BY BRIAN LIBBY
By the time you read this, they will be somewhere in the bread basket of the United States, on the long stretch between Portland and Minneapolis populated with antelope and reactionaries. But for the group of British architects and sustainability experts bicycling from Portland, Oregon to Portland Place in London as part of the Portland to Portland charity ride, the focus is on cities.
"Part of it is enjoying the countryside, but since we’re all architects and planners, cities are the key places to see. And the only way you really know what it’s like to cycle in a place is to do it," explained Portland to Portland's organizer, Peter Murray, chairman of the nonprofit New London Architecture and editor of the New London Quarterly, in an interview last week in Portland on the eve of their ride. "There will be fairly few people around with the sort of professional experience we have amongst us as a team who have actually experienced the number of cities we’re going to experience in a short time and have the access to key political figures, heads of departments of transport and people involved in the cycling movement. It will give us a tremendous amount of interesting information that can hopefully feed into the discussion of how you change the culture of cycling."
When I met the Portland to Portland riders, they were only getting their first glimpse of Portland, cycling throughout the city as a precursor to riding thousands of miles across the United States, Ireland and England.
"I’ve seen one KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD sign but that’s all. I’m a little disappointed," joked Nic Crawley, who heads sustainability efforts at London's Allford Hall Monaghan Morris Architects. "The car drivers are courteous. Back home in London it can be tough. It’s a very different culture. Here they seem to recognize bikes have as much right to the road as cars. You feel a bit safer, and that’s quite nice."
Although the ride, which includes stops in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Dublin, Oxford and London, is just getting started, Murray and the other P2P riders seem to already sense that while each city's layout and infrastructure pose different challenges and opportunities, they are united in an effort to make cycling not just a leisure activity, but part of people's daily transit routines.
London, Murray says, "has all sorts of competitions," to promote good cycling infrastructure design, "but what drives the change is the culture, and the demand. What you don’t know really until you provide the facilities is what the true demand is. Everybody has a bike in their garage. But at the moment in London, only a little over two percent actually use it on a regular basis. So everyone is potentially a cyclist. How do you actually get them to change? You get the change by delivering the infrastructure. But it’s very difficult to convince the politicians to pay for it unless there’s the demand. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg situations at the moment, so the policy is to take it slowly. London is targeting five percent rates of cycling."
Murray also sees the advancement of cycling culture into everyday life and transit as part of a broader generational trend in which citizens take back streets - or portions of them - from the dominance of automobiles.
"In Bristol, mothers on certain streets didn’t have anywhere for their children to play. They started putting traffic cones on the streets to block traffic," he says by way of examples. "It cuts across all sorts of licenses and legislation. It was a form of protest, but it’s been so successful, that then becomes accepted. Some streets have become permanent." But when it comes to concepts like shared streets between cars, cyclists and pedestrians, he says, attempts have failed. "Motorists don’t slow down enough. So we’re back to separation."
Yet this is what Portland to Portland is largely about: designers and city builders comparing notes about how we balance different modes of transportation and the space they require. And while Europe has America beat when it comes to mass transit options, Murray says we are the ones leading the way with robust cycling culture and the livable cities they're a part of.
"It started with people like Jane Jacobs. It’s an American thing," he explains. "A lot of people look to European cities, but the actual shift in how we think about cities happened with her. When I was in NY not long ago I encountered a book by Bernard Rudofsky called Streets for People. That was written in the '60s. There was a livable city movement in the united states when we didn’t pick it up for a decade in Europe."
Murray also sees in both America and Europe competing to elevate their cycling culture, not as a badge of honor but because cycling-friendly urban areas also help embolden economic prosperity. Two studies published last year, one observing cycling in New York and another in Portland, found that bicyclists and pedestrians may spend more than their peers who arrive at the same neighborhoods via automobile or public transportation.
In New York, a study by Transportation Alternatives showed that newly created bike lanes on First and Second Avenues in Manhattan's East Village led to a sharp increase in bicycle ridership in the study’s focus area, some 24 percent compared to a one percent overall ridership rate in the five boroughs. And those traveling in the East Village by bike spent an average of $163 a week versus $111 for car users. In the Rose City, Kelly Clifton, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Portland State University, found that while customers who drive to various establishments may spend more money per visit, bicyclists visit the same venue more often, and spend more overall.
But Portland mustn't rest on its laurels, Murray says, for competition abounds. "When I was contacting people in Minneapolis in their cycling department, I said we were starting in Portland because it’s such an important cycling city. But they said, ‘Minneapolis is catching up fast. We’re looking to overtake Portland soon.’"
In city building as in all else, though, it's not a question of whether Minneapolis overtakes Portland or Columbus overtakes Pittsburgh. It's a matter of the long ride, and the opportunity to share the road.