incentive to remove or reduce the use of private vehicles in our denser neighborhood. It comes with annual passes for Biketown bike share, the Portland Streetcar, Car2Go and a $150 value card for Portland’s public transit system, TriMet. That’s a $767 value for just $99!
On this day, my use of the wallet is on full display. I have several work meetings downtown, so I coast downhill into the city center on a Biketown bike share. After my meetings, I hop into a Car2Go to get back to work so I won’t have to climb up a hill, which can be difficult with the heavier bike-share bicycles.
For those unfamiliar, Car2Go (also known as Share Now) is a fleet of Mercedes vehicles that operate like a bike share system. You use the phone app to locate one, reserve it for up to 30 minutes, and unlock it when you’re at the car. Then you can leave it in any non-metered parking space you want within the specified “home zone.” Costs in Portland range from 39 to 45 cents per minute depending on the vehicle type, or various fixed rates like $6 for 20 minutes of driving—which is less than half the cost of a 20-minute Uber trip in Portland! [Update: One day after this story was published, Car2Go announced it was removing its vehicles from the Portland market.]
I can say confidently that it was Car2Go which solidified our decision to get rid of our car. Having hundreds of these cars available to me all over the city provides us with another layer of mobility options. It puts a price on each trip, which does away with the hidden cost of vehicle ownership, and allowed us to realize just how reliant we were on driving everywhere in the past. Car2Go also covers insurance, gas and parking. You can also take them out of town, and we’ve used them for trips to the Oregon coast.
Can you tell I’m a huge advocate of Car2Go? It’s backed by data, too. A UC Berkeley study of Car2Go in a number of American cities found that each Car2Go can serve the needs of seven to 11 households which otherwise would have needed a private vehicle. This leaves me wondering why local governments are not doing more to partner with entities like Car2Go if we know they help reduce vehicular ownership?
Saturday, August 31
Saturday is a generally lazy day. With a long bike ride planned for the next day, we take it easy. We clean up the apartment, run errands on foot, catch the sunset at the International Rose Test Garden, and have a lazy evening watching Netflix.
When I plug my address into the WalkScore website, it reveals a score of 98. We are privileged to live in a neighborhood where a grocery store is one block away with a second that is within 10 blocks. We are a 5-minute walk to a department store, and have an assortment of other amenities within a few blocks. In fact, we are less than a 10-minute walk to a USPS store, a pet store so we can feed our cats, a diverse cast of restaurants and bars, two movie theaters (one right outside our door), coffee shops, and just about anything else you can imagine.
This is the stereotype of Portland. Walkable neighborhoods where streets are lined with hip shops and bars. We are lucky to live in an area where this stereotype mostly rings true. Then I think about East Portland, which is an annexed area of the city and was designed more like Los Angeles than any other section of Portland. Think huge arterial roads, poor transit options, near non-existent bicycle infrastructure, and tons of strip malls. It is as auto-centric as you can get. If you are a pedestrian living east of 82nd Street in Portland, you are more than twice as likely to be killed by a car. East Portland is also home to many of Portland’s minority populations and lower-income residents. The stark contrast between our neighborhood and East Portland is at times unbelievable.
The good news is that the city is getting serious about addressing these inequities. Some of the most dangerous streets, named high-crash corridors by the city, are beginning to take on “road diets.” Starting this summer, a few major arterial roads had lanes narrowed and reduced, speed limits lowered, with plans to accommodate new and safer bike lanes and transit improvements. This is only the beginning, with plans for a number of other streets taking shape. I’m also hoping resources like the aforementioned Transportation Wallet could be introduced in East Portland.
Moving forward, there is going to be a lot of backlash from people who are used to the status quo of East Portland as a haven for driving. I hope the city can remain steadfast, since we know huge arterial roads with high speeds are major contributors to not only the deaths of vulnerable road users in Portland, but also auto drivers themselves. I understand concerns over increased congestion with fewer lanes, but my personal sentiment is that reducing road deaths should always be the number-one priority. Road deaths are preventable!
Sunday, September 1
I have been looking forward to Sunday all week! With Labor Day off, we decide to spend all of Sunday on a 50-mile recreational ride, which includes a 40-mile loop of the entire Springwater Corridor bike path.
Highlights along the route include stopping at a massive food cart pod for a cool drink and delicious bites, views of snow-capped Mt. Hood, and riding by a number of forested buttes. The terminus of the trail takes us to the small rural town of Boring, where we grab a beer and reflect on the awesomeness of rails-to-trails projects. Since it’s built on a former railroad, the Springwater Corridor trail never gets steep which makes it accessible to riders of all ages and abilities. We see many families walking and biking.
There are, however, a few segments which are stark reminders of the housing emergency Portland is enduring. Homeless individuals living in tents off the trail is not an uncommon site in certain sections of the trail inside the city. We have work to do!
It’s evening by the time we get back downtown, and we stop at the Eastbank Esplanade path to take in the view of the Tilikum Bridge. This is a local, indigenous Chinook name which translates to “Bridge of the People.” Spanning 1720 feet, it is North America’s only bridge dedicated to walking, biking, buses and trains while excluding private automobiles.
It’s going to take more bold visions like this to turn Portland into the standard-bearer of transportation systems which move us away from fossil-fuel infrastructure.