Portland, Oregon: city of bridges, famous for its hipster attitude, craft beer capital of the States and possibly the world. Specky, beardy and full of artisanal products and people, it is of course also full of people on bikes. And it was this, not the weather (similar to Auckland’s, but colder, for longer), that brought me and my partner from halfway around the world in August to visit this inland city of just over six hundred thousand people.
Portland did not disappoint on the bike count. We chose to stay at a guest house appropriately named The Friendly Bike Guesthouse, because it had a bike garage downstairs, and was very friendly on the pocket after our week in L.A. The 7-room accommodation was situated about 6km from town, but as we were planning to hire bikes, and Portland is mostly flat, it was a fine compromise. The area appeared from Google satellite view to be somewhat in decline, on the fringes of the city in a slightly rundown patch of suburbia.
The reality was inspiring. We arrived at lunchtime and had the afternoon to walk to town and collect our bikes and take a look around. It turns out that North Williams Ave, up where we were staying by the Hopworks Bike Bar, has in recent years become a very desirable spot in Portland. Directly outside our front door was a street lined with a vintage store, an organic café, a pizzeria, the most wonderful toy store I’d ever been in, several bars, a Pilates and Ballet studio, more food places, a bike shop… And all the way along was bike parking. You didn’t really notice it except that every two meters there were another 2-3 bikes lined up horizontally on the footpath.
This is because North Williams Ave is home to a bike street. What the planners in Portland have done, with a view to making their city better, is added a cycle path to the roading layout by simply adding a line of paint.
All the traffic runs one way (out of town) – but before anyone panics, Vancouver Ave, which runs parallel to North Williams has the same layout, going the other direction. Imagine Dominion Road and Mt Eden Road (albeit less bendy and more gridline) as one-way streets, one in each direction. If you need to change direction, you’d just nip across View Road or Grange Road and back you go. It took us about one day to figure the system out and behave accordingly and it was fantastic!
The beautiful outcome is more people on bikes, because it’s faster, easier, normal and safe to ride. Of course one thing leads to another: people on bikes operate at a human scale and pace, and the blooming economic growth had retailers quickly adapting. The New Seasons Market has a row of parking for the daily quaxers on their way home, and a bike pump for convenience.
Bike parking around town was of interest itself. We of course rode to our music festival, where the bike parking was fantastic. Easy to assemble, the structure could hold a multitude of bikes on minimal land space. This allowed for the event to be hosted in a park in the city overlooking the stunning Willamette River. When you don’t need to have hectares of asphalt for housing sedentary hulks of tin surrounding your event space like a moat, you suddenly have a lot more flexibility in locations.
Biking in Portland is normalised as a viable method of transport, and the diversity is what makes it so equalising. There isn’t a special type of bike or equipment you need, and you can be as fancy or as plain as you want. People ride all sorts of bikes. My favourite was the cargo bike with a slightly longer wheel base holding a long plank or padded cushion-style parcel tray so your kids could sit astride behind you. The strangest was the crazy moving bike-bar, powered by the patrons pedalling it.
Another thing that was exciting was the broad range of events on all the time, Tour De Lab, Bike Camp, Providence Bridge Pedal… There was something on for a person on a bike almost every weekend.
Helmet-wearing is not compulsory in Portland. But interestingly, given the choice, most people choose to wear them. It was common to hear everywhere we went ‘I like my brain’, and so accordingly there was a multitude of fun and fashionable helmet styles for sale in the shops. I think what is key here is letting people make the choice themselves. There are times that a helmet is appropriate, and there are times it is unnecessary – and being able to choose is a drawcard for adults who value their own agency. Bike riding is not a dangerous activity, it’s cars that are the harmful object – and when you have protected cycle lanes, you reduce your risk of cars hurting people on bikes. On this topic, no one explains it better than eleven year old Matlock Grossman.
And that’s one of the beautiful things in Portland: reducing frequency of car use and adding a bike to the transport toolkit makes roads safer and brings communities together. We visited one of the Painted Streets, acts of Tactical Urbanism initiated by the people living locally. It was an inspiration to see how much influence people can have over their living environment in public spaces.
Portland is a city in process, but heading in the right direction. If you had asked me a few years ago where I would want to spend my holidays as a tourist, I never would have picked this town. I never would have even heard about it! But here I was – proof that if you build it, they will come.
Although I was sad to hand in my bike and head toward the plane, I was also excited to be coming home. The week after we arrived back in Auckland, there was the Food Space Launch down by the Silos. Our food trucks serve food surpassing everything I saw in Portland, our harbour is sparkling, and our public spaces are trophies to landscape architecture. We have great craft beer, too – we have artisans recognised worldwide for clothing, design, and produce!
I came home from my travels with a renewed sense of just how lucky we are here, and how much I love Auckland. We can keep gazing at the grass on the other side of the fence, and learn from what they’re doing over there – but we also need to keep fighting for the city our future generations are going to live in. With icons like Lightpath just completed (and its maybe less internationally eye-catching, but in practice just as transformative) Nelson St lanes – it’s good to know that we’re heading in the right direction, faster than ever.
The month after my travels, I joined 200 people for the Sunday Best Ride… kind of amazing to see this many of us on Ponsonby Rd, but Portland reminded me it’s both possible, and wonderful.