Be like Portland? No Thanks!

Portland-envy is a common condition among cyclists. In every town, some cyclist or reporter will write about how his/her city should aspire to be like Portland, Oregon. The notion shows up here in Orlando a few times a year. Most recently, in the Weekly. Here’s why I don’t want Orlando to be like Portland:

October 11, 2007 Tracey Sparling rode up a bike lane and stopped at a red light next to a cement truck in Portland, Oregon. When the light turned green, the truck turned right. According to an eyewitness, Tracey never even moved. She was run over where she stood. Both vehicle drivers were obeying the law and the markings of the lanes they were in. This was no accident. It was the inevitable convergence of bad bikeway design and an inexperienced cyclist.

Earlier this year, to address several high-profile deaths of cyclists run over by right-turning trucks, Portland, Oregon passed a resolution to install under-run guards on city trucks. Think about it. I hope the reality of that turns your stomach a little.

A collision with a right-turning truck is 100% preventable by any cyclist who knows enough to avoid blind spots and danger zones. But Portland’s bike planners have used bike lanes to create an abundance of segregated, undereducated, facility-dependent cyclists who don’t even know this much, and who think they are entitled not to learn.

The purpose of this strategy is to convince more people to ride by making them believe education isn’t necessary. This is, of course, based on a lie. Cyclists require MORE education to outsmart the conflicts created by bike lanes.

It didn’t have to be that way for Portland. The city already had the natural, sociopolitical and geographical ingredients for bike culture. They could have created a far more traffic-savvy bike culture if they had chosen another kind of encouragement. But what they have created is a model for deadly conflicts, which has been promoted as a standard for all cities to follow. It’s instructive to understand how they got there and why it is a model we should avoid.

Portland, like most cities, used bike lanes to lure timid cyclists onto the road. Those cyclists, lacking any education in safe cycling practices, didn’t want to have to merge properly at intersections, or even allow other vehicles to merge into their lane. Thus ensued a series of compromises, leading to a spiral of unintended consequences and a loss of access to the primary travel lanes for cyclists:

  • To enable them to cling to their fears, Portland striped its bike lanes solid to the intersection—in defiance of AASHTO guidelines.
  • To appease cyclists who become increasingly territorial about “their” lanes, Oregon forbids motorists from (properly) merging into a bike lane before an intersection—instead requiring them to turn across the bike lane at the intersection.
  • To address the right-hook problem exacerbated by this, the law requires motorists to always yield to cyclists before turning (even when those cyclists are overtaking in their blind-spot). The law does not account for the fact that motorists already have to scan the 180° field in front of them; that cyclists may be hidden from view by curves, parked cars, etc.; that cyclists typically ride at 20 to 30 feet per second (faster on downhills); and that the requirement for motorists to divert attention to their rear decreases intersection safety for everyone!
  • To appease the motoring majority, Oregon has a law requiring cyclists to ride in bike lanes (and side paths).

This combination of bad facility design and bad law exceeds human capacity and defies 100 years of practical driving conventions — AKA the rules of the road. Defying the workable rules of the road does not work, even when you paint a bike lane blue. But after two young cyclists were run over by trucks last fall, Portland scrambled for more paint to solve the intractable safety problems caused by the bike lanes.

In defiance of proper engineering practice and process, they hastily painted more lines and boxes with bright colors (flouting the Federal Highway Administration procedures for implementing experimental traffic control devices in so doing). When the paint fails, there will be louder cries for barrier-separated bike lanes and cycle tracks. All of this will create more—not less—crash risk while reducing speed and travel efficiency for cyclists and/or imposing signal-phase delays on all vehicle drivers. In theory, one can make a Rube Goldberg intersection design safe by adding traffic signal phases. In practice, this is expensive, it adds unacceptable delays and it only works if the bicyclists all obey the signals.

All of this complication is promoted in the interest of enticing more cyclists by enabling them to cling to irrational fear. Can you say, “backlash?”

The only real solution to cyclist safety and access is to EMPOWER cyclists by educating them to act as drivers of vehicles. Contrary to rumor, education is EASY! Safe riding requires a bit of knowledge and a few simple skills. It does not require athleticism or superhuman courage. It can be made even easier by encouraging the traffic culture to accept and respect cyclists as part of the mix (through social marketing and civic leadership). Both components are far less expensive and far more effective than the more complicated and dangerous roadway designs necessary to create a “complete network” for a tiny percentage of the population who don’t want to learn the FEW SIMPLE SKILLS.

In Portland, it is unthinkable to promote education first. So they’ll continue spending taxpayer money to create more problems with experimental infrastructure, imposing a greater burden on other road users (and competent cyclists) so uneducated cyclists can have their illusion of safety.

So, next time someone tells you they want Orlando to be more like Portland, say “NO THANKS!” We don’t want a city that caters to irrational fear by creating deadly illusions to lure uneducated cyclists onto the road — no matter how wonderful cycling is for saving us from global warming and the obesity epidemic. It is not OK to kill even one cyclist to encourage 1,000 to ride.

I love bike culture. There is a lot (outside the traffic environment) that I find appealing about Portland’s bike culture. But no matter how intoxicating it is, it’s built on a downward spiral of unintended consequences. Imagine how much better it would be if it was built on a principled model—including integration, cooperation and shared space—to the mutual benefit of all road users.

There is an alternative—education, public awareness and intelligent infrastructure choices (including pavement markings which encourage integration). It would work if bicycle advocates spent a fraction of the effort on it as they do trying to suck up government money for inadequate infrastructure. It ultimately creates safer and more responsible cyclists, more civil motorists and a healthier, more livable community. It is being done, with little national recognition (because it defies the convention promoted by high-profile organizations and corporations!), in places like Dallas, TX and Bethlehem, PA.

An upcoming post will be about the success story of principled advocacy in Bethlehem—I visited the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation Tuesday.

13 replies
  1. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    To defend Portland a bit (though not entirely):

    I think it’s false to say Portland promotes cycling without promoting education.

    The City of Portland does far more to educate cyclists than any Florida city I know. Their Smart Trips program reaches 14,000 people a year with customized alternative transportation info, including info on bike-ed courses.

    While I agree the bike lane stripes should be dashed at intersections, I doubt any untrained cyclist is going to know better if they are. For that matter, if the intersection had a 15-foot curb lane the truck driver could have still kept left in order to get sufficient turning radius, thus “inviting” the cyclist into the conflict zone.

    And while I agree with the “first, do no harm” philosophy of street design, let’s remember that Portland has seen a tripling of cycling over the past decade or so, while crashes have remained flat; so their crash rate per exposure has dropped by about two-thirds.

  2. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    And to follow up: learning doesn’t happen only through formal training. Indeed, most happens informally. The silver lining of such incidents as above is that people become aware of the problem and discuss ways to avoid it.

  3. Keri
    Keri says:

    What I mostly saw after the tragedies was cyclists crying for more protection and more enforcement of the yield law so they could continue passing on the right. I was fixated on this last year because I had been studying bikeway problems and solutions when it happened. I read a lot of forum discussions and notes from council meetings. The primary (and nearly exclusive) emphasis was on engineering solutions. I was horrified at the lack of discussion of learning safe cycling practices. In fact when these were brought up they were dismissed as being elitist and only for superathletes — which is absolutely false.

    Cyclists are at risk when passing a truck in a wide lane, too. But at least they make the choice without the help of an official traffic control device. Cyclists ride too close to parked cars, too. That doesn’t excuse door zone bike lanes.

    Yes, most learning is organic. But we also know that cycling is plagued by mythology, misinformation and social taboos which inhibit the natural learning process. Most of us are lucky enough to survive our mistakes. Tracy wasn’t. Her mistake was built into the environment. It was encouraged! As was Dana Laird’s.

    My argument is not that Portland does no education. It is that its bike-promoting foundation is built on facilities (which reinforce the problems of unfounded fear and motorist selfishness) and not education (which could actually solve them).

    I think cycling education should be promoted with the same level of effort as motorcycle education. We need to work hard to debunk and destroy the mythologies which inhibit learning. Infrastructure should be used intelligently to facilitate connectivity, not recklessly increase mode share by blatantly catering to mythology-induced fear.

    Look at that blue bike lane between two right turn lanes and tell me that isn’t reckless.

  4. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    No argument from me that Portland is doing some things wrong. I noticed in Seattle that in most cases where bike lanes would have created problems they used sharrows instead.

  5. Will
    Will says:


    Your call for more education is warranted; however, you are falling victim to a social psychological phenomenon whereby a dramatic occurrence or two skew people’s perceptions as to the actual impact or prevalence of a situation exists. For instance, what occurs more frequently murder or suicide? Most would say murder, since it is overly publicized. The reality is there are twice as many suicides.

    As a previous writer stated, you give no empirical evidence that Portland’s system is more dangerous than any other city. You fail to acknowledge the sheer number of cyclist in that city. Perhaps a sign at the intersection warning cyclist of blind spots would be a sufficient remedy.

    i recently spent time commuting around Portland and I must say that I felt much safer than riding down Orange Ave or Mills on my way between downtown and Winter Park.

    Maybe you have valid points, but it’s all here-say until you bring the evidence.

    Safe Travels,


  6. Keri
    Keri says:


    I appreciate your comment. I’ve actually ridden in Portland a number of times, too. There are things to like about the place, but there are lessons to learn as well. And some mindsets I think should be avoided.

    I’d like to point out that there is a rather large difference between feeling safe and being safe. Especially in bicycling where safety is actually counter-intuitive to the misinformation and fear-mongering we’ve been subjected to since childhood.

    With regard to Orlando, I feel and AM very safe when I ride on Orange and Mills.

    Here’s a video of me on Orange at rush hour in the rain and one on Mills.

    One of the things I’ve noticed on Portland blogs/comments is the number of people who have experienced a right hook (non-serious hit or near-miss) or a dooring (non-serious hit or near-miss). These don’t show up in crash stats. There are other questions about Portland’s crash reporting. As I understand it, police don’t do a report unless there is a death or trauma injuries. Here is an example of a crash which put a cyclist in the hospital, but did not rate a police investigation or a citation to the driver.

    A friend from Portland who is more familiar with these things said this:

    There is no evidence that I’m aware of that Portland’s cyclist accident rate is declining (a robust study would probably be impossible). Portland has claimed that the accident rate has been “precipitously” declining, but only gives data for car-bike collisions derived from police reports. They simply divide the rate of increase in bicycle counts over the four main bridges by the yearly rate of change in reported car-bike collisions. They call this the crash rate “index” or something. So they neglect about 85% of the crashes cyclists experience and use very unreliable data for the rest, then inflate the numerator with the most optimistic representation of the increase in citywide cycling. No hourly or per mile assessment either. It’s completely cooked up and entirely meaningless.

    I think there’s plenty of reasons to believe the rate has increased, but probably no way to show it with empirical evidence. Lots of poorly designed bike lanes, badly-designed bike paths with frequent bike-ped interactions, the construction of the street car line, degrading street quality, sunken drainage grates in bike lanes, traffic calming implements, just to name a few things.

    Portland has also learned to do a political end-run around the testing process for “creative” facilities. That process exists for a reason—to protect people. I wouldn’t want to live in a city that was cavalier about experimenting with my life in order to show how “bike friendly” they are.

  7. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    Some of us may be aware that a person on a bike was struck and injured in Daytona Beach in the last couple of days. The news articles are without conclusive information, as usual, but one point appears to be consistent. The driver of the semi-truck that was involved in the crash might not be aware that there was a crash. This would indicate that the driver of the truck might not have been aware there was a person on a bike nearby.

    I tried to place myself at that intersection in such a way that would result in being struck by the back end of a semi-trailer. The only answer I could come up with placed me alongside the truck. That’s not an acceptable location, although for some people on bikes without much training (or any), it is possible.

    That particular stretch of roadway has eight foot wide lanes, and perhaps as much as ten foot wide.

    I believe, as I think Keri might, that cyclists’ education would go a long way to reducing bicycle related crashes. This recent crash seems to support that thought.

  8. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    Watching that video brings to mind that as cyclists, we are permitted to use a roadway on which other users are required to demonstrate a minimum skill level, while we are not required to demonstrate any skill level at all. I am not one for another layer of licensing, but the video is a good example of how skilled, trained and educated riders are safer for everyone on the road.

    I’m also quite thankful to not live in a state or city with mandatory bike lane use laws!

  9. rodney
    rodney says:

    The video, at first look, seems to acknowledge the truck drivers responsibility to safety but places the ultimate accountability on the cyclist or other vehicle operator(s). I see the “It’s not my fault, I didn’t see that (do that)”, etc. everyday.

    True, the silhouette or profile of a cyclist is almost nil in relation to large trucks and equipment. As a commuter, I take FULL responsibility for my safety and actions. That is where the training comes into play. Now, I am no LCI or Street Smarts guru, but I do possess a higher level of cycling knowledge than the “get on a bike and ride” crowd.

    Training, education, and the sorts have been repeating issues in this blog and others. I agree with Fred that another level of licensing is not the answer.

    When I purchased my Honda four-wheeler back in 2000, I was offered a Rider Safety Course, from the manufacturer. I feel the same would benefit those that purchase a bicycle. The cost of the course was “built in” to the purchase price, so is it really an issue NOT to partake of this type of training?

    I had little experience with this type of machinery and the fact of having a 600 lb plus machine be my demise was intimidating. With many these days choosing a bicycle for transportation and recreational purposes, wouldn’t this make sense?

    Bicycle manufacturers and LBS’s could co-op these programs to offset the cost of this training. Of course, a portion of the training will be borne by the purchaser ( included in purchase price). “Bicycles are toys” (they’re really not) “and it is unnecessary to take this course” will probably be the main statements mentioned.

    One has to study the state drivers manual and take a test in order to receive a license to operate a motor vehicle. The drivers manual, to me, gives the confidence and introduction to skills necessary to be a safe operator.

    With many these days choosing a bicycle for transportation and recreational purposes, wouldn’t this make sense? I mean, who would’t want to be prepared for being safe?

  10. rodney
    rodney says:

    Speaking of skilled, trained, and educated cyclists…..I like the cyclist at about 2:00 in the video. It looks like he EXITED the bike lane to proceed!

  11. Keri
    Keri says:

    Rodney noticed: “I like the cyclist at about 2:00 in the video. It looks like he EXITED the bike lane to proceed!

    I noticed that too! It’s so easy to do, notice how slow traffic is moving, the guy slides left… you don’t see it but he easily passes the truck on the left as it turns. That’s the dance.

    Your observation about the 4-wheeler class is similar to what I’ve been saying about the MSF. The motorcycle industry makes education a cultural norm (now it’s mandated, but for years it wasn’t). If you bought a motorcycle every step along the way you were encouraged to take a class. Even non-motorcycling friends asked me if I had taken a class when I got my motorcycle. That’s how much education has permeated the culture.

    Perhaps the bike industry would do that if they weren’t so distracted chasing taxpayer money to build stuff. And that’s not to say there isn’t a place for facilities, it’s just the over-emphasis and neglect of other important issues that irks me. If we want a complete system, we simply have no choice but to solve the problems of lack of education and civility. Facilities exacerbate those problems if they are not addressed first, or with equal determination.

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