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.