Despite all the considerable advances Portland and the region have made in facilitating bicycling, concerns about the safety of bicycling still loom large. Riding a bicycle should not require bravery. Yet, all too often, that is the perception among cyclists and non-cyclists alike. No person should have to be “brave” to ride a bicycle; unfortunately, this is a sentiment commonly expressed to those who regularly ride bicycles by those who do not. There are many cities in modern, industrialized nations around the world with a high bicycle mode split. They have achieved these high levels of bicycle use through adherence to various cycling-promoting policies and practices. But, one thing they share in common is they have substantially removed the element of fear associated with bicycling in an urban environment. They have created transportation systems in which bicycling is often the most logical, enjoyable and attainable choice for trips of a certain length for a wide swath—if not the majority—of their populace. For residents of these cities, concern about personal safety associated with bicycling is rarely a consideration, and certainly not to the levels we experience here. In these “fearless” cities septuagenarians are able to ride alongside seven-year-olds safely, comfortably, and with confidence throughout the breadth of the cities. Making bicycling a more widespread and mainstream means of transportation in Portland will require substantially addressing concerns about personal safety.
Describing the four general categories of transportation cyclists in Portland and their differing needs best precedes a discussion of bikeway treatments. For lack of better terminology, Portlanders can be placed into one of the four following groups based on their relationship to bicycle transportation: “The Strong and the Fearless,” “The Enthused and the Confident,” “The Interested but Concerned.” The fourth group are non-riders, called the “No Way No How” group.
Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle. They are generally not afraid of other cyclists, or pedestrians, or of injuring themselves in a bicycle-only crash. When they say they are “afraid” it is a fear of people driving automobiles. This has been documented and reported in transportation literature from studies, surveys and conversations across the US, Canada, and Europe.
This expression of fear is also something that has been heard hundreds, if not thousands of times by city staff in conversations with Portland residents. Any staff person involved with bicycle projects from Portland’s Office of Transportation, PortlandParks and Recreation, Metro, and ODOT has repeatedly heard expression of this fear. Staff and employees of local bicycle organizations, clubs and bicycle-oriented businesses have also regularly heard Portland citizens express that their interest in riding a bicycle is countered by fear for their safety.
This fear can be understood experientially. There is a qualitative difference between riding a bicycle on a bikeway like SE Lincoln-Harrison—with little traffic, slow speeds, and frequent cyclists--as compared to one like N Willamette with narrow bicycle lanes, narrow travel lanes and high volumes of fast-moving traffic. There is also an easily understood qualitative difference between these bikeways and roadways like N Lombard, or SE Division, or West Burnside, as is there a difference between them and the motor-vehicle-free Springwater Corridor.
There is a continuum of cyclists, and of attitudes about cycling among the citizens of Portland. Some will tolerate West Burnside, others are comfortable on Willamette, more prefer Lincoln-Harrison, and many truly feel at ease only on a trail like the Springwater. Others will not ride anywhere in the City of Portland, or elsewhere. This continuum is defined, in part, by individual comfort level on different types of bikeways.
The “Strong and the Fearless” comprise perhaps 2,000 or fewer cyclists in Portland, representing fewer than 0.5% of the population. These are the people who will ride in Portland regardless of roadway conditions. They are ‘bicyclists;’ riding is a strong part of their identity and they are generally undeterred by roadway conditions—though likely few are courageous enough to venture too far up West Burnside into the West Hills.
The “Enthused and Confident” are those who have been attracted to cycling in Portland by the significant advances the city has made developing its bikeway network and supporting infrastructure over the past 16 years. They are comfortable sharing the roadway with automotive traffic, but they prefer to do so operating on their own facilities. They are attracted to riding in Portland because there are streets that have been redesigned to make them work well for bicycling. They appreciate bicycle lanes and bicycle boulevards.
This enthused and confident demographic of cyclists are the primary reason why bicycle commuting doubled between 1990 and 2000 (U.S. Census) and why measured bicycle trips on Portland’s four main bicycle-friendly bridges across the Willamette River saw more than a 300% increase in daily bicycle trips between the early 1990’s and 2006. There are perhaps now more than 22,000 of this group riding their bicycles regularly in the city. An educated guess would be that this 22,000 represents 60% of the ‘enthused and confident’ demographic of Portland citizens. These are the citizens who are and could be attracted to regular riding by continuing to address the barriers on which Portland has focused for the past 15 years: shorter trip distances, better bicycle facilities, better end-of-trip facilities. This demographic comprises perhaps 40,000 Portland citizens, or 7% of the population.
A much larger demographic, representing the vast majority of Portland’s citizens, are the “interested but concerned.” These residents are curious about bicycling. They are hearing messages from a wide variety of sources about how easy it is to ride a bicycle in Portland, about how bicycling is booming in the city, about “bicycle culture” in Portland, about Portland being a “bicycle-friendly” city, and about the need for people to lead more active lives. They like riding a bicycle, remembering back to their youths, or to the ride they took last summer on the Springwater, or in the BridgePedal, or at Sun River, and they would like to ride more. But, they are afraid to ride. They don’t like the cars speeding down their streets. They get nervous thinking about what would happen to them on a bicycle when a driver runs a red light, or guns their cars around them, or passes too closely and too fast. Very few of these people regularly ride bicycles—perhaps 2,000 who will ride through their neighborhoods to the local park or coffee shop, but who will not venture out onto the arterials to the major commercial and employment destinations they frequent. There are probably 300,000 in this group, representing 60% of the city’s population. They would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and paths without any cars at all.
Perhaps one-third of the city’s population falls into the last category of ‘cyclist.’ This is the “no way, no how” group that is currently not interested in bicycling at all, for reasons of topography, inability, or simply a complete and utter lack of interest.
The separation between these four broad groups is not generally as clear-cut as described here. There is likely quite a bit of blurring between the “enthused,” the “interested,” and those not at all interested, but this has proven to be a reasonable way to understand the city’s existing and potential cyclists.