The Cross-Country Pull of Portland’s Bike Culture
“You’re insane.” That’s what my friends said when I revealed I was moving across the country to Portland, Oregon – for the biking. I’d done my research. The League of American Bicyclists names Portland most-bike friendly almost every year. With 350 miles of bikeways and the highest percentage of bike commuters in the country (Portland Bureau of Transportation, 2016) , the annual win is no surprise. Armed with that knowledge, I set off to see if Portland really was a biking Mecca.
I departed from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leaving behind a tough little riding community, hardened by cold winters and careless drivers. Encounters with drivers in Milwaukee are rarely pleasant. I remember struggling for words when a grizzled man in a truck rolled down his window and screamed “GET THE &@$% OFF THE ROAD!” I wasn’t even in his way. It was a city street, I told him, and I was legally allowed to be there. It wasn’t the first time I had to defend my right to exist on the road. He sped off hurling obscenities, his tail pipe blasting exhaust in my face.
With Milwaukee more than 2, 000 miles behind me, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the drive into Portland. The experience was baffling. At first I was stuck behind a slow driver, and then another, and another. People were treating the speed limit like… well, a speed limit! Very soon I realized why.
We hit the first bump hard, jolting my Toyota Camry, catapulting luggage in the backseat. I slowed down and wrote the bump off as anomaly. Then we rolled over another, and another. Irvington, our new neighborhood, was a rollercoaster of speed bumps. If these were installed back in my home town, frantic drivers would be soaring Dukes-of-Hazard style.
Returning to the seat of my clunky commuter bike, the benefit of all these bumps revealed itself. Slow driving made for safe biking. Back in Milwaukee biking is hardcore, perfect for 20-something guys who crave the adrenaline rush. Now, during rush hour in Portland, I’m passing a family of four: a kid just off training wheels, a mom and dad chatting away, and a toddler in tow. Is this level of comfort on the road even possible? Portland has made me a believer.
As a cyclist in Milwaukee, I got used to feeling like an unwanted guest on a road built by – and for – drivers. So it was a shock to discover another bizarre Portland concept: the bicycle boulevard. It’s a network of connected streets spanning the city (70 miles and growing) where cyclists rule the road. Using clever traffic calming techniques, the boulevards are kept mostly car-free, giving that family of four a safe space to explore the city on two wheels.
Daydreaming, I missed a stop sign, nearly cutting off a driver. We both slammed on the brakes and the woman rolled down her window. I flashed back to the grizzled man in the truck screaming obscenities at me. “I’m sorry!” I pleaded. She just smiled and waved me across. I was floored. Not used to kindness on the road, I had to wipe away tears from my eyes as I rode on.
Since 2000, Portland has seen a 250% increase in people biking to work (Portland Bureau of Transportation, 2016). Given how the city empowers cyclists, it’s no surprise that the bike culture is pulling in people from across the country. When I moved here, I knew I would fall in love with the biking scene, but I never expected such kindness and care from the city itself. A month into my time in Portland, here’s what I’ve learned: changing your commute can change your life.
About the author:
Shane Stricker moved across the country – for the biking. His passion for bicycle culture brought him to Portland, Oregon where he writes and produces videos as a freelancer. If he’s not riding the neighborhood bikeways, you’ll find him at the nearest coffee shop daydreaming about life on two wheels.
Photos: People for bikes on Flickr