I just got back from a wedding in Oregon, which was a blast! But I had other important business there too. I’ve been trying to encourage Phoenix to create a network of safe cycling routes and was eager to try Portland’s “neighborhood greenways” – a network of low-traffic residential streets optimized for biking, walking, and other small vehicles. The idea is that routing people away from busy arterial roads encourages cycling for transportation by making it safe and enjoyable, even for kids and newbies.
Safe and enjoyable is the opposite of where I live in Phoenix. My eight-minute ride to LA Fitness this morning required two frogger-esque crossings, where I almost lost the game to an oncoming F150 as I inhaled diesel fumes. That’s probably why almost nobody rides a bike here even though most trips in the U.S. are less than three miles.
To be clear, this is not just about bikes or recreation – I think there’s a broader potential user base. A pleasant path encourages walking and there’s no shortage of small vehicles that don’t require exercise, such as mobility scooters and golf carts. A car is several thousand pounds, which can be quite helpful to move a couch or drive across town – but do we really need to lug around all that extra weight just to drop the kids off at school or go out to eat? Humans are only a few hundred pounds and if we had a safe and snappy way to move small vehicles, some of us might use them.
For the last year or so, I’ve been looking at satellite maps of Phoenix and taking side streets for daily bike commutes to explore whether greenways would be feasible here. Based on my observations, side streets are almost usable already, with a few deal-breakers that greenways can fix:
Traffic calming is also important to some people – although a good route should have very little car traffic to begin with. Here’s my impression of each of these features in Portland.
Portland’s greenway network is not complete and there are gaps, but where it’s built out there are routes about every half mile:
Other infrastructure such as on-street bike lanes fill out their cycling route network, although there are still a fair number of places just marked “difficult connection.”
The network looks fairly extensive and connected, but I held off on drawing conclusions because conditions on the ground can be a different story. Phoenix’s bike network looks pretty good on paper too.
Signage was simple and low budget. Arrows on the road pointed the rider in the right direction, especially if a route curved. And occasionally signs indicated the direction of popular destinations.
It did take a little effort to figure out where to go. I accidentally drifted off of a greenway and found my way onto another one via road markings. At one point a greenway ended at a parking lot next to a freeway. There was a nice freeway bridge at the edge of the parking lot, but I had to explore to find it.
I have mixed feelings about the simplicity of road markings. On the one hand, the system works for the most part and Portland seems to have focused its investment on the most functional features, like crossings. This focus on function is positive and contrasts with fancy-looking projects I’ve seen in other cities that I sometimes suspect provide a greenwashed aesthetic without adding convenience or safety in the places it’s most needed.
On the other hand, a lack of visibility is likely a missed opportunity to attract new riders; it would be easy to miss that the greenways exist if you’re not looking for them. And seamless wayfinding could retain those new riders. For example, a greenway would be easier to follow if it became a solidly painted path anytime it deviates from the road, intersects with another greenway, or goes up a ramp to a bridge.
An odd political backstory may also make some cyclists understandably skeptical of improvements that look simple. The painted bicycle with an arrow above is particularly triggering. In recent decades, many cities nominally supported cycling by painting these same “sharrows” without adding actual infrastructure improvements and for the sole purpose of telling drivers to share the road. The arrows in Portland’s greenways of course serve a different purpose: to give cyclists directions to actual infrastructure, like low traffic thru streets and bridges over roads. But because of the history, some cyclists are skeptical that a “greenway” in their city would be little more than a sharrow on a side street.
The crossings in Portland felt quite safe. Even major roads often had four lanes or less and I saw few wide arterials, so most crossings had just a crosswalk and pedestrian island. Mid-sized streets provided lights and big streets used bridges to avoid traffic altogether. Nearly every arterial road in Phoenix falls into this third category and I was surprised to see bridges used for this.
I almost never had to stop on Portland’s greenways. Cars usually stopped before I even got to a crosswalk, so I could just keep cruising, even without a light. Portland drivers are almost comically polite. I even had to stop taking pictures of the street because people kept stopping to avoid blocking my camera as they drove by. Just a few days before back home, I was crossing the street–in the middle of a crosswalk with a green light–and several drivers in a row turned left right in front of me and looked me dead in the eye like they were playing a game of chicken.
Traffic calming on the greenways seemed pretty simple. Speed limit signs and little signs made of cardboard told drivers to slow down. Some streets had speed bumps. In a few places, streets temporarily narrowed or pots were placed around corners. The occasional street mural added flair and reinforced the aesthetic that bikes and pedestrians are the primary users.
Portland does not require off-street parking, so there were lots of parallel parked cars on every street. But as it turns out, more parked cars do not necessarily equal more traffic. There wasn’t a lot of coming and going of parked vehicles, likely because most of the street parking was residential. One added bonus is that parked cars made the street feel narrower and drivers naturally slowed down. So street parking can actually have a natural traffic-calming effect!
Portland has an insanely nice tree canopy generally. In addition to the abundance of rain for watering, there appeared to be deliberate streetscaping for shade along most of the city’s detached sidewalks. The city advertises trees as part of its greenway system too, although I didn’t notice them there specifically. Streets are wide enough that they are harder to shade than sidewalks, so overall shade cover was mixed on the greenways, but much better than what I’m used to.
This is where the user experience broke down for me. I rode a bike from St. Johns to downtown. On the way there, I used a map on the city’s website to find a greenway and flipped back and forth with Google to figure out where I was and where I was trying to go. The city’s map was an ARCGIS web map that was slow to load, couldn’t zoom in or out all the way, and didn’t show the user’s location or give directions. To be fair, the city’s maps were well-done and probably just about the best we can expect from a municipality on their own. I didn’t really mind the extra mental effort, but I’m an enthusiastic cyclist and abnormally fearless about getting lost.
The way back was an absolute disaster. I decided to do an experiment and just follow Google maps’ biking directions. As far as I can tell, the neighborhood greenways are not named or shown on Google maps and Google does not preference them in its route suggestions. Within the downtown area, Google kept sending me down busy streets without bike lanes, even when there was a pretty good bike lane one street over. Eventually it sent me down what looked like a freeway and the bike lane and sidewalk both ended. It seemed unsafe to continue, so I tried to take a shortcut down a frontage road, which ended up dead-ending onto private property in an industrial area. I had to backtrack several miles. Admittedly, I chose a particularly awkward destination because of the river; when Google sent me to the wrong bridge, the next closest one was 7 miles away. After riding 12 miles of what was supposed to be a 9-mile ride back, I eventually gave up and took an Uber.
The seamless interface we’ve come to expect on smartphone maps is the result of millions of dollars of investment and an army of engineers at Apple and Google. A city could not do this on its own. To provide this kind of user experience, it would need to collaborate with these companies to better integrate bike routes into their maps. (Of course, it’s possible that Portland already has efforts underway on this front.)
It would also be helpful to give greenways their own names distinct from the streets they’re on because they don’t follow just one street for their entire course. For example, a single greenway might be on Elm Street most of the time, switch to Maple Avenue for three blocks, cross a freeway bridge, then end as the street itself continues. That whole route could be designated “Elm Greenway,” and separate from Elm Street.
Overall, I left excited about greenways.
If we can figure out how to make small vehicles a viable option for short trips, the upside is enormous. People who can’t drive could retain the benefits of personal mobility, which makes it easier to participate in social life. And there’s the obvious health benefits of exercise, less air pollution, heat mitigation, and fewer large vehicles on the road contributing to traffic fatalities. Almost one-third of Americans can’t drive and many of them are young, old, or disabled. This population is so isolated in most American cities. These are the people who would benefit the most from having a seamless way to get around without driving. But if someone can’t drive, there’s a good chance that an on-street bike lane isn’t safe for them either. Well-designed greenways are accessible to almost everyone.
Finally, this system is inexpensive. It costs a lot more than we spend now, but if we start to view this type of infrastructure as transportation rather than just recreation, the investments start to make a lot of sense. Portland began building its neighborhood greenway network in the early 2010s at a cost of about $250,000 per mile, most of which was spent on new traffic signals across busy streets. Phoenix has more big streets to cross, but even if we spent double or triple what Portland spent per mile, a grid of greenways every half mile for the entire city, would have a budget on par with a single project to extend a freeway or light rail line.
Greenways might also be more politically feasible than other types of bike infrastructure. Any effort to reduce lanes, lower speed limits, or add bike lanes on a busy street is vociferously opposed by folks who don’t want to get stuck in traffic snarls. But homeowners generally want cars to slow down on their own street: my neighbors fear speeding thru-traffic running over their kids so much that they paid for speed bumps out of their own pocket. Greenways can align the interests of active transportation advocates with stakeholder groups who might oppose other types of cycling infrastructure.