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October 1, 2010

Bikes Take Over Downtown Portland

Borrowing an idea from Colombia, Portland opens its streets to non-motorized traffic on Sunday celebrations

Hed: Bikes Take Over the Streets of Downtown Portland

By Jay Walljasper

It was fender-to-fender traffic last weekend in parts of Portland, Oregon. But this mass of vehicles did not contribute to global warming or boost America’s levels of obesity. That’s because Portland’s streets were filled with bicycles.

Portland regularly closes city streets on Sundays so bikers and walkers can experience moving about town free from the pressures of cars and trucks—a pleasurable way to reclaim the commons of the street. It was an amazing experience to pedal up to an intersection and be waved through by a police officer as motorists waited for two-wheeled and two-legged traffic to cross.

This event, which covered a 4.5-mile figure-8 through downtown and the adjacent Northwest neighborhoods, was the fifth Sunday Parkway celebration this year, each one held in a different neighborhood. Even intermittent rain showers did not deter thousands of cyclists from turning out—including a large number of parents pulling kids in trailers or tag-alongs. All along the route food vendors, entertainers and bicycle information booths gave riders a reason to dismount.

This is the third year for the event, which has grown from a single Sunday in 2008. The Sunday Parkways program is inspired by Ciclovía, a weekly car-free Sunday celebration of the urban commons pioneered in the Colombian cities of Bogotá, Cali and Medellín. In Bogotá, as many as 2 million people (30 percent of the city’s population) turn out to bike or stroll more than 120 kilometers of city streets. The celebration has spread throughout Latin American and the world, including Vancouver, Cleveland, Detroit, Tucson, El Paso, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles.

The opportunity to ride through the streets with no interference from cars and trucks was a powerful experience, offering a taste of what urban biking could be in the U.S. if we create a network of urban bike paths similar to those in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and other nations.

Portland is one of the U.S. cities that has pushed the furthest in achieving that dream, which is why Bikes Belong is showcasing its achievements to a visiting delegation of transportation leaders from Seattle, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. A number of them took part in the Sunday Parkway ride, and will be learning more about Portland’s success in boosting bikes to 6.4 percent of urban commuters—the highest rate among large American cities.

And that’s just the beginning, Portland hopes. A new transportation plan drafted by Metro, the elected regional metropolitan government, hopes to triple those figures by 2040, “making parts of Portland into a mini-Amsterdam or Copenhagen,” according to Lake McTighe, manager of “Metro’s Active Transportation Partnership”:http://www.oregonmetro.gov/index.cfm/go/by.web/id=30078.