Gaps abound in Portland’s low-stress bikeway network

Gaps abound in Portland’s low-stress bikeway network

Portland’s network of existing and funded bikeways looks impressive; but what does it look like to cautious or inexperienced riders?

A map caught my eye at the monthly meeting of the PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee last night. It was a prepared by PBOT bike coordinator Roger Geller and it showed all of Portland’s existing and funded bikeways (as of this month). It included four categories of facilities: “Better lanes” (protected bike lanes like cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes), “lanes” (standard bike lanes), “greenways” (residential bike boulevards), and “off-street paths” (like the Esplanade and Springwater).

Some of you might recall that I have a thing for bikeway network maps. We tend to focus so much on individual projects that I find it inspiring and informative to step back and see the network from a wider angle. These maps offer a quick way to assess things like network density, geographic equity, and connectivity.

Before I give our bike network a stress-test, let’s review our current facility inventory. According to PBOT, here’s the breakdown of our 368 miles of existing (331 miles) and funded but not yet built bikeways (37 miles) as of July 2013:

  • Standard bike lanes: 180 miles (49% of total)
  • Neighborhood greenways: 92 miles (25% of total)
  • Off-street paths: 85 miles (23% of total)
  • Protected bike lanes (a.k.a. “better lanes”): 11 miles (3% of total)

This bike lane on NW St. Helens Rd (Hwy 30) appears
as a major connection on our bike network map;
but for obvious reasons, only experienced riders
dare to use it.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

Seen on a map showing those four bikeway types, Portland’s network is quite impressive. But something struck me last night: Much of our network relies on standard bike lanes, many of which aren’t very pleasant to ride on. It’s almost become an accepted fact in bike advocacy, planning and engineering circles that standard, 4-5 bike lanes are not the type of bikeways that encourage new riders to start bicycling. Not only do they put people just inches from motor vehicle operators, they are also often in door zones or filled with debris (see image at right).

To reach the City of Portland’s bike usage goal of 25% of all trips by 2030, we must attract the legions of Portlanders who are too afraid to pedal alongside auto traffic with nothing more than a stripe of paint to protect them. Put another way, bike lanes are 1990s technology that do little to encourage cycling. They’re certainly not conducive to the “low-stress” conditions PBOT is striving for and the fact that they comprise 49% of our network might have something to do with our current plateau in ridership numbers. (And the fact that we’re falling behind in building protected bike lanes doesn’t help either.)

Back to the map from last night. So, if we agree that bike lanes aren’t adequate for the elusive “8-80” demographic, what would our low-stress network look like?

I asked Geller to create a new map without the “Lanes” layer. The result confirmed my hunch: If you want to ride in a low-stress environment, it’s nearly impossible to get from point A to point B. Gaps abound in Portlandia.

See for yourself. Here’s the full network map again…

And here’s the same map without the bike lanes showing (I’ve started calling it the “gap map”)…

And here’s an up-close view of the central city with bike lanes…

And without…

Seeing all these gaps in our low-stress network really helps explain why more Portlanders don’t choose to ride bikes on a daily basis.

Another thing you notice when we remove bike lanes from the equation is how crucial our neighborhood greenway system is. PBOT’s exemplary work on these cross-town, residential routes has created an important foundation for our network.

Now we need to build on that network. And we need to do it with more protected bike lanes that connect from neighborhoods to destinations. The good news is that PBOT is aware of this. They’ve already got $6 million in the hopper for network of protected bike lanes downtown, and you can bet there will be some big protected bike lane projects prioritized in the upcoming transportation funding package.

One reason Portland has stagnated in ridership and bold bike projects recently is the political and public perception that our bike network is already world-class. It’s not. Hopefully, Transportation Commissioner Novick, PBOT Director Leah Treat and other local leaders can start making the case that we have a long way to go and we need to more — and more connected — high-quality bikeways to get there.

— Reading this from outside of Portland? Give your bike network the low-stress test and see what it looks like.

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