CITY SPOTLIGHT: Beyond Portland, U.S. Biking Infrastructure Needs to Aim Higher

This post is part of our CITY SPOTLIGHT blog series. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.

This time, we look at innovations in bike infrastructure in Portland with Scott Mizée, Senior Designer at Alta Planning + Design. Alta's mission is to “create active communities where bicycling and walking are safe, healthy, fun and normal daily activities." CNU Program Manager Alex McKeag talked recently with Mizée about his work and his expertise in bike parking. Read our previous spotlight on Sweden's Trafiklekparken, or "traffic play park."

McKEAG: It seems like there are quite a few cities that are still scrambling to catch up to Portland, in terms of bicycle infrastructure. Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a publicly spoken desire for wanting Portland and Seattle cyclists and the jobs that come with them. Plus, in the past two years, we’ve seen a surge of bike share systems emerge (with Alta Bicycle Share behind many of them). How do you think US cities are faring in 2013?

MIZEE: Portland has an interesting story to tell and has come a long way since the early 90’s. One of the founders of our company, Alta Planning + Design, is Mia Birk. Mia started out as the bicycle coordinator for the city of Portland and was able to implement a lot of these "forward thinking" ideas, getting the ball rolling. And thankfully, lots of people have carried that ball forward to where we are today.

I think we’re at a point in the country where people are looking past Portland—there’s a lot of other cities that are doing great things, in some cases better than Portland. You have New York, DC, and Minneapolis, which has gone back and forth with Portland for the title of best bicycling city. The Twin Cities have a fantastic off-street trail network; Portland has some great off-street trails, but not nearly as much of a network as Minneapolis does. Although organizations like The 40 Mile Loop Land Trust have been working hard for 30 years to fill in the gaps in our off-street path network, our strengths are more in the on-street facilities. And so I think that this movement that’s going on right now, with the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide (which Alta helped create)—all of these tools in this guide help propel the movement forward by eliminating one of the major obstacles to creating more bicycle friendly streets. The NACTO Guide provides legitimate solutions to a city traffic engineer, now that it’s an official, acceptable option to implement the tools in the guide.

CitiBike stations in New York City. Photo courtesy of John Feit.

Chicago right now is building 100 miles of protected bike lanes, where hopefully young children to 80 year-olds can make it safely through these streets without needing to be in a car. As I’ve said, we’re at a turning point right now…and some cities are really leading and going for it. It’s really exciting to see right now, and I’m very much anticipating what North America will look like in 10 years.

McKEAG: Let’s get into bike parking. What innovation is being made in bike parking and where is it happening?

We’re kind of playing catch up in trying to make our cities a place where its convenient to ride a bike, and with parking, you need at least three places to park your bike each day.  You have to have a place to park at work, at home, and any place in between that you may need to stop to carry out your daily activities. Right now, in many places it’s kind of haphazard; there is either no bike parking available, or if there is, it's not available at all three of these locations or, if it is, it might be some sort of rack that is out of date and maybe doesn’t work in the ways we would like it to.  

If you go to Europe, if you look at places like train stations in the Netherlands, or if you got to places like Copenhagen, they have so much bike parking at their transit stations and elsewhere because they have made biking the most convenient way to get from point A to point B in the city.

It’s well within the possibility for people to do this in the US, because many of our urban trips are within 2-3 miles, a very easy bike ride or maybe even a long walk. Anyway, at the train stations and elsewhere, they have double decker bike racks where you can park one bike on the bottom and then there’s this second layer up above that is like a sort of drawer that your bike goes onto; you pull it out and then it tilts down, and then there’s some mechanical assistance there, either it be some sort of gas shock or a spring, which helps lift the bike back up and pushes it back into the drawer.  We have been testing Two-Tier rack systems by Saris, Dero, and Urban Racks in our lab.  These systems allow us to preserve our valuable urban real estate for other uses by making bicycle parking a lot denser than standard ground mounted racks.  Even more advanced is the underground, mechanized bike parking that we saw in a recent video from Japan making its way around the internet.

McKEAG: And those are a long way off in U.S.?

MIZEE: Well, they certainly are not popping up in any public parks or plazas that I’ve seen—you have to have either a very dense, high-demand area, or a “build it and they will come” attitude with a significant amount of capital.  I could see that happening, maybe in one of our urban centers, but I have not heard of any projects with these types of systems in the works right now.  I could see that more tied in with a skyscraper, where the overall footprint is very compact and they don’t have a lot of space, and they want to make the bike parking as dense as possible.

Some of the other innovations in bike parking are just simply making it available to the average person—covered parking, providing protection from the rain, or the hot sun, and a secure parking area (SPA) located in each section of town. Those are some of the things I see with innovation moving forward.  There are other things—material types, for example. One of the racks that we’ve been testing out in our Bike SPA Lab is the no scratch rack from a company called SportWorks, and it has Santoprene®, this sort of rubber bumper on each side of it that keeps you from scratching your bike, which can be a nice added benefit.  Plus the rack is all stainless steel so it looks beautiful and you don’t have to worry about it rusting or paint chipping off.


A glimpse at the bike parking racks inside Alta Bike SPA in Portland, OR.

Another innovation is these self-repair stations—there are a couple of different brands out there in the US right now and there are a lot installed at university campuses around the country. The stations consist of a tire pump, basic repair tools and a stand that allows you to lift up your bike and do repairs without having to try and hold up the bike so the rear wheel is off the ground. These are things that we find—if you’re trying to create an incentive for people to change their transportation habits and use the bicycle to get around—having things like easy, convenient, safe bike parking, and a repair stand available to them can really help make it more attractive.

McKEAG: Let’s move to money. What’s the return on investment for bike parking device systems?

MIZEE: It’s difficult to quantify; there definitely is a return—monetary, safety, increased physical fitness and health, convenience, and obviously space. If you can take less space for storing vehicles, you will have an area more usable for other things, and an area that can bring vitality to the street front or public plaza.  Safety and security—safety of your property, as well, if you have an indoor secure place. This is important. Bicycles are just more vulnerable (than cars). If you have a car, you would lock the door with belongings inside. You just can’t do that with a regular bicycle. The health benefit that can be realized from having bike parking available is definitely a big return on the investment. 

If you go down the road of automatic counting or monitoring systems—there’s one in Minneapolis-St. Paul right now called ZAP Twin Cities, where you put an RFID tag on your bicycle which gets recorded by readers around town. If you bike a certain number of times per month, you get a discount on your health insurance. So with that, they’ve put the technology to use, but so it can satisfy the documentation needs of insurance companies. Riding a bike casually has an impact on your physical health, your emotional health, so those are intangible returns on your investments.

In regard to bike racks, it’s really all about space. Once you’re inside in a conditioned space—and that’s a premium in our cities—your return is more than just what you can fit in there. By making parking/storage easy and convenient for people to use, the better off cities will be. It’s a big psychological thing for people, as if it’s like someone saying, “Oh, this is a space for me to park my bicycle just like a parking garage for cars.” We have set aside this location because we’ve deemed biking important, a desirable behavior.

One of the great benefits of using a bicycle for transportation is its ability to efficiently move people from point A to point B.  If parking several blocks away at point C is required, the attractiveness is reduced considerably.

McKEAG: So there's still a lot of catching up to do. Could you tell me then: What are we really getting wrong in the US, in terms of bicycle infrastructure? We don’t build the same sort of infrastructure as the Dutch, for example. What are we doing wrong that we should be correcting now, if now is the turning point?

MIZEE: We’re not reaching high enough. We have these cultural barriers, this “us vs. them” mentality. The perception is that everybody is in a car and drives a car, so the roads are for all of us in that regard. But when you start accommodating some new modes, new people—those cyclists, those people who ride their bikes—then it’s perceived that changes are being made to accommodate a special, elite group.

So in order to get passed this mentality, we need more people cycling for transportation. Then it becomes not a thing of those people who ride their bikes who want everything versus us who are in our cars. It’s just us. Some of us use public transit, some of us use cars, and some of us use bikes. We all have a place in the urban environment. 

There’s more, though. What we do wrong is that we give in to the political pressures…and we lose in our compromises. We don’t build completely separate facilities. One of the reasons why they’ve had such strong adoptions of the bicycle in Europe is that they’ve accommodated it—there are facilities for people walking (the sidewalk), facilities for people riding their bikes (the cycle track or separated bikeway), and then, of course, facilities for cars/drivers.  

McKEAG: Right, I’ve heard the separate facilities argument, too. Here at CNU, our offices are right on Dearborn Street in Chicago, where there is a “protected bicycle lane” - wherein the city essentially took a lane of traffic away from drivers, then painted stripes for bicyclists and put up pylons. So drivers can see that the cyclists "stole" a lane of traffic from them. Many drivers see this and say that cyclists have “taken” something from them, which allows for the "us vs them" mentality to persist. These lanes do protect cyclists in a way, but as you’re saying, this isn’t a complete separation, and cyclists don’t necessarily feel completely protected either, because most of the time it’s just stubby pylons that are supposed to be keeping cyclists safer, alerting drivers that they don’t belong. For example, in the Netherlands, you have an actual curb protecting, and maybe even different material on the street. 

MIZEE: Right, there it’s a red surface. I think we recognize that there is a compendium of facilities, and maybe we are not always going to get the optimum, but I think that often times we are going to have to shoot higher. One example is multi-use paths. Once we get to a high enough density urban environment, we really need to separate out the bicycles and pedestrians.  

Right now, we are working on redesigning a portion of a trail in Seattle called the Burke-Gilman Trail. The trail is the most heavily used trail in Washington State and goes right through the University of Washington campus. In this campus environment, there’s just so much going on—you’ve got people that are crossing the trail from the dorms to the labs and academic buildings, as well as people just walking or biking to work or class. And so one of the things we are doing there is creating physically separated space for people walking and people bicycling.  And where they do cross, the team has used a change of materials and grade levels to alert people to the fact that they are entering a “mixing zone” where people need to slow down and use caution.  More of this type of use separation needs to take place when we are building trails in urban centers.  

McKEAG: I think it’s also along the lines of speed and safety—if the speed is low enough, it’s safe for cars and pedestrians and bicycles to mingle on the street. But once that speed increases, you have to separate uses for everyone’s safety.  

MIZEE: Yes, and I think it’s a fine line too—there’s the movement of the vehicular cyclists that don’t like any bike lane or separated use. I, as a person riding a bike, still want to be able to merge over to the left lane if I need to make a left turn, but not everyone has that desire.  Some would prefer to use the crosswalk and walk their bike in both directions across the intersection.  That also gets into the different types of cyclists too—the "strong and fearless," the "interested but concerned," the “no-way, no-how." 

What we need to do is attract that 60% of people that are interested but concerned. In order to do that, you’ve got to make it a place that people feel is safe. There was recently a New York Times article about car vs. bicycle crashes, and how often times, the driver of the car is not cited at all.

McKEAG: Yes, I’ve heard of that—actually, I believe that in the state of Illinois, if there’s a collision between a car and a cyclist, but the cyclist is not the first thing hit, then the data doesn’t get recorded as a car-pedestrian incident.  

MIZEE: That’s another difference between those Northern European cities and here—there, the law is on the side of the cyclist, whereas here, even the police officers spend all day typically in their car. So it’s “those people out there on bicycles are different than the rest of us” “you really shouldn’t have been there in the first place” and “this is just an accident” attitude. There’s much room for change there, too.  

McKEAG: I’d really like to touch on bike sharing. Alta is behind several bike share systems in the US, including Divvy in Chicago. Earlier this year, the Earth Policy Institute reported that the size of US bike share fleets had doubled from January to August of this year, and it’s projected to rise quickly in 2014. How do you see the rise in bike share affecting the various aspects of bike structure that we’ve talked about?  Is there going to be a need for more bike rack density?  

MIZEE: I think it’s huge. Yes, there will be more need for bike parking and the rest of bike infrastructure. Bikeshare introduces people to transportation bicycling who would otherwise not have tried it.  Once people become accustomed to using bicycles in the city they are much more likely to go and ride their own bicycle in the city. And when you bring your own bicycle into the city, you need a place to park it!

 Bike share works on so many levels.  Ask anyone in New York, or Chicago where these systems have recently begun operating.  Even for people who have their own bikes at home and drive into the city, this opens up more opportunities for them, ride a bike to your meeting across town, take a pleasure bicycle ride to clear your head at lunch, etc.

Shelter bike parking at Green Zebra Grocery, Portland, OR.

And with that many more people out there on the street riding bicycles, it increases the safety for everyone. Look at what has happened in New York City—contrary to what was predicted, nobody has died since the city’s bikeshare program launched in May— the people that are driving are on the lookout—they’re responding, they’re seeing more cyclists.

There’s no question that the increase in the bikeshare fleet in the US is a positive thing for biking infrastructure. The racks, the bike parking, depend on the type of system you are using (the ones that Alta operates are fixed, smart rack systems, there’s others that are smart-bike where you can leave the bike anywhere in the city and not necessarily attached to a certain rack). Either of these types of systems, because they help stimulate increased numbers of people biking, increases the need for bikeways and bike parking. 

MCKEAG: Visibility is huge. I would also say that the Jane Jacobs concept of “Eyes on the Streets” applies here—bike share increases “Bikes on the Street,” which makes it safer for all those who are biking as drivers change behavior and react to these increased numbers, as we’ve seen in New York. Recently, you posted a twitter photo of a group of children riding their bikes to school in “bicycle school bus." Could you speak to how Alta has addressed children biking, and specifically children biking to school?  

MIZEE: We have a group dedicated to Safe Routes to School programs in cities across the country. The city actually operates this program here in Portland. This recent Streetfilm really tells the story well. There are a couple things that have spawned the increase in the return to people bicycling and walking to school.

One of these is a network of low stress streets, once called bike boulevards and now called neighborhood greenways here in Portland, which are designated by shared lane markings typically in the middle of the street and changing the direction of stop signs so that all side streets have to stop for that street. They are typically a block or two away from a major arterial or auto thoroughfare.  When they cross thoroughfares, traffic diverters and speed humps are employed to make it inconvenient for a car to take a shortcut down that street.  So those have made it much more comfortable, for example, to take my family, my kids, down those streets, riding to school than a bike lane—a standard bike lane doesn’t really provide much in the way of safety other than a line that people can see.  You’re depending on the actions of others—if someone swings over a line or not.  So these Safe Routes to School programs have really encouraged people to use the neighborhood greenways.

There’s a society of fear and safety that the media focuses on when something negative happens, so we get a fear of biking even though people get in their cars everyday and don’t fear driving.  We see people badly injured or killed in car crashes—but riding in a car is just something we all do—it’s not like people are going to stop driving their cars all together. If “everybody bikes” just like “everybody drives”, it will not be seen as a fringe activity and people will be able to relate to the safe experiences they’ve had on their bicycle just like the safe experiences they’ve had in their car.  So these programs, like Safe Routes, the bicycle school bus—especially if they were established and encouraged by school administration—create a huge potential for children to get to school in a more healthy manner and to grow up with cycling for transportation as a normal and fun part of their everyday lives.


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