What kind of cyclist are you? If you don’t mind muscling onto arterials and pedaling along with traffic, The Portland (OR) Bureau of Transportation has a name for you–“strong and fearless.” You do not require dedicated space on the street, and will not be deterred by swerving cars. You are the cycling elite, making up less than 1% of the population that feels fine riding on any urban street. But it’s far more likely that you are not so bold, that you are among the “interested and concerned.” You like the idea of cycling but rarely bike for transportation because it seems downright foolhardy.
Portland has one of the highest bike-to-work rates of any U.S. city, but given the low ridership rates in this country, that’s not saying much. Despite decades of investments in bike infrastructure on city streets and transit facilities, the number of bike commuters in Portland appears stuck at six percent, where it has lingered for the last four years. This is well short of the city’s official goal—25% of all daily trips made by bicycle.
The lack of progress led the city’s transportation bureau to conduct research on how Portlanders feel about biking and why they aren’t doing more of it. After surveying residents, it developed its own typology of bicyclists. The Portlanders who are “enthused and confident” don’t mind riding in traffic, although they prefer to be in a dedicated lane. This 7%, along with the fearless 1%, bump the number of cyclists above the national average, creating a visible presence on the streets and lending the city its reputation as a biking mecca.
Beyond that small pool however, Portland’s reputation as a bike-friendly city has not convinced the vast majority to hit the streets. In surveys a full third of the population say “no way, no how” to cycling. They may have no interest, aren’t physically able, or don’t know how to ride a bike. The rest (60%) are “interested but concerned.” They are curious about cycling and would like to give it a try but don’t ride regularly because they consider it too dangerous. In other words, the bike lanes the city has been installing for years do not offer them a sufficient sense of protection. They feel too exposed to moving traffic.
This fact—that many people want to bike but need a safer environment—reveals the key to reaching Portland’s biking goal and offers any city striving for a more sustainable transportation system a clear direction.
The vast majority of people who don’t feel strong, fearless, enthusiastic and confident on a bike need more than the disjointed system of painted lanes and sharrows that pass for bike infrastructure in U.S. cities. To increase their confidence and reduce the likelihood of a collision, they need more room on the street, and a space that is separated from moving vehicles.
Unlike standard bike lanes, cycle tracks provide a level of protection that would allay the fear of would be cyclists. Portland State University researcher Jennifer Dill dug a little deeper into the four categories of cyclists and found that protecting bike lanes would go a long way toward convincing “the interested and concerned” to get around on a bicycle. 43% said they would feel comfortable riding in a separated lane, compared to 2% who would feel safe in a standard bike lane.
Cities with protected bike lanes have a higher percentage of people commuting by bike. In her excellent article, The Rise of the North American Protected Bike Lane, Angie Schmidt detailed the growing support for cycle tracks, and why cities that are serious about biking have been installing them along key routes.
A recent study of San Francisco Bay area communities showed most towns’ bike commute rates topping out at 6%, except for Davis, CA, where almost 20% of residents get to work by bike.
It’s a university town, which undoubtedly helps, but Davis boasts a system of protected lanes and paths extend well beyond the UC-Davis campus.
Not all city streets require cycle tracks. Less heavily traveled roads are just fine with painted lanes. Quiet residential streets with speeds under 20 mph need no interventions to be comfortable for cyclists. But if biking is to become a viable form of transportation, we need to create protected space along arterials and commercial corridors. The 1% who consider themselves strong and fearless enough to ride on any city street in Portland echoes the percentage who currently cycle to work nationally. Getting to work and doing errands on a bike should not be restricted to the brave few. It should be safe and enticing for the rest of us.