Bicycle Transportation: A Win-Win Strategy in the Post-Carbon Era
Posted Nov 11, 2010 by Mia Birk
Mia Birk is Chief Executive Officer and Principal at Alta Planning + Design. She was the City of Portland Bicycle Program Manager from 1993-99, where she led a period of rapid growth of Portland's bikeway network. She has led numerous groundbreaking studies in the field of non-motorized transportation and is a co-founder of the Cities for Cycling project of the National Association for City Transportation Officials. Mia is an Adviser to Post Carbon Institute.
This article is excerpted from Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet, by Mia Birk, Cadence Press, 2010.
Here's the bad news: approximately one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector, and the national health costs associated with transportation-related air pollution total between $40 and $60 billion per year.1 Car crashes are one of the top causes of death for our children, with obesity, asthma, diabetes, stress, and other diseases directly tied to our sedentary, auto-oriented lifestyles.2 Our automobile addiction has terrible consequences - and it doesn't end there, as the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has brought home all too forcefully. The task of extracting oil to fuel that addiction is not free of horrific consequences either.
Now here's the good news: In less than a generation and for less than the cost of one mile of urban freeway, for less than one percent of our transportation budget, we have created a city-Portland, Oregon-where thousands of people can and do choose something other than a car as their normal, everyday means of transportation. We're choosing bicycles. And as a result, we have more money in our pockets. We are fitter. Our kids arrive at school energetic and ready to learn. We are less stressed. We are more free.
It would be easy to think that the Portland we see today has always been what it is. Easy, but wrong. It didn't just happen. We made it happen.
In 1993, I started working as the City's Bicycle Coordinator for then-City Commissioner (now Congressman) Earl Blumenauer, who told me, "Mia, we have an enormous opportunity here. I want us to be the country's most bicycle friendly city."
At the time, we had Earl's leadership, a little bit of government funding, and a burgeoning bicycle advocacy movement. On the flip side, we had almost no bikeways, few people biking, and a skeptical public. City staff were exclusively trained in moving people and goods by cars and trucks. And the business community was not quite ready then to embrace bicycle transportation. In a discussion about requiring bike parking in commercial buildings, a business leader asked, "When is this silliness going to stop? Are you going to require us to put in ski racks or toy chests too?" I faced similar opposition from the school districts, campuses, police and fire bureaus, and many neighborhood and business associations.
For years, I hauled a bike trailer and slide projector around Portland, speaking to business and neighborhood groups, civic organizations and service clubs. I would talk about the health impacts of sedentary lifestyles, and the increasing problems in air quality and congestion. I would discuss the need for a comprehensive bikeway system and describe the options available-bike lanes, off-street paths, neighborhood bicycle boulevards, bike parking-as well as the need for education, encouragement, and enforcement. Although most folks thought I must have come from outer space, a few would chat with me at the end. Their doctors had told them to get more exercise, or they wanted their kids to bike in the neighborhood or to school, like they had once done. So I figured that if every group I talked to had 20 or 30 participants, and two or three or four opened their minds to bicycling as a result, then that meant I was influencing 10 to 20 percent. If each of those folks started bicycling and their friends saw them getting healthier and fitter, and then their friends and kids started biking, well... I was on the right track, of that I was sure.
With Commissioner Blumenauer's support, we embarked upon a program to implement bikeways as quickly possible, starting with the "low-hanging fruit": streets on which bike lanes (lanes marked exclusively for bicycle use) could be implemented by shaving a few feet off each existing travel lane. Quickly, many staff and public objections melted away as the scary concept became a concrete, comfortable reality. We zoomed around at a furious pace, marking bike lanes and developing separate off-street paths and traffic-calmed neighborhood streets called bike boulevards, along with thousands of bike parking spaces.
I worked closely with the Maintenance Bureau to figure out how to keep bike lanes clear of glass and debris, retrofit dangerous tire-eating drainage grates, and tweak signal detectors so they could detect bicycles. In 1996, I explored 18 bicycle-friendly European cities and brought back innovative ideas to expand our bikeway toolkit. With our community partners and friends, we jump-started bike-related events and activities and nurtured bicycle-related businesses and culture. Together, leaders, residents and City staff researched and debated and grew solid in our mutual understanding that bicycling can and should play a significant role in our transportation system.
The results speak for themselves:
- As of 2010, six to eight percent of Portland commute trips are bicycle trips, up from 1% 15 years ago. According to the City Auditor's report, more than 15% of Portlanders report using the bicycle for transportation. This number is as high as 28% in some of Portland's close-in neighborhoods.3
- On certain corridors, bicyclists account for more than 17% of the vehicles. On the Hawthorne, Steel, Burnside, and Broadway Bridges, close to 17,000 trips are made by bicycle daily. If you add in pedestrian trips, that's the equivalent of a four-lane bridge worth of auto traffic travelling by bike or foot.4
- Through the City's Safe Routes to School program, bicycling and walking to school increased to 38% of school commute trips in 25 schools.5 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.6
- In 1993, Portland, Oregon became the first U.S. city to adopt a plan to address global warming, intended to reduce emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010. New transit investments and continued improvements to bicycling and walking infrastructure have thus far resulted in per capita CO2 emissions reductions of 12.5 percent. Ultimately, Portland's complete streets and associated land use policies yield carbon savings worth between $28 and $70 million annually.7
- Since 1990, carbon emissions from transportation have risen a modest 2.5 percent within Multnomah County, despite rapid population growth. Transit ridership and bicycle commuting have mushroomed during that period.8
These numbers are directly tied to the City's investment in bicycle infrastructure and promotion. Our increasing bicycle use has substantially outpaced the growth in population and motor vehicle usage. We've shown that bicycling can be an incredibly positive means of transportation for tens of thousands of residents and businesses.
But it's not just Portland. All across North America, from the lush Northwest to the eastern seaboard, the beaches, plains, large cities, small towns, ex-urbs, and the heartland of rural America, communities are retrofitting and rebalancing their transportation systems toward bicycling and walking, a.k.a. "active transportation" and reaping similarly positive results.9 In the post-carbon era, there is no investment that makes more sense from a health, environmental, livability, energy, and economic perspective.
1 Transportation for America, "Policy Brief: Transportation, Public Health and Safety," undated, http://t4america.org/policybriefs/t4_policybrief_health.pdf.
2 Arthur M. Wendel, Andrew L. Dannenberg, and Howard Frumkin, "Designing and building healthy places for children," International Journal of Environment and Health, 2:3/4 (2008), 338 - 355. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/publications/designing_and_building_healthy_places_for_children.pdf.
3 U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2009; City of Portland, Office of the City Auditor, "Service Efforts and Accomplishments: 2007-08," December 2008; City of Portland, Portland Bureau of Transportation, "Bicycle Counts," http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=44671.
4 City of Portland, Portland Bureau of Transportation, "Bicycle Counts."
5 City of Portland, Portland Bureau of Transportation, "Safe Routes to School Portland," http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=40511.
6 City of Portland, Portland Bureau of Transportation, "Smart Trips," http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=43801.
7 National Complete Streets Coalition, "Climate Change," retrieved July 22, 2010 from http://www.completestreets.org/complete-streets-fundamentals/factsheets/climate-change/.
8 Steve Law, "Projected carbon emissions skyrocket," Portland Tribune, November 12, 2009.
9 For examples, see the websites of the League of American Bicyclists' (http://www.bikeleague.org/programs/bicyclefriendlyamerica/) and Alta Planning + Design (www.altaplanning.com).
This article is excerpted from:
Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet
By Mia Birk, Cadence Press, 2010.
"Joyride tells the dramatic and enlightening behind-the-scenes story of how a group of determined visionaries transformed Portland, Oregon into a cycling mecca and inspired the nation.
The Post Carbon Reader
Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises
about The Post Carbon Reader
How do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.
Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world's leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.
Published by Watershed Media, October 2010
552 pages, 6 x 9“, 4 b/w photographs, 26 line illustrations
$21.95 paper 978-0-9709500-6-2