Sunday, 23 September 2012

A tale of two cities - Portland and Victoria

Two recent experiences again brought to mind why we ought to be putting more effort into building up our cycling infrastructure.

I recently completed Cycle Oregon, a week-long 787 km organized bike ride through rural Oregon. The registration for the ride took place in February and sold out within 30 minutes: 2,200 cyclists from far and near—Oregon, Alaska,  New York, Texas, North Carolina, Hawaii, B.C., Ontario, Japan, and Germany, to name but a few. This was a Baby Boom generation group—average age was 55—healthy, fit, and with both time and resources. They are interested in travelling to places with cycling infrastructure and routes.

One conversation during Cycle Oregon brought to my attention why the Capital Region needs to do more in terms of the kind of cycling experience it offers for residents and visitors alike. A couple from Portland visited Victoria in August 2011, with their 9-year-old daughter. They left their car in Port Angeles and rode their bikes over on the ferry. They were very disappointed with their experience here; they found the route from the ferry through James Bay and along Dallas Road to be very busy and, with no designated bike lane, too much for their daughter, who was not used to having to navigate in heavy traffic. Compared with their experience of biking in Portland, they found Victoria seriously wanting. They will not be back anytime soon and it is unlikely that they will recommend Victoria as a cycling destination to others.

By contrast, an acquaintance just back from Portland was struck by how accommodating the city is to cyclists and commuters, starting with the airport where there is a designated area complete with tools so that people travelling with bicycles can reassemble them before leaving the airport. The train from the airport to downtown Portland has hooks so that riders with bicycles can hang them up in the train. (In a week of commuting within the city, including to and from a conference venue that was an hour away, this person only spent $10.)

Bike rack in Portland train

Once in Portland, the city abounds with evidence of a cycling culture. Some examples:
  • Cycle tracks: These bike lanes are physically separated from motor vehicle lanes by concrete barriers or curbs, which apparently help increase bicycle ridership 18% to 20%, especially among women and children.
  • Bike lanes: Painted lanes on streets.
  • Sharrows: "Sharing arrows"—street markings show an outline of a bicycle and two arrows pointing forward, indicating that bicycles and cars both have full use of the lane.
  • Bicycle boulevards: Also called "neighborhood greenways", these residential streets are marked for both bikes and cars and have a speed limit of 20 mph.
There are many more examples too, such as an extensive cycling pathway network, but suffice to say that my acquaintance is planning to return to Portland next summer, with her bike. That is in stark contrast to the family from Portland who does not have Victoria on their list of places to return to anytime soon.