Leading the Way with University Non-Motorized Education – Five Years of Learning, Teaching, Research, and Results

A few years ago, a colleague from a large city called to share an experience.

“I did what you suggested, Mia. I took the engineering department on a bike ride,” she said. “Not one of them owns a bike. They all drive pick-up trucks and SUVs.”

Sadly, this is the norm, not the exception.

In very few North American universities do students in planning, engineering, landscape architecture, architecture, education, or health learn anything related to bicycling and walking. Courses are designed with an assumption that everyone drives for most if not every trip. Graduates then enter into jobs with agencies, organizations, and firms whose professionals also have these biases and training.

No wonder transportation department staff don’t know how to plan, design, and operate transportation systems with pedestrians and cyclists in mind. No wonder health care providers don’t encourage bicycling as part of basic preventive medicine, or school officials consider bicycle safety education as core curriculum. No wonder architects don’t understand bicycle parking needs and options, and landscape architects design incomplete streets with pedestrians and cyclists as after-thoughts.

We can shift 10 to 50 percent of daily trips to bicycling and walking for peanuts on the dollar. It’s a win-win situation. But it requires education and training of students and professionals.

***

Enter Portland State University’s Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation, this month celebrating its fifth year.  With more than 30 courses taught, 1,000 individuals engaged, and countless communities touched, we are determined to give students and professionals the tools to better balance our transportation choices.

Located in Portland, IBPI students and continuing education course participants are immersed in the city's living laboratory of innovations in bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

IBPI is the brainchild of a group including myself, Portland Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, America Walks’ Scott Bricker, Bike Gallery Owner/Grand Fromage Jay Graves, and PSU’s Jennifer Dill. We created IBPI to lead innovation in research, education, and knowledge of ways to make our communities safe, convenient, and accessible places to walk and bicycle.

Portland is our living lab, because transportation professionals need to be able to readily assess the barriers, challenges, and opportunities presented by our auto-oriented transportation system. That’s what we spend part of each class on bike or foot, learning from all we have been through, have accomplished, and have yet to achieve.

The inaugural IBPI class gets ready to ride, led by Portland Bike Coordinator Roger Geller and Alta President Mia Birk.

Some of my favorite attendees results: Tacoma, WA, completed an award-winning Mobility Master Plan, retrained its whole transportation team, and secured millions in implementation grants; Culver City, CA, was awarded a grant to develop and implement a bicycle and pedestrian master plan; and Calgary, AB, completed a bicycle plan with overwhelming city council support and is well on the way to supplementing its pathway network with on-street bikeways and a bike share program. From all parts of North America, our graduates and attendees have brought back solutions and inspiration, with the latest group being nine university faculty. Our cutting edge research in bicyclist travel demand has led to more sophisticated travel demand modeling, while our bikeway design research has informed the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide.

Just like any new program, IBPI had to raise funds, convince the powers that be of our validity, and press on through many obstacles, challenges and setbacks. We have such a long way to go. But this week, we take a moment to celebrate what we have accomplished in our first five years. May there be many more to come.

Raise a glass with me: to the IBPI! Changing the face of transportation one step, one pedal stroke at a time.

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Why I Support Charlie Hales for Mayor

An Open Letter to all Portlanders who Ride a Bicycle, for any Reason

Dear friends,

I want to tell you why I support Charlie Hales for Mayor. I’ve known Charlie since 1998, when he was City Commissioner and I was Bicycle Coordinator. Some of you haven’t been here long enough to remember that we used to have virtually no decent bike parking anywhere in the City. Many business and school leaders opposed the new requirements, and it was a protracted fight. Even many within the City government were reluctant. As Commissioner, Charlie pushed forward a compromise that was adopted without dissent. The thousands of bicycle parking spaces you see at your workplace, store, park, school, and restaurant all stem from his work. We could not have succeeded without him.

To me, this story reflects his leadership style – not shying away from tough issues, making difficult choices, and using his connections and inter-personal skills to bring the naysayers around. He did this with the Parks Bond measure, two community centers, Portland’s streetcars, and numerous other issues.

Beyond being a leader, he is a good person. With our commissioner style of government, the Mayor has to understand how to get support from their colleagues and the public. Charlie’s experience, relationships and respectful style will serve him well as he wades into tricky issues.

Charlie and I agree that bicycle transportation, along with transit, walking, smart growth, and improved operational efficiency are all part of the same set of solutions for our city. The more we use our roads for all types of transportation, the more choices we give people for their daily trips, the better off we all are, no matter how we get around.

In conversations with Charlie, I’ve learned that he is committed to full funding of Sunday Parkways through additional private sponsorship. He’s also committed to expanding Safe Routes to School, advancing the bikeway network through creative fundraising and partnerships, and improving mountain bike opportunities.

As a small business owner, I have experienced many challenges. Likewise, I have heard so many comments from others: challenges of getting permits, doing business with the City, and lack of clear support for start-up businesses. Charlie is 100% committed to improving this growing sector of our economy, as well, as he believes that small business growth fuels our economy.

That’s why I support Charlie Hales, and I hope you will too!

Mia Birk

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Bikes the cause of PBOT’s funding problems? NOT!!!!

The Oregonian’s article “Road to Ruin,” seems to hold up the City’s commitment to bicycle transportation as the poster child for misguided spending. This could not be farther from the truth.

As per the Oregonian’s own PolitiFact check , Portland’s entire bikeway network and all monies spent on education and promotion have cost around what it would take to build a single mile of urban freeway.

In the early 1990s, we had less than one percent of people riding to work. Today, it’s around 6% to 8%. Around 18% of Portlanders ride at least some of the time (Service, Efforts, and Accomplishments Survey (SEA) from the City Auditor, 2008), as high as 29% in some neighborhoods.

Per the Oregonian editorial of 2/12/12 (Biking the Path to Urban Health), bicycle use continues to rise, with more than 18,000 daily trips across the downtown bridges, accounting for more than 17% of the vehicles (full report here.)

The City’s Safe Routes to School program, has increased bicycling and walking to school to 38% of school commute trips in 25 schools. The City’s Smart Trips, Women on Bikes, and Sunday Parkways Programs, are all making a big difference for a tiny fraction of what we spend on motor vehicle movement. Bonus: improved air quality and health, and the creation of a growing, thriving $100,000,000 bike industry providing 1500 local, green jobs.

Cities all over the world look to Portland for its approach to balanced transportation, which proves that modest investments in bicycling pay off big time. Rather than the road to ruin, I’d call it the path to prosperity and one of – if not the – best bang for buck investments in Portland’s transportation history.

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50 Keys to Inspiring People and Transforming Communities, One Pedal Stroke at a Time, Joyride Tour Wrap-Up

A year and a half ago, I stood before almost 500 of our peers at the National Pro-Walk/Bike Conference, in Chattanooga, TN, and told the story of the making of Joyride. It wasn’t just the Portland story I was trying to tell, it was the story of our country, of our movement away from auto-dominance and the hundreds of communities taking their first steps with a bike plan or trail or safe routes to school program. It’s the story of the four years I spent living and breathing the US DOT Rails-with-Trails: Lessons Learned report, delicately bridging the gap between trail advocates (led by our friends at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy) and hard-nosed railroad lawyers and engineers determined to protect their turf. The resulting report opened the door to hundreds of miles of trails on or adjacent to active railway lines.

The Steel Bridge Riverwalk forms a 1.5-mile loop around the downtown stretch of the Willamette River, connecting linear trails on each bank with the bicycle and pedestrian friendly Hawthorne Bridge to the South.

The incredible pressure faced by the folks designing Portland’s Steel Bridge Riverwalk when they had but 48 hours to finish the project with 10 years of work on the line. Staff overcoming mindboggling regulatory hurdles to be allowed to float a portion of the Eastbank Esplanade in the Willamette River. Shepherding San Francisco’s shared lane marking study through layers and layers of analysis and bureaucracy. Coming together with the country’s most progressive large cities to form the Cities for Cycling Project and develop the groundbreaking NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Positive hope and energy in places like my hometown Dallas, TX as we worked to expand the Katy Trail onto downtown streets.

My goal: make these stories come to life, use them as inspiration, share the lessons learned in translating words into action, taking those hard first steps, keeping up the momentum, and overcoming the seemingly endless stream of obstacles thrown in our paths. I wanted to get beyond our typical audience to include health care officials, environmentalists, casual and fitness riders, bike racers, even mainstream America. And I wanted to tell these stories with humor and grace.

“As an avid cyclist myself, I’m proud of all the things that we in the Obama Administration are doing to make it easier, safer, and more convenient for Americans to use their bicycles to get from one place to another,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “With more and more Americans choosing to commute by bicycle, I look forward to working with organizations like NACTO and cities and towns across America to improve opportunities for cyclists.”

The two-year writing/editing/publishing process gave way to a year and a half of travel, speeches, training sessions, bike rides, meetings with mayors, and publicity in more than 60 cities in 15 U.S. States and three Canadian provinces. So many highlights, like being presented the key to Columbia, SC by their charismatic Mayor Steve Benjamin. Delivering a TEDx talk in Portland, and using the skills gained to improve my presentation skills.  Experiencing the fabulous new Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Dunsmuir and Hornby cycle tracks in Vancouver, BC, and strategizing with Calgary’s City Council as they moved toward an aggressive new cycling strategy. New York City Transportation Commissioner Jeannette Sadik-Khan launching the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide at the National Bike Summit, followed up by USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood embracing it wholeheartedly and encouraging the cities of America to use it. The adorable school kids in Nampa ID and  huge community bike rides in Tucson, AZ.

My tour was filled with inspiring people and engaging conversations.

In every community, I fed hungrily off the community’s energy, hope and excitement. In many cases, the community then engaged us to do more.

A funny thing happened along the way. Well two, actually. Funny but good kinds of things.

The first was getting re-married, the second was finding myself pregnant, about a decade after my last pregnancy (my kids are 13 and 9). That means I’m a “woman of advanced maternal age (44).” My kids and husband could not be more excited, of course.

Suddenly though, the trips became agonizing on my health. I won’t bore you with the list of ailments. You’ve heard the expression, “listen to your body”? My body is screaming loud and clear, “Stay put. No pressurizing airplane trips. Exercise and eat right. Take care of yourself.”

On September 24th, Charlie Gandy spoke at a rally outside of City Hall on to celebrate Moving Planet Day.

And so last week, I stood, a bit choked up, before an audience in Long Beach, CA. Having been up all night sick, it had sunk in that it was time to call it quits. Appropriately, next to me was my old friend and inspiration, the hilarious Charlie Gandy, who had led Long Beach’s swift transformation into one of the nation’s leading bicycle cities (almost matching their hubristic City declaration of being “America’s most bicycle friendly city,” a statement etched into the side of City Hall.) Together, Charlie and I had hiked through the brushy bayous of Pasadena, TX, searching for potential trail alignments in the early part of my consulting career, eons ago.

“Girl, the last thing I expected was to see you pregnant!” he commented. Me too, Charlie.

And so, as this wondrous joy ride comes to a close, I say thanks to all the communities, agencies and groups who hosted me. I hope y’all keep spreading the Joyride story of change and hope. It’s simple really: Portland wasn’t always this bicycling mecca. We made it this way, and it wasn’t easy. You too, wherever you are, can do the same. Wherever you are, that’s where you start.

My publisher promised a second edition and e-version a couple months ago, but it got delayed. The second edition had updates and more photos and the addition of keys to summarize the key take-aways in inspiring people and transforming communities, one pedal stroke at a time. And so, I give you these keys now.

Enjoy the ride!

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University Campuses: Mini-Towns, Max-Potential

University campuses are rich with opportunity to become models of bicycle transportation. With a captive audience of young people and with near total control over parking policy, campus circulation, and campus roadways, universities that take bicycle transportation seriously can virtually eliminate or severely reduce driving on campus. Getting students in the habit of bicycling for transportation sets them up to bicycle as adults, whereas faculty and administrators set a model for the surrounding community. Indeed, achieving a high level of bicycling to and on campuses while reducing driving impacts the entire city or town within which the university is located.

Alta's recent work on the Boise State University Campus Plan focused on safety and connectivity, resulting in a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly University designation.

More than 20 universities have been recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as Bicycle Friendly Universities. Stanford rates the highest due to its excellent network of bikeways and high level of bicycling, followed by the Universities of California at Davis and Santa Barbara.
Over the last five years, I’ve witnessed Portland State University (PSU), where I co-founded the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation, increased bicycling to 12% of employee and student trips (from just 3% a few years ago). Ian Stude, PSU’s transportation coordinator, explains, “In my opinion the essential ingredients of our success have been:
  1. Continued expansion of short-term and secure long-term bike parking that remains ahead of increasing demand.
  2. Investment into a bicycle resource center (The Bike Hub) that provides both the physical support riders and serves as the cultural epicenter for all things bike-related on campus.
  3. Outreach events, particularly our investment in organizing a Bike-to-Campus Challenge every May (2010 saw over 1000 participants sign up — not bad considering the statewide version put on by the BTA just hit 12,000)
  4. The presentation of bicycling as a normal and widely-accepted mode choice in all New Student Orientation materials, Transportation & Parking materials & marketing, Employee Orientation materials.
  5. Support for student groups that are excited about bicycling (i.e., Outdoor Program, Campus Recreation, Cycling Team, etc)
  6. Improved bikeways that allow for safer, more comfortable access to the campus by bike (this is a tough one for us, and we see lots of potential for improvement based on the Portland Bike Plan for 2030.)”
I’d also give PSU credit for its excellent Bicycle Plan, an essential ingredient for success.

Some universities like the University of Texas at Austin and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are developing high-capacity “bike stations” throughout campus to centralize parking availability while reducing bike/ped conflicts near campus building entrances.

Learning from PSU and the other LAB winners, what are the other keys? For sure, you need dedicated staff like Ian housed in the transportation services department, plus excellent bikeways, abundant bike parking at every building, and long-term, secure bike parking in dorms, garages, or separate structures for overnight storage. To realize full potential, almost every university has to work closely with the surrounding town, whose willingness to prioritize bikeways to/from campus is the key to success. I recommend a joint task force of City staff, students, and faculty and administrators from such departments as transportation, healthcare, wellness, planning, and infrastructure. The task force should work together to create a robust bicycle master plan, jointly seek funding for execution, and then meet at least quarterly to oversee plan implementation. The plan should be coordinated with campus expansion plans, such that every new building, plaza, and road be built with bicycle transportation in mind.

Education provides understanding and respect for the roles and responsibilities of cyclists and other transportation users, such as pedestrians and motorists, on campus and in surrounding communities.

Education is critical, of course. It’s important to reach out before the time they arrive on campus with a clear message that bikes are welcome, expected, and encouraged. It’s helpful to have a bike repair shop or two on campus or nearby, and assign enthusiastic students to lead campus rides during orientation week. Educational materials about safety, laws, and expectations should be posted in prominent places and included in orientation materials, then reinforced throughout the year by campus security. Security officers can also play a positive role in distributing bike lights in the fall, directing students to where they can purchase a lock and other items. They should also take bike theft and vandalism seriously; many register bikes as a way to be able to track down owners when bikes are recovered.
This week, I visited the little town of Pullman, Washington, which is dominated by the campus of Washington State University (WSU), with student enrollment of 18,000+. WSU and Pullman have a lot of good things in place: wide paths along many roads and some bike lanes, although with a number of gaps; plenty of short-term bike parking on campus (not so much in the town); and an enthusiastic group of leaders. WSU has taken a smart structural approach by integrating bicycle transportation into an overall fitness and wellness program.

WSU's Green Bike Program is extremely popular, with over 2,000 users and over 3,000 trips taken to date. The program utilizes student cards to access the system, with a local mechanic on board for repairs.

Many universities offer some kind of check-in, check-out bike program, whereby students can borrow a bike at no or low cost. WSU tried this for a while, and found, like many universities, that it’s time consuming to keep the bikes in good order. Thus, they upgraded to an automated bike share system, courtesy of Public Bike Share Company, whose top notch bikes and stations grace Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Washington, DC/Arlington, VA, Boston, Melbourne, and London. (Alta Bicycle Share operates several of these systems in partnership with PBSC.) The “Green Bike” program has been wildly successful, although not without challenge. I applaud WSU for its ingenuity in funding the bikes through student fees and for recognizing what a boon they can be.

Social media can be utilized by administrators and students alike to share information and create a community around cycling. Capital Bikeshare, which has stations at nearby local universities, regularly hosts contests on Facebook, like last winter's “Favorite Photo Contest,” a finalist of which is shown above.

So important for all universities: establishing a strong communications and encouragement strategy from the time of application and reinforced through admissions, orientation and beyond. To be effective, faculty and administrators need to use social media tools – Facebook, text messaging, Twitter, blogs, listserves, etc., as well as verbal information, printed information for parents, posters, reader boards, and student leaders.
Universities need to monitor usage. First, they need to establish a baseline, and then they need to annually evaluate bicycle ridership and report back. Three options: conduct cordon count of all entry and exit points, using the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project methodology; count all bikes parked during a specific timeframe; and/or survey students about their transportation habits. The first method works well in a closed campus environment, and the third works well if the survey is mandatory and has a high rate of return.

Many of the treatments provided within the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide such as cycle tracks, shown here at the University of Utah, and intersection treatments can make existing campus roadways function better for bicyclists, often times providing more direct and faster connections to and across campus.

Finally, possibly the single best action that a university can take to increase bicycling, walking, and transit is to raise parking fees and limit the supply of on-campus parking. Conversely, regardless of how many improvements are made to encourage bicycling and walking, there’s unlikely to be huge shifts in mode split if parking remains cheap and abundant. The other benefit of high parking fees is that some percentage of that revenue can be allocated to fund non-motorized transportation programs.
WSU, like many campuses I visited, including USC (Columbia, SC), University of Arizona (Tucson), and Cornell (Ithaca, NY), is ripe for positive progress.
For more information, see Alta Planning + Design’s excellent white paper: Best Practices in Campus Bicycle Planning and Program Development at http://www.altaplanning.com/App_Content/files/Perspectives_Campus%20Bicycle%20Planning_ALTA.pdf

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In my mind, I’m still in Carolina

‘Twas five days of non-stop Joyride fun. Speeches, trainings, interviews, bike rides, yummy food, and sweet southern hospitality, sponsored by the inestimable First Health of the Carolinas, Palmetto Conservation Foundation, Palmetto Cycling Coalition, and a number of other groups. In each town – Pinehurst and Southern Pines, NC; Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville SC – so much hope for a healthier future. (Let’s face it, the health statistics in this part of the nation are alarming.)

Key components needed for success:  political leadership, well-trained and supported city staff with at least one dedicated position for bicycle, pedestrian and trails planning; traffic engineers who are also well-trained and both understand and support the goals for active transportation; and organized community advocates. You also need visionary, robust bicycle, pedestrian and greenway plans and funding.

Tiny Southern Pines NC is on the right track with a new bicycle plan and $60,000 in dedicated funds. With grassroots support for greenway connections, college students bicycling all over downtown and energy behind the Holy City Bike Co-op, Charleston has a fast growing bike culture. Also, this lovely City has a dynamic advocacy group, Charleston Moves, a fabulous new bicycle/pedestrian bridge, and one of the brightest Mayors in the country in terms of Mayor Joseph Riley’s understanding of urban design. Columbia also has political support under Steve Benjamin. (He won me over when he gave me the key to the city as an honored guest. Awwww.) Both communities are designated bronze by the League of American Bicyclists, and both of their Mayors not only welcomed me with open arms but actually listened to my presentation. (Although Riley had to step out for a moment when President Obama called. I suppose that’s a reasonable excuse.)

Columbia has a burgeoning student population at USC. It’s the home to the two OUTSTANDING statewide advocacy organizations mentioned above, and has tremendous infrastructure opportunities. With a goal to become a silver-level bicycle friendly community in two years, Columbia is setting its sights in the right direction.  All of these places, in fact, are ripe for positive change and although each has a long way to go, they are clearly heading in the right direction.

Last stop: Greenville (SC), where something truly special is going on.

My first inkling came as we walked from the car – having just arrived from Columbia – onto a pedestrian bridge.

All bridges are unique, representing a literal “bridge” between two disconnected sides of something, allowing us to bridge an otherwise impenetrable barrier, whether a waterway, railroad track, or highway. That barrier represents a broken link in a chain; the bridge makes the chain whole.

The barrier spanned by this particular bridge is the waterfalls of the Reedy River. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, industrialists built mills along the Reedy, which quickly became polluted. The 1900s saw a modern six-lane auto bridge. By the 1960s, the mills were quiet and the Carolina Foothills Garden Club, with the support of the City of Greenville, Furman University and the Planning Commission, launched an effort to clean up the river and reclaim the falls as a public park. In 1990, landscape architect Andrea Mains introduced the concept of transforming the park into a regional attraction, with beautiful public gardens and a pedestrian bridge.

In 2003, the six-lane highway bridge was demolished, replaced by the elegant Liberty Bridge, which serves as the focal point of lovely Falls Park.

The Liberty Bridge, with a total length of approximately 380 ft (120 m) and a clear span of 200 ft (61 m), appears to float over the landscape. The twin towers and suspension cable are visible from vantage points around the city, calling attention and drawing visitors to the public park, falls and river.

Liberty Bridge is just the beginning.

The town has a bustling, pedestrian-friendly downtown, with wide Riverwalk promenades lined with small businesses, benches and tables, and gorgeous art and fountains. Where did all this come from?  A local business leader, Mark Taylor of SynTerra Corp., told me that in 1997, he was amongst a delegation of 109 who visited Portland and became inspired by the City’s investment in high quality urban design, including the many Lawrence Halprin fountains.

“At the time, downtown Greenville was a ghost town,” Mark explained. “Dead. The Portland story of revival resonated with us.”

When I tell Portland’s bicycle transportation story, I always talk about the building blocks that laid the groundwork for success. These are the regional urban growth boundary, investments in transit, revitalized downtown, parking policy, pedestrian friendly developments, and gridded street layout (in parts of Portland). Of course that list would include the components I listed above: leadership, staff, and advocates. One more ingredient that I perhaps under-value: high quality urban design.

Remember this always: bicycle transportation does not succeed alone. It is a part of a larger package of transportation, land-use, and urban design improvements.  Greenville’s leaders get this. The impact of the Greenville mission to Portland is evident from the many fountains and similar features all over downtown.

At the same time, Greenville’s bikeway infrastructure is quickly evolving. From bike lanes on a number of major roads to the Swamp Rabbit Trail on an abandoned railway to a soon-to-be-adopted visionary bike plan, Greenville has become a gem. This is no small feat considering that all of South Carolina’s towns share the same major obstacle: the South Carolina Department of Transportation owns 85% of the roads, severely limiting local control and pitting the goals of moving cars against sustainability, urban form, and economic development. Yet, Greenville is succeeding.

“Does my friend George Hincapie have something to do with this?” asked a local talk show host.  Sure, having a racing superstar in your town helps. His brother’s shop, along with close to a dozen new bike shops (including a Pedal Chic, a women-specific bicycle store!) have helped legitimize bicycling as not only a mode of transportation and form of recreation, but an economic generator.

My recipe for Greenville is straightforward.

  • Finalize and adopt the bicycle plan. Hold a big celebration. Then start implementing immediately.
  • Formally appoint a staff person as bicycle coordinator.
  • Infuse all city departments with the responsibility that bicycle transportation is part of every facet of their work.
  • Implement as many of the “low-hanging fruit” projects as possible, especially the bike boulevards. Biking on many of these roads is already wonderful; solidify this network with signage, markings, speed reduction techniques, and intersection enhancements.
  • Expand the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
  • Create a robust encouragement program of Safe Routes to School, car-free events, and individualizing marketing activities. This is really going to work!

In other words: Greenville, Charleston, Columbia, Southern Pines, and Pinehurst are all heading in the right direction, putting in place the critical components one by one, inspiring the entire southeastern United States.

When you’re on the right track, keep going. And enjoy the ride!

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Snapshots from the Joyride Tour

Snapshots from the Joyride Tour, Year 1
It’s been a strange sensation being grounded for the past few weeks. Not grounded like I’m in trouble, you understand. For the first time in a year, no out-of-state travel (unless you count Vancouver WA, which is of course another state, but it’s just a 20 minute drive.) I love my home and steady family life, so I’m not complaining. No getting on airplanes, no packing bags and fussing about logistics, no complex instructions about which kid needs to get where and by what time.

Maybe this is why I’ve felt a bit vacuous from a writing creativity standpoint? No buzz from the latest community to share with me their challenges? Mental fatigue?

In the past year, I’ve been to 13 states and three Canadian Provinces, gave some 60 presentations, participated in countless events, SKYPEd into meeting rooms, led webinars, delivered a TED talk, wrote essays for my blog and other publications, and learned to tweet. A typical trip would have me conduct a bikeway planning and design workshop for government agency staff, consultants, and advocates, deliver a public evening or lunchtime presentation, and participate in a community ride. Media interviews, meetings with Mayors and City Council, and sometimes additional speeches -  all par for the course. By the time I got on the airplane home, I would be too exhausted to do anything but stare out the window.

Then I’d rush home and dive gratefully into the arms of my kids and boyfriend (now fiancé), settle into a routine, dip back into local issues, plan out the next week or two’s worth of activities and start packing again. Every time I would start to whine about the impact of the travel and relentless correspondence on my health and family (my 12-year old son seemed to get sick every time I was away), I would receive another heart-felt email or note about how my words and stories inspired the sender. So I would buck up and go pack another bag.

The tour started at TREK World in Madison WI, where I discussed with hundreds of bike retailers why and how to get involved in – even lead – their community’s efforts to become more bicycle-friendly. Now it may seem obvious that bike retailers would want to expand their market by attracting new riders, and many successful retailers do engage in these efforts, but many come to it through their love of bicycling as a sport, not an understanding of the power and potential of bicycling as a means of transportation. I again thank TREK’s John Burke and Krista Rettig for their graciously launching Joyride.

From there I was in Chattanooga TN, Las Vegas NV, Bellingham and Seattle WA, Indianapolis and Bloomington IN, Calgary AB, Toronto ONT, Vancouver BC, Washington D.C., Tucson AZ, Ithaca and Schenectady NY, Richmond VA, Philadelphia PA, Billings MT, Denver and Ft. Collins CO, Boise and Nampa ID. Why these places? In each, a local advocacy group, government, or university (or all three) sought me out for inspiration and input to help get them to the next level.

In Calgary, my visit helped push over the top a bold, visionary new bicycle transportation strategy. In Bloomington, the public works director gained an understanding of the concept of bicycle boulevards and accelerated plans for new bikeways. In Washington, D.C. at the Bike Summit, Janette Sadik-Khan on behalf of the Cities for Cycling Coalition announced the release of the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Such a proud moment for me, a culmination of 20 years of progressive bikeway development and a reflection of the positive movement toward better bikeway design.

In Toronto, advocates depressed by a downturn in political support sighed in relief when they learned that Portland too went through such a phase. In Syracuse NY, the city’s transportation planner got inspired to walk the talk and get out and cycle more. Seattle’s staff and advocates took heart from my stories of painful backlash. A group of dynamic women in Tucson used me (with permission of course) to kick off a health-oriented advocacy campaign. Engineers in Ft. Collins gained detailed guidance toward the creation of separated on-road bikeways, while trail proponents in muggy Richmond celebrated in the aftermath of my trip thanks to a new City commitment to on-street bikeways. These are just a few examples!

All in all, it was a year on the frontlines of the battle for the future of North American transportation. I’m pretty sure this will be the focus of my next book. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’m going to pack my bags… this time for Mexico… this time for vacation. And then, back on the road with a week of Joyride in the Carolinas.

Enjoy the ride!

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Rained Out in Salem

I’m fond of telling people that weather is just weather; suck it up and deal. But sometimes, that cavalier attitude is just that, and you need to suck it up and give up.

This, alas, was the case this weekend on the Cycle Oregon weekend ride out of Salem. Normally one of the highlights of our summer, this year, bad weather won out.

It started promising.

Craig Smith, Executive Director, Rural Development Initiatives, and I decided to bike from Portland to Salem, 65 miles, on mostly rural roads. This proved to be the highlight. I’m particularly fond of the trail in Oregon City along the Clackamas River because I wrote a winning grant application early in my consulting career.

Me on the Clackamas River Trail, Oregon City as part of Cycle Oregon’s Visionary Voyagers Ride.

Met the family, got everything set up right across the street from the Oregon State Capital. All seemed well.

Midnight, it started raining. 3 am: Sasha screamed from her tent. “MOM I’M ALL WET!!!!”

She’d fallen off her mattress. I rouse myself and head over with a dry blanket, sloshing through puddles on the way. When I open her tent, I discover that ALL I repeat ALL her stuff – clothes, books, toys, ipod – is drenched. Crap!

We had put all the tents on a big tarp, where the water pooled and was soaked into the tents from below. Of course we didn’t properly stake the rain flies either so the water also came in from the sides. Now you’d think that by this point in our lives, one – just one – of the many experienced campers in our group would have calmly explained camping rule #1: do not put tents on top of a giant, water-pooling tarp on a night when rain is projected.

But no.

We move her to our tent, transfer her sopping wet stuff to the car, and spend the next several hours wide awake, with even the small hint of sleep blasted each time by deafening train blasts.

Turns out that it’s not just her stuff that is wet, of course, but the other kids’ too, and some of our staff as well. Spend the bulk of the morning cleaning and drying (found some dryers in the dorms, but alas, only one works, and only briefly.) We finally get on the road around 11 am.

It’s a decent enough ride once we get going, with the highlight rest stop #2’s bountiful fresh blue and blackberries and Dave’s Killer Bread cinnamon rolls. Mostly easy flat riding and only a bit of rain at the end. Back at camp, tarp tucked away and tents properly staked, we batten down the hatches for the evening, and feel hopeful that the 60% chance of sunshine the next day will come to pass.

It doesn’t.

Rain rain rain, mist, downpour, rain, rain, rain, all night long. I wake up with a sore ankle and hives and a cranky attitude and want to go home. I start breaking down the tents while the rest of the group (except still-sleeping Sasha) eats breakfast. During this time, the brief flirtatious hour of dryness comes to an end and the group reaches a consensus to cut our losses and skedaddle back to Portland.

My Cycle Oregon Weekend Posse, minus Sasha (she’s in the CCC kids camp.)

Cycle Oregon’s weekend ride is all about getting the next generation into cycling. With more than 200 kids out of 1700 total riders, it’s working, rain be damned.

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Creating a Culture of Courtesy: Ladd Circle, cont.

“HELLO.”   That’s what the sign said, in big letters. Just one word is all it took.   

 For two hours, I stood alongside über-volunteer Scott Lieuallen on SE Ladd Ave just south of SE Clay St holding that sign. A block up, another volunteer’s sign read, “EVERY CORNER.” From there, you got, “IS A CROSSWALK,” “STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS,” and “THANKS!” (See KGW news report.) The reaction: smiles and waves, non-stop, hundreds of people on bikes, dozens of people in cars. One woman turned her bike around, then asked, “would you come up to my neighborhood?”   

 My daughter goes to school at Abernethy Elementary, a terrific little public school in this neighborhood. I’ve ridden my bike on Ladd Ave to get to my house regularly for 20 years. Many close friends live here, and over the years, it’s become a primary bicycle transportation spine, with three major bikeways converging at lovely Ladd Circle, with its gorgeous center park. Some 4000 people on bikes traverse the Circle daily, along with a high frequency bus route (#10) and some 1500 motorists.   

The phenomenal rise in bicycle use in the Ladd Circle area is wonderful, but has led to concerns about pedestrian safety, especially in regards to the kids walking every day to and from Abernethy Elementary School and area homes and businesses.

  As I’ve written about before, the geometric design of the circle – very close to what we call a modern roundabout – lends itself to motorists and people on bikes slowing and yielding to those already in the circle or walking around the circle, rather than coming to a complete stop. In fact, almost no one comes to a complete stop, as evidenced by this video.     

Is this really a problem? Safety-wise, no. There’s almost no crash history. Perception-wise and emotionally, the answer is a resounding YES.   

Every so often, a frustrated resident calls the Police, who then hand out tickets and/or send folks to traffic safety class. Community uproar then ensues, as the pricey tickets – $242 – seem out of proportion to the problem caused by what many believe (myself included) to be reasonable behavior, defined (by me) as slowing, actively searching for pedestrians, preparing to stop if needed, stopping until the pedestrian has crossed, proceeding into or out of the circle once safe to do so, but without coming to a complete stop.  

No no no, friends tell me, what I describe as reasonable behavior is NOT the problem. The problem is the many that don’t slow down one iota. In fact (go watch anytime), many speed up and/or do not slow, look out for, yield to, stop for, or even acknowledge that there are people on foot – many of whom are children – circumnavigating the crosswalks. Many have told me that their children were nearly mowed down and that they observe behavior ranging from oblivious to rude to downright obnoxious on a daily basis. Some of the rude jerks are in cars, but the main complaint is about people on bikes.  

When I first started hearing this, I wanted to deny it. The last thing I want is for the very mode (bicycling) that has been the cornerstone of my career to be causing a problem to the other mode I promote, use, love, and respect (walking). But when you hear the same thing over and over, you have to pay attention. You also have to look at who is saying this: educated people, most of whom ride bikes regularly, drive, walk, take transit, pay taxes, send their kids to public school, and are generally thoughtful, civic-minded, involved, and positive. All but two of the dozens of emails I’ve received have been kind and thankful for the efforts to create a more livable community, supportive of continuing to evolve our thinking and approach, but firm in the assertion that people driving cars and people riding bikes all need to improve our behavior toward pedestrians. (One person expressed that the solution is more enforcement, period, end of story, while the other expressed tremendous anger about the fact that her street, Ladd Ave, has been transformed from a quiet residential into a bicycle highway of horrors.)     

These various emails and conversations provoked serious soul-searching. The dramatic increase in bicycle transportation that I have championed for so many years is great, BUT with it has come impacts that we can’t ignore. I want to make things better for everyone, and reduce the persistent, deep, and widespread rancor and anger that the cycling community has unintentionally induced.   

Roundabout in Copenhagen. Note the “sharks’ teeth” – aka yield symbols – in advance of the crosswalk and dashed bike lane around the perimeter.

I believe strongly that the signage and markings should be improved. To me, yield signs and markings make a ton of sense, per these images.

Supplemental ‘yield to pedestrians’ at crosswalk of roundabout.

Other promising ideas include raised crosswalks, speed bumps, and changes to the pedestrian splitter islands.  

Examples of raised crosswalks with yield symbols/signs

But the City isn’t likely to change them anytime soon. Any proposed changes will provoke debate, even controversy, and take time to develop, fund, and implement. And design changes alone won’t do the trick. We – all of us – can behave better, the sooner, the better. 

So I reached out to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Willamette Pedestrian Coalition to see if they’d like to help. Fortunately, these two terrific groups were already working together to call attention to the need for people in cars and on bicycles to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. In these “pedestrian safety actions,” community volunteers line the streets with Burma Shave-style signs, giving bicyclists and motorists a reminder of our state’s crosswalk laws. (Per Oregon law, not all crosswalks are painted. Every street corner is considered a crosswalk. When a person is trying to cross the street, all road users (including those on bikes) must stop and stay stopped while the person crosses.) 

 If you read the various comments on the Ladd Circle stories reported on www.bikeportland.org, you’ll see a wide variety of opinions, including a few along the lines of, “there’s no real actual safety problem, so why keep focusing on this issue?” True, on one level, but on the level of perception, goodwill, and courtesy, the current situation isn’t working. 

It’s been my longstanding belief that when something’s not working, it’s time to try something else. Former Police Officer Robert Pickett (who has left Portland for the Foreign Service, their gain, our loss) asked me point blank to help, because, he said, “today’s situation is a lose-lose for the Police.” No matter what they do (or don’t do) in Ladd Circle, they piss people off.  

The sign-holding action was a small step toward what I hope will lead to positive change. I’m glad we put smiles on so many faces. This I know: working together – the community and the City – we can increase sensitivity to those on foot while continuing to embrace those on wheels.

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Law Breaking Cyclists: The Answer, Part 2

He raises his hand, politely at first. He’s impossible to ignore, the only person in the crowded room wearing a cowboy hat.  He then stands and begins a tirade.

“You keep talking about adding all these bikeways and stuff, and you never talk about cyclists doing whatever the hell they want, all the time, disobeying the law, and the Police don’t do a damn thing about it. And they just go all over the place, running the lights and you can’t see them at night because they don’t have any lights. Where is the enforcement?”

Sigh.  As I shared in a November blog piece: Law-Breaking Cyclists: the Answer, I’ve heard this question/lecture a thousand times, not only at public meetings but in casual conversation, practically every week for more than 20 years. For many drivers, the image of cyclists as scofflaws is etched in their brains. I talked in the previous piece about the futility of arguing, and steered folks instead to polite acknowledgement and a public pledge to behave better, no matter how we get around.

But there’s more to the issue.

In the broadest sense possible, it’s a problem of our own making, a combination of auto-centric infrastructure, attitudes, laws, and the reality that many of us who bicycle flow like water as we travel, blithely ignoring traffic signals and public perception. This is how I behaved in my early 20s when I was getting around Washington DC, then a pretty hostile place for people on bikes, with little bikeway infrastructure. Why? I was young and ignorant; no one had taught me any different. And, it felt like the laws didn’t apply.

Truth be told, almost none of us have been taught a thing about bike safety or ingrained with societal expectations about behavior on bikes. (Kudos to Safe Routes to School programs, teaching a whole generation of kids the rules of the road!) Many come to bicycling through sport, where speed and momentum are valued, and fail to adjust their behavior to the bicycle as a form of transportation. You can see all around you, hear beautifully, stop on a dime, all the while delighting in the childlike joy of riding, adrenaline pumping, legs propelling. Stop? Heck no. Not unless you absolutely have to.

It was when I became the Portland Bicycle Coordinator in 1993 that I came to understand that bad behavior has harmful impacts beyond personal risk. Every time a person in a car saw a person on bike blow a red light, it made my already challenging job a little bit harder.

Stopping and waiting at red lights spreads the message that bicycling is a serious means of transportation.

Know this: Mr. Cowboy Hat is not some wacko crank. He’s our neighbor, boss, blogger, decision maker, or business ownerbeing asked to accept people on bikes as legitimate users of our transportation system.

So I shaped up: no more red light running and a smile and wave at every motorist who showed me the slightest shred of courtesy. I noticed that my mindfully good behavior and attitude attracted courtesy from the motoring crowd in return.

In my role with the City, I learned that red-light running was in many cases a necessity because people on bikes often could not trip the signal to get a green. We started tuning the signals and marking where cyclists need to stand. This, along with bike lanes and other infrastructure improvements, helped send a message to people on bikes: “Yes, you are welcome. We are evolving our transportation system to reflect your needs.”

Bike boxes reduce right-hook crashes and allow people on bikes to clear out faster

In this, we have just begun. Many stop signs should be supplemented with yield signs and markings specific to cyclists, for example. We need more green bike boxes to reduce right-turn conflicts at intersections and a robust network of low-stress, comfortable, convenient bikeways.

A number of signalization techniques will help as well. These include bike-specific traffic signals, quicker response times for bike- (and pedestrian-) activated signals, coordinated signal timing, a few seconds of “pre-green” time to allow people on bikes to mount, and bike-specific traffic signals.

Bike signal, NE Lloyd and Oregon, Portland OR. Red light running dropped sharply after the bike signal was installed.

All these are common in bicycle-friendly European cities. Take the bike signal at the east end of Portland’s Steel Bridge. After the signal was installed, the percentage of people on bikes disregarding the signal dropped from 66% to 13%. Nice! An education campaign to help people understand how to activate the signal might very well take care of the rest.

Since 1999, I’ve been working nationwide and beyond to create more bicycle-friendly communities. No matter where I go, the lesson is the same: if we treat people on bikes as legitimate users of the transportation system with appropriate infrastructure, behavior improves. Upgrading infrastructure is the government’s job. The rest – shaping up our own behavior – is up to us.

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