After a year of research, a 12-member committee of the Portland City Club released a report today titled, No Turning Back: A City Club Report on Bicycle Transportation in Portland. The 83-page report tackled nearly every major bicycling issue that Portland faces: From quantifying just how many people are riding, to making recommendations on how to raise money to pay for bike-specific infrastructure. They also looked into many of the negative narratives around bicycling to determine if they had any merit (spoiler alert: they don’t).
And, just as I suspected when I shared an update on this project earlier this month, the report is extremely favorable to bicycling. Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary:
Your committee believes bicycling is an affordable and efficient means of transportation that is essential to continued growth in the local economy and overall quality of life for Portland residents.
In short, your committee finds that the right question is no longer “Should we promote bicycle use?” It is: “How should we structure our transportation system to optimize choice, efficiency and safety for all modes of transportation, including bicycling?”
To reach this conclusion the committee performed a rigorous analysis of many facets of bicycling in Portland. They also interviewed 28 people including representatives from law enforcement, elected office, neighborhood associations, private business owners, and more.
The one aspect of bicycling the report says needs improving is communication between PBOT and neighborhoods, stakeholders, and others that are impacted by bike-related projects. The report detailed the N Williams Avenue project as a prime example of PBOT’s shortcomings in the communications department. “This lack of due diligence,” reads the report, “has made some projects needlessly controversial or vulnerable to delay and cost overruns.” Other projects listed as examples were the SE Holgate buffered bike lanes and the proposed (then shelved) cycle track on SW 12th Ave.
Related to this issue, the report also found concern with the demographic makeup of bicycle use in Portland: “The current perception (justified or unjustified) of bicycling as benefiting an already privileged segment of the population cannot be ignored.” To improve demographics, one of City Club’s recommendations is to expand the membership of the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee to include “Various communities of color, youth-advocate organizations, and neighborhood organizations, as well as the Portland Business Alliance, The Portland Freight Committee, Portland Public Schools, and other relevant stakeholders.”
In all of City Club’s research, they report finding no organized opposition to bicycle use in the city. However, they did identify a “latent, but pervasive, uneasiness among some residents that expanding bicycling opportunities will come at the expense of other modes of transportation.” They also noted much of anxiety that comes when people drive cars, isn’t based on an anti-bike grudge, rather it’s simply a fear of colliding with someone on a bike.
Are bikes bad for business? The report tackled that thorny issue with, “There is little evidence to substantiate this claim… Bicycling is not a detriment to local retail/business and may be positive in some areas or for some businesses.”
But don’t “bike projects” take money away from paving? The report found that the “complicated relationship” between road users is “exacerbated by local media stories depicting bicyclists and motorists perpetually at odds with one another.”
Accounts on television, online articles, and The Oregonian, focus on points of conflict (real or perceived). An Oregonian investigation on Portland’s seeming inability to fill potholes in city streets and maintain a basic level of road quality implies bicycle funding (as well as funding for transit projects, such as the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line), is to blame for this failure.
The reality of transportation funding in Portland, as well as in every other city, is significantly more complicated, but suffice it to say, this type of reporting presents a false dichotomy between automobile and bicycle transportation modes. Nevertheless, this perception has proven to be widespread.
The report even tackled the perpetual debate over who violates traffic laws most frequently. The committee was, “unable to procure any third-party data, beyond anecdotal observations, to support the perception that persons on bicycles violated traffic laws more frequently than motor vehicle operators.” When they asked a Portland Police Bureau Traffic Division officer about this during an interview, the officer said the bureau prioritizes enforcement of motor vehicle laws, “since those violations are potentially more dangerous.”
I must say, the insights from this committee are rather spot-on. Not only does the report debunk many myths, it also has an urgent tone that calls for more physically separated bikeways and improved mobility for people who use bikes. “It is time for the design and planning for bike infrastructure to move from opportunistic to strategic.”
The recommendation sure to get the most attention is the City Club’s proposal that the State should enact a 4% excise tax on new bicycle sales. The research committee would then use the revenue generated to pay for the creation of bike safety materials, bike safety programs at schools and community centers, and the purchase of more automated bicycle counters.
The excise tax idea isn’t new to many Portlanders. In fact, it has been supported in the past by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Metro, and even PBOT’s bicycle coordinator.
Two members of the committee issued a minority report. The authors of that report (which is included in the appendix of the main report) apparently disagreed with the majority over the funding issue. They feel strongly that all bicycle owners over the age of 21 should pay $30 a year for a license and that all bicycles should be registered. The majority strongly disagreed: “At this juncture, the mandatory licensing of bicyclists is unenforceable, unnecessary, and punitive, and that the costs associated with such a program would substantially outweigh the benefits.”
I highly recommend keeping this report on file. It’s got thorough analyses of many key issues, it is fully cited with studies and statistics to back up all its claims, and it has a great summary of charts and other educational resources. The committee even put together a detailed analysis of Hawthorne Bridge bike trips using weather data along with new data provided by the automated counter.
Now the question is: What impact (if any) will this report have in moving bicycling forward? I know many of you (as I am) are tired of proclamations, plans, and reports; but this one is different. City Club is a respected voice in Portland with a membership of very active, connected, and powerful people. Assuming their members vote to adopt the report (it would be quite scandalous if they don’t), this should only add to the strong momentum for bicycling in Portland right now. After years of stagnation thanks to communication mishaps, unfair media coverage, complacency and unfortunate politics, bicycling is set to come roaring back in Portland and this report is just the latest sign of its resurgence.
I would love to know what others think about the report and whether or not it will have an impact on local policy and decision making.
City Club will present the report on May 31st with a special “Bicycling in Portland” edition of their Friday Forum event. City Club members will vote on the report June 7th. If it’s supported by a majority of members, the findings will become the official position of the City Club of Portland.
— No Turning Back: A City Club Report on Bicycle Transportation in Portland