Portland, Oregon: the Multi-Modal City

December 2013–I last visited Portland, Oregon, in 2010, when my wife Gina and I rode Amtrak’s Coast Starlight north with our full-sized bikes in the baggage car. It was my first time back in Portland in nearly thirty years, and of course much had changed: Portland was already well on its way to becoming the paradigm of a progressive US city. We wrote our impressions up for our sister publication, Bicycle Fixation, in Portland 2010: Both More and Less than Paradise.

A little bit of everything: surface street, bike lanes, tram tracks, sidewalks, freeways

In fall 2013, we returned to the Rose City, again by the Coast Starlight, with Brompton folding bikes ensconced on the lower deck of our sleeping car. This time I resolved to take a broader look at the bustling city on the Willamette, explore its less-obvious corners, and eat and drink a great deal. We succeeded on all counts.

Stepping back from the bike lane a little bit, I immediately realized that Portland is more than a city of bikes—which it definitely is, by US standards, that is; bicycling’s mode share there is laughable by the standards of Northern Europe and much of Asia. It is a City of Bicycles. It is also a City of Transit, a City of Walking, and still very much a City of Cars. And all these modes coexist very well indeed. More than anything, Portland is (again, by US standards) a multi-modal city, one that accommodates all the usual modes very, very well—and a couple of unusual ones, such as its famous aerial tramway and little-noticed but significant ocean freight traffic. It is also a rail hub for the region and in fact for all of Oregon.

Indeed, the real Portland is as much grizzly bear as teddy bear.

Walk the streets of downtown and you will often notice large, generally handsome buildings whose windows seem unusually blank: these are parking garages, which fortunately house small businesses around their ground-floor perimeters.

Pedal around Northeast Portland, and you might think you were in an oddly damp Los Angeles as you found yourself exploring wide streets crowded with muscle cars and lined with low-slung commerce boxes, the latter flanked by large and dreary surface lots. At major intersections you find clusters of the usual modernist flashcubes.

Head north on the west side of the Willamette and you soon find yourself between a massive railyard and rows of giant modern warehouses serving the cargo docks—putting the “port” into Portland.

Southwest are hilly neighborhoods where the local gentry hide behind brick walls and well-trimmed hedges, and roads swoop around forested slopes.

Southeast (my personal favorite) are cozy neighborhoods of wooden houses surrounding Main Street style retail corridors, rich with restaurants and bars. [NB: All of Portland is rich with bars; it is hands-down the booziest city I’ve ever visited.]

Portland wisely stopped building freeways in the 1970s, and in fact even dismantled the one that ran along the west bank of the Willamette, making room for the much-beloved Tom McCall Park (and its bikeway, of course). However, there remain several imposing—and oppressive—freeways slicing through town, spilling the shriek and stink of high-speed traffic along their routes, and of course dumping crowds of the usual single-occupant cars onto the streets. The Eastbank Esplanade, which would otherwise be a delightful bicycle highway, wallows in a miasma of exhaust fumes from I-5, while the constant thunder of motors detracts from the postcard-perfect views of downtown across the river. Freeways also cut across the east and west sides both, and across the entire city just south and north of downtown, arching high into the air as they approach the river. There’s really no escaping them, nor the clutter of cars and trucks they bring. However, the city has made sure to offer bicyclists intuitive routes around, under, or through the massive interchanges, so it’s still easy, if not always pleasant, to pass back and forth among the city’s neighborhoods.

The quantities of cars that these freeways draw into the city make the bike lane and transit networks truly necessary for economic development as well as environmental and community health. Cycling is sufficiently comfortable to entice the less-bold casual rider; enough people pedal into and through the various commercial neighborhoods for work, fun, or shopping, that there is no need to destroy large swaths of housing and commerce to make room for yet more private cars. Network segments are connected to one another, wayfinding signs are world-class, and there is plenty of all-important public bicycle parking in every part of the city, even the far east side. Both drivers and cyclists can get around without obstructing each other (though motorists do get in each others’ way as they do everywhere, even those cities that pander most slavishly to driving). There is plenty of car parking, almost all of it in multistory garages, and there are plenty of sidewalk bike racks, as well as one hundred onstreet bike corrals, to take care of pedalers.

And there is a fine and far-reaching transit system, employing both buses and light rail trains, with a fare-free zone downtown.

Walking is prevalent in downtown and several other densely-built centers. One thing that supports walking as well as cycling is Portland’s small blocks, a legacy of clever developers platting the city over a hundred and fifty years ago. They knew that corner lots sold for higher prices, and so made sure the city had plenty of corner lots. This also gives foot and bike users a multiplicity of options for finding their way through neighborhoods. And of course corner lots sell for more because they are more desirable; a caf&eacute or store on a corner has light from two sides, and entices customers from two streets. It works out very well for all parties concerned. It also means that buildings are smaller and more suited to housing local small businesses than corporate megastores, leading to a more diverse economy, more of whose money stays in town rather than being vacuumed up by distant shareholders.

Extensive street networks with rich, fine-grained commercial offerings and multiple routes through town, extensive bicycle networks, a good transit grid serving not only Portland but the surrounding towns, room for cars and trucks, and a diversified economy blend into a seductive chorus that does indeed entice the timid to ride bikes, and the lazy to walk. We saw young and old, male and female, in proportions far more equal than is typical in our hometown of Los Angeles—or most other US cities, for that matter. Although motorists drive too fast, as they do everywhere that they can, they are far more polite than we are used to a thousand miles south. It amused us a bit to see that Portland’s pedalers also rush down the paths or over the bridges, legs whirling as madly as though they were being pursued by swarms of bees. Because they are behaving like commuters everywhere, except that they are on bikes!

All the many bridges that cross the Willamette and that are not freeway bridges offer bikeways, sidewalks, and often tram lines as well as the usual shared traffic lanes. There was even a car-free bridge for transit, cyclists, and pedestrians only under construction when we were there.

Towards the end of our visit, Gina and I found ourselves once more on the Eastbank Esplanade on our bikes, at night as usual. The lamps of downtown Portland’s massed buildings glowed on the far bank, reflected in the slow rippling of the Willamette; traffic on I-5 grumbled and belched behind us; and people on bicycles of every description passed us in a constant procession of glimmering LEDs. We gazed at the Steel Bridge, enjoying with a quiet delight the brightly-lighted windows of the trams as they glided across. A horn sounded, a loudspeaker quacked in the distance, and the center of the bridge began to lift. A towboat pushing a long, low barge rode downstream and passed under the bridge, its masthead lamp shining. We heard a train horn behind us as a freight pulled in. Portland embraced it all, and embraced us all, however we moved.

We told ourselves, This is how you do it. It isn’t perfect by far, but it’s as good as it gets, for now, in the USA.

Next we’ll let Portland speak for itself in a selection of photos from our visit:

The iconic Steel Bridge: cars, trucks, and trams on the top deck; cyclists, walkers, and freight and Amtrak trains underneath

Portland precipitation is usually gentle, but even the rare downpour doesn’t deter the city’s cyclists

Downtown, in front of the Ace Hotel on Stark

Another view of Stark and its green bike lane

Railyards and warehouses along Front Street

East bank of the Willamette

High-flying flyovers in NW Portland

It looks sculptural from a distance, but up close it’s another story

NE Sandy could be in the duller outskirts of LA

A downtown parking structure—housing Café Vélo

A swooping road in SW Portland

A bike corral serving a taqueria on SE Hawthorne

Bike racks at a Safeway on SE Hawthorne

Bike racks and streetcar tracks at the aerial tramway in SW Portland

The Hawthorne Bridge at night

By Richard Risemberg
Additional reporting by Gina Morey Risemberg

About Rick Risemberg

Rick was born in Argentina but grew up in Los Angeles, and has lived most of his life in Hollywood. He also spent several months living in Montmartre, in Paris, France, one of the most delightful as well as effective human scale communities anywhere, and now resides in the Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles, a high-density and eminently walkable neighborhood where nearly his every need is within a twenty-minute stroll of the apartment. He maintains the Bicycle Fixation Webzine and Urban Ecology Forum; you may see them atwww.bicyclefixation.com. You may visit portfolios of his writing, photography, and web design work at www.rickrise.com.