With virtuous dumpster-diving, hundreds of spelt-based micro-breweries, and a vegan strip-club, Portland is where young people go to retire, joked Portlandia, the U.S. comedy series that, five seasons in, satirises Oregon’s largest and hippest city. Portland also has a thriving tall-bike scene, people move house with cargo-bikes not removals vans, and the city is home to the Sprockettes, a women-only BMX-based dance troupe.
When Islabikes wanted an HQ in the US from which to springboard, Portland was the natural choice. Upscale cycle apparel brand Showers Pass is Portland born and bred. Chris King Precision Components, Nutcase Helmets and Ruckus Components all hail from Portland. There are 40 artisanal frame makers in the city and 60 bike shops. Cyclist-and-hipster-friendly kilt manufacturer Stumptown Kilts helps organise an annual kilted bike ride (Portland is nicknamed Stumptown because it grew up so quickly and so haphazardly that the Victorians left tree-stumps embedded in the streets – the stumps are long gone, but Portland’s staccato street grid is one of the reasons for its bike-friendliness). Portland’s version of the World Naked Bike Ride attracts 10,000 cyclists, many of them nubile young men and women.
In short, Portland is paradise for those who pedal. Or, at least that’s the popular impression of Portland. When you’re on the ground (and I was on the ground giving a talk at Velo Cult; part bike shop, part tavern, part MTB museum) it’s surprising to find that America’s leading bicycling city has precious few protected bike lanes, local bicycle advocates despair that the city’s much-vaunted “bicycle boulevards” are next to useless in peak periods because motorists muscle cyclists out of the way, and the Keep-Portland-Weird bikeyness is nowhere near as universal as Portlandia portrays.
Bike commuters may dominate in some bohemian enclaves but across the city they make up just six percent of the total. This is stellar by U.S. standards – ten times the norm, in fact – but in comparison with, say, Copenhagen, it’s not even in the same galaxy.
Stats can be misleading though. When riding around Portland it’s clear this is a city where, in certain areas, cycling is perfectly normal, not just for getting to work but for running errands or riding to a night out. Bars and shops have bike-corrals (rows of cycle parking hoops instead of car parking spaces) and the light rail system is geared up to take bikes. Portland’s six percent modal share has to be seen in context – in 1990 it was just 1 percent. Between 2000 and 2008 the civic authority’s proactive bicycle programme helped add the other five percent, and the city has held it at that level ever since. Ten percent of kids cycle to school, nine percentage points higher than the U.S. national average.
Portland’s rich and diverse cycling cultures will easily maintain the existing modal share. The civic goal is to increase it to 25 percent within the next decade, and that’s a tough ask, even for a city that spawned Pedalpalooza, an annual 250-event from-the-street bike festival.
To increase cycling’s modal share it’s obvious that Portland’s car-use would have to be restricted, and hard infrastructure for cyclists would have to be built. Cycle use would then explode in Portland, profiting the city’s numerous bicycle businesses, making the city even more liveable, and not just for cyclists in gluten-free kilts.
And what would work for Portland would work for many other cities, too, including in the UK. Portland’s hipster vibe may be easy to spoof but its penchant for cycling is a key part of the future for urbanites everywhere.