Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Roger Geller, Portland's Bike Experience

Roger Geller, cycling coordinator for the city of Portland, OR spoke last evening at the CfSC meeting held at Tom Brown arena. Here are some of the points he raised in his PPT presentation on cycling in Portland.

1. There is a continuous interplay of facilities, ridership, politicies/politics, and funding. It is akin to a virtuous cycle, with any improvement to cycling facilities leading to increased ridership, more political support, then more funding of improved facilities, etc. The most common spot for the cycle to be broken is the policies/politics phase. He advises cycling advocacy groups to go for simple, easy to implement facilitiy improvements first, and then nurture the cycle onward.

2. Portland has an auditor that measures what the City does. Thus they have impartial counts of cyclists at a number of points -- particularly bridges, since they focus cycle traffic onto a few routes -- over a number of years. Thus the facts on the ground indicate to political and bureaucratic decision makers the payoff of their decisions. Geller cited numerous charts and graphs to show that each dollar invested in cycling was yielding a bigger and bigger return as the cycling momentum grows.

3. Portland has an economic model that shows the impact of cycling on the city budget. Rather than just looking at cycling expenditures as "expenses" they show that cyclists consume fewer road resources than motorists. If all the cyclists switched to cars, they would have to increase the road budget by $1.2 billion dollars (annually or one time expense? - not clear). Furthermore, since all expenditures on cars and their parts leaves the city (there is no auto parts or assembly plants) the replacement of cars by bikes frees up $800 million anually to spent locally.

4. He had a pithy expression of the city's saving: cycling is cheap. It is perhaps the cheapest expenditure the city can make to deal with travel. It makes it easier to sell cycling to politicians and taxpayers as it is so cost effective. He had other stats too, that claimed each dollar spent on cycling infrastructure saved health dollars or each mile of cycling saves one dollar of health expenditure.

5. The city has a number of innovative cycling measures it is currently working on.
- pavement with green plastic imbeded in it so it appears to be painted green. This gives clear visual signal to motorists and cyclists.
- bike box - a green square on the pavement ahead of the automobile's  stop line, so cyclists jump to the front of the queue and get first crack at moving through the interesections. Ironically, his illustrative photo of a bike box in operation showed the cyclist had moved ahead of the box and partway into the intersection, foot down to the ground, straddling the pedestrian crosswalk.
- they invest in custom bike signals, signage, passing lanes for bikes on hills (ie a slow lane and a fast lane for cycling, side by side)
- they are always having to go back to widen the bike lanes as traffic increases. Their lanes are now 3m wide per direction
- make bike lanes visible and separated by taking over car lanes. In built up areas it is seldom possible to add cycling infrastructure to a street, it is generally required to convert road infrastructure to cycling infrastructure

6. He showed pictures of businesses that favour the removal of on-street car parking from in front of their businesses to be replaced by on-street bike corrals, replacing each car with up to 20 cycle parking spots.

7. to get more cycling in a city, it is necessary to build facilities to increase cycling attractiveness

8. the population consists of
1% - strong and fearless cyclists who are willing to compete with cars in vehicle lanes (these cyclists will not move onto segregated paths)
25% - enthused and confident cyclists, who very much want cycling lanes/routes
51% - interested in cyling but concerned about safety, routes, etc
33% - no way, no how, will not cycle

9. Geller identified 5 principles for improved cycling;
- comfort (cycling in the middle of a vehicle lane may be safe but it is not comfortable)
- safety (measurable and perceived safety)
- attractive facilties
- direct routes
- interconnections that are known (so riders are confident they can get there from here)

10. He showed a slide of a miniscule dusting of snow on a road (not enough to be plowable) with cyclists to illustrate that cycling is doable year round.

11. He did not discuss the vehicular model of cycling (cyclists mixed with traffic) vs segregated lanes. I do not recall any slides showing segregated lanes.

12. Political support is key. His city is in competition with other cities to be the most environmentally "green", the most bike friendly, etc. and thus the cycling measures have a boosterism or marketing element.

Geller's presentation was interesting and overlapped in many points the previous evening's presentation by Suzanne Lareau at CycleVisionOttawa. He mentioned that Portland has a population of 500,000 in a metro region of 2million. He did not mention if the municipalities representing the other 1.5million residents shared downtown Portland's enthusiasm for cycling. I wondered if the modal split numbers would be as attractive if they included the surrounding more-suburban areas. Picture for example what Ottawa's cycling and pedestrian numbers would look like if they only included the inner city areas and excluded post-1960 suburban growth.

Portland is well known for its city policies, "smart growth" mantra, transit and cycling measures, etc. It is rewarding to research the controversial nature/impact of these practices, since the impacts are not always what is expected. His presentation was definitly worthwhile seeing and I look forward to one day visiting Portland.

After Geller spoke, Councilor Leadman spoke about the importance of cycling initiatives in her ward. She highlighted the 2011 introduction of a bike box at the Churchill / Richmond intersection and one at Bay / Wellington (no date). She mentioned the importance of a Scott Street cycling initiative, once referring to it as BikeWest.


  1. "She mentioned the importance of a Scott Street cycling initiative, once referring to it as BikeWest."

    Congratulations Eric, you're cutting through the static!

  2. Great post!

    minor correction- the VéloQuébec meeting was organized by CyclingVISIONottawa not "CycleVisionOttawa"