December 26, 2012  9:31 AM

Could bikes be the key to reaching climate goals?

For some residents in the Portland region, bicycling has easily replaced car use on a daily basis. Work is a mile away at the end of a road with bike lanes, children have a safe pedal to and from school on shared-lane streets, and most errands are within a 20-minute trip by bike.

Editor's note: Climate Futures series

As Metro's planning staff looks at ways to address a state mandate to reduce tailpipe emissions in the Portland region, Metro News is digging into some of the 144 ideas under study. Our goal is to paint a picture of what the Portland region could look like if any of those scenarios are adopted.

Please note that Metro planning staff is not responsible for this content. Comments on the content should be directed to Metro News at 503-813-7583 or newsroom@oregonmetro.gov.

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But not everyone lives in a 20-minute-neighborhood. For many, biking to work would involve more than an hour of pedaling, and many suburbs are filled with unconnected streets without bike lanes, making it difficult or circuitous for children to ride to school.

Each of the region's 25 cities has its own goals and timeline when it comes to bike use. For some, bicycle infrastructure is a new and complicated idea, while others are known nationally for their bike friendliness.

The question regional planners are grappling is whether, and how, those suburban areas with fewer cyclists are capable of supporting the cycling culture that continues to flourish in central Portland.

It's an important question. Metro is under a state mandate to come up with a plan to significantly curb tailpipe emissions in the Portland region by 2035. The planning is still in the early stages, but one of the of the 144 ideas under study is to create a strategy to increase bike ridership in the region.

By how much? An initial phase is looking at how much of an emissions reduction could be achieved if 10 to 30 percent of the region's residents' short journeys – round-trips of six miles or less – were made by bike.

The region's main transportation plan already aims to see a tripling of the percentage of trips made by bike before 2035. But in a region that has as many cul-de-sacs and hills as leafy blocks and greenways, the question is: Is that a realistic goal?

Encouraging bicycling region-wide

Regardless of the state mandate, regional leaders and active transportation advocates have been trying to boost bike ridership for years. From community-connecting bike paths to bike advocacy classes in elementary schools, every effort to boost bike trips has been put on the table.

"Government can only do so much when it comes to increasing trips," said Lake McTighe, project manager for Metro's Active Transportation Plan, part of the region's overall transportation plan. "A lot of it comes down to just seeing other people riding bikes around town. We can help by building new bike facilities and paths to connect cities, but it really just takes time."

Visibility won't only benefit other bicyclists. In the suburbs specifically, McTighe said, drivers aren't as accustomed to seeing bikes on the roadway, even if there is a lane. With a gradual increase in bike use, drivers will become more comfortable passing bikes, creating an overall safer environment.

But, according to city planners, it may take a while to get to that point. Katherine Kelly, Gresham's transportation planning manager, says that real change relies on funding.

"The biggest road block we face in bike infrastructure is a lack of funding," Kelly said. "More funding means more facilities that feel safer to people."

And safety, said Kelly, is what will get people out of the driver's seat and onto a bike.

"In general, you can be safe on a bike as long as you're aware of what's going on around you," Kelly said." But it's really hard for many people to feel comfortable, especially people who never ride."

Kelly is working with Metro and the city to develop safer routes, including a bike path that runs parallel to the MAX and linking the Gresham-Fairview Trail to downtown Gresham.

In tandem with the views of Metro staffers, who say that only a third of regional bike trips are work commutes, Kelly stressed that promoting short trips – any ride less than 30 minutes – and multi-modal transportation is key in a city where many of its residents work miles away.

"While we're trying to work with local employers to promote biking to work, a big part of the job is creating bike routes to bus stations or the MAX," Kelly said. "It's all about filling in that last mile."

Multi-modal approach

Other cities, such as Lake Oswego, aren't doing as much in the way of solely boosting bike use. City planner Laura Weigel said that Lake Oswego is focusing on creating an overarching transportation plan for the city that will be finalized next year.

It may include bike routes, but there's no certainty. Echoing Kelly, Weigel says that funding is the heart of the problem.

"The desire is there," Weigel said. "But there's no saying how we can fund it. Some folks see it as a priority. Some people don't want to spend any money on it, period."

According to Metro transportation planners, any increase in bike trips in a community is a step in the right direction. While the regional transportation plan's final goal is reaching a tripling of bike commutes by 2035, the percentage is likely to be split among the region's cities. So, if Portland sees a major uptick in bike trips but Hillsboro only sees a minor boost, the goal can still be reached.

John Mermin, an associate transportation planner at Metro, said that regardless of current infrastructure, there's a constant demand for bike routes across the region. And the numbers agree. Both Beaverton and Gresham received a bronze award in being bike-friendly communities from the League of American Bicyclists this year (Portland is at the platinum level).

"We see community members making their own informal walking and biking paths in suburban areas where there aren't any yet," Mermin said. "We just need to make them real. It's possible."

Still, there's work to be done. A recent Metro survey shows that only 1.5 percent of all trips taken in the entirety of Portland's suburbs in 2011 were made by bike, while inner Portland is at 8.1 percent – up from 2 percent in 1994.

Should we aim even higher?

Not everyone agrees with the goal in the regional transportation plan. For some bike advocates, a 30 percent increase is too low and 2035 is too distant in the future.

"We can aim higher and set smaller goals sooner," said Gerik Kransky, advocacy director for Oregon's Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

According to Kransky, a 10 percent increase in bike trips in 10 years is a more feasible goal for the region than framing it in a 20-year timeline, making the effort seem more out of reach. Along with stressing the promotion of short trips by bike, he said that specific infrastructure adjustments – primarily in Portland – would greatly add to the area's bikeability.

"To reach this 30 percent goal, we're going to have to see safe, separate bike routes in the city," Kransky said. "Cycle tracks should be as ubiquitous as sidewalks."

While building bike facilities and paths are an important factor in increasing bike trips, Kransky also said that widespread education and advocacy is essential. Like many learned habits, bike education is best absorbed at a young age.

With federal funding currently on hold for the Safe Routes to Schools Program, bike education at the youth level could easily fall through the cracks. But, Kransky said that the alliance has its sights on providing bicycle classes and rides to every Portland Public School student. He said he hopes that the regional transportation plan will continue this mission.

"This is a feasible plan, and if we accomplish it, we'll be the first in America to do so," Kransky said. "Let's provide that model that other regions can look up to. Let's get it right."

Alex Zielinski can be reached at alex.zielinski@oregonmetro.gov or 503-813-7538. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.

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