A bike-friendly place?
Portland has always been a bike friendly place, right? There was the “Bike Bill,” passed way back in 1971 during the frenzy of good stuff pushed by Republicans like land use planning, clean air and bottle deposits! The real story is actually one of constant struggle and advocacy that really didn’t take off until the Bicycle Transportation Alliance was founded in late 1990, almost 20 years after the Bike Bill became law. The intervening years had little to show for them (bike trails along freeways, mostly) in the Portland region. No bike lanes on major streets, no safe bridge crossings on the Willamette, no bikes on buses or light rail. And no power at Portland City Council, Metro or any of the three counties. Bicyclists, and there weren’t many, were left to their own devices which sometimes meant your fists, cause the cops would never take the cyclists’ side in confrontations with motorists. I remember being ordered off of NE Broadway by a police captain as he idled beside me even though he couldn’t cite a reason!
But this is not a bitch about the past but a story of hope, of how committed citizens can bring about change. The first BTA was a small group of volunteers, meeting in each other’s kitchens to put together strategy, newsletters (photocopied and mailed back then), and vision. And look what we got done:
- Bikes on transit–volunteers collected something like 7000 signatures on the street, got numerous local governments to pass supporting resolutions and did independent research to convince TriMet to try it out for a year. It worked, attracting new customers to the bus and having no problems. TriMet become the first larger transit agency in the country to be 100% bike accessible. The low floor Max cars were another direct outcome of our work, again another first.
- The BTA went to Multnomah County when we found out they were going to do a major retrofit of the Hawthorne Bridge but weren’t going to do anything to make it better and safer for cyclists (the sidewalks were all of 4 feet wide). The County, under leadership of Chair Beverly Stein, agree to widen the sidewalks on Hawthorne bridge and commit to fix all 7 Willamette River bridges to make them safer for bikes and walkers, the last being the Morrison. Old timers will remember the wooden sidewalks on the Broadway Bridge. Another win for citizen action!
- First road diet in Portland. BTA action got a lane removed from NE Broadway and Weidler in the Lloyd District creating space for wider sidewalks and bike lanes. This was a result of our grassroots campaign to “restore the boulevard” campaign to get bike lanes on SE Hawthorne (alas, the City never followed through on promises to make Hawthorne bicycle friendly even though studies show that a three lane configuration is better for motorists, transit and cyclists. This is why Minneapolis is now the #1 bicycle city in America—the mayor’s commitment to road diets).
- Beat the City in court. Successfully sued City of Portland (all the way to Oregon Supreme Court) to implement the famous Oregon bike law. Contrary to some accounts, the lawsuit wasn’t specious or a failure or a minor issue, it was about whether Portland (and all other governments in Oregon) was going to meet its legal obligation to cyclists under ORS366.514. The BTA deliberately chose a high profile project–the Oregon Arena–and the critical connections to the Broadway bridge (with its wooden(!) sidewalks). Current Congressman Earl Blumenauer was transportation commissioner at the time and boy, he wasn’t happy at being sued, but the courts proved BTA was right. Much of the incredible growth in bike and ped infrastructure is due directly to this landmark case (BTA vs. City of Portland).
There is much more but I think it important to be aware of the history and how victories were won through imagination, hard work and not taking no for an answer. Critical Mass never came to much here was precisely because the BTA was so effective, and through grassroots organizing. We were a critical mass, growing from a few people around the kitchen table to thousands through effective, principled and relentless advocacy. The BTA also were active supporting advocates around the state with training, logistical help and ideas.
The bicycle as transport has an even greater role to play in maintaining effective mobility and access while taking on climate change, peak oil, and other struggles for the world’s resources. What other way of getting around is so healthful, safe, clean, equitable and enjoyable?
When big transportation projects are built without bike facilities, eg, the rebuild of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Grand Avenue for the streetcar or the rehabilitation of the St Johns Bridge, as well as the 20+ year wait for decent bike access on main streets like Burnside, 28th, Hawthorne, Halsey, etc, etc, etc. it is time again for strong, outspoken citizen action.