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A Tale of Two Bike Cities

November 26, 2012 By Amber Collett, Guest Commentary

I moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Portland, Oregon in August. I was (and still am) madly in love with Minneapolis, but if I was going to go anywhere, Portland seemed a safe bet. As a friend pointed out, I moved “from one bike capital to another. ” 

Portland has long been lauded for its cycling infrastructure and walkability. The city’s strict zoning and development rules have resulted in dense housing and they have an avid cycling culture (which this Portlandia clip characterizes quite well).

On the flip side, Minneapolis is home to Bike Walk Twin Cities, part of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which has dedicated more than $25 million in federal funding to increasing bicycling and walking in Minneapolis and surrounding areas. Investments in infrastructure along with a growing cycling culture (ARTCRANK, anyone?) led Bicycling Magazine to declare Minneapolis the #1 city for cycling in the nation in 2010—Portland reclaimed the title this year. Plus—and I think this is key—Minnesota actually has a winter. With snow. And below freezing temperatures. And people still bike year round. How dedicated is that?? 

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5th St. NE Bicycle Stop Light, Minneapolis

Since moving, I’ve spent the last two months learning to navigate Portland—finding the best ways to my new favorite coffee shops and going miles out of my way to avoid hills that feel like mountains to my Midwestern legs. As I rode, I couldn’t help but compare my cycling experiences in these two great cycling cities.

First, I noticed the difference in bike lane construction. Portland has more of them, there is no doubt about that, but the lanes feel narrower and more likely to contain rain grates and other obstacles. I came spinning down this hill near my house to find a traffic cone in the middle of the lane with no warning—on a curve no less! But I can’t complain too much; the ride is a beautiful one with views of downtown and Mt. Hood.

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 Traffic Cone in Narrow Portland Bike Lane

Portland created more bike lanes, more quickly by retrofitting existing roads. Instead of road shoulders, there are bike lanes. All in all, Portland has 180 miles of bike lanes and ample bike parking. Also, they were one of the first cities in the nation to have bike boxes, which provide cyclists with dedicated space at traffic lights. No waiting behind cars and breathing exhaust while waiting for a green light!

In Minneapolis, many bike lanes are added when a road is resurfaced, providing the opportunity to perform a “road diet” (when a two lane road becomes one lane with a bike lane) or to stripe a bike lane while maintaining a shoulder.

A lot of this comes down to space limitations—Portland has drop off hills and dense vegetation that can create a wall of leaves along the side of the road. There is no room to make a road wider to accommodate a bike lane of Minneapolis proportions.

Minneapolis has to contend with snow build-up in the winter. Without a shoulder, bike lanes would become snow depositories—much to the chagrin of winter cyclists.

I certainly miss having the extra safe space a road shoulder provides. In Minneapolis, I could duck into the shoulder if there is an obstacle in the road, if a car turned a corner to quickly, or if I spotted broken glass or gravel in the lane. In Portland, I brace for the worst as I ride over grates, roots, and twigs having no escape space—all while contending with higher traffic volumes.

But, so as to not sound ungrateful, I must also note that many cities don’t have bike lanes yet. Having any dedicated space on the road automatically makes cyclists safer and reduces bike-car interactions. Plus, I live in SW Portland and am relatively far from the city center. I’m removed from some of the best examples of Portland cycling infrastructure. The more I explore other areas of the city, the more I can tell that Portland is a stellar example of inner city bicycling and road sharing.

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Bike Box at Intersection in Portland

For an expert’s comparison, I talked with Steve Clark at Bike Walk Twin Cities about his impression of the two cities. Steve pointed out, “Minneapolis has been trying to catch up to Portland in terms of on-street facilities where certainly Portland has led the way with some of the nation’s first and finest bike boulevards and miles upon miles of bike lanes. But people come here from Portland and quickly become very envious of our off-street trails—particularly the Midtown Greenway which is basically a freeway for bicyclists and provides separate space for walkers and joggers too.”

All in all, it would take more than one article to compare the extensive bicycling networks in each city. From infrastructure to culture, both Portland and Minneapolis are flagships of cycling in the U.S. I’m excited to explore Portland’s 180 miles of on-street bike lanes bit by bit and will report back when I’ve seen them all!

See you on the road!

Amber Collett is a bicycling advocate who lives in Portland, OR but spends a lot of time cycling in the Midwest. She loves growing and cooking food, knitting, and going on outdoor adventures. She works for Minneapolis-based Fourth Sector Consulting and tweets @AmberCollett. 

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1 Comments:

  • Lloyd Lemons says:

    November 27, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you! I enjoyed your article and the photography!

    Lloyd