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Peter Murray, of the New London Architecture center, together with a dozen architects and planners, is biking from Portland, Oregon to Portland Place in London, studying how cities are responding to the demand for better cycling infrastructure. He reports from the start of his ride. The Architect’s Newspaper is USA media sponsor of the trip and will post periodic updates of these architects on bicycles.
Portland is to America what Copenhagen is to Europe: everyone looks to it as an exemplar cycling city, and it has been continually improving its cycling infrastructure for more than 40 years – the first Bicycle Masterplan was published in 1973. As a result, 6 per cent of Portland commuters now bike to work and the Active Transport Alliance’s annual Bike Commute Challenge attracts over 700 participant companies. Cycling is undoubtably a part of Portland’s culture with its Neighbourhood Greenways, bicycle boulevards, routes across key bridges, safe routes to school and the Eastbank Esplanade – a wide path shared with walkers and joggers overlooking the Willamette river. The city was awarded platinum status by the League of American Bicyclists and acclaimed by Bicycling magazine as number one for cycle-friendliness.
It was this reputation that drew us to start our mammoth ride in Portland. In the few days we were in the city preparing for our departure we were able to test out the quality of infrastructure and can report that cycling in Portland feels comfortable, enjoyable and safe, certainly in comparison to London. Although to a bunch of Brits it was not so much the infrastructure that made one feel safe, but the courtesy and calmness of Portland’s car drivers, all who could teach the London cabbie a thing or two about the etiquette of the road.
As far as contemporary architecture goes, the city is only known on the other side of the Atlantic as the home of Michael Graves’s Portland Building. It is a building that is so familiar through a millionarchitectural photographs and Jencksian primers that one could draw it without reference, yet the promulgated images totally ignore the building’s context in the city street. Today it sits there comfortably enough, the exterior has worn better than many other POMO icons (although the interiors are low ceilinged and less generous than expected) and one has to rake through the cultural embers of the early 80s to remember what all the fuss was about. While we were in Portland, livable streets activist Mark Gorton rode into to town for a lecture. He’s spreading the message from New York to main streets across the US that it’s time to tame the automobile. Gorton seeks nothing less than an American Streets Renaissance. We were surprised, in the discussion after Gorton’s talk, that locals were concerned that Portland’s own plans for better streets were running out of steam. “Probably the worst thing that could have happened was the Platinum Award from the League of Bicyclists” said Chris DiStefano head of bike outfitters Rapha. “The politicians are now resting on their laurels but there is still a lot to be done.” And other cities are catching up. The next big city we get to on our trans America ride is Minneapolis, whose politicians are eager to knock Portland off its top spot. It’ll take us a month to get there – but we look forward to sampling the Twin Cities’s cycling infrastructure to see just how big a threat they are.