Actually there are at least 7 . . .
#7 – A climate mild nearly year-round. It rains, but gently – and you just get used to being rained on after living in this neck of the woods for a while. And how can you complain about temperatures usually above freezing? Honestly, there are very few days I can’t bike fast enough to keep myself warm with a light jacket, a scarf and woolen gloves. Sometimes there’s enough ice to shut down all traffic of all kinds. But if and when it does snow, everyone goes outside and builds snowmen until it melts. Usually. Not too hot in the summer. Usually. And along with that mild climate . . .
#6- A beautiful environment. The forests and rivers, snow-capped mountains and wild flowers flourishing along the roadsides in that mild weather do make riding year-round an almost always delightful prospect. And probably contribute to a broad-based openness to finding greener alternative solutions to traffic and transportation.
But after seeing pictures of Copenhagen cyclists in the snow and hearing the biking stories of regular riders in the midwest and northeast US, I’m thinking climate is less essential to a biking utopia than I would have thought. And besides, while weather is pretty much out of our control, other bike-friendly factors are choices any city can make.
#5 – Car-free paved trails through the busiest parts of town. The lower deck of the Steel Bridge (pedestrians and cyclists only) and the Eastbank Esplanade allowed us to pass through the heart of the city, safely out of motorized traffic’s way. Recreational trails can be irritatingly limiting, but the Esplanade’s straight-shot along the Willamette River at the center of town and its regular off-ramps/on-ramps made it a convenient way to get from one part of the city to another. And where there aren’t trails . . .
#4 – Bike signage as well as the more familiar bike lanes, giving a clear signal that this is a space open to bikes. Rather than clinging to the margins of the roadside, cyclists in Portland are provided with their own turn lanes . . .
access to through-routes blocked to car traffic . . .
green-painted areas at the front of the line at stoplights . . .
and a place to wait at stop-signs beyond the crosswalk for increased visibility.
Our first evening, not knowing better, we headed up Hawthorne Blvd in the bike lane after leaving the Esplanade – sticking to the main artery as we would have if in our car. The next day we quickly discovered that signs, both posted and painted on the road surface, directing cyclists’ to . . .
#3 – Designated bike routes lead to much more pleasant riding. These routes follow secondary roads parallel to heavily motorized arteries. The Ladd Addition, one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in Portland, was especially pleasant to ride through.
Ladd Addition is easy to pick out on any map of the city. Its central roundabout and off-grid orientation have led drivers to nickname it the Vortex, and it can be easy to lose your way when negotiating by car. But by bike, travelling through the diagonals and around the roundabout, with roads radiating off in every direction, feels like convenience added upon pleasure.
Pleasure, because these secondary, cycle-friendly streets feel incredibly livable: flowers, blossoming trees, wide and inviting porches, even raised garden beds beside the sidewalks.
I don’t know the exact inverse proportion between car-density and garden-density, but I know which one I prefer riding through! Another bike-utopia species that crops up along these streets . . .
#2 – Small bike-friendly shops and plenty of bike racks. Bikes, Books, Bakeries – isn’t that what’s required for better living? Everywhere we wanted to go there were racks out front. Or nearby. At New Seasons where we stopped for groceries, the racks hugged up around two walls under a deep rain-minded eave. And the racks were nearly full.
And we lost count of the number of bike shops. We’d chosen this SE corner of Portland to be near Clever Cycles for the Oma’s 30-day tune-up, but arrived Saturday morning twenty minutes too soon . . .
After window shopping at Clever Cycles, we rode along to another bicycle shop, passing at least two others (one a bicycle repair, one the Recyclery with great used bikes) along the way. Compared to other towns I’ve been, Portland teems with bike shops. And, as a sign of the healthy vigor of the cycling eco-system, shops can afford to specialize: transport bikes and lovely Euro designs at Clever. Recumbents and foldables at Coventry Cycles where my husband drooled over three-wheeled Greenspeeds, Catrikes and the TerraTrike cruiser. Further up along Hawthorne alone you’ll find Joe Bike, specializing in utility cycles, and Veloce, specializing in custom build-ups.
At Coventry, we test-rode a cherry-red Bike Friday tandem which I think I would enjoy most for touring somewhere with very long distances and very little scenery (sorry, Fritz!). But while setting out, we watched there at the corner of Hawthorne and SE 20th and saw not only many cyclists zipping past and a white-haired couple whirling around on recumbents in the little courtyard, but across the street a high-rider who caught hold of the top of the awning over the tall glass of the shop across the way to steady himself as a few pedestrians passed, before chugging his way uphill. Which brings me to the most important requirement for a biking utopia . . .
#1 – Cyclists . . . of all kinds and ages and shapes and velocities *. And that’s what we took away above all from our weekend cycling in Portland. Everyone can bike here. The sleek Lycra-clad – one who very graciously apologized to me (and my gray hair, no doubt) when I inadvertently cut him off. But there were also contemplative cyclists rolling along in ordinary clothes, families with orange flags aflutter . . .
An older lady on an upright so upright she was almost recumbent. A dark-eyed mother and daughter in headscarves and white helmets riding their tandem with nearly identical expressions of contentment and peace.
The guy at Coventry Cycleworks, a tall affable fellow with a long curly ponytail, sent us off with recommendations for other shops where we might be able to find hi-viz tape and a particular touring bag my husband was looking for – as well as a suggestion that we try out a great Lebanese place nearby where they had an authentic oven for baking their bread. After making our way through traffic up to Stark, I asked the young woman at Next Adventure, “Do you bike?” And she did. “Can you suggest a better way to get back to the Hawthorne area?” Which she could, suggesting 7th Avenue with its wide bike lane.
When we were outside at our bikes, a very cool teenaged boy stopped to say, “Whoa, that’s a cool bike!” My husband squared his shoulders, puffed out his chest (we have an ongoing score of how cool mountain bikes are vs. Omas and their upright cousins). Until the boy asked, “Is it electric?” pointing to my internal gear hub. Very cool teenaged boy, like I said.
At the bike rack outside New Seasons, we fell into conversation with a man piling several bags of groceries onto an electric-assist Xtra-cycle. He rode it everywhere, his teenaged daughter said, half-proud, half-embarrassed. His wife had one, too – which made it possible for her to enjoy cycling even with physical disabilities. He recognized my bike, “So you must have been at Clever Cycles?”
The assist-motor on his bike had been built there. “Actually Todd invented it.”
His teenaged daughter made that soft semi-scoffing sound all parents come to know too well, “You did it again. Like that is not totally unconnected information. A person they don’t even know.”
But we did. Which made us all laugh.
Cycling makes for a small, small and much more delightful world.
And all it takes is for another person to get out on the bike.
*okay, so maybe not ALL velocities – see this recent post from BikePortland.