The Web Monkey Speaks: A “Bike-Friendly” city? Let’s redefine that

An abundance of bullshit

Portland is famous for a lot of things—hipsters, coffee, rain and, last but not least, an abiding love affair with bicycles. Portland is a cycling mecca…at least it is if you believe the platinum rating given to it by the League of American Bicyclists and the steaming heaps of praise dumped on the city every time it’s been voted America’s “most bike friendly city,” a title the city seems to earn every few years.

Let me just call bullshit on all that right now. You can’t be America’s most bike-friendly city when you actively discourage mountain biking in your city limits. We need to rethink this whole “bike friendly” term.

mountain biking in portland

THE HAPPY-SHINY SIDE
Yes, Portland has done a lot of things right when it comes to encouraging its residents to ditch their car keys and ride to work. Six percent of Portland residents reportedly commute by bike, which sounds horrible on paper, but is actually the highest per-capita, bicycle-commuter rate of any large American city.

Portland, to its credit, has invested in bike lanes and bike paths in a way that should make every other city feel like they’ve spent too much time sniffing glue and listening to The Dark Side of the Moon. There are currently 319 miles of bikeways in Portland and the city has another 50 miles of the stuff in the works. Impressive.

THE CRAPTASTIC SIDE
So, kudos to Portland on that score. They deserve it. But, Portland, you are not bike-friendly. Not when you now offer up less than a mile of singletrack within city limits to the thousands of mountain bikers who call you “home.”

Let me be plain: Portland sucks for mountain bikers. This has never been a secret, but until a few weeks ago, the glass-half-full opinion on the matter was that things could only get better. Sure, there was a mere half-mile of bike-legal singletrack in 5,157-acre Forest Park and, yeah, that hurt because Forest Park is also the largest urban forest in the United States and, come on…a half mile? Really?

But, hey, at least there was River View Natural Area—146 acres of forest that Portland mountain bikers have been riding for decades now. River View only offered about seven miles of singletrack, but it was much loved by mountain bikers… Mainly because it was really the only game in town. If you didn’t feel like riding River View, you could always hop in your car and drive an hour to ride the trails at Sandy Ridge, but if you weren’t interested in burning a bigger hole in the sky with your exhaust pipe, River View was your jam.

All that changed on March 2nd of this year, when Portland commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish (who respectively oversee the city’s department of Parks and Recreation and Bureau of Environmental Services) banned mountain bikes from River View.

Why? What had mountain bikers been found guilty of? Uh, nothing actually. No scientific evidence was used to support their decision. The commissioners merely cited their desire to “exercise an abundance of caution.” River View actually has a technical advisory committee who have determined the four top risks to River View’s environment and mountain bikes never even made that list. Given the commissioners’ failure to rely on objective data, their rationale for banning bikes simply sounds like an abundance of bullshit.

mountain biking in portland
The day that Portland’s ban on mountain biking at River View Natural Area went into effect, more than 300 mountain bikers showed up to protest the ruling. Local rider and advocate, Charlie Sponsel, addresses the crowd. Photo by Mike Albright.

“BIKE FRIENDLY?” WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?
All of this got me thinking about the whole “bike friendly” term. What does it even mean? You see, if you are trying to hand out awards that chambers of commerce can tout in their next tourism brochure or you’re trying to give magazine writers a reason to put your city atop this month’s latest list, then I understand that the term, itself, has cachet. Dandy. But here’s what I’m advocating: let’s make “bike friendly” actually mean something.

Perhaps we need to add some specificity here. How about rating cities on how well they developed their bicycle commuter infrastructure? You know, the miles of protected bike lanes, miles of off-street bike paths, that sort of thing… Make no mistake, getting these things right takes a tremendous amount of money and diligent planning. Cities, such as Portland, who get it right, should be recognized, but that recognition should address bicycle commuting because that’s really what we’re talking about here.

When you say “bike friendly”, on the other hand, you suggest that the city embraces cycling in its totality and that includes mountain bikes. There are plenty of towns where mountain bikers either equal or outnumber roadies. I realize city planners haven’t quite caught up with that fact, but it’s time they figured it out.

A truly “bike friendly” city would be one that is investing real resources into developing both on- and off-road cycling. Now, there aren’t a lot of cities that could actually do that in a meaningful way because, well, most cities aren’t fortunate enough to be home to vast chunks of open space. Only a few cities could be “platinum level” bike friendly cities in this paradigm. But that’s okay. Platinum level, the much-ballyhooed badge of honor given out by the League of American Bicyclists in their Bicycle Friendly America program, should be relatively rare because it is, sadly, the rare town that truly fosters all kinds of cycling. As it stands, there are only four platinum-level bicycle-friendly cities in America. Given that both Portland and Boulder are on that list, I could see the short list of deserving cities being shorter still.

Here’s the interesting thing, though, even by my stricter definition of “Bike Friendly”, Portland actually has the ability to be truly bike friendly. Portland has Forest Park and if mountain bikers were able to scrape together 7 miles of trail in River View’s 146 acres, think of how much multi-use trail could be in the offering at Forest Park. It’s staggering when you think of the potential in Forest Park to have truly great mountain biking in Portland. And heartbreaking when you realize that it’s not even on the table. At all.

Why is that, Portland? Why are mountain bikers still considered a minority trail user group when so many mountain bikers live in your town and, without fail, show up on trailbuilding days?

Finally, the League of American Bicyclists, which truly does a lot of good work with its Bicycle Friendly America program, does weigh access to singletrack trails in their evaluation process. I’m aware of that fact. But, here’s the question: how did Portland achieve Platinum status with their 2013 application when they were so clearly failing even back then? It’s problematic no matter how you look at it.

LET’S DEMAND MORE
Let’s demand more from our cities. A safer route to school is a brilliant thing. Bike lanes are a godsend. Anything that gets people on two wheels and out of their cars is a step in the right direction. But let’s not stop there. That’s half of the equation. Getting people out on the dirt, experiencing nature, appreciating and advocating for the preservation of their environment is just as important as reducing the number of cars idling at the stoplight.

Cities: you want to earn that “bike friendly” badge? You’re going to have dig deep. You’re going to have to confront some stereotypes you might have about mountain bikers being knuckle-dragging troglodytes. You are going to need to open up those trails.

We mountain bikers build trails. We are sound stewards of the environment. We generate tourism dollars. We pay taxes. We are citizens. And mountain biking is not a crime. So stop treating mountain bikers like some kind of criminal class. Stop telling us that you are “bike friendly” as you kick us off public lands and continue to limit our access—not because we actually damage the trails, but because you simply don’t like us on the trails.