Enthusiasm among Portland’s bike entrepreneurs seems to be at an all-time high, but the city’s spot as a leader in bicycle innovation may be less secure than many believe. Bike-commute rates have flatlined at around 6% for the past five years, and advocates will have to convince more people to leave their cars in the garage if the city has a hope of meeting its ridership goals. Public money for bike infrastructure appears to be drying up.
Portland’s network of bike greenways has drawn international acclaim. These low-traffic secondary streets use speed bumps and stop signs to slow down cars, offer traffic signals to help bikes cross busy intersections, and install signs and road paint that make it clear that bikes are welcome. A local innovation, greenways have attracted copycats in London, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle.
But after investing heavily since 2009, city funding for these projects has nearly been eliminated. Three planned greenways are on indefinite hold. Improvements to existing routes have been postponed. The costs of building a new Sellwood Bridge and the Orange Line MAX train have drained Portland’s Bureau of Transportation budget, city officials say. And Mayor Charlie Hales appears less enamored of bicycle investments than his predecessor. Hales has made paving a priority for city streets this year.
Plenty of businesses support this shift in priorities. During a February meeting led by city bike coordinator Roger Geller, business owners on a Northeast 28th Street commercial strip were vocal in their opposition to city proposals to remove auto parking in favor of creating a more bike-friendly street. Meanwhile, over at the Portland Business Alliance, vice president Laura Shepard, an occasional bike commuter herself, voices only qualified support for cycling investments.
“For years we have invested in lots of bike-oriented projects,” she says. “You have to make sure your infrastructure investments are balanced. There needs to be support for freight movement, for people who drive to work.”
As Portland slows its investments in greenways and other bike infrastructure, the rest of the country is catching up — and not just on transportation spending. When Birk co-founded Alta Planning + Design in the late 1990s, she struggled to find architects and planners who understood the role bikes can play in an urban environment. Over time, Portland State emerged as the only major school with that educational focus. “For 10 years, practically our entire workforce came out of the Portland State urban- planning program,” Birk says. But that’s changed. “Portland State is not the only game anymore. Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton — these are top-notch programs.
“And obviously Portland is not the nation’s leader when it comes to bike share,” says Birk. Back in 2007, former Mayor Sam Adams vowed to make Portland the first U.S. city with a modern short-term bike-rental program. Since then, Birk’s Alta Bicycle Share business has developed programs in seven U.S. cities and Melbourne, Australia, but not in its hometown. Portland leaders selected Alta to develop bike sharing for their city, too — but only if they can raise $2.8 million in private-sector funding. Birk says she’s optimistic that the city could have a bike-share program running later this year.
Two decades ago, Birk was part of a dedicated group of city bike advocates who laid the groundwork for today’s Portland bike culture. Even as the city built bike lanes and designated greenways, economic development gurus were ignoring bicycles to market Portland as a silicon hub, an alternative energy hub, a software hub. And as other regions continued to outpace Portland in those industries, local companies across all sectors started incorporating bikes into their business plans.
Today Portland’s bicycling culture has reshaped roads, apartment plans and commercial construction across the city, and spurred the birth of a bike-focused business sector. In his February keynote speech for Oregon Business’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon awards dinner, Puppet Labs CEO Luke Kanies relayed a telling anecdote about the intersection between bikes and business. During their first staff meeting, new hires at this fast-growing Pearl District software firm are asked to reveal something interesting about themselves. But so many people want to talk about bikes (along with coffee and beer) that such interests are “no longer considered interesting,” Kanies said.
That mainstreaming of bike culture grew out of public-sector investments in cycling infrastructure. Today Portland’s entrepreneurial, amenity-driven private sector is by many metrics taking the reins, expanding the definition of bike businesses in the process. Increasingly, even seemingly unrelated enterprises consider support for cycling good business sense — and an efficient means of moving people around in an urban environment. In an era of declining public resources, Portland is about to learn just how far the city’s bike economy can go with businesses leading the way.