Portland, Ore., Rides Bikes Around High Gas Prices

Americans want alternatives to traffic jams and high gas prices. Portland, Oregon, thinks it has found one: convincing residents to commute by bike. Cycling has doubled since 2001. And the city hopes this is just the beginning.

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If you count by trips taken, Americans take just about 1 percent of them by bike. But here's another cultural change inspired by high gas prices: Many cities are trying to convince more people to try biking to work.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch traveled to a city that's setting the pace - Portland, Oregon.

KATHLEEN SCHLACH: It looks like a bike race. Wave upon wave of cyclists hunched over handle bars streak across a bridge through the spattering rain. But these cyclists are in business suits. It's just rush hour in Portland.

Mr. ROGER GELLER (Bicycle Coordinator, Portland City): This is the Hawthorne Bridge. This is probably the bridge that has more bicyclists on it than any bridge in the country.

SCHLACH: I pedal across the bridge with Portland's bicycle coordinator, Roger Geller. There are four bike lanes, two headed in each direction. But even that is not enough for the more than 6,000 bikes that cross daily, 16 percent more than just a year ago.

Mr. GELLER: We've seen bicycling activity in the city double since 2001.

SCHLACH: Geller says 6 percent of all Portland residents now commute to work by bike.

Mr. GELLER: In our closer neighborhoods, we've got up to 28 percent of people using the bicycle as either their primary or secondary means of transportation to work.

SCHLACH: No other major U.S. city even comes close. Portland's goal isn't to be like other American cities. Its role model is Europe, where in many cities cycling is safe, convenient, and the easiest way to get around.

Mr. GELLER: It's not just about safety; it's also about being comfortable when you're riding. And how does the street feel to you, pretty comfortable?

SCHLACH: Yup.

Mr. GELLER: Yeah.

SCHLACH: Once we finished going up that hill.

Mr. GELLER: Yeah.

SCHLACH: Geller and I are tooling right down the middle of what's known as a bike boulevard. There are no cars anywhere. Why? At the end of the block, we reach a concrete barrier.

Mr. GELLER: Cars can't go through, cyclists can.

SCHLACH: Portland plans to create bike boulevards all over the city.

Mr. GELLER: They can still work for cars, but they're going to be very inconvenient. We want them to be slow and somewhat cumbersome for cars.

SCHLACH: Portland's also been adding bike paths and experimenting with new ways to protect cyclists on regular city streets. Its latest innovation: the bike box. It's a huge green square in the pavement with a bicycle stenciled in the middle of it.

Scott Bricker, who heads Portland's Bicycle Transportation Alliance, demonstrates how it works. He coasts into the intersection and stops in the box, waiting for the light to turn green. Cars are waiting, too, but they have to stop behind the box.

Mr. SCOTT BRICKER (Executive Director, Portland's Bicycle Transportation Alliance): And one of the things that something like a bicycle box does is it creates clarity for both the car driver and the bicyclist what you're supposed to do.

SCHLACH: Could precautions like these coax ordinary Americans onto bikes, people who shun danger and wouldn't be caught dead in Lycra? Potentially. A quarter of all trips Americans take in cities are bikeable distances, a mile or less. But a lot more would have to change.

Mr. BILL CUNNINGHAM(ph) (Cyclist): In the U.S., even in Portland, I don't think we're there.

SCHLACH: Bill Cunningham and Chris Salt(ph) ride across the Hawthorne Bridge on their way to work everyday. Salt says she feels safe maybe three-quarters of the time.

Ms. CHRIS SALT (Cyclist): But like this time, this road over here, the road narrowed and the car came over to get into the one lane, and I almost hit the curb.

SCHLACH: Crowded you out.

Ms. SALT: Crowded me out, yeah.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Drivers aren't watching out. They don't see you very often; they take right turns in front of you. It does make me wonder, would I trust having my kid riding in the street or an elderly person who doesn't have quick reaction times.

SCHLACH: Cunningham says in Holland, where he used to live, it's different. Cyclists there ride in bike lanes completely separated from cars. That's one reason the Dutch are 25 times more likely to ride bikes to their destinations than Americans are.

Veteran biker, Morgan Walker(ph), climbs off his bike and shakes his head.

Mr. MORGAN WALKER (Cyclist): This is not Europe - and probably won't be until gasoline hits $6 or $7 a gallon.

SCHLACH: Still, he says, what's happening in Portland is kind of exciting. It's a chain reaction. The more people cycle, the more money the city has to spend providing safe places to ride. That, in turn, is convincing more people to try cycling - that and paying more than $4 for a gallon of gas.

Kathleen Schlach, NPR News.

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