Bike City: Portland, Oregon

A green city that really knows how to take it to the streets.

As I’m driving on the congested streets of my home town, I’m finding that more often than not, I’m likely to be faced with gridlock and lack of traffic flow. No matter what time of day I choose to take to the streets. I often try to imagine living in a city where both walking and biking are not only welcomed and considered charming, but are actually the norm. Where traveling and mobility, whatever method you choose, are both easy and environment friendly. You don’t have to look too far to find such a place.

Welcome to Portland, Oregon, a city of just over 500,000 that has been home to a progressive environmental culture pretty much before “being green” became hip and very marketable. Their reputation is certainly one to be proud of, as they’re known as one of the most ecologically conscious places in the world. Hundreds of grassroots environmental organizations are based in and around Portland. They don’t just pitch this as a possibility, they genuinely live it and value sustainable growth.

The city is so bicycle friendly, it might seem that cyclists get priority on the roads. Unlike many metropolitan centres, Portland motorists are very accommodating. It’s estimated that at least 7 percent of their population commute to work by bicycle, one of the highest numbers of cycling commuters in all the U.S. There are over 315 miles of developed bikeways, plus both designated bike and skateboard lanes. They also boast a fare-free zone for their public transit system, which dramatically reduces the traffic into the city’s downtown core. Seems everyone walks or cycles in Portland, including unicyclists and dogs, whose owners have bikes custom-made with pet-carriers. Very cool.

If we consider that greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming come to a large extent from fossil-fuel-based transportation, the initiatives that Portland has implemented to both reduce or eliminate hydrocarbons, is extremely impressive. Through a grant with the Climate Trust, Portland has committed to retiming traffic lights to reduce fuel consumption. Traffic-signal optimization, studies traffic patterns and re-calibrates signals to minimize the amount of time cars spend idling and accelerating. This initiative alone is calculated to have already cut fuel consumption by 1.75 million gallons which is equal to more than a 15,000 ton reduction in CO2 emissions. Other cities would do well to study their model.

The city also has “smart” parking meters which are solar powered, accept credit cards and stand one per block. Interesting that Portland is also the birthplace of car-sharing in the U.S. Their Flexcar members have access to a fleet of vehicles that are located throughout the metro area. Every Flexcar, replaces an estimated six cars on the road.

Everything about Portland in fact, is green and makes for the perfect place to have an eco-friendly vacation, too. Their Light Rail and Street Car system continues to expand, making it both easy and esthetically pleasing to travel the city. Portland values beauty too, from their cobbled and richly textured streets, to their visually lovely bus shelters. Plants are every where and trees gently shade.

It’s the absence of clogging traffic that is perhaps most appealing. Portland is very easy to get around and has so much to explore. Something for other large urban centres to continue to aspire to. Portland is definitely a city that really understands how to take it to the streets, for both its people and its environment.